Here is a summary of a recent argument that reality TV makes us smarter as well as turns all of us into anthropologists:
Reality TV has long been the bastard child of the television industry. Ever since its highfaluting sociological roots with PBS’ The American Family, MTV’s groundbreaking The Real World, and even CBS’ watershed Survivor, the viewing public has treated reality television as if it is going to end civilization even as they tuned in to watch in droves. The general animus in the public spirit and the media (even the entertainment media) is that reality TV would somehow cause every museum to go bankrupt, every opera to close its curtains for good, and every breathing American to start desperately launching into fisticuffs like they were trying to be cast on some sort of exploitative documentary program. All these years later, we still have Survivor and, while there may be more useless step-and-repeats at insignificant events, thanks to all the Real Housewives and Mob Wives and Basketball Wives and the rest of the sundried wives that grace our tube, the world hasn’t ended.
What if reality TV is making us smarter? That’s the argument Grant McCracken makes in Wired magazine. In an excellent essay, he says that watching reality shows, no matter how massaged by producers and edited for effect, turns us all into miniature anthropologists. Not only do we learn things from different cultures other than our own (he uses learning about fashion via Project Runway), but it also makes us look beyond the surface of what we’re watching to find the true meaning. “Culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets. The anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second,” McCracken says. “Once we’ve figured out what people believe to be true about themselves, we can begin to figure out what’s really going on in this culture. In this case, the surface says, ‘reality TV is a dumbing down.’ But the secret says ‘not always.’ Sometimes, reality TV contributes to a smartening up.”
From the original article, here is how McCracken thinks ethnography will help us figure out what is really happening when watching TV:
A key feature of anthropology is the long, observational, “ethnographic” interview. Anthropologists believe one of the advantages of this method is that no one can manage appearances, let alone lie, successfully for a long period of time.
So while the Kardashian sisters may wish to create an impression – and the producers edit to reinforce that impression – over many episodes and seasons, the truth will out. Whether they like it or not, eventually we will see into Kardashian souls. That these souls are never as beautiful as the sisters themselves is, well, one of the truths that reality TV makes available to us, and here it performs one of the functions normally dispatched by religious or moral leaders.
I don’t disagree that reality TV can be a decent place to see sociological and anthropological ideas and concepts. However, I think there are a few assumptions made in this argument that aren’t necessarily true:
1. That TV can show how complex the real world is. Editing cuts out a lot but even then, there is only so much that can be shown or taken in through one screen. The social world is incredibly complex and difficult to understand even when living in it, let alone in viewing it.
2. That viewers are watching in a critical way and not just for entertainment and spectacle. Lots of cultural products, such as television, can be viewed critically and viewers can learn something (even if it is about a small part of the world, as suggested in #1 above), but I’m not sure most are. People aren’t going to pick these things up by osmosis and they need to learn how to look for them.
3. That the goal of the producers of reality TV is to really tell a story versus to make money. From a more Marxist point of view, why shouldn’t we just assume reality TV, like the rest of TV (news, sports, scripted shows, etc.) is solely about making money?
4. That these shows are heavily scripted/edited/intentionally pushed in certain directions. If this is “reality,” it is a very skewed and not “natural” reality. And there are lots of stories about how producers and participants intentionally create scenes and images.
5. That ethnography is the same as sitting in a chair watching TV. Indeed, there is a name for this, armchair anthropology, and it is not the same as experiencing something personally. Imagine the difference between being in the crowd at a political rally and watching it on TV. There is a different level of understanding and interaction available in the embodied activity versus the more passive viewing from a distance. It is not that you can’t learn from this more distant viewing but it is not the same as being there ethnographically.
Reality TV is not a substitute for real sociological and anthropological research. If reality TV does become the last word for most people on social life, that is when we should be worried.