“Why Should We Believe You?” Anthropology and Public Interest

This month’s “From-the-Editor” article in American Anthropologist makes a commendable argument for moving AAA publications to a Gold open-access system. Public access and understanding seem to be key themes in anthropology communities recently. The editor puts it this way: “My first concern is that there is a fundamental contradiction between the oft-repeated goal of making anthropology more public and relevant on the one hand, and the lack of open access on the other.” “Public understanding” was what replaced “anthropology as science” in the AAA statement of purpose change in 2010 – a change that inspired extensive controversy. And while removing science stirred up a lot of criticism and disagreement, I don’t think there was very much concern with the addition of “public understanding”.

Open-access research is an issue both Schaun and I care a lot about, for a lot of different reasons, so I was glad to see it addressed by such a prominent figure within anthropology. But while the piece makes the case for more public access to anthropology writing, the question it provoked for me was whether the public really cares about having such access, and if people don’t care, why don’t they?

Here’s the question I frequently find myself asking when I read papers in anthropology journals: “Why should I believe you?” That question might sound awkwardly personal to those not familiar with the style of writing in much of social and cultural anthropology. So here are a couple of examples from the abstracts of recent articles in American Anthropologist:

“In this article, I seek to complicate the distinction between imitation and creativity… I focus on a U.S. collegiate jazz music program… I analyze a key pedagogical practice… I argue that such a practice, which I call a “ritual of creativity,“ suggests a coconstitutive relationship between imitation and creativity…”

“In this article, I focus on the Neirab Rehabilitation Project,… I argue that UNRWA’s role as a relief-centered humanitarian organization highlights the everyday suffering of Palestinian refugees,…I show that UNRWA’s emphasis on “development“ in the refugee camps is forcing Palestinian refugees in Ein el Tal and Neirab to reassess the political narrative through which they have understood their relationship with UNRWA.”

“Focusing primarily, but not exclusively, on urban and periurban Papua New Guinea (PNG), we discuss the significance of instant ramen noodles to those now known as the “bottom of the pyramid“ (BOP)… But, we argue, instant noodles have a distinctive contemporary role:…”

In whatever style it’s posed, the question is one that should be a part of the response to any and all research and analysis meant to be about the world. As Schaun put it recently: “For observations to be evidence of a general tendency or pattern, a researcher needs to demonstrate that he or she did not cherry pick those observations…A non-replicable study basically says, “Trust me. I really saw what I said I saw and I really didn’t make any mistakes and a I really didn’t omit any relevant information and I really understood the whole thing correctly.” All of the above examples, and I think they’re fairly representative of what most cultural anthropology looks like these days, are “focusing on”, “showing”, “analyzing”, and “arguing” about things in the world. They all offer a resounding silence in response to the question “why should I believe you?” I imagine if I asked the authors in person, they’d probably respond by “focusing on”, “showing”, “analyzing” and “arguing” even further, and some might say that’s the only kind of response it’s possible to give. But philosophical disputations about the reality of the real aside, to me it seems like just turtles all the way down.

I think anthropology has historically been able to avoid this question a bit better than the other disciplines because the people and social phenomena of traditional interest have been distant, obscure, and typically underrepresented among the intended audience. In those cases it’s too easy to just answer: “you should believe me because I’m just about the only person you know who has been there and lived there and talked to them”. In those cases the only people you have to debate your claims with are the few other anthropologists or journalists (or in the old days, the missionaries) who have also been there (eg the Mead-Freeman controversy).

That type of argument is much less persuasive today than it used to be: there’s way too much research and evidence from psychology (and cognitive anthropology!) that shows that memory and introspection and self-report are too often inaccurate and are inconsistently capable of explaining behavior.  So however different a particular culture and its members are from the people the psychologists studied, the anthropologists are not that different and their personal observations and introspection is an insufficient reason for us to believe much they say about the world. (Ironically, in this case, the well-used critique about psychological research being irrelevant because it’s based on college students doesn’t apply since most anthropologists either are college students or were college students, and remain surrounded by them).

A lot of this is just revisiting old and tired debates in anthropology, but here’s the thing: I don’t think my persistence in asking for reasons to believe what anthropologists say about the societies and people they describe is unique to me or just a peculiarity of other scientists. I would guess that most of the reading and interested public ask themselves some variant of the same question.  And their dissatisfaction with the answer or lack thereof is a big part of why there’s seemingly less public interest in anthropology than in a lot of other disciplines.

