I think it’s better to have a steady track record of getting stuff published in “respectable” journals than it is to have one piece in a flagship journal. There’s a few reasons for this:
The flagships have pretty high rejection rates, and because of the number of submissions they get, editors have less ability to step in and try and recover a rejection into a revise & resubmit. Subfield or area-focused journals receive fewer submissions, and editors are more likely to be able to see the innovation in a piece of work (even if the reviewers don’t). So whereas you might get very general critiques from a flagship journal, a subfield journal might yield more knowing and specific reports (which might also be a little more likely to be cranky — hence the need for editors to recover good submissions from their peer reviewers). So the acceptance rates at small journals can be a little misleading: If they revise & resubmit a lot, but get very few good pieces, they’ll naturally have a much higher rate than flagships which have to turn everything away.
In addition, the flagships have very long acceptance to publication times, due to the volume of stuff they agree to publish and their limited space — smaller journals are a little more hand to mouth, and
if you want to be able to send out offprints of articles, they’ll get your stuff to press more quickly.
The flagships are better off saved for your intervention into the field of anthropology, whereas subfield or area journals allow you to make more modest interventions into the subfield or area studies. So if you have something to say about theories of capitalism, globalization, secularization, etc., then send it to the flagships; if it’s about the social construction of a particular illness, subfield journals are the way to go.
Along those lines, if you don’t have a job, people don’t expect you to be shaking up the field of anthropology — hence no need to publish in the big journals yet. But they do want to see that your peers respect your work and that you steadily publish stuff — which is what the smaller journals are for.
And, lastly, any institution that gives you a tenure track position is going to diminish whatever you published before joining them. If you’ve published your two big early career articles before taking a job, they might not count towards tenure. If, on the other hand, you have a smattering of small pubs in small journals, you can write those off knowing that you have two or three big contributions to make in the six years before tenure review.
Some Other Things to Consider
Don’t publish in an edited collection until you have tenure. Often conferences and conference panels will lead people to thinking about publishing the proceedings as a collection, and while you might like all the people you worked with at the conference, there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t publish in an edited collection early in your career: 1) The time to publication is much slower than an article in a journal. When you think about everyone involved in the collection, all the pressures they have and all the deadlines they face, it’s incredibly likely that one or more people will be behind deadline on the collection’s many deadlines. That means that they hold up the whole project. And if someone is holding up each of the points in production (initial submission, revised submission, copy edits, page proofs), the time to publication can easily be three to four years from when the idea first came up. 2) Book chapters aren’t always peer reviewed. If you’re publishing with a university press or an academic press, it’s likely that the book will be peer reviewed. And, if so, you should keep copies of the peer reviews as proof. But, if it’s a smaller publisher, it’s possible that the peer review will be perfunctory. As such, it might not end up counting as a publication in the long run. 3) Don’t bury your publications. Unless you know that there’s an ebook deal for the edited collection, it’s entirely likely that the circulation of the book will be meager at best (i.e. libraries only). Only people who seek it out will be able to find it. As a result, you may be burying a publication in an out of the way place, when you should be publishing your early work in venues where specialists will be able to find it with a minimum amount of effort. And, 4) A journal article is almost always worth more than a chapter in a book. The one exception to this is the occasional edited collection that brings together a number of luminaries, but that’s usually not the collection that freshly minted PhDs are invited to contribute to. Instead of an edited collection, try and propose a special issue of a journal — and an area studies or subfield journal (for all the reasons outlined above). It can still be slow to publication, but it’ll be faster than a book.
Don’t double dip. Sometimes you’ll have a great experience with a journal and want to send something else to them. That’s generally a bad idea, and mostly for the purpose of building an audience. If you consistently publish in one or two journals, your audience will remain relatively static. Instead, you need to be constantly widening your scope of readers, and the best way to do this is through publishing in different journals (even if they’re only slightly different in orientation). It can be fine to go back to a journal you have a positive experience with, but make sure that there’s at least two years between when the last thing you published with the journal appeared in print and the next thing you submit to them begins the peer review process. (I should also say that sometimes when people only publish in one or two journals it looks like cronyism, which is also worth avoiding.)
More to come… If you have questions, post them in the comments.