Jeremy MacClancy: Look at those hillbillies! Dressing in grass skirts!

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Anthropology is the flavour of the moment on British TV right now, with shows like The Insect Tribe, Tribal Wives, and Return of the Tribe. So why the sudden popularity? What, exactly, are we being sold on these shows? And why do so many of them leave a bittersweet taste?

The trail-blazer was Bruce Parry's Tribe, which astonished BBC chiefs by drawing viewers in their millions. Each programme sees Bruce go live with a bunch of villagers for a month, where he does something daring (stick-fight with Olympic-level locals, take vomit-inducing hallucinogens, etc.) or has something nasty done to him (nasal septum pierced, penis inverted, etc.), then comes out with his mind expanded and a new set of friends.

Teenagers loved it, anthropologists hated it. They branded the series as a new form of cultural voyeurism. Instead of telling it as it is, they said Bruce showed it how TV chiefs wanted it to be: a sense of cultural difference so strong, so concentrated that it amounted to sensationalism. Rather than upsetting our ethnic stereotypes, he reinforced them. The "tribe" of each programme was made to seem timeless, strange, and very remote.

This new TV genre of AnthroPop dropped to a new nadir this month with the screening of Meet the Natives (the final programme in the series is on Channel 4 at 9pm this evening). The basic idea is good: take five South Seas Islanders to the UK and see what they think of the place. The shots of home make it all look idyllic: men in penis-sheaths, women in grass-skirts. If they're not gazing into the mid-distance stroking a favourite pig, they're dancing in groups.

Some results are predictable: the visitors don't like big-city bustle or sons joining the army. Some are insightful: they think artificial insemination of pigs cheats porkers of an experience they deserve; they cannot understand how such a rich nation allows homelessness. Have these poor wretches no family to help them, they ask.

But, and here's the rub, this is no ordinary quintet. They come from two very special villages out of the 150-odd on Tanna Island, Vanuatu. Unlike everyone else on Tanna, which has had contact with Europeans for over 200 years, the people of these two villages made a conscious decision about 30 years ago to throw away their shorts and skirts, and don traditional dress as part of a stylized return to "customary" ways.

In the 1980s I lived on Tanna, in the headquarters of John Frum, a Tannese anti-white church which had started during wartime, and was regarded by whites as a collective insanity by irrational natives. When, at their annual, island-wide celebration, a few men from those villages turned up in traditional outfits, my (very rational) neighbours guffawed: "Look at those hillbillies! Dressing in penis-sheaths! How comical do you get!" So why does the Channel 4 cameraman keep filling the screen with close-ups of semi-erect penis-sheaths and naked black bottoms? Is this AnthroPop as cross-cultural soft-porn?

There is more. For the home villages of the televisual five are also the only ones which laud the Duke of Edinburgh as a "custom brother" who has gone astray, but will return in glory before he dies. They have come to the UK with a mission: to urge their long-lost kin home. This "Duke of Edinburgh" movement (not "cult", please) is one of at least 10 on Tanna, each blending aspects of custom and Western churches, and each striving for prominence. Feeding the wishes of the Prince's supporters will upset local balances and inflame attitudes of their opponents. British colonials played this divisive game in the 1970s when preparing for independence, trying to curry favour by supplying these villagers with a photo of Philip holding a Tannese pig-killing club.

The pity of it all is that AnthroPop could deliver so much more. Parry's last, excellent programme in his latest series demonstrated this dramatically. For once, he had a storyline so strong that he didn't need to put himself up front. Anxious hunter-gatherers on Borneo, corralled by rapacious loggers of the rainforest, appealed to Bruce for help. Open-hearted but empty-handed, he claimed he could give nothing but transmit their story. The day after it was screened, the Sarawak Government announced stringent new criteria that the loggers had to meet before receiving any more concessions to cut wood.

Of course, the irony is that these days fewer and fewer anthropologists study obscure customs in exotic settings. Instead they hang out with crack dealers in Harlem, investigate the global traffic in human organs, overturn environmentalist assumptions, or act as advocates for embattled indigenes. These are all powerful stories. They would make excellent TV without having to sink to sensationalism. But where's the bold commissioning editor who'll turn them into prime-time programmes? What chance a brave new AnthroPop worthy of transmission?

Jeremy MacClancy, Professor of Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, is the editor of 'Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines'