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“Meg Mead (The Millennial Anthropologist)”: The satirical self, celebrity scholar and social media in an audit world

by Denielle Elliott

“Meg Mead”, both historical figure and millennial anthropologist who loves social media in all its forms, is a fictitious persona, a caricature, meant to poke fun at ourselves, our disciplinary practices, celebrity scholarship, and the on-going dilemmas of privilege, representation, and the ego in the contemporary Academy.

This is a satirical parody that looks at the history of Anthropology characters, contemporary uses of social and digital media by Anthropologists, and the disturbing corporatization of the academy that demands self-marketing, competitive entrepreneurial selves, and a focus on evidentiary metrics. I draw inspiration from other anthropologists who have crafted fictional personas to address tensions and contradictions in anthropological practice, including John Jackson Jr.’s AnthroMan, Shannon Rose Riley’s Mis(s)Translation, and Kirsten Bell’s Mistress Slavegirl.[i]

“Meg Mead” [ii] forces us to consider two immediate socio-political forces shaping our practice as contemporary academics. First, is the use of social and digital media among 21st century scholars and anthropologists. In part, this is an age-old problem that speaks to the question of representation. Anthropology’s ghosts haunt many contemporary social media representations – an exoticized other, being there, tribal conflicts, our fascination with difference. We post on our field experiences, capture photographs of “us” with “them” (we continue to be fond of photos with children running around as back drop to our field encounters), and write about our research participants as if they might never read what we write (even while they ‘friend’ and ‘like’ us on forums like Facebook or follow us on Twitter). “Meg Mead” speaks to the tensions inherent in new social media practices – their potential to be liberatory, radical, democratic, and subversive but also othering, conservative, and dangerous. Many actively use Facebook, for instance, for both personal use and professional projects even though such a forum is a commercial enterprise with interests that are not consistent with our own anti-capitalist politics. There appears to be a slippage between our academic critical scholarship and the socio-digital anthropologist. Can we be anti-poverty, feminist, activist scholars and use social media?

Related, many scholars seem to have difficulties negotiating the professional and the personal in new media. Is Facebook for friends and family? Or for our colleagues? Do we want our colleagues to see our baby photographs (do they want to see them!)? And how do we prevent our colleagues from seeing the posts from our crazy cousins, deranged aunties, and annoying ex (who is still angry even though we were on a break!)? Is the solution to have separate accounts (personas)? Although anthropology’s past is deeply rooted in inquiry regarding representation, language, discourse and communication practices, we seem largely forgetful in our current use of new forms of communication. Although I poke fun at anthropological disciplinary practices, I imagine such a critique might be considered across academic disciplines. It forces us to think about how we might constructively engage with and use new digital and social media forums for our research and teaching.

Second, is the disturbing trend among universities to adopt corporate models of governance and measures in research.[iii] I want to think about how neoliberalism in the academy is transforming how anthropologists, and perhaps academics more generally, create and share our research, and market our ethnographic selves. The neoliberal restructuring of higher education is eroding many of the values we associate with higher learning and research. We must privatize, commercialize, market, quantitatively measure, and offer marketable skills to our students in our programmes. But worse – we must see our selves as a commodity to be sold. We are increasingly encouraged by institutional administration to do work that bridges the academy within and without and to provide evidence that our research is informing policy. Many of us are committed to a “public anthropology” that reaches an audience well beyond our colleagues and classrooms and we have welcomed such encouragement to go beyond the gates of the academy, but how do we negotiate the fine line between public intellectual and celebrity scholar? We are forced to fashion new academic identities even while we recognize the moral dilemmas in doing so.

“Meg Mead” highlights how the corporatization of the academy forces scholars to market their work in a way that some of us feel deeply troubled by, fashioning us into entrepreneurial subjects who turn to social and digital media, among other forums, to create a market for the consumption of our academic corporate selves, i.e. #MegMead. Additionally, it speaks to how that is tied up with a demand for metrics, like the h-index, – a counting, ranking, and numerical schematic as evidence of our impact and a measure of what we ‘produce’ for ‘consumers’. For instance, consider the Australian Research Council’s “Excellence in Research for Australia” (ERA), which “evaluates” research in Australia, based, in part, on a point system that differentiates between types of publications. We are being forced to think of our research as forms of capital that we must create (with ‘products’), market, and sell. Steve Fuller, Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick writes that, “More specifically, academics should be trained to think about their citations as investments under conditions of scarcity – that is, exactly like a capital resource.”[iv] Yikes!

