Crowdsourcing the Conversation: On the Future of Podcasting, Public Engagement, and Exercising the Anthropological Tool Kit

by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins

We explore the This Anthro Life Podcast project through three themes: anthropology as a conversation, the contemporary need for generalists, and why we see podcasting as a means to public engagement, but not an end in and of itself.

In all retrospective likelihood, what could have been a brief foray into podcasting has transformed from inspiration into something the seems to be veering onto a movement, which continues to grow with the backing of ever more voices. After five years, it is compelling to us that the podcast This Anthro Life (TAL) is still here. Not only because we’re the ones who have kept it going, but because we’ve found there is some real life, some vitality we’ve come to see in the expression of anthropological thinking and doing. There’s a hunger, an emphatic head nodding when you hear an idea that resonates to you bones, even if you don’t know exactly why. The question for us now, though, isn’t why did we start, but how is our “professional experiment” still going? Quite simply, our experiences have shown us that the conversations we share matter. Our listeners tell us this matters — that there’s always been that deep something about being human, which compels all of us to belong, share stories, and build together across social difference wherever and however it is found. Anthropology matters, and the conversation carries on.

In this piece we explore some of the past, present, and future perspectives of the TAL project through three themes: anthropology as a conversation, the contemporary need for generalists, and why we see podcasting as a means to public engagement, but not an end in and of itself. Ultimately we align our future outlook with charge lead by American Anthropological Association president Elise Waterston at the 2016 Public Anthropology Panel: that “anthropology has much to say but struggles to get it out beyond our [disciplinary] boundaries. We can do better. We need to coordinate a collaborative message to reach wider audiences.”

We’ve been recently reflecting on AAA, anthropology, and where we want to go. What we’ve come to find is that what really matters (to us) and echoed in sentiments and comments from colleagues, listeners, and fans, is that anthropology gets done. That people do it. Sure, there’s frustration out there over how public anthropology should or shouldn’t be. About how and who the audiences of anthropology are. About the need to offer as deep of professional development as we do theoretical.

Anthropology as a Conversation and Conversation as our Medium

We used to talk about This Anthro Life as a professional experiment. But now we feel a bit different. Today, it’s an experimental profession. That is, we’ve been a part of and watched podcasting as a medium and format take off in popularity and power across the world. It has become professionalized at the same time as the barriers to entry have dropped. The experimental part, to us, has to do with the fact that our work with TAL has come to matter because of change. The change we refer to is recent multi-modal shifts in practicing anthropology. Our emphasis here however is not on anthropology — but in the change of practice.

Let’s start with a few numbers. Two years ago today, TAL was a predominant anthropological podcast that boasted nearly 2000 subscribers. For an anthropological podcast, let alone a self funded graduate student production, this was wasn’t bad. In the fall of 2016 we decided to make a few changes to our format. For one, we picked up on trends in podcasting about the emerging “golden time frame” for episodes, which many considered to be about 25 minutes based on an average of commute times. As a result we cut our episodes from about 45 minutes to about 25. Around this time we also started talking to the AAA about forming a network of anthropological podcasts.

Fast forward to today, our episodes have been downloaded over 120,000 times, and we get about 92,000 hits on our site each month. Our back catalogue is constantly being accessed now alongside new episodes. Quotes and episodes have been cited on theses and used as pedagogical tools in classrooms.

Our aim is to promote anthropological thinking to the public through enjoyable and entertaining conversations. We’ve been making podcast episodes as TAL for five years, and produced over 100 episodes episodes between 25 minutes to just over an hour long. Our format is an unscripted, round table conversation supported by research. Though, we are prone to experiment. Many of our episodes involve interviews with expert specialists, book reviews, critical analysis and more. Because TAL is structured as an open ended conversation, we have two formats in addition to our general “Conversations” pieces: the lucid ‘Free Think’ that work as a kind of backstage pass to our minds, where we talk about ourselves and making a podcast in general. We also have also experimented the short, but actionable ‘Design + Applied’ minisodes. The aim with these is to provide actionable steps and insight that listeners can apply to their everyday lives.

Featured Author Emma Backe on the Storyslamming Anthropology Series

Then there’s the miniseries collaborations such as the “Story Slamming Anthropology” series in which invited authors write and narrate stories that bring to life anthropological thought.

