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Making Social Science Research Relevant

I recently attended the Applied Anthropology meeting in Baltimore, MD. Surrounded by a colorful collection of scholars, activists, practitioners, policy makers, and researchers within academia but also those who have found their calling in the private sectors or NGOs (whether through preference or frankly lack of jobs in academia), the mantras of making anthropology accessible to a broader public on the one hand as well as enacting policy change through research results on the other, ran deep. This could be said for many a discipline where the wish for scholars to reach a larger audience is a common theme yet it is faced with so many challenges. I should note that I make the distinction here between informing an audience with the intent purpose of enabling change (in perspectives, policies, or priorities) and the “general reader”, a type of potentially lucrative yet high risk nebulous readership that sends many salivating publishers (unfortunately with university presses often leading the charge) hurtling over the cliffs of trade publishing to splatter down below on the rocks of high returns and watery scholarship.

Arguably we all have something important to say so I find that the message isn’t the issue here, it’s the method of delivery and the dangers of mixing mediums because of unrealistic expectations about their reception (some may want to take issue with whether or not people actually do care about any number of topics of an academic discipline that authors want to explain to the wider world). So it starts with the first tough question — does one have the literary skill to write accessibly (and let’s face it, entertainingly) to a non-technical audience? The answer may be no — writing in simple terms to effectively bring across a sophisticated take on even a popular mainstream issue is an art form. Then there is audience — who is reading your monograph or chapter contribution? Is a white paper more appropriate or a journal article or perhaps an op ed? One has to be realistic about using the right channel to get the message across and be honest with oneself when mixing mediums turns out not to work.

Each form of delivery has its role and I count high-level niche scholarly works as still deserving an integral place among them. The scholarly outputs of solid and unapologetic research have their own important place and can be effective in their own ways — they can shape the direction of a discipline or change a discourse or, yes, impact change through the delivery of a message that maybe not all get, but if it gets through to right key person then its impact can be far greater and deeper. The key is not to sacrifice the message for the sake of its delivery — diluted scholarship packs a weak punch and is the fast track to irrelevance.