The main alternative reason I’ve seen for low public interest in anthropology seems to revolve around the importance of engagement with the public and with issues the public cares about. The former means anthropology needs things like sections in journals that deal with engaging the public. The latter part means anthropologists should talk about issues that are of popular importance – all the policy issues that political-scientists, economists, psychologists, and sociologists weigh in on. If anthropologists were journalists, I think that would work fine. But they’re not. They’re anthropologists, and I think people expect them to offer “anthropological input” not just more commentary.

I think neither of those public-engagement issues is really at the base of the problem. Even when they don’t understand the intricacies of fieldwork or analysis, most of the educated public has come to recognize certain features that, to them, typify “science”. And they’ve come to expect a degree of analytical rigor in the claims of expertise. They want to see experts refer to data and they probably expect to see some hot debate when new claims are made. They want to see debates about methods, not debates about opinions. Yes, sometimes they might be misguided and simplistic in the importance they place in certain kinds of methods and evidence (neuroimaging!). Yet they’re reasonably confident that ceteris paribus and in the aggregate, an image of a brain (assuming it’s not fraudulent) is more likely to represent something that advances science and public understanding than is another set of pages offering only speculation about the nature of the mind (no matter how fascinating that speculation might be for some).

Anthropology doesn’t regularly give them that. So they’re left with the question, why should we listen to anthropologists? And it’s not just about disbelief or disagreement. This, to me, is where it gets really interesting. Say an anthropologist makes a claim about culture A. You might imagine that if readers don’t have any reason to believe the anthropologist they might react through disagreement or dispute or confrontation. “You said this about culture A, but I think it’s really the other way.” But actually, dispute requires effort, and I don’t think the effort is worth it for most people. They have no reason to believe something different about culture A than what’s been claimed, they just don’t have reason to believe what the anthropologist says either. It’s much easier to be indifferent than indignant. To make the effort to disagree you have to care to some degree about the claim. To care about the claim you have to suspect the claim might be a valid one. Take one of the examples from above:

“But, we argue, instant noodles have a distinctive contemporary role: they do more than sustain the poor; they transform them into the aspiring consumers of the BOP. As such, instant noodles can be viewed as an antifriction device, greasing the skids of capitalism as it extends its reach.”

Sadly (I’m sure the authors put a lot of effort into the paper), there’s nothing there that inspires or warrants response. Maybe they’re wrong about instant noodles and why/how people consume them. But who knows? And frankly, who cares? Not “who cares?” because instant noodles and their consumption isn’t conceivably interesting. If one were wiling to do the work to collect the data I bet they could easily be made interesting; almost all of us have eaten them! But “who cares?” because this paper gives no better foundation for talking about noodles than a casual conversation you overhear in a subway car, and more importantly, no reason to talk about this subject rather than one of the other innumerable subjects where we have something more than just personal opinions upon which to base our consideration and discussion.

Happily, I think change is coming, and because the problem is so easy to solve (do your research in a way that anyone else could go and do something very similar), I think the change will happen fairly quickly. Maybe I’m just engaging in motivated-reasoning that justifies my remaining involved in a discipline I can’t seem to move completely away from yet. But I’m encouraged by lists like this (and this) of all the new and exciting work being done by anthropologists, and by ambitious efforts like the Ritual, Community and Conflict project led by anthropologists at Oxford that involve things like “constructing a wiki-based database on ritual and group formation” that covers 5,000 years of global history. I’m encouraged by programs of research meant to “convince people that they should stop distinguishing cultural and biological evolution as separate”. I like the attention paid to debates about interaction between cognitive science and anthropology. I admire new books that mean to provide a foundational text for a new field of neuroanthropology. Besides all that, I’m reasonably confident there’s no way I became interested in the idea of rigorous and systematic (and biology-constrained) anthropology on my own – it’s just far more likely that I’m part of an example of a common shift (sometimes called “culture”) that’s occurring in far more heads and lives than my own.

…Or at least I can always hope. No matter, here’s my message to anthropology: Give people reason to believe what you say about instant noodles, show them how many people eat them and how often and how they eat them, and when and where they buy them, and show all that systematically with a sample more clear than “people I talked to” – and they’ll eat it up. That’s exciting. Once that’s done we can start to try to tie those consumption choices to the persistence of other aspects of those people’s lives that we typically associate with “poverty” or “social class” or some other general category or characteristic. Systematic and analytically rigorous anthropology has so much awesome potential. But faced with the other kind of anthropology, I can’t seem to respond any other way than by asking why I should believe it, and concluding that sadly I don’t have reason to.