We have secured official collaborations and partnerships with the American Anthropological Association, the Society for Applied Anthropology, SAPIENS (part of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research), and Ethnographic Praxis in Industry (EPIC). That being said, we continue to be surprised by the demographics of our listeners, especially those who reach out to us through tweets and email, that are rediscovering, or perhaps rekindling, their passions for anthropology — long after completing their degrees and working in non academic industries. Our partnerships reflect our own drive for outreach and anthropological doing. Here’s some examples:

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: In the summer of 2018, Adam Gamwell traveled to Washington DC in partnership with AAA and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to conduct a series of interviews with international artists, designers, craftspeople, curators and more around the theme of heritage enterprise and migration. A teaser episode for this collaboration is out now. “CultureMade: Heritage Enterprise in a World on the Move.”

Adam Gamwell, Leslie Walker, and Ali Smith (Smithsonian Intern), interview Grammy Award-winning Armenian-American jazz musician Arto Tunçboyacıyan.

TAL and Anthrodendum: one of our major tasks of 2017 included a crossover series with the popular anthropology blog Anthrodendum, formerly known as Savage Minds. We originally envisioned this series to be conversations with different thought leaders who worked in public-facing anthropological roles. For this month long series we spoke with writers in, the AAA, SAPIENS, and SAA, the Society for American Archaeology.

One main goal of TAL is to demonstrate and practice anthropological thinking in a publicly accessible way (with no homework, no jargon, no extra reading). Podcasting provides a natural medium (in our view) through which to do this because open conversations don’t easily allow for footnotes, extensive quoting, or even hard-to- say sentences. It sounds simple, but as any academic anthropologist knows, trying to explain Bourdieu’s habitus or Marx’s labor theory of value in conversation without confusing your students is a learned skill. However, TAL isn’t intended to explain anthropological theory, nor is it to specifically highlight anthropologists and their work. Rather, we use podcasting to translate and socialize anthropological research into an easily digestible format that promotes holistic thinking and demonstrates its value to the world. In other words, what matters to us is having the conversation.

One of the things we find inspirational, on our first Design and Applied minisode, itself an experiment in providing bite sized content (about five minutes) with one or two actionable steps we can apply to our everyday lives (you know, where ethnography happens), comes from our friend and guest and corporate anthropologist Andi Simon. She told us that neuroscience (and just plain being human) reveals that our brains don’t like change — they hate change. But it’s a part of life as we understand it. It is the pivot upon which we adapt and evolve. If we don’t (as a basic component of evolution), we perish. So, to help our lowly lizard brains deal with the complexity of an infinite chasm of change before us, Andi suggested that rather than going with our default thought or speech pattern — “no, but” when confronted with a new idea, that we instead try “yes, and…” This simple two word transformation isn’t simply a verbal switch, but rather a switchboard upon which we can train our perception, that anxious breath that “I’m not sure I can” into “I can, and am not sure what’s next”. And sometimes, that’s enough.

In relation, we see TAL as somewhere between academia, design anthropology, public anthropology and entertainment. Since podcasting is not (yet) an accepted academic format like a thesis or peer- reviewed journal it hovers on the fringes of the academy. Its roots as a form of alternative, democratic radio production put it, for many, in the entertainment/news/informally-learn-something-new camp. Couched between these two forms we saw an opportunity to raise public consciousness about anthropology. In 2013 podcasts were a relatively new medium and applied anthropological communities like the National Association of Practicing Anthropology NAPA and Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference EPIC had not gained huge traction in anthropological worlds (we’re glad to see this changing). Podcasting is a great medium for sharing knowledge that follows on the heels of classic radio, the move towards more audiobook consumption by the general public, and the need to stop privileging the visual for information consumption. Recognizing that many people struggle with reading, this last point is particularly important to us.

The Contemporary Need for Generalists

In the AAA’s 2016 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, we were struck by Dr. Alex Golub’s remarks on Anthropology’s need for generalists, in a good way.

We’ve always drawn inspiration from Laura Nader on the need for generalists: We can never forget the fact that American anthropologists are American. Or if we’re Pakistani we’re Pakistani. You are influenced by the culture you grew up in, even as an anthropologist, and that’s where Cardoza was so wise when he said, “No matter how objective we may try to be, we must never forget the fact that we see with our own eyes.” And what’s happening is too much specialization. The one field that has to be generalist is the field that studies the human condition.”

