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Anthropology on television

October 27, 2008

The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA) have started a blog discussion on Anthropology on Television that takes off from the BBC series Tribe, starring the adventurer Bruce Parry. Although I am an anthropologist specialising in contemporary media I must confess I only saw two episodes of Tribe (incl. the one about the Penan of Borneo; my own PhD fieldwork was among the Iban of Borneo) and even more of a painful confession: I actually enjoyed most of what I saw. This could be partly to do with the fact that when I’m watching TV or consuming a McHollywood film I tend to switch off the critical areas of my brain so I can enjoy the show, or at least try to.

Bruce Parry is clearly an empathetic person who seems to connect well with the people he works with. That said, I did have a problem with Bruce’s ‘discovery’ that the Penan he spent some time with were struggling to maintain a nomadic lifestyle in the face of mass logging and other outside pressures. There was a missed opportunity here to contextualise this better politically and historically so the viewer unfamiliar with the region was left with a sense of historical inevitability and political impotence, when in reality there are a number of organisations in Malaysia and abroad campaigning for the rights of indigenous Borneo groups such as the Penan, not least their land rights.

A final note: I think anthropologists should make much better and frequent use of the new Web technologies to present alternative accounts of these peoples. Web content works in mysterious ways, but it needs to be created first and put up there, and the ASA Blog is part of this growing effort that we need to make as a discipline.

PS Having said that, I’ve just realised that the Tribe website has a useful set of links to organisations that campaign in favour of indigenous peoples.  

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