10 thoughts on ““Why Should We Believe You?” Anthropology and Public Interest

  1. Pingback: Trying to figure out why I don’t want to call myself a data scientist « House of Stones

  2. I share your interest in public access to anthropology (I think I might have gone in the polar opposite direction though, because my solution was to write children’s books: http://samanthalgrace.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/childrens-books-as-ethnographic-form/ ), and I do care about the question “why should I believe you”. I think, as a sociocultural anthropologist, my strengths lie in explaining what a qualitative approach has to offer, rather than “how many and how often”. I certainly don’t think less of quantitative research, it is just not the only valuable approach. I think one of the most valuable aspects of qualitative social science is in its ability to redefine the question. In my research with pregnant and parenting youth, I was not interested, for example, in demonstrating a statistically significant discourse. But I was very interested in showing the particularities – the solutions and practices unique to the various combinations of possibilities – that showed a range of concerns that raised completely different questions from the ones typically asked. I would be delighted to see a quantitative researcher build on that, but it’s not what my goal was. Margaret Mead’s work challenged the psychologists who asked questions that took sturm und drang as a human universal, but demanding that she subordinate her exploration of HOW and WHY for quantitatively operationalizable questions would not have done her cause any favors, in my opinion. And at the end of the day, you should trust me not because my observations are repeatable nor because I’m “the only person you know who has been there”, but because I was trained to do THIS kind of observation and THIS kind of analysis and because of the value I can offer in helping define what kinds of questions it is possible and needful to ask. I think there’s more to it than that too, but this comment is already way too long … Thanks for the stimulating post!

  3. Hi Samantha, thanks for commenting!

    I didn’t mean to convey in the post that I’m taking a position in a battle between “quantitative” and “qualitative” anthropology (or any kind of research). In general I haven’t found that distinction to be very useful. I think Schaun made a great case for dispensing with the distinction in one of his recent posts: https://houseofstones.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/the-qualitativequantitative-divide-is-sort-of-useless-focus-on-replicability-instead/

    I think you’re totally right about the value of redefining questions and posing new ones.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you distinguish “HOW” and “WHY” questions from “quantitatively operationalizable” ones. I wouldn’t demand that Margaret Mead do anything, but I don’t think she’d have the right to demand my attention or belief if she didn’t provide evidence for her claims of how and why, and I’m not sure how she’d do that without systematic evidence. That was my point in the post. Given all the other demands on people’s attention and all the other worthwhile ways to spend their time, why would people read Margaret Mead? That may sound like a trivial question for all those who know and love her work. But I ask it in all seriousness and think most people from non-anthropological backgrounds probably ask the same question. And unfortunately, that an anthropologist was trained to do the work they do, doesn’t seem like a good justification for why we should pay attention to the work they do. It doesn’t seem to be different from: “Pay attention to me, because I’m me and because I do what I do.” I need an explanation for why what that anthropologist does is credible and interesting on its own merits.

    The other quick thing I wanted to respond to was your point about redefining the questions. As I said above, I think research questions are incredibly important and there are all kinds of good ways to come up with them and reinvent/redefine them. But I also think focusing too much on this is an enticing trap that catches way, way too many unsuspecting and unaware undergraduate students. I see too many bright young undergraduates come into the lab and engage in discussions around campus who are thoroughly excited about asking deep questions and puzzling over possible answers. They, probably like all of us, love to talk about things that matter. They love the “big questions”. What they need, and what I wish I had had, is someone to tell them gently: you’re building your houses with sand, on sand, and such houses don’t last. Not to look at, and certainly not to live in. Good research requires hard, hard work. A lot of it isn’t interesting, but it has to be done. Asking questions is valuable and I think almost everyone loves to ask them, but learning how to answer them is hard, and the ability to answer them well is rare.

    I certainly don’t mean to question the value of what any individual person, anthropologist or not, does. I’m not qualified to do that, and I’m not interested in doing that. I just think researchers in general can always benefit by asking themselves the hard question: why should anyone believe what I’m saying?

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  5. Thanks for the link back to Schaun’s post, it helped me get a better handle on where you’re coming from. (I love that blogs are organized so you can join the conversation late in the game, but sometimes there’s a lot of catching up to do!) I think the part I was missing was what you meant by “systematic evidence” – but, having read the other, I now suspect you mean something like he did (“studies that lay out data collection, cleaning, organization, analysis, and reporting methods clearly enough that any researcher could potentially do the study”), and that makes sense to me. I confess I projected onto your post conversations I have had with people skeptical of participant observation (and interviews, and analysis that didn’t emphasize a universalizable point) as a method. Your question, why should anyone believe what I’m saying?, is certainly one I value, too.

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