The response from academics has been varied. Some are digitally and technologically savvy and embrace the forums for critiquing the world. Some are digitally and technologically savvy and embrace the forums for talking about their own work (i.e. Did you see my recent article in Redbook?). Some awkwardly engage these new digital forums, while not entirely sure what they do, or what they mean (I recently asked a student – What is a hashtag?!) Some of us, deemed Luddites by our students and colleagues, eschew these new technologies altogether, to be reprimanded under the increasingly vulnerable tenure processes. Some of us publicize our Google analytics, or Academia.edu statistics, and boast about our H-index citation ranking. We announce these measures on Facebook and Twitter, and re-tweet tweets about our publications and guest lectures to increase our citation statistics. Yet, even those who want to escape intellectual metrics and who are resistant to neoliberal counting measures, are unable to because tenure and promotions increasingly rely on such measures, or because we academics are concerned about being penalized for not participating.[v]

“Meg Mead” is meant to force reflection on how these practices are taken up unevenly among different scholars. How do we account for the unevenness? In part, this is a reflection of individual personalities. Some scholars have more invested in being publicly recognizable figures (like Margaret Mead who complained that stardom was lonely). Although contemporary scholars may be sceptical and critical of the neoliberalization of the academy, they may personally savour and indulge in the self-aggrandization of social media, enjoying the limelight and celebrity scholar status.

“Meg Mead” forces us to reflect and have a little laugh at our own expense. Follow the link here to Meg Mead’s Facebook profile. Please feel free to like, friend, and comment!

If you don’t have a Facebook account, you can view Meg Mead’s Facebook profile using one of the links below:

Click to watch the video [1:33 min] | View PDF | View PDF outline

 

All quotations and photographs for his satirical project are from the following sources:

Images

Photographs used for this fictitious facebook page are from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/mead-shaping.html, unless otherwise noted.

Other Sources

Bowman-Kruhm, Mary 2003 Margaret Mead: A biography. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Carrrey, Margaret and Patricia Francis, eds. 2006 To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected letters of Margaret Mead. New York: Basic Books.

Gordan, Joan, ed. 1976. Margaret Mead: The complete bibliography, 1925–1975. The Hague: Mouton.

Grosskurth, Phyllis 1988 Margaret Mead: A life of controversy. London: Penguin Books.

Lutkehaus, Nancy 2008 Margaret Mead: The making of an American Icon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mead, Margaret 1977 Letters from the Field, 1925-1975. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 

Some Notes

[i] John Jackson Jr. created his character AnthroMan in Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (2005); Shannon Rose Riley developed a performance research series based on “an anglo-centred persona” who is both “aging beauty queen and critical-cultural emissary” (see http://www.shannonroseriley.com/Mis_s__Translation_USA.php); and Kirsten Bell’s Slavegirl parodies the contemporary academic (see www.mistressslavegirl.wordpress.com). I’ve also found inspiration from Kirsten Bell’s other satirical writing projects including: A Letter to GoogleHow to review a journal article: a discourse on the object of the peer review process, including its vagaries and general character, and the manner in which it is most fruitfully approached (this series), and How to deliver a paper at an Anthropology Conference (blog.aaanet.org)

[ii] There is an enormous amount of material written about and by Margaret Mead. Generally recognized as the most well known social scientist of our times, it seemed fitting to resurrect her as a new millennial anthropologist who embraces digital and social media. I have created this ‘hoax’ facebook page using a range of materials from the web, digital archives, and her own writings – particularly the “Letters from the Field” (1977). It is eery how many of her writings and comments would be just as appropriate today, 40 plus years later, as they were then. Moreover, even though she worked in a pre-audit (intellectually) era, she embodies the tensions in negotiating the roles of the public intellectual and celebrity scholar. 

[iii] This line of inquiry is shaped by the Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education collection or articles on the current state of academic institutions in North America, edited by Whelan, Walker and Moore (2013). See also, Roger Burrows, Living with the h-index? Metricassemblages in the contemporary academy, The Sociological Review 60(2), 2012 on neoliberalization of the academy and audit cultures.ally) era, she embodies the tensions in negotiating the roles of the public intellectual and celebrity scholar.

[iv] Accessed October 29, 2014, from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/06/25/fear-of-metrics-hefce-fiefdoms/.

[v] The best examples of such penalization would be the process of “prioritization” that many North American schools are currently undertaking. Although many faculty organizations have stated that such measures are empty, administration have demanded everyone participate. At York University, this process included measuring “output” in terms of Tri-Council grants and peer-reviewed publications.