In the Communications Unit at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) where I work, there are posters from an old engagement campaign that read “_____ for peace.” The idea behind the campaign was that these posters were sent to supporters, who could then write whatever they chose in the blank space, take a picture of themselves, and post it to social media. The leftover posters made their way back to our office, where my colleagues filled in their own blanks: “web team for peace,” “fundraisers for peace,” and so forth. It struck me that these signs reveal the infrastructure necessary to organize a social movement in the U.S. today.
While much has been written about how our networked world creates new kinds of social movements, much less has been written about the day-to-day work of content creation, web development, and online engagement that characterizes a good deal of everyday social justice work.
To this list of “_____’s for peace” I’d like to add “anthropology for peace.”
As AFSC’s Communications Research Director, I’m building a new program to conduct original research and curate existing research in ways that help social justice advocates communicate better. This means pulling together techniques from marketing research, user experience research, and textbook anthropology. It has also meant side-stepping some of academic anthropology’s disciplinary concerns about how research gets done and why. For example, my research here moves faster than it did when I was in the field as a grad student, which is another way of saying I don’t have deep ethnographic engagements – only short and sweet ones.
But it lets me engage with more people more often: I research and write about of-the-moment progressive issues, from Islamophobia to coverage of political violence to corporate influence on public policy, while offering recommendations about what different audiences can do to help solve complex social problems.
In our soon-to-be-released report on media coverage of violent extremism, for example, we conducted a content analysis of 603 news items from 20 U.S. outlets sampled during a three-month period in 2015. Our findings? That media frame Muslims as “Others” and potential extremists. Media also overwhelmingly frame extremist groups as either calculating, hyper-rational actors or subhuman, irrational actors – and sometimes both in the same article.
These frames, contradictory though they are, do similar kinds of cultural and political work: they position these groups as natural military targets. This is in addition to the overwhelming coverage of actual military responses to extremism, compared to coverage of diplomatic or humanitarian responses. Such coverage limits what is possible in terms of responding to these forms of violence: how is the U.S. public supposed to support anything but military intervention if what it sees, reads, and hears disproportionately covers Muslims as extremists and extremists as military targets?
Critically, this study will inform how we develop pro-peace messages, communicate them to our target audiences, and evaluate their effectiveness. In this way, we’re doing anthropology for peace.
Anthropology’s role in histories of racialization and colonialism have long given anthropologists pause before jumping into public debates. But there are also a number of narratives about what anthropology is or should be that limit our engagements: that an anthropologist’s place is in the academy, that leaving the academy is a failure, and that theoretical work is the most important kind of anthropological work.
Yet, in a moment when U.S. national political conversations about topics like race, religion, and violence are reaching new lows, anthropologists not only have a lot to contribute. They have a responsibility to communicate their unique perspectives to new audiences – and perhaps value new kinds of anthropological work altogether.
We’ve made progress recently, but these modes of engagement remain undervalued, from reading for graduate exams all the way through tenure and promotion. What would graduate training look like, for example, if outreach and communications practicums were widely available? What would tenure and promotion files look like if media work played as large a role as the single-author monograph from a university press? What if the path out of academic anthropology was no longer a one-way street? In other words, what would our discipline look like with more “Anthropology for _______?”
Beth Hallowell, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist and the Communications Research Director at AFSC. Follow her@bethhallowell.