The Power of Public Scholarship

As the mass shootings in Orlando suggest, we are at a social tipping point. The time has come for scholars, guardians of truth and wisdom, to step up to the plate and play a much more central role in the public and political sphere. It is time to use wisdom to drain the fetid swamp of its intolerant hate of everything--other.
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In these challenging times scholars need a makeover. Consider the state of the world. In America, Donald Trump, a racist, a misogynist, and a xenophobe who is woefully ignorant of domestic and foreign policy issues not to forget his ignorance of the fundamental principals of the US Constitution, has won the nomination a major political party! Indeed, rampant racism, lingering homophobia, persistent religious intolerance, pervasive human trafficking, expanding terrorism, crisis migration, growing income inequality, and noxious xenophobia have shredded the global social fabric. In the near future, climate change, the incontrovertible presence of which many of our public officials deny, promises more super storms, more massive coastal and river flooding as well as the exponential spread of new pandemics. As the mass shootings in Orlando suggest, we are at a social tipping point. The time has come for scholars, guardians of truth and wisdom, to step up to the plate and play a much more central role in the public and political sphere. It is time to use wisdom to drain the fetid swamp of its intolerant hate of everything--other.

What can social scientists do to make the world more bearable? In a recent graduation speech to anthropology graduates at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes suggested that anthropologists are particularly well equipped to make a troubled world a better place. Professor Scheper-Hughes asks...

Can anthropologists - cultural, biological, medical, linguistic and archaeological - deploy our deep commitment to human and biological diversity to resist the forces of hate, fear and xenophobia?...

Anthropologists are restless and nomadic people. We are a tribe of hunters and gatherers of human artifacts, human cultures, life ways, and human values. Anthropology requires us to become intimate with the people we want to understand - getting inside their skin, standing in their shoes kind of thing.

Ethnography is an art form, a work of translation, that demands all the senses - the observant eye, the attentive ear, a keen sense of smell, touch, and a sense of taste - a "gusto" (in Portuguese) that carries a double valence - a taste not only for new foods and spicy condiments, strong drinks - but also a taste for the sentient life through which a "society" is embodied -- catching its sense of time and timing, its movements and gestures, its patterns of work, play, and devotion, its sense of humor and its sense of justice, its sense of dignity.

Anthropology also requires strength, valor, and courage...Susan Sontag called anthropology a "heroic" profession - one that required brains and strength, sensitivity and guts. It was not just a job, not just a profession. It was, she said, one of those very few rare and true vocations.

You are the ones in whom your professors have invested their hopes and their trust. We need your intelligence, your initiative, your risk-taking, and your energy. We look to you as the next generation of "loyal rebels" - loyal to what anthropology has taught you: to value diversity; to embrace and enjoy (not just tolerate) human difference; to be open to the wisdom of strangers, and resolute in refusing any proposals that denigrate other ways of living and being in the world....

Professor Scheper-Hughes's challenge to the graduates is inspiring, but how do we extend the passion of a "rare and true vocation" into the public sphere?

In anthropology scholars now employ social media to make our science more "public." We use Facebook and Twitter to circulate through our networks news or research results that we consider important. There are scores of anthropological blogs, both individual and group efforts, through which writers attempt to bring anthropological insights to larger and more diverse audiences. Scholars have also been using social media to spread the word about their own essays and books--all in the attempt to reach broader audiences. If you add to these efforts, documentary films about the challenges of contemporary social life, the picture is clear: there's a great deal of social science "out there."

But is this public outreach effective? Does it have an impact on entrenched racist, homophobic or xenophobic belief? Can it promote social or political change? Does it make a difference? Public scholarship has become a more important element in the contemporary academy. Even so,most public scholarship has a limited reach. Very little of it transcends disciplinary boundaries. Even less of it trickles into public discourse. In most public scholarship, then, we often talk to ourselves about issues of specialized appeal.

In these challenging times, how can scholars better extend their knowledge to the general public?

Here are a few suggestions.

1. Create summer institutes in public scholarship. Writing for the public is a skill that can be developed. If there are writing institutes younger scholars can learn how to better extend their knowledge to the public.

2. Train scholars in evocative writing and representation. Evocative writing underscores the power of narrative to connect writers to their readers--a fundamental necessity for social and cultural change.

3. Blogging. Conduct blogging workshops to demonstrate the capacity of a well-crafted blog to reach thousands upon thousands of readers.

4. Support documentary film projects.. Documentary films also showcase narratives that speak to the human struggle for social dignity and well being. As the late Jean Rouch, champion of cinema verite, liked to say, the language of film is immediately and movingly accessible to almost any audience. It can be a powerful medium of representation.

5. Support exhibitions and installations. Thousands of people regualry visit culturally contoured museum exhibitions and installations, many of which speak to the issues--climate change, race, intolerance, mass migration, cultural difference--that will shape--in one way or another--our future.

Substantive change takes time and these suggestions will not immediately bring clear progress in the quest for a more perfect union and a more peaceful world. Even so, troubled times compel scholars to try a different tack--writing or filming stories that connect with the public in a way--perhaps in an unabashedly visceral way--that propels us toward new awareness, a change of direction or even a change of heart. To confront our considerable social challenges we scholars have the obligation to use our unique experience in the world to tell stories that resonate, stories that demonstrate how difference makes a difference in the quality of life.

If the story is a good one, it can provoke change and eventually make the world a little bit better place to live.

This path may well be a long one filled with frustration and disappointment. No matter where it leads, it is our scholarly obligation to follow it.

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