Posted: January 28, 2011
Since graduating from high school, I’ve several times worked as a salesman, first flogging reference books door-to-door over summers while an undergraduate and later, while writing my dissertation, getting involved in the ‘design consulting’ business where I helped sell something a lot lesstangible. Sales was a great training ground for an anthropologist: nothing prepares you for quickly manufacturing social relations like slogging around door-to-door with a sample case, and a large lecture room of first-year students is a lot easier to sell than a skeptical dairy farmer in Wisconsin.
Marquesan tattooing (rear), by Von de Steinen.
I’ve often given anthropological colleagues advicethat could have been taken verbatim from my stints in sales school — they would probably be mortified if they knew about the dual purposing. At times, I worry about my colleagues because I think that a whole series of situations in academia actually resemble sales situations: job interviewing, ‘open day’ for prospective students, grant writing, and even the first few lectures in an introductoryclass, when you’d be well served if you could persuade the assembled students that you’ve got something to say worth hearing.
Anthropologists sometimes don’t seem terribly good at selling what they do. If you couldn’t convince a starving man to eat a sandwich, how can we persuade diverse audiences to pay attention to anthropology?
After my previous post on the ‘Vital topics forum,’ readerJason Antrosio asked my opinion about Ulf Hannerz’s article from the same American Anthropologist: ‘Diversity is Our Business.’ Since I had been banging on about anthropology promoting itself as the study of human diversity, Jason probably assumed, quite reasonably, that I had already read Hannerz’s piece. Alas, I hadn’t. One of the many downsides of being laid up at home is that I only read theforum online and hadn’t really browsed the contents of the latest AA because my hard copy is likely still sitting in my office mailbox.
Hannerz’s piece, ‘Diversity is Our Business,’ is well worth the read not just because he explores how the field is misrepresented in the public eye; Hannerz asks what we might do as a field to counter-act anthro-bashing. He wades into water that I prefer toplunge into neck deep here: what kind of brand is ‘Anthropology,’ how do we tell people about what we do, and do we need to perform a bit of brand management?
Perhaps provocatively, in drawing on a characteristic current vocabulary, I would argue that anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand. Those who feel ill at ease with that term, thinking that in its crassness it sullies their noblescholarly pursuits, can perhaps just as well continue to call it “public image” or even just “identity,” but in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that “brand” is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in. (These days, too, not only corporations or consumer goods are linked to brands but also for examplecities and countries.) Brands should attract outsiders: customers, visitors, members of the public. At the same time, they should preferably offer a fully acceptable identity for whoever may count as insiders to reflect on and be inspired by. (Hannerz 2010: 543)
Hell, yeah, we should think about Anthropology as a brand! With no trace of irony, I’d argue that we get serious about our collectiveself-promotion as a discipline. Hannerz gets off to a good start, but I think we could even step up the campaign a bit, making use of the traditional strengths of our discipline to promote our intellectual and research potential. And I’m going to take this opportunity, as well, to reply to some of the issues Daniel outlined in his piece, Anthropology and Publicity, something I’ve been meaning to do...