Tag Archives: linguistic anthropology

A Case for Applied Anthropology: Let’s Get Personal


In honor of the first National Anthropology Day, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and write something anthro-related. Or rather, type something anthro-related that I scribbled down in a tiny notebook nearly 2 years ago. 

Imagine, if you will, that it is spring 2013. I’m headed back from the first of a two-day conference of California Cooperatives. I’m neck-deep in a sustained effort to start a community-owned grocery store. I’ve just landed a dream job working with and for people two generations ahead of me at a local non-profit.

My days of suffering through thankless customer service jobs are over. I’m high on collective action. I’m still livid about my graduate school experiences & failures. All these feeling coalesced in a frenzy of brain-waves. The following are the thoughts I rushed to get on paper every which-way as I metroed back from the church basement in Los Angeles where the conference had holed up, ravenous for the life I was experiencing as well as a proper dinner.
Applied anthropology gets a bad rap. Partly for fair reasons, but I’m here to talk about things we don’t think of when those who have the luxury of working the ivory tower use the term pejoratively.

Full disclosure: I am making this case partly as a way to defend the work I do as a natural and positive way to use my academic training.

I consider the work I do to be applied anthropology. Not this blog, which is armchair anth to a fault, but my real-world work. I have the great fortune of being involved in the following projects:

  • At a local history museum, I’m collecting and curating personal memories as part of a virtual exhibit of community stories. Last year, I re-wrote a docent training manual to make room for those groups discursively erased from dominant historical narratives.
  • I am contributing to the start-up phase of a food co-op.
  • I’m working for a non-profit that creates a support network enabling people to stay in their communities of choice as they age.
One of these projects pays me, but I spend arguably more time on the volunteer projects. All of them are local and community-oriented to some degree. And in everything I do for them, I apply my anthropological lens. My training informs my work.

I use the tools and perspectives of cultural and linguistic anthropology to navigate all of this work. I don’t consider this “selling out,” and while it may be an impure form, I do not see it as a bad thing that I’m using the knowledge I and others (have) produce(d) to do very real things. To effect the type of social change we anthros always seem to be advocating for.

I suppose that makes me an activist anthro–another pejorative term. I’m working with folks to address and solve the social problems that anthropologists are so good at identifying. There may well be harm in this endeavor, but there is also a great deal of good.

For example, I use linguistic anthropology for good, not evil. Yes, I’m referring to marketing, but this is marketing for a better future! I haven’t sold out to a corporation, here (unless you count the food co-op). I’m taking the collective will of the people and packaging it for even more people. “Selling” folks on the very ideas they helped to create.

But that’s not what people mean when they snark at those of us who aren’t masochistic enough to be in a PhD program. I admit that I don’t have the temperament to hack it. I’m not into feeling overwhelmed and mentally inferior. I’d much rather be fulfilled, using my skills to engage with my local community and make it a better place.

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Collective production of paper mache’ floats trafficking in mixed metaphors totally makes the world a better place.

 

All of these are reasons why I like the CCC’s better than the AAA’s. There’s a commitment to putting theory into practice. Turning idealism into action and ideology into reality at a grassroots level. Joining pragmatism with idealism to forge unstoppable forces for good in the world!

Besides, if we sequester ourselves in the ivory tower, if we don’t retain ownership of the knowledge we’ve produced, it has a higher risk of being co-opted and used for evil, rather than the good we intend. There’s nothing shameful in seeing something through, in applying theory to practice.

What’s the point of research if it doesn’t have real-world implications? And who are we if we don’t see the value in implementing those implications of our research?

Instead, let’s embrace the practical applications of our research. Let’s retain ownership–sharing the burden, to be sure, with those who have the experience and power to implement our ideas. Not just handing it off, but sticking around to be active participants. Taking action!

In the two years since this breathless tirade against academia for poo-poo-ing applied anthropology, I’ve mellowed a bit. My involvement in the museum and the co-op has lessened, and my work in the non-profit world, while still rewarding, is definitely work. I’m not quite as bitter about my negative experiences in graduate school, and instead enjoy gazing through nostalgia-tinted glasses at the wonderful undergraduate experiences that drew me to anthropology in the first place.

There is peace. There is still action. The museum endures. The co-op is open, now, thanks to the efforts of many talented people. There is still a case for applied anthropology.

 

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Filed under Contemporary, Sweeping Generalizations

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay