Anthropology vs. Journalism: A Challenger Approaches, by Josh Connolly

This is part three of a four-part series on public anthropology. Previous posts focused on the origin and relevance of public anthropology, and the fourth post will examine public anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand.

As part of my honours course in anthropology I was required to give a seminar on my internship with ASAA/NZ. My internship focused on policy research around the feasibility and practicalities that would be involved in formally introducing anthropology into the New Zealand education system. Because my project was concerned with making anthropology more accessible to a wider range of people it existed within the wider framework of Public Anthropology.

When giving a seminar in an academic setting it is expected that afterwards you answer a number of questions. This acts as a means of clarifying particular things you touched upon and sometimes exploring conversation on other related topics. Most of the questions I was asked were pretty standard, straightforward questions. Underarm pitches for someone with limited experiences in such settings. However there was one question that came somewhat out of leftfield and gave me pause to think. While I don’t remember the exact question verbatim it focused on anthropology and forms of critical journalism. Essentially I was asked what Public Anthropology could do that journalism could not. In this blog entry I would like to explore this question and offer my own thoughts on the topic.

When asked such a question about what anthropologists can do that others can’t it can be a natural response to refer to our methodologies “Well, anthropologists use the ethnographic approach!” As many within anthropology are likely aware this conflation of anthropology is one that is the focus of a great deal of criticism. Ingold in particular is always eager to remind us (see here, and here) that this over-reliance on notions of ethnography can be problematic. He’s not wrong either, ethnography is increasingly become the domain of other disciplines, even those that would not traditionally be considered with the social sciences, disciplines such as design.

Ethnography is also making its way into journalism to some extent. I recently read an article published on Quartz, an online new outlet, entitled “An ethnographer has a new explanation for Donald Trump’s support in small-town America.” Ethnography is certainly not what allows us to distinguish anthropology from journalism, but what is?

My answer to the question put to me took some time. Admittedly it was something I hadn’t though about a great deal. What was also surprising was that I couldn’t answer right away; I had to really think about it. Eventually I responded and again, I do not recall my words verbatim so I will capture their essence rather than their exact likeness. In my response I said that what I thought was the difference between anthropology and journalism is that anthropology exists as part of a conversation. Anthropology as a discipline is reflexive and as such is often willing to admit its own faults and engage in a productive dialogue, reassessing its position and engaging with criticism. This, I argued, is not necessarily the case with journalism where there is this lack of reflexivity and where often things may be presented as facts, the dialogue that exists around anthropology is not present. It was not a perfect answer but, I thought, it was pretty decent considering the pressure that I was under.

I continued to think about this question afterwards and it stuck with me for quite a few days, in a way I felt like I had been taking anthropology for granted to some extent. Fortunately for me a week or two later I ran into the lecturer who had asked the question that started me on this path. We got into discussion and I brought up his question, I wanted to know his thoughts on the matter. What he had in mind when he’d posed this question was the way we (cultural anthropologists specifically) take culture for granted. When distinguishing ourselves from journalism he claimed it was important to remember the basics, we are a discipline that looks at culture in a particular way.

The original question I was posed and this conversation regarding anthropology and what can set it apart from journalism is, I think, an ongoing one, one with multiple possible answers. Ultimately though I think it highlights what Public Anthropology can offer discussions. What sets anthropology apart as a discipline isn’t the fact that it’s academic necessarily, but rather the approach it takes, what it considers in its discussions. In this case I think what sets anthropology apart is also what it can offer as part of a greater conversation and a different perspective on particular issues.