Broadening the Problem

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Tue, 14 Jun 1994 22:42:30 +1000

Deciding how academic positions (ie government resources) are to be
allocated is a question I'm not really in a position to comment on
much, since, although I've spent lots of time in academia, I haven't
actually ever applied for or held such a position. The problem I
face - and this is a problem you must all face too - is simply
deciding which articles and books to read!

As has been pointed out, quality journals publish a lot of garbage,
and great work appears in weird places; how am I to allocate a very
limited reading time when faced with the collosal amount of material
available? And, of course, there is more really outstanding work in
any one of a dozen fields than I could hope to read in a lifetime -
so even if I could objectively sort the outstanding from the ordinary
I'd have a lot of choices to make on more personal grounds.

If I were to specialise in a narrow field it might be easier -
I might hope to read everything on the area in question. But,
being pathologically eclectic, I have trouble deciding whether the
next book I start will be an ethnography or a mathematics text,
and I confess that the decision is usually made almost randomly.
(So I do things like wandering into a shop, seeing a copy of _The
External Trade of the Loango Coast: 1576-1870_ on sale for $10,
buying it and reading it just for fun. Or even buying and reading
a book because it has an attractive cover.)

This is where marketing comes into it, both marketing anthropological
works so the general public will read them and marketing books and
articles so they will attract academic readers. But does this mean
that the books and articles with the publishers with the best publicity
teams will win? I really can't think of an alternative. I write
book reviews to help people decide what to read, but whether people read
those is yet another issue; I publish them on USEnet and advertise them
on the WWW - we are back to marketing again.

In the long run it boils down to reading authors one has read before and
had a chance to evaluate and reading authors recommended by authors one
has read or people one knows.


On a completely different note. We have talked a lot about the
education of undergraduates and the training of postgraduates; what
about the education of the population at large? I just had dinner with
my grandparents, who are extremely liberal (even socialist), and it
was a bit worrying to hear the way they used words like "primitive",
"savage" and "civilized", or the strength with which they believe
in genetic differences between races. (You'd think half-Jews who
were only allowed to marry because Nazi genetic theory said that
mixed-breeds were sterile when crossed would know better!)

My colleagues at university have a different set of prejudices and
assumptions (not suprisingly, as they are 45 years younger), but they
don't have much of a clue anthropologically either. So I shudder
everytime I hear one of them use words like "tribe" (which for them
it really does mean "collection of black Africans larger than a village
and smaller than a nation-state"!), "culture" or "feudal". I do my
best to educate them, but it's not easy. (Does anyone know of any
good book with a title like _The Most Common Misconceptions about
Humanity Refuted_?)

So what anthropological facts do people think are so important they
should be known by everyone? Taught in school? (And no, you can't
get away with "American Culture is superior to all others" should
be taught in schools :-). My first pick would be that there are
no such thing as "races" (that 90+% of human genetic variation is
intra-communal rather than inter-communal).

Danny Yee.