Thanks for once again joining us here on the MAPA blog where archaeology and public engagement intersect.
Last post I discussed how communicating science can be a science itself, pointing out that communication can be a difficult and frustrating process (especially for anthropologists who are sometimes very bad at it) and that we, as scientists, need to put effort into developing methods that better engage the communities we work with, including efforts to maintain relationships after the field work is over.
This week I’d like to focus on two somewhat separate topics. First, I’d like to discuss the importance of language in the process of communicating science, which seems like a fairly obvious statement, but one that I think is often overlooked. We academics and scientists like to talk (usually quite a bit), but rarely do we consider the actual words we use when communicating research. Second, I’d like to offer up a few practical suggestions that can be implemented to increase the efficacy of communication, thus better engaging our co-communicators. While these topics are seemingly unrelated, both are integral to communicating with stake-holding publics, as well as to creating continuing relationships that are built on a sense of mutual respect with those publics.
Couldn’t Have Said It Better (Or Could You?)
Last week I mentioned that the way in which scientists and academics sometimes talk to our participant communities does not always engender a sense of mutual understanding or commitment to participation (it includes a comic- check it out here: http://mapabing.org/2016/04/12/public-engagement-the-science-of-communicating-science/). I’d like to expand on that a little this week by considering how the language scientists/academics/anthropologists use, the words we toss out to the public that are so common place to us, often works against our goals of engagement and understanding.
We are often told, as communicators of science, to avoid jargon at all costs. When putting together a research proposal, preparing informed consent paperwork, or outlining a plan for public outreach, we are advised to steer clear of big words, terms that require further explanation, research or anthropology-specific language- jargon, if you will. The defense of this suggestion is that the general public and academic outsiders “won’t understand” or will loose interest quickly if the discussion becomes overly jargon-ated (yeah, I made that up, but the question is, can you understand what it means?). These statements are, in most cases, true. Your co-communicators probably won’t know what your jargon words mean. They will probably lose interest very quickly. But the consequences of not being aware of or considering the words we use when communicating science are greater than just a misunderstanding and a lack of interest. Using words thoughtlessly can derail the entire process of communication and public engagement. Not only do our publics not understand what we are trying to share, but they also are then unable to respond, stopping communicative efforts before they start.
You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth
The language we use as academics and scientists often sanitizes people, places, things, and situations. Referring to participants as “subjects,” personal objects as “artifacts,” or biological remains as “specimens,” removes the research results and goals from a context that stake-holding communities understand. Using terms that would be considered “jargon” also confers a meaning on people, things, or situations that scientists believe to be correct or appropriate. Jargon-infused speech, therefore, can act to minimize the very real feelings, emotions, and importance our participating publics attach to what we chose as our topics of research (but may be a vital part of their every day lives, identity, or history). Communication as a process, as an open dialogue, removes jargon and prevents talking past one another in order to achieve mutual understanding.
Perhaps without meaning to, our jargon, which is so very normal and automatic in our eyes, disconnects scientists and academics from the people we work with. In the case of archaeologists, as well as biological anthropologists, this can include both the people that used the material we collect our data from (historical populations) and the descendant communities/engaged communities we are attempting to dialogue with. Continually utilizing jargon suggests ignorance, not of the subject matter, but of the co-communicators themselves. It suggests that we, as scientists and anthropologists, aren’t listening or understanding the concerns and questions of the community we are serving- we are instead focused on our own questions and assigning our own meaning. This not only indicates ignorance, but a lack of empathy- and no one wants to work with that. A relationship based on mutual respect cannot be built if one side doesn’t feel respected.
Avoiding jargon is important. Not only to prevent misunderstanding, having to explain yourself repeatedly, or to avoid an inattentive audience, but in order to encourage the process of communication, gain a level of mutual understanding, and out of respect for your engaged communities. It is the responsibility of the scientist/anthropologist to find a way to communicate information in a way that is best for the people with whom they are dialoguing.
If You Really Want To (Communicate Effectively)
In the last part of this post, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may help when we are trying to communicate science and engage interested parties with anthropology and science.
- Avoid Jargon. Yeah. I’m going to say it. I just spent several paragraphs outlining why being jargon-free is important, so it is going on the list.
- Think about what is important to engaged communities, not what would be important to other scientists, when discussing your research. The public doesn’t generally care about the background details, then the supporting details, and finally your findings, in that order. They want to know what the bottom line is and why it matters to them, followed by the supporting details. Tell them what the big picture is and why the conclusions should matter to them.
- Practice. Practice talking to people outside the discipline about your research. Practice talking to non-academics about your research. By practicing, you can adjust your language to suit the needs of your audience. It will help you learn to explain your research simply and effectively.
- Utilize other resources at your disposal. At Binghamton University, there is a person who has the title “Director of Research Advancement.” Basically, this means her job is to help researchers figure out the best ways to present their research to the public. Find someone whose job is to communicate with the public and ask for help.
- Adjust your methods of communication. To really be effective, scientists needs to expand the ways in which they communicate their research. In an effort to engage more people and more publics with archeology, the Master of the Arts in Public Archaeology (MAPA) at Binghamton University started a blog (and here we are). Many programs or organizations participate in other social media outlets, like Facebook, Twitter, and I don’t know what else. But it’s not just social media. Effective communication, as stated, also included maintaining relationships. Anthropologists need to move beyond just the field work period and engage communities outside of the field and classroom.
Please add your suggestions for or examples of effectively communicating science in the comments below!
Next post I’ll be interviewing Dr. Siobhan Hart about her project that focuses on heritage and sustainability and the importance of community engagement.