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Media Anthropology

A brief background.

by Merry Bruns
Director, CASC

People "just love anthropology."

They're fascinated by fossils and early humans, amazed by archeological digs, and intrigued by how societies work, both their own and other countrys'. TV shows, science sections in newspapers, and popular books have all shown that anthropology can make an impression on public perception.

So why isn't anthropology giving more insight and clarification to news stories, features, and interviews? Where are the anthropology columns, the radio features, the magazine articles and news backgrounders? Why aren't more books written that explain what anthropology is and why it's important in our lives?

Some background...

In 1969, the term "media anthropology" was created to express the synthesis of anthropology and the media, and to study the relationship of one to the other. Emerging out of a 1970 Media Workshop, it brought together anthrpologists who were excited by the concept generated at the 1969 AAA annual meeting.

These anthropologists were interested in reaching the public through media channels, and the workshop spun off a number of internships, a newsletter (Media Anthropologist), and a crop of anthropologists determined to approach this new field in a workable manner. AAA opened its first pressroom, anthropology columns were generated, and several anthropologists even went to work in television.

Recent efforts

Susan L. Allen received the first Media Anthropology Ph.D., and a course was taught by Conrad Reining at Catholic University. a "Directory of Media Anthropologists" was published by E.B. Eselein and Martin Topper, listing forty-four anthropologists working with the media. Topper and Eiselin also formed a special edition of Human Organization (1976) devoted to Media Anthropology. Jim Lett became an TV anthropologist-anchor, writing extensively on his experiences and problems.

The "Faces of Culture" TV series, produced by Ira R. Abrams, won an Emmy in 1984, and Helen Fisher's "The Sex Contract" became an alternate selection for the Book-of -the-Month Club. In 1987, The Center for Anthropology and Journalism was founded in Washington D.C., with the stated purpose of bringing together journalists wanting to meet anthropologists, and anthropologists anxious to open the lines of communication with media.

AAA meetings always had a media anthropology-related session or two, with discussion centering around the growing need to improve media relations and to demonstrate anthropology's relevance in the world of today. Media Anthropology, as a field of inquiry and methodology seemed on its way to establishing anthropology as a viable, relevant discipline.

So what's happened?

Anthropologists have been constrained from communicating through the media by two major problems. One's of their own making, the other stems from the constraints of the discipline.

Fear of losing professional standing among peers has caused many anthropologists to hesitate, and think twice before "going public". And anthropology's linear, detail-oriented approach to analysis doesn't easily lend itself to media formats.

What's needed, perhaps, are people trained in both areas- anthropology, and media relations. The ability to act as a "translator" for the field might release professional anthropologists from the sometimes onerous duty of trying to make themselves understood by the press. And it would give members of the media someone responsible to talk to in order to get that unique perspective that only anthropologists can provide.

In short, Media Anthropologists.

It' been suggested that "every anthropologist is a media anthropologist", but this might not be possible due to the aforementioned constraints.

Breaking free...

And perhaps it's time to break the constraints. Psychologists and sociologists have managed to combine the best of both worlds, gaining ample media coverage and enhanced public perception, while retaining respect among their colleagues. There seems no real reason why the field of anthropology should not be able to do the same. And economic pressures are rapidly making it a necessity.

Perhaps it's time for Media Anthropology to make a comeback, and for "anthropology communications" to become a reality.

-Merry Bruns

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Email: Merry Bruns, CASC Dir.

Copyright 1998.CASC.
Merry P. Bruns
Washington DC
All Rights Reserved.
Jan.1998