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Why the Cultural Conversation Should Never Stop

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by Melissa Rinehart

How can the work of anthropologists can be more meaningfully accessible to those outside the profession, yet maintain scientific rigor? I've asked myself this question for years. Working as a Native Americanist (a cultural anthropologist working with Native American communities), I've been especially troubled about the disconnects between relationship and research -- whether observed in the latest publication or conference paper where the author is seemingly detached from the subject, or during conversations with peers who appear distanced from their work. Where are scholars' emotive connections to the people who make their work possible? And, for someone like myself, how can one work in 'Indian country' without such connections? When you factor in the history of American anthropology and coinciding exploitation of Native Americans, it only complicates relationship-building in my area. While our profession has come a long way since then, it doesn't mean working in 'Indian country' is easy. Maybe it's not supposed to be? Through trial and error, and probably more of the latter, I've come to learn that my work doesn't define me, but rather the character of my personhood as it manifests in all areas of my life, whether single-parenting my daughter, teaching students, or working with Native American consultants.

My understandings of relationship and research changed substantially after the earthquake struck in Haiti. As I've written about elsewhere, I knew no one in Haiti and had never been to Haiti, but I wanted to help -- this burning desire to help resulted in organizing a city-wide relief event wherein we collected 35,000 pounds of food and water for Haitians. It wasn't until this tragedy occurred that I experienced firsthand the moral aesthetics of anthropological engagement outside Indian country. Sure, I've made assumptions in the past during my fieldwork, and I unknowingly made certain assumptions while organizing the Haitian relief event, much to the chagrin of those who actually deal with disaster relief daily. During relief organizing, my credentials undoubtedly validated my efforts; therefore, opening doors to social service agencies and the media. Interestingly, many of my colleagues, students, friends and other supporters saw me 'doing' anthropology while organizing the event as well as it being a natural fit for someone who already works with oppressed communities. But, how was I doing anthropology, I found myself asking? Anthropologists are guided by hypotheses and conduct fieldwork to support or refute those hypotheses, but this wasn't what I was doing. I was a novice at best with disaster relief, but in the public's eyes, they saw me being an anthropologist doing her 'thing.' Consequently, I began to see my role more broadly in the community.

How did this event two years ago change me and the ways I approach my work? The list is long. My professional contributions, whether publishing or teaching are more reflexive as I've come to recognize purist objectivity is unobtainable. I am more morally grounded and have come to recognize the inherent value of respectful relationship-making whether with students, consultants, friends, or colleagues. Only by engaging in more emotionally intelligent discussions is where I find true learning takes place and this recognition has opened many new doors in my life that I would have never imagined before. Me, blog? Never -- or, so I would've thought only a few months ago. Something else I would've never seen coming in a million years is a future in radio. Guided by the desire to enrich listenership to more critical discussions about culture, I'm currently launching a podcast series for National Public Radio in northeastern Indiana (WBOI/WBNI). I've received significant support for this endeavor, but curiously not from many of my anthropology colleagues. I was recently advised by a colleague to be careful not to de-value the reputation of anthropology through radio as, in his opinion, Margaret Mead did with her Redbook column back in the 1970s. His concerns and latent support have only driven me more to reach a broader audience with anthropological topics. Such puritanical interpretations of anthropology are simply not feasible. Was Mead flawed in her work? Sure. Has mine been? Yes. Can I learn to do it better? Sure. What should Anthropology look like or sound like for that matter? I fail to see how utilizing various media to disseminate anthropological knowledge de-values our profession. These are additional tools for creating fuller understandings of a greater ethnographic story.

As anthropologists we are all part of a larger narrative, in fact I believe our abilities to narrate various chapters of the human story is what sets our field apart from other sciences. This is engaged learning at its finest and whether I do it in front of a lectern for students, or at a conference for peers, or as a blogger, or as a podcaster, I do not value my training any less. In fact, if it weren't for my anthropological training, I'm not sure I could work with multiple audiences so easily. Public engagement ensures anthropological and human advancement, and, as ethnobotanist Wade Davis recently told me, we are all "entrepreneurs of knowledge," and it's up to us how we share that with others. My venues are simply evolving.

Melissa Rinehart has taught in higher education at institutions in Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada for over 16 years. She is currently launching a series of podcasts through National Public Radio in Northeastern Indiana to engage listeners more deeply with cultural topics of interest.