How to make anthropology matter to policymakers (or anyone)

By Dr. Beth Hallowell

Anthropologists want their work to matter to policymakers. However, bridging the gap between the research we do and the policy changes we’d like to see is a huge challenge. How do you get the right people to listen to you? What do you say to shift someone’s thinking or move them to act?

The process starts with figuring out who you need to reach and what that group needs to hear to feel inspired. For example, at the American Friends Service Committee, we’ve been developing an anti-Islamophobia campaign to build public support to end the profiling and surveillance of Muslims. We realized we needed to reach political progressives who weren’t already active on this issue – or who were active, but not effective in their activism – as well as political moderates who weren’t taking action at all.

Through our research, led by two anthropologists, we found that progressive audiences shared human rights as a value and felt inspired to protect human rights when they saw that this value was under threat. Our research also showed that political moderates shared community safety and peace as a value. Moderates felt motivated to promote safety and peace in their own backyards when they felt that this value was under threat.

Why does it matter that these audiences shared these values? Because if you can frame the problems that matter to you in terms of the values that your audiences share, then you are more likely to move them toward an action you want them to take.

For example, when talking with progressives, we found that if we framed the problem of Islamophobia in terms of a threat to human rights – “Human rights is an essential, universal value and that’s why you should oppose Islamophobic policies that promote profiling and surveillance” – progressive audiences were much more likely to feel inspired to act than, say, if we shared a mountain of facts. Likewise, when talking with moderates, we found that if we framed the program of Islamophobia in terms of a threat to safety and peace – for example, “All of us deserve to feel safe, and to live and pray in peace. That’s why you should oppose Islamophobic policies” – moderate audiences are much more likely to feel inspired to act.

Put another way, moving an audience, whether you’re thinking of “progressives” and “moderates” or a group of policymakers, begins with figuring out the values they share that will inspire them to do what you want them to do.

Some other helpful tips: If you want your work to matter to policymakers (or anyone), avoid “myth-busting,” (e.g. repeating falsehoods or counter narratives that are circulating in public discourse or the media). Instead of saying, “Many people think that profiling and surveillance are OK because they increase community safety, but that’s not actually true,” go straight to the values you share with your audience. Why? Because research on myth-busting shows that your listener not only hears a lie or counter narrative again when you say it, they also stop listening to what comes next – meaning that you’ve just doubled-down on a lie, while also failing to inspire your audience.

This is a different approach to talking about research than we usually take as anthropologists, but it’s one that will help us make anthropology matter to more people in the long run.

Dr. Beth Hallowell is the Communications Research Director for the American Friends Service Committee

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