Anthro Brown Bag

News and interesting stuff for Anthros and beyond!

Seriously, What’s the Point? January 23, 2012

Filed under: Anthropology,Archaeology — MallyMay @ 3:30 AM
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Whenever I tell people I’m studying archaeology, I get one of several responses:

1) “I always wanted to do something like that! I dug up my whole backyard one summer as a kid trying to be Indiana Jones!”

2) “Oh, so you dig up dinosaurs and stuff?!” (Le sigh…)

3) “Archaeology…so, what exactly do you plan to do with that?”

The last is a fair question with several potential answers. And it goes beyond simply asking how I plan to support myself in years to come. People want to know why I would choose archaeology. What good does it do? How do I justify spending my time and education money on archaeology rather than something obviously beneficial like engineering or medicine?

I won’t lie…I’ve asked myself that question, too. It always comes to the forefront when I talk about the usefulness of Anthropology as a field. I find myself using examples of my peers in cultural, medical, or biological anthropology as performing necessary research that will benefit the greater good. But where is the archaeology in all of this? What good are we doing? (More to the immediate point for those of us in the field, why should we continue to get funding?!)

It’s a question that I think we as archaeologists should be trying to answer. It’s obvious that people find archaeology fascinating, or there wouldn’t be movies and museum exhibits devoted to it. But I think it’s increasingly important that we devote at least a little bit of our time to explaining just why archaeology is important for everyday people’s lives today. Yes, we think it’s awesome (and deserving of funding), but why should they?

Unfortunately, it’s a big question, and the answer varies depending on the geographic region, culture, and subject being studied. But that’s all the more reason why it should be addressed by each archaeologist.

Personally, I study cooking features and their connection to domestic and ritual life in a remote region of Fiji. Nothing could seem further removed from my home base in Birmingham, Alabama! Yet, I find it has a purpose. People are fascinated by the exotic, and even more so when I can get them to realize that it’s not really as strange as it seems at first glance. Drawing a parallel between gender roles regarding the Fijian earth oven and the American BBQ grill is a great way to get people thinking about things in a slightly different context.

Archaeology can also be a vehicle for sparking discussion about contemporary issues like the environment. From my neck of the research woods, Rapanui (Easter Island) is a fantastic example of over exploitation of environmental resources that had disastrous consequences. Many archaeologists are incorporating outreach programs that emphasize the connection between people and their environments in the past, and the lessons we can learn for today.

With a little creativity, I think any archaeological project can be shown to be beneficial to the general public. And with a focus on STEM research and a general decrease in funding across the board, it has never been more important to show people just how useful we can be!


Anthro Comics?? March 16, 2011

Filed under: Anthropology — MallyMay @ 12:50 AM
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Doing my first bit of trolling the Anthro blogosphere looking for interesting stuff, I came across a very interesting post on  Apparently, a couple of cultural anthropologists in Norway have taken a rather unorthodox approach to reporting their findings – they’ve written a comic book!


If this sounds crazy to you, you’re probably not alone.  I must admit, my first thought was “ok…that’s…different…”  I was skeptical about whether the authors thought they could accurately present their findings through cartoons.  Anthropologi asked one of the researchers to write a short blog entry about the project, which answered most of my questions.


Turns out, the researchers were very much aware of the potential for disaster in this project, yet they maintain that visual anthropology in its many forms is just as valid an approach as traditional written ethnography.

“While working on this collection, various storylines, narrative arcs, drawings, and so forth, we were faced with a series of esthetic, philosophical, and ethical choices. We not only interpreted our ethnographic findings but also presented our view of the world. In some instances, we used irony and humor to clarify situations. These forms of expression also represent our informants’ subjective experiences. They reflect the tone, emotions, and comments that were expressed by the students and employees during our conversations with them.”


The project was meant to explore the intersect between social/cultural diversity and informational services on a college campus in Oslo, Norway.  The challenge that followed was to present their findings in some way that made it usable to the general public…a challenge all anthros can relate to, I believe.  The resulting comic book can be found online here, along with a more detailed discussion of the project and methods.  Anthropology is a fascinating discipline that studies important and relevant issues, yet we’re often relegated to the background, if we make it into the picture at all.  The authors of this comic book were looking for a way out of the rut of traditional writing, a way to make sure their findings were noticed.

“People tend to better understand the complex issues when they are visible. Literally. Sometimes we need to see ourselves in a mirror to see ourselves at all. These comics were like a mirror that made people reflect upon the social and cultural issues without the distance which written texts often are creating.”

I’m not saying that comic books are the new form of ethnographic writing, nor would they appropriate for every project (incidentally, the comic book authors aren’t saying that either).  However, getting anthropological research to the general public is an issue of real concern, and we definitely shouldn’t turn down an option simply because it’s “just not done”.  There are many different options, and we should be thinking about how to take advantage of those.


As a side note, I still think that longer, technical writing (yes, even with the discipline-specific jargon) is very important.  I don’t think we should be writing ONLY for the public lay person, but ALSO for the public lay person.  Anthropology has a lot to offer!  Blogs, websites, social media, and even comic books can be good ways to spread the word on good, current research that has relevance for the public.


I’ve heard of plans in the making for children’s books, video games, and wiki pages meant to broaden the audience for anthropology.  Any other bright ideas out there for bridging the gap?