By Chip Colwell, PhD
In 2012, Elisa Sobo, an anthropologist at San Diego State University, began a study about vaccination at a Waldorf private school in southern California. Her in-depth research found that at the time of enrollment many parents were not familiar with the views about vaccination held by many Waldorf families. In some cases it was only after the children and their families joined the school’s community that the parents began to postpone or oppose vaccination. In other words, the school’s cultural values ultimately shaped many parents’ values and decisions about medical care.
This discovery propelled Dr. Sobo to consider why other parents do choose to vaccinate. Her next, broader community study revealed that, surprisingly, parents who vaccinate are no more or less informed than the so-called “anti-vaxxers.” Rather just like the Waldorf parents, these parents were also making decisions based on their own upbringing and their community’s norms. Vaccination just “seemed pretty routine, pretty normal,” one parent told Dr. Sobo with a shrug.
Several years ago I set out to help change how anthropologists like Dr. Sobo communicate their work. I observed that many scholars had not only discovered fascinating insights into the human condition but could inform important issues with good social science. The challenge was the lack of a venue where anthropologists could collaborate with trained science writers and editors to reach a broad public with their knowledge and ideas.
To this end, SAPIENS was launched in January 2016. This editorially independent online magazine is dedicated to publishing anthropology’s most timely, exciting, and relevant news and research. Funded by the New York-based Wenner-Gren Foundation, editorial office for SAPIENS is housed at our Museum. This initiative is a perfect fit for the Museum because we strive to be a place of not only great science but great science communication. In the magazine’s first six months, we have had nearly 400,000 readers from every country in the world (except North Korea), and we have established syndication partnerships with such major science news outlets as Discover magazine, Scientific American, Slate, and The Atlantic.
Publishing almost daily, SAPIENS covers a wide range of topics reaching into every corner of the human experience. A biological anthropologist wrote about whether romantic kissing is a human universal (spoiler alert: not even close). An archaeologist wrote about how centuries ago, Fiji was propelled into generations of war because of climatic swings that altered the islands’ coastlines. A medical anthropologist wrote about how mass shootings—of the kind Aurora experienced in 2012—are intimately tied to our mental health care system’s failure to adequately treat early psychosis. There’s much more, such as insight into the “Hobbit” discovery in Indonesia, the European migration crisis, the Zika virus, and how “friending” on Facebook contributes to individual identity. SAPIENS is covering it all. We also have a panel of bloggers, including the Museum’s own Steve Nash, curator of archaeology, whose “Curiosities” blog has explored our collections, from the Konovalenko gem carvings to Moche “skeleton sex pots.”
Among the first articles published was the one written by Dr. Sobo. She found that parents who vaccinate and those who do not share a common thread. Both groups, Sobo wrote, with their choices “demonstrate solidarity and confirm their sense of social identity with the community.” Until just a short time ago, many such discoveries would have been published in an academic journal and discussed only among scholars. Now anthropology is for everyone.
Check out SAPIENS, which is updated regularly with articles related to the human experien