Anthropologists Look for Bridges Across a Divided Discipline

November 21, 2010

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.