Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.
In the summer of 1960, Jane Goodall left England for what is now Gombe National Park in Tanzania. With the aid of legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, Goodall was charged with studying the lives of chimpanzees to better understand the evolution of hominin species.
Goodall’s fieldwork started badly. A brewing war in the region interrupted her arrival. Several months later, an armed group threatened Goodall, hoping to run her off so they could turn the chimpanzee’s forest into farmlands. Worst of all, whenever she got near the chimps to observe them, the animals fled in fear.
But in November, Goodall made a startling discovery. She happened upon a termite mound where she caught a chimp crafting a straw into a kind of fishing tool to extract the termites to eat. Up until then, many scientists and philosophers believed making tools distinguished us as Homo sapiens. Goodall’s work challenged long-held assumptions about our primate kin and the nature of being human.
In 2015, I saw Goodall give a lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This breakthrough, 55 years earlier, she explained, was not made famous by her academic publications. It became one of the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century when the popular magazine National Geographic highlighted her work.
“Right from the beginning, it was very obvious to me how important it was to involve the media—to share scientific observations with the general public,” Goodall said in her lecture to the crowd of thousands. “Why should we keep knowledge in an ivory tower when it can make so much difference?”
Goodall’s words resonated so deeply with me. I am an anthropologist who has long pursued academic research, but I wanted to make that research broadly accessible. When I heard this lecture, I was helping to create SAPIENS, a magazine focused on helping anthropologists translate their research for a broad public audience. In the years since, I’ve only become more convinced that writing for publications such as SAPIENS is good for anthropologists, the discipline, and the world.
Despite the celebrated career of Goodall, and other public scholars such as Margaret Mead and David Graeber, many anthropologists, perhaps even you, might remain skeptical or uncertain about the value of communicating their work to the public. But here’s why more anthropologists should overcome their reticence and embrace the chance to share their research, discoveries, and insights beyond the ivory tower.
MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD
Almost all academic writing sits locked behind paywalls, the only key a university library password or a credit card. Even academic books available on Amazon still must be purchased. Many of these books are expensive and not easily available outside of North America and Europe.
SAPIENS is free and open to anyone with an internet connection. To date, SAPIENS has been read more than 10 million times in 222 countries and territories. For a sense of scale, consider the reach of Steve Nash, one of the magazine’s columnists. Steve is the director of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and his academic publications since 1996 have been cited more than 600 times. That number is strong in the academic realm, but his popular readership is far greater. His articles for SAPIENS have reached nearly 1 million reads.
That kind of contrast is hardly unique to Steve. Academic anthropologists have long prioritized members of their own tribe above others—even though that emphasis limits their reach. Consequently, too much of anthropology remains obscure, underappreciated, and underfunded. SAPIENS and other public outlets for the field provide a chance to change this narrative and make your voice heard. And if you are part of a group and/or studying a community that is marginalized, adding your voice to the public conversation can be particularly powerful.
HELP SHAPE THE WORLD
SAPIENS’ vision is to amplify anthropological knowledge to build a more just and sustainable world. From our perspective, writing for the public isn’t merely about numbers. It’s about using anthropology to have an impact on the communities that researchers work in and care about and the larger world.
In translating academic anthropology for a wider circle, whole new vistas open. When it comes to public policy, anthropologists can serve as both commentators and catalysts in such areas as migration, medicine, economics, agriculture, the environment, and social equity. Anthropology can open minds and hearts, creating empathy for different ways of being in the world and fostering human connections. Anthropology can inform everyday conversations, helping non-anthropologists stand in wonder at the human journey—to see themselves and their world in new ways.
HONE THE CRAFT OF WRITING
Writers are bricklayers. They deepen their craft with each brick they lay, with each house they build. As with any craft, writing takes time, effort, and commitment.
Anyone who has attempted academic writing understands this. Few naturally arrive at the nuances of an abstract, citations, literature review, and discussions of methods and theory. Mastering academic writing takes years of training and practice.
Similarly, writing for the public, although it may seem easy and natural because of its conversational tone, takes focused dedication to be impactful.
What has surprised me the most about learning how to write for the public is how much it has improved my academic writing. For example, writing articles for popular magazines teaches authors to reduce their central argument to 50 words or less. You can then translate this skill to academic writing, where even if you have 8,000 words for an article, knowing your central message makes for a far more articulate and convincing argument. Other tools—learning how to write sharp sentences, building tension, adding cinematic details, focusing on the reader first—can also be translated to academic writing.
All writing is interconnected. Whether academic or oriented to public audiences, great writers must be great storytellers. Only when the reader is drawn in and can’t wait for the next sentence, fully grasping each idea, does one achieve the magic of writing. We strive for this outcome with all of our contributors at SAPIENS.
Writing for the public is hard work. Simply finding the time to make the commitment to connect the public to anthropology can be difficult. Academics on the tenure track, for example, may need peer-reviewed publications above all else. Why spend time writing for SAPIENS when one could be writing for Science?
Academic anthropology has recently been warming to the need for public communication. Whether it’s the addition of the “broader impacts” question on National Science Foundation grants or the emergence of community-oriented research, scholars and funders are acknowledging how and why communicating beyond academia matters.
Concretely, writers on the tenure track can show their department chair the American Anthropological Association’s guidelines for tenure and promotion review for communicating public scholarship. Less concrete, but as important, writers can embrace the symbolic capital that is earned through a SAPIENS publication. As one contributor told me, after she published in the magazine, her dean wrote a personal note acknowledging her research for the first time in her career.
But know, too, that SAPIENS is especially designed for you, fellow anthropologists. We have a large audience, and the prestige of the Wenner-Gren Foundation is at our back. We offer a US$100 honorarium for each published piece. More than anything, we have an editorial team that is dedicated to helping you deepen your writing craft. As part of our mission, we offer guidance and instruction to our contributors, and we want to help you successfully navigate this form of communication during the editing process.
Perhaps consider, as Goodall did: What knowledge do you want to have outside the ivory tower? What difference do you want to make in the larger world?
When you’re ready with those answers, let the SAPIENS editorial team know.