ASA May 2011 AN Column

ASA May 2011 AN Column
Paul L. Doughty, Contributing Editor and Secretary

“Breaking News” for Anthropology

What fun! Springtime flowers, trees, birds and baseball arrived in Florida as I write in early March. It is hard to believe that another academic year slipped by. Beyond academe, stunning events occur on a daily, seemingly hourly basis. We are deluged with information, appropriately described as “breaking news” that often glues us to the TV screen. A small sample came via email from a colleague, Alice Kehoe, about a voracious Milwaukee sinkhole that was “eating a car!” At first I thought that her Wisconsin state governor did more than break the unions or be embarrassed by a prankster’s phone call.

Nevertheless, the car’s disappearance was simply a sideshow: many thousands had been angrily demonstrating in Madison, state senators were in hiding, and representatives of the “middle class” were occupying the state Capitol as nasty debates ensued.

That was a minor event compared to Egypt and Tunisia as dictators were pushed out of power, or forces in Libya were using mercenaries to retain power. The Afghan and Iraq wars had to compete with yet other events. My local newspaper featured grass fires consuming Oklahoma, bus passengers killed in a New York City accident, a coal mine blast in China killed 19 miners. Several deaths, rapes and robberies, and Charlie Sheen’s misadventures, were also reported in some detail. And then the “record breaking” Japanese earthquake and tsunami tumbled buildings and washed cars, houses and cities away, killing thousands and causing nuclear power plants to create their own headlines. The tsunami even pushed the Somali pirates and the Australian floods out of print.

This spring was a feast for bad news fans, whose preferred genre dominates the media. By actual count over four days, 62% of the all headlined items in my local newspaper consisted of bad happenings and of the remaining 38%, most referred to sports (“good stuff”) at 25% of the total news content. US readers are not alone in this proclivity as popular media elsewhere seems to have the same preoccupations. A journalism colleague reminded me, “bad news sells.”

Or is it that our civilization has a specialized “bad news culture” that functions to buoy the spirits of those depressed by the distasteful affairs and actions far away? People can feel and sympathize with the plight of victims, while being thankful it wasn’t them. Such sentiments induce some to make donations of assistance: by putting one’s left-over change in a relief fund box next to the restaurant or gas station cash register, any sense of “good fortune guilt” goes away.

A glance through our journals, like American Anthropologist, reveals a gradual increase through time in articles and books that analyze topics that might classify as bad news in contemporary society. The sea change discussed by Melissa Cheeker, David Vine and Alaka Wali (American Anthropologist 112[1]) in their introduction to the new AA Public Anthropology section recognizes the trend to “regain, reinvigorate and institutionalize political and social engagement” of the discipline. Indeed, the first piece to appear there was David Price’s commentary “Blogging Anthropology” (American Anthropologist 112[1]) discussing the fast breaking independent internet publishing world that is causing a sea change in print media everywhere. He notes that this popular domain has its quality problems in presentation, content and reliability as bloggers rapidly spin off in many topical directions.

All of these breaks with past tradition, topics and formalities clearly raise questions about the current nature of the discipline. The topics of societal change and the myriad of grievous problems produced must be addressed by us. See it as the second look at this issue, the first having been when we took up acculturation as a legitimate anthropological topic in 1936. That was followed by a proliferation of new topics, journals and associations that are reviewed in the forthcoming ASA publication, Expanding American Anthropology 1945-1980: A Generation Reflects (Kehoe and Doughty 2011). We continue to expand and may burst apart along the old four-field fault lines, with each having an applied and critical dimension with our numerous sections developing further variation to encompass the cultures and lives of seven billion people.

Think about it and have a productive anthropological summer. This column returns in October. Until then, look at our website for the ASA/AAA meetings details, and communicate with us at will via the internet: President, Herb Lewis (hslewis@wisc.edu), past-President Tony Paredes (janthonyparedes@bellsouth.net), new President-elect, Paula Rubel (pgr4@columbia.edu), Program Chair, Alice Kehoe, (akehoe@uwm.edu), Treasurer Margo Smith (mlsriplow@ msn.com) or Secretary/Contributing Editor Paul Doughty (p_doughty@bellsouth.net). 

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