Abu-Lughod on the Nakba

I just received my March 08 copy of American Anthropologist (and it’s only May!! — that’s what you get when you live in Australia) and was reading Matti Bunzl’s article, “The Quest for Anthropological Relevance.” Bunzl’s article is a call for greater public engagement by anthropologists, and an attempt to explain “the persistent failure of contemporary anthropologists…to play a more prominent role in the public sphere.”  His key argument is that the lack of public intellectuals amongst this generation of anthropologists boils down to the dominant epistemology of our discipline. In short, he argues that anthropologists from the 1990s on are so busy complexifying the world that they can’t take enough of a powerful stand on any position to have any traction in popular culture.

Just as I was furrowing my brow and thinking, “Yes indeed, where are today’s Margaret Meads?,” my dad sent me a link to a Der Spiegel interview with Lila Abu-Lughod on the occasion of Israel’s founding and Palestine’s nakba. “Ah,” I thought to myself, relieved, “here we go! An anthropologist in the public sphere!”

It was particularly timely given that Bunzl credits Abu-Lughod’s 1991 article, “Writing Against Culture,” with the most persuasive argument for the epistemology that he criticizes.  Now, mind you, Abu-Lughod is no pundit, and this is an interview, rather than a regular magazine column, but it’s always exciting to see an anthropologist in the mainstream news, and a quick read of the interview will convince anyone that
Abu-Lughod is hardly suffering from an inability to speak to the public because she’s too busy complexifying the world. (As my dad put it in his e-mail to me, “no wasted words, she goes straight to the real point. I admire her, both for her clarity, and for her guts.”)

Bunzl’s article is well written and his point well argued, but I’m not convinced it’s our dominant epistemological paradigm that keeps anthropologists out of the public sphere. I suspect that there are a few other factors that are more influential. For one, I know that many anthropologists are skeptical of writing for the popular press, because all too often their arguments get distorted by editorial processes over which they have little control.

For another, the incentive structures at many of our universities do not favor anthropologists who write for the popular press. I don’t know how this is factored at other institutions, but at Macquarie University, at least, an article written for the popular press is formally valued at 1/10th (one TENTH!) the value given to an article published in a peer reviewed journal. The weighting of our publications affects not only our performance reviews as academics, but even the funding that our department receives.

In other words, I could write ONE article for American Anthropologist (Category C1, Article in Scholarly Refereed Journal, weight: 1.0) or TEN for the Sydney Morning Herald (Category L, Other Public Output
Substantial scholarly contribution to newspaper or magazine that must be in area of expertise of author, weight: 0.1) and Macquarie would see it as the same amount of work, in spite of the fact that the latter might have a significant impact on public opinion, while the former is virtually guaranteed to have no impact whatsoever.

–L.L. Wynn (cross-posted at Culture Matters)

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