The Craft of the Online Anthropologists: The New Medium is the Message

The Craft of Social Anthropology, edited by A.L. Epstein and published in 1978, was jokingly referred to by some older anthropologists as “The Crafty Anthropologist” (or maybe it was a private joke in a small circle — no matter). I think the joke is a useful point of departure for this post.


  • cræftpower, strength, might,” from Proto-Germanic
  • a vehicle designed for navigation
  • shrewdness, cunning, dexterity
  • art, skill
  • the artful construction of a text or discourse


  • a middle state
  • a conduit for the spirits of the dead
  • a substance in which a specific organism lives and thrives
  • a substance that makes possible the transfer of energy
  • an intervening substance, or agency, by which something is conveyed or accomplished
  • a means of communication


  • mittere, missum, to send, from Latin, related to mission
  • a communication containing some information, news, advice, request, or the like, sent by messenger, radio, telephone, or other means
  • the point, moral, or meaning
  • the inspired utterance of a prophet or sage

And now watch this, to refresh your memory a little:

The medium is the message. The very statement reflects the craft to which it implicitly refers, and might be the most valuable, not to mention publicly the most prominent, statement uttered by an academic in a century. And McLuhan had an anthropologist as a partner, Edmund Carpenter, and the references to tribalism in the video segment above are not accidental. As Carpenter later explained in a video memorializing his work, he and McLuhan did all sorts of unconventional things to get their ideas noticed, as Carpenter explained, “you almost had to make a fool of yourself to get anyone to pay attention to what was being said.” Carpenter himself did radio and television shows, wrote for TV Guide, and filmed — well off the beaten track of scholarly production as we know it, or as some defend it.

Many have criticized the technological determinism buried in the McLuhan-Carpenter message, and Carpenter’s own ethnographic evidence leaves a lot of room for doubt, but I would not rush to dismiss technological determination. The secret shared by the best guerrilla and the worst dictator is that when you alter the time-space parameters of an opponent you will eventually have that opponent on the ropes. Media certainly do alter the temporal and spatial conditions of any social being. How knowledge is represented, conveyed, accomplished, becomes inseparable from what we think knowledge is.


Craft, medium, message — when I review the assortment of standard dictionary meanings above, it strikes me that these may be the three more important multi-layered words/concepts, that we could possibly ever use as anthropologists. Ultimately, one might be able to envision a new post-disciplinary anthropology that is rebuilt around a combination of the meanings in these three keywords. As a thought experiment, one could assemble elements of the definitions of each and come up with some very interesting and peculiar theoretical and philosophical statements (and some, of course, will be pure gibberish to be sure, especially if one wishes to be crafty):

  • the powerful transfer of the energy of the prophet’s message
  • the shrewd intermediary of the prophet
  • the vehicle of the prophet’s cunning missionary
  • a mighty vehicle for accomplishing meaning
  • artful agency on a mission of inspiration
  • the intervening art of communicating meaning
  • an organism thriving in communication
  • sending the spirit of the artful text
  • the mighty message of the middle spirit

Readers with more imagination and insight than myself will come up with better suggestions (please do share). But there is a bundle of ideas here that span liminality, spirituality, power, agency, energy, inspiration, life, death, materiality, virtuality, and effects wrought by communication. The medium is the message is a well crafted statement, and what McLuhan wants us to remember is that media reshape thought processes and social relations. This has some — a lot — of bearing for understanding the importance of what all of these online anthropology bloggers are doing, many doing so with modesty, self-consciousness (not in the base sense), and some courage. Unlike Carpenter, I doubt that any are making “fools” of themselves, but like Carpenter they are taking anthropology onto new paths, and it’s the path that may transform the traveler.


Take a deep plunge, as I have done, into my blogroll. (My aim is to get as complete as possible a list of anthropology blogs, so if I missed yours, it’s my fault for not noticing it yet. Please send me your link for which I will be grateful.) Imagine wandering through these blogs, as a young student, without much or any advance knowledge of anthropology, going from page to page, exploring lateral links, reading discussions, checking background sources, and tell me if that young person would not learn far more, be stimulated more, and achieve a deeper understanding and broader consciousness in one month online, with those blogs, than in six months in an anthropology course in a university. And it’s not because quantity is what matters. I would welcome contrary views. I think that my colleague, Alexandre Enkerli, if I understood his own blog posts, is onto something special when he thinks there is a problem with conventional classroom teaching and learning strategies compared to the richer possibilities for online learning. The Internet really is “serious business” (no “rickroll” is on its way, not to worry), and the more that is asserted as a joke, the more it proves precisely that which it seeks to mock.

The inspirational work of my blogging colleagues may not be readily recognized or valued by those who are blazing new paths into incomprehensible linguistic oblivion and old media seclusion, but what they are doing is changing the world. What remains open to debate is whether this new medium will “retribalize” the world, reintegrate individuals into collectives, replace linearity with laterality, and so forth.

I will most likely need to revisit and revise this post many more times before I can delude myself into thinking that I can be satisfied with it.

(And Owen, cheer up, because when you are on the cutting edge you can expect to get a few lesions.)

One thought on “The Craft of the Online Anthropologists: The New Medium is the Message

  1. enkerli

    Thanks for the ping.
    About my perspective on lecturing… I think “straight lecture” (meaning, a teacher standing in front of a class, talking by herself/himself, without any form of interaction on the part of the attendees) is only appropriate in certain contexts but applied to many other contexts. Online teaching (and even “blended” teaching with both face-to-face and online components) might help alleviate some problems with straight lecturing. At least, some of my course-related online activities (including my current activities teaching an online course in sociology) seem to indicate that creative uses of the ‘Net for learning and teaching contexts can give way to a rethinking of some pedagogical approaches.
    Simply put: I’m learning a lot about learning by living and teaching online.
    More generally…
    To be perfectly honest, my online activities are very satisfying, including in terms of intellectual stimulation and in view of the true goals of academia (knowledge processing and the transmission of ideas). But, at the same time, I seem to spend way too much time “for my own good” in that it doesn’t do anything to make me respected (or even considered) as an academic. For anyone relating closely to the so-called “impostor syndrome,” the situation can be tricky.

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