PERSPECTIVES ON MY WORK
Anthropology Newsletter, May 1992, pp.27, 50.
Strategic Writing for the Media
Susan Skomal, AAA Press Officer
You're in the thick of a national crisis. Normal patterns of life have been disrupted. Your challenge is to maintain your own balance while trying to make sense of the situation for an outside audience. This might sound like Peter Arnett's job description, yet such are field conditions for anthropologists and journalists alike.
Anthropologists, like journalists, often find themselves in news-breaking situations. Yet we hesitate to share our unique perspective for want of journalistic skills. The experiences of Washington, DC, social anthropologist Janine R Wedel demonstrate the impact strategic writing for the media can have. Recently returned from an appointment as Visiting Fulbright Professor at Warsaw University's Institute of Applied Social sciences to her job with a federal trade agency in Washington, Wedel discussed how she used an anthropological perspective to shed light on the complex IS, sues of Poland's transformation.
Ten years ago Wedel arrived in Poland as martial law was declared and was on hand to witness one of the most critical periods in recent Polish history. Unable to launch directly into her proposed scholarly topic, Wedel made the best of her time by becoming part of the Polish community, experiencing firsthand the complex social networks that determine access to raw materials, information and privileges. Her book, The Private Poland (1986) ---one of the only anthropological analyses of the political economy published since the Solidarity movement began-has reached beyond an academic audience to government, business and the press. Since 1986, she has served as a freelance correspondent for national radio and TV and published eyewitness accounts of the dramatic political and economic changes for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Sydney Morning Herald and World Monitor.
Speaking the Language
Reporting her observations, Wedel has focused on a larger audience that is not necessarily familiar with anthropology. Although she assiduously avoids jargon, her approach is fundamentally anthropological. Where economists focus on such "macro" issues as stabilization of the economy, Wedel concentrates on the social processes and informal institutions and structures that have been operating continuously since before the breakup. For these will form the very foundations of the political and economic institutions of post-Communist Europe.
Wedel demonstrates her points with carefully chosen examples, rather than weighting a discussion with explicit assumptions and theoretical concepts. Using a similar approach to that recommended in two sessions at last year's annual meeting (see February 1992 AN. "Projecting Points"), she leads with an anecdote or example. Wedel states the main point clearly at the beginning, and gradually brings in material from different perspectives to challenge prevailing assumptions.
In a 1989 expose (Christian Science Monitor. February 13) discussing the effect of private entrepreneurs on Poland's new social, political and economic atmosphere, Wedel wove her argument around the examples of six individuals "ho had jumped on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. Each case was used to illustrate a different type of private business and the role it played within the greater society.
Government lobbying groups, private manufacturers and charitable foundations are part of a larger pattern, which has profound effects upon the way the system will operate in the future. The reader is thus given enough information to conclude, with Wedel, that these uniquely Polish innovations are built upon preexisting conditions and are themselves responsible for modifying the entire organizational structure. Through the eyes of the participant observer, we have caught a glimpse of the social organization of business and politics as well as the insider's view of reality.
Journalistic vs. Anthropological Reporting
Wedel has been well received within the community of foreign correspondents stationed in Eastern Europe, yet she draws a sharp distinction between journalistic and anthropological reporting. While the investigative reporter often digs for unusual events to illustrate a story, the anthropologist looks for patterns of usual behavior to clarify how a system operates. This is not popularized pap, but information derived from systematic research adapted for consumption beyond the academic community.
As a marginal but accepted member of a community, the anthropologist is also in a position to make sense of apparent contradictions. Reporters, in contrast, tend to focus on description and analysis of official viewpoints. Singing in a traveling Polish music group and living with families, Wedel learned to survive in the elaborate informal exchange system that both operates outside and penetrates official structures. This flexibility allowed her to meet hundreds of people, including underground members of Solidarity, many of whom have since taken government positions. As a result, she has been able to document a broad spectrum of society through a decade of profound change.
Foreign Policy Role
As momentum in the former Soviet and East European nations continues to build, the role for anthropologists expands. Media and government responses to her most recent fieldwork have convinced Wedel that the anthropological viewpoint can make an important contribution to US foreign policy. Her interviews with EC and American officials, as well as with actual recipients of aid - who are often the consultants themselves-indicate that American assistance in particular is falling far short of its objectives. Wedel hopes to gain a greater voice in policy issues through increased media contact and affiliation with an interdisciplinary policy institute.
Anthropologists can now take advantage of recent calls by major US granting agencies for expanded research into areas of ethnic relations, effects of population distribution and social structure on social conflict, welfare .and societal values (see March 1992 AN. "Grants & Support"). Our discipline's unique insights can be heard if we are willing to take the initiative. Wedel, like all writers, has endured her share of rejected manuscripts and editorial criticism. She urges both academic and applied anthropologists to meet the challenge and learn more about the culture of the media.