Anthropologists Online – Our Letter to the American Anthropological Association Executive Board

At the 2010 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the Executive Board of the AAA voted to accept changes to the long-range plan of the association. These changes excised the word “science” from the long-range plan. A media storm quickly erupted, fed by individuals both inside and outside of anthropology. Many anthropologists online engaged in the conversation over “science” and anthropology, helping to promote understanding of what really happened, defend anthropology, and show the diverse and competing voices, and even dissent, within anthropology as a whole.

