• August 28, 2015

Anthropologists Look for Bridges Across a Divided Discipline

This weekend's annual conference of the American Anthropological Association drew more than 6,000 scholars, making it among the best-attended meetings in the organization's history. But the robust numbers did not prevent people here from worrying about the field's future, and even about its basic coherence.

During a panel discussion on Sunday morning, several young scholars from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Florida State University chewed over the eternal question of whether American anthropology's four-field structure is sustainable. The traditional four fields—archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology—rely on very different methods and modes of analysis.

"What we see is a growing jargon gap between archaeology and cultural anthropology," said Daniel M. Seinfeld, a graduate student at Florida State. As archaeologists and biological anthropologists have begun to use new kinds of technology to analyze bones and artifacts, he said, they have had to learn terms like "delta-13 signals." Cultural anthropologists, meanwhile, who are increasingly concerned with human subjectivity, have terminology of their own. (Another speaker cited "post-Fordism" as an example of obscure social-science talk.)

Harold B. Baillie, a graduate student at Colorado, said his fellow archaeologists often feel disenfranchised from the anthropology association, and he noted that few of them attend these annual conferences. He wondered if archaeologists, linguistic anthropologists, and biological anthropologists might eventually put all of their energy into their own specialized disciplinary associations.

Such anxieties are nothing new. As early as 1904, Franz Boas predicted that the field of anthropology would fragment into distinct disciplines. But for the most part, that has not happened. Stanford University's anthropology department was broken into biological and cultural segments in 1998, but the two departments remarried in 2007.

Sharing 'a Holistic View'

Most of the speakers on Sunday's panel argued that there is still life left in the four-field model. All four fields share "a holistic view of human cultures, an appreciation of human diversity, and a shared theoretical history," Mr. Seinfeld said.

Mr. Baillie endorsed what is sometimes called a "five-field" model of collaborative anthropology, in which the four traditional fields are supplemented by input from members of the human communities that are being studied. Among other examples, he cited the Quseir al-Qadim Project, a site in Egypt where archaeologists from the University of Southampton, in England, have collaborated with Egyptian citizens and scholars.

Ian C. Pawn, a Florida State graduate student with a concentration in biological methods, said he had relied on the work of archaeologists in interpreting human remains from Copper Age burial sites in Hungary.

Similarly, Guy D. Hepp, a graduate student at Colorado, said he had tried to synthesize ethnographic and archaeological insights in his study of nagualism—the Mesoamerican folk belief that some people can magically transform themselves into powerful animals—and other rituals in Mexico.

"Using ethnography in archaeological work is not just about being nice or being politically correct," he said. "It's about doing better scholarship."

One speaker was slightly less hopeful about collaborative work across the four fields. Joshua D. Englehardt, a graduate student at Florida State, said half-baked applications of postmodern theory by cultural anthropologists had driven many of their fellow scholars away. Among other things, he said, postmodern thinkers are often too skeptical of the possibility or legitimacy of cross-cultural comparisons, which he views as a fundamental task of anthropology.

Even Mr. Englehardt, however, said the four fields belong together. "We need to learn to speak the same language," he said. "We owe it to ourselves to work together and to find a middle ground."

Holding Departments Together

Left unspoken during the panel was the fact that Florida State's own anthropology department has been disintegrating. In 2008 it stopped accepting new graduate students or undergraduate majors. Three tenured professors of anthropology, among professors in other departments, received layoff notices last year, but they were invited to stay this month after an arbitrator ruled that the university had acted improperly.

The Florida State situation has been driven largely by budget cuts, but it has also had overtones of four-field tension. In late 2007, as the cuts loomed, administrators at the university considered farming out certain anthropology professors to biology and other departments.

At most institutions, budget pressures are as likely to hold anthropology departments together as to tear them apart, said Jakob W. Sedig, a graduate student at Colorado, in his panel presentation.

Mr. Sedig recently interviewed three professors at Colorado about their attitudes toward the four-field structure. All told him that they expected the structure to survive, for pragmatic reasons if no other. Except at the richest institutions, like Stanford, they told him, the prospect of creating new, stand-alone departments in archaeology or cultural anthropology is probably unthinkable today.


1. boiler - November 22, 2010 at 07:30 am

Anthropology reminds me of one of those furniture stores that's always going out of business. Cries of alarm at its imminent breakup, as well as heartfelt pleas to keep the four fields together, have been a staple of anthropological discourse for at least a generation. After a while, you start to think that maybe this isn't a crisis -- it's a business model.

2. mchag12 - November 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

I have no idea what that means,

3. hlthenvt - November 22, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Aren't there any new graduate student complaints? I remember asking those questions when I was a student. Archaeologists never went to AAA, except for the Woodburys.

But, what's with this new item-- they have had to learn terms like "delta-13 signals." "delta-13 signals"? What signals? It's the variation--old anthro term-- in the ratios of two items, 12C and 13C, compared to a standard. There is no signal. The term doesn't mean-- "X and not Y". It can't even be googled, unlike cross-cousins or atlatl.

"Delta-13 Signals"? That's it? that's all that's left some 25 years after I worked so carefully in analytical and nuclear geochemistry labs to demonstrate how anthropology could be done? I'm heading to the Mattress Barn.

4. archaeo42 - November 23, 2010 at 09:30 am

Maybe there aren't any new graduate student complaints because the graduate students are the ones who are new to the discipline. It also doesn't help that more and more, sociocultural students really have little to no idea what archaeologist and physical anthropologists do and how it could inform their own work.

I'm also sure Mr. Seinfeld had more to say than just "delta-13 signals" that wasn't put in a brief article in The Chronicle.

5. jasonea - November 25, 2010 at 02:38 pm

I attended this panel and found it rather anomalous for the meetings as a whole, which seemed to have more vibrancy and bridge-building than in the past.

6. woolfian - November 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Having just started my 4th year as a graduate student, I'm not certain that I qualify as "new," but I do still have some thoughts. Most of them based on my own personal background and might not be indicative of all grad students.

I'm in the biological concentration, with a biologically-heavy background. But that's not to say I have no exposure to the other subfields. In fact, on several occasions I was required (by my program) to take courses in cultural anthropology, qualitative research methodology, and (three different) archaeolgoical method and theory courses. I have also (like many graduate students) done archaeological field work. I was also required to do an IRB-approved field resarch project in the socioculutral concentration as part of my MA work.

My point is not to illustrate how well-rounded I am, it's to illustrate the fact that I was required to do these things outside of my concentration. But none of the cultural students were required to take a statistics course. None of the cultural students were required to attend a biological anthropology course (with a lab) or take quantitative research methodology. None of them were required to take courese in archaeology. The only classes that we ever took with cultural anthropology students were the "welcome to grad school' courses, "anthropological theory" and the cultural/qualitative research courses that the bio students were required to take.

And this is a trend that I've noticed holds true of all three universities at which I've been an anthropology student. There seems to be this high level of expectation levied upon the biological students to at an understanding of cultural/archaeological subfields (sadly, linguistic anthropology was often left out), but that is not reciprocated to the other subfields. Archaeology students and cultural anthropology students were not required to take biological anthropology courses (or courses relevant to biological anthropology).

So....how can the AAA expect to "bridge the gaps between the subfields" when that's not even a trend at the undergrad/grad level?

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.