Welcome back to the MAPA blog- a forum for engagement with and discussion of contemporary problems and issues confronting anthropology graduate students and professionals.
This post marks the continuation of MAPA’s Guest Editor series with a new guest editor for the month- me, Ashley Burch. Let’s begin with a full disclosure: I am not an archaeologist (shocking, I know, but bear with me). But I am an anthropologist, specifically a forensic anthropologist, which means that I not only deal with assemblages in my work (like archaeologists), but also a variety of publics in a multitude situations. I also strongly believe that anthropology is a four-field discipline (sorry, England), so our best understanding and explanation of information is achieved through collaboration and across sub-disciplinary perspectives. Embracing a four-field approach to anthropology also means that problems faced by one sub-discipline are issues encountered by all the sub-disciplines. Open dialog and discussion between archaeologists, biological/physical anthropologists (including forensic anthropologists), cultural anthropologists, and linguists is seemingly the most efficient way to address these problems, and the avenue by which the most broadly acceptable resolution may be found. Hopefully that at least partially explains what a forensic anthropologist is doing contributing to a blog on issues in public archaeology- the issues explored here are issues that (should) concern all anthropologists.
Thus far, the previous guest editors have discussed the importance of engagement with the public (http://mapabing.org/2016/02/21/pub-engagement/) and the effectiveness of this engagement (http://mapabing.org/2016/03/08/evaluating-public-archaeology/). During my tenure here as guest editor of the MAPA blog I would like to consider, and hopefully engage readers in discussions regarding, another aspect of public engagement and what could perhaps be considered the cornerstone of the practice- communication. What does it mean to be a science communicator? How does communicating “science” prove challenging to anthropologists (because, let’s be real, we are often very bad at it)? How can we better communicate anthropology to the publics we work with? In my first post, I look at what it means to be a science communicator, why anthropologists are often so bad at it, and what we can do as professionals to do better.
It Takes Two, Baby.
The goal of public archaeology, or public anthropology, is arguably public engagement. This goal is achieved through direct communication with the public and its many communities. In order for the engagement of the public with anthropology to be effective, this communication must foster the sharing of information and expression of ideas. Importantly, effective communication is not a one-way street- it requires contributions from both sides to continue. Effective communication is a relationship, a relationship in which both participants feel comfortable expressing their opinions, but also feel “heard” by their partner. There exists a mutual level of respect through which shared ideas are given equal weight, no matter what side has offered them. Therefore, if anthropologists wish to engage communities with their research and projects, they need to be willing to convey their ideas, but also be willing to hear the feedback and opinions of those they are dialoging with.
It probably wouldn’t be difficult to get the majority of anthropologists to agree that public engagement with anthropological research is both important and necessary. Public engagement fosters greater public interest, which in turn bolsters funding opportunities, professional reputations, and research impacts. However, despite the recognition of the necessity of public engagement and communication, anthropologists often aren’t very good at it.
One problem is that as academics, scientists, even anthropologists, we are trained to communicate research and results in very specific ways. We are committed to the scientific method- stating a hypothesis, forming a methodology, documenting results, offering an interpretation, and, especially, emphasizing why our research is important. We use our own language, full of jargon, that the general public is neither familiar nor comfortable with. (If you want a good (and entertaining) example of people attempting to overcome this, check out the website http://lolmythesis.com/, where researchers sum up their years of work in one sentence.)
Our format, or what we emphasize as important, doesn’t always translate in ways understandable by other communities, probably because the general public doesn’t want or need the same things as science and scientists.
Anthropologists and scientists also aren’t very good at maintaining or continuing relationships with our informant communities. Once our field season is over, project complete, or dissertation turned in, we don’t tend to return to our partner-publics to continue the conversation. Our Houdini-like actions do not tend to foster a sense of trust between scientists and the public(s). It also doesn’t necessarily make people want to put in the time and effort needed to discuss information and ideas when scientists/anthropologists don’t seem to want to make the time commitment either.
Additionally, our attitudes as academics, as “experts,” don’t always lend themselves to making friends within the communities we are working. As experts in a field, we can become focused on one way of knowing or one particular way of seeing. We are inherently biased that our interpretation is the only interpretation. The goal of engagement, of communication, then becomes getting others to see that our way of thinking is the “right” way. Instead of embracing anthropology and the idea that multiple ways of knowing and interpreting exist, we ostracize ourselves by insisting that others accept and understand the ideas (hypotheses) we are offering up. Instead of actually engaging in a dialogue and exchanging ideas, we only like to share our results and their importance, not listen to how others may interpret our data. That’s not really communication or engagement- that is just a lecture.
Being a Science Communicator
So, how do we become effective (or more effective) communicators of science and anthropology?
First, we need to commit to doing it, and doing it well. Communicating with the public needs to be a habit. It needs to be part of the process of doing science and anthropology. Effective communication and continued engagement requires preparation and practice. As scientists, we should focus on the needs of the communities in which we work, not only our wants as investigators. As a forensic anthropologist, my focus is often on skeletal analysis and identification, but I need to be prepared to speak with law enforcement, families of missing, or other interested parties (consultants, case managers, etc.) about their concerns and interests in ways they can best understand. Our research questions should address concerns and interests of those communities, not only what we think is important. This includes finding better ways to talk with people unfamiliar with our research, including being aware of the language we use. It also means developing programs and research practices that allow for the return to and continued communication with stake-holding communities.
“If you can’t explain it simply enough, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
We should also be aware of our biases as scientists, academics, and anthropologists. Being aware of how our training impacts or hinders the process of communication can help prevent problems before they start. Knowing our tendency to “tell” the public something, instead of engaging with them regarding ideas and information, can aid us in developing programs and methods for addressing public concerns and interests. As anthropologists, we should be embracing anthropology, meaning we should always be considering various ways of understanding the world and realize that there isn’t just one interpretation for a given dataset.
It should not be our goal as anthropologists or scientists to get everyone to agree with our point-of-view, but it should be our goal to build a lasting relationship with the public based on a mutual give-and-take of ideas.
Check back in the coming weeks as I continue looking at “being a science communicator” and offer an example of an anthropologist that is striving to fully engage with the communities in which they work.
Ashley Burch is a PhD student whose research interests include human identification and forensic anthropology and human rights. She obtained her BA in Anthropology from Michigan State University and her MA in Anthropology, with a focus in Forensic Anthropology, from the University of Montana before becoming an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Research Fellow with the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Central Identification Laboratory. While at the Lab, Burch’s primary research focused on establishing methods and protocols for segregating individuals from large, commingled assemblages for the purpose of identification, with particular emphasis on the Korean War. She is currently working on her PhD at Binghamton University. (And don’t worry, archaeologists, she has some field experience too.)