These two ideas are some of our guiding principles with not only This Anthro Life, but our life as anthropologists. Podcasting has given us a medium and a means through which to be generalists — to have to learn to speak across a number of registers, fields of inquiry, and tones of conversation. It’s fun, but it’s deep work, especially because our show is unscripted. For us, making a podcast is the opposite of having a research specialization or particular knowledge expertise. It is, rather an invitation to have to speak, and speak well, about multiple things. We aren’t always successful, or as pithy or articulate as we’d like to be. Sometimes we are. The real joy comes from seeing connections develop and strengthen across conversations.

Podcasting as a Means to Public Engagement

With the recent surge in visibility of This Anthro Life, we now have the ability to engage with broader publics in meaningful ways, like curating a series of episodes on diversity and inclusion in academia and beyond. Here, our inspiration comes from anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s claim that anthropology’s job is to make the world a safe place for human differences. In a world where inequalities, power differentials, and endemic privilege continue to impact the fabric of university communities, we aim to address concerns surrounding LGBTQIA+ equality on campuses, cross-cultural diversity, religious pluralism, and race and ethnicity in contemporary US life head on, using 21st century social technologies to reach the widest possible audience.

We are also working to make TAL sustainable. In this way we recognize that “Public” can mean public funding. We’ve been working towards crowdfunding the podcast through a platform called Patreon, where people can give small amounts of money each month. While asking for support for a public program may seem normal enough, academia trained us poorly for understanding the costs associated with running and producing such a program. We’ve spoken with colleagues who immediately get our URL and toss us a dollar a month, while others have told us “you do great work, but I’d never give money to an anthropology podcast.” You win some and you lose some.

Crowdfunding is one of our public engagement experiments. On the one hand public funding can help us work towards our goals of sustainability. On the other, this campaign facilitates further engagement with our audiences. This isn’t a pitch to readers so much as a recognition that podcasting is a legitimate media source that people are actively and at times passionately engaged in. Patreon represents a means for the coming-of-age of anthropology in the podcast sphere 1. given podcasting’s massive popularity among multiple audiences, there is ample room for social science and anthropologically focused media; 2. there appears, at least to us, that there’s a growing hunger for anthropology to provide actionable insights into our contemporary world, not just reflect it; and 3. the rise of crowdfunding as a way to directly support artists and makers.

What this tells us is that it is time to see (some) anthropologists as makers rather than scholars. That is, there is an alternative modality of conducting research, producing critical commentaries, results and analysis, and distributing them in new public ways. Podcasting is what we do as makers, and making needs to be sustainable.

Conclusion

Like many public-facing anthropologists, for us jargon is a point of contention. We mention this a lot but jargon, or avoiding it, isn’t the point. It kind of doesn’t matter. When we say this, what we mean is, sure, kinship or ontology may be some kind of “higher level” or more specialized vocabulary, but let’s be real: all disciplines do this. All vocations do, actually. And most of them don’t worry about it. If we podcast, if we engage in what we can call multi-modal research, which on one level is just another way of saying “not just writing what has now come to be called academic ethnography”, if, and when we have podcasted as This Anthro Life, what we have come to see is that people have a hunger to be visit once again (or perhpaps for the first time) that same sense of awe that we felt when we first learned about the crazy discipline that somehow studies everything human. They want to know anthropology matters. And, it does. Ethnography matters, in all its forms. All podcasting does is provide anthropology a different means and output, a multi-modality, a structured cacophony of sounds that engage our senses in new ways.

Anthropology, in its most useful form, can be framed as invoking our humanity to solve cultural problems, and crafting culture to solve our human problems.

In this statement we are not alluding to human exceptionalism, but we are recognizing, alongside Esther Boserup, that culture will always help us work through the most pressing issues of the human condition. Boserup contested Thomas Malthus’s claim that competition over finite and dwindling natural resources would lead to increasing conflict and inevitably give way to the dissolution of culture, leading to what Thomas Hobbes characterized as nasty, brutish and short lives. We agree with Boserup that processes of natural selection have been disrupted and altered because of cultural ingenuity — and folly. Culture as a process and a tool has routinely enabled us to circumvent our limitations, whether natural or selective.

Problem solving and storytelling are at the heart of what it means to be human. Our capacity for symbolic logic is not what makes us human, but to narratively define and solve problems is.

Nonetheless, culture has served as much as a limitation to change as an enabler. This we all already know, unless perhaps, one isn’t an anthropologist. Or an academic. So this we’d say is one of our largest reflections of what to try and share through podcasting. In the current incarnation, TAL isn’t multi-modal research; it’s a multi-modal delivery service. What we care about here is use. We believe anthropology is useful when it does, when makes, when it produces, and when it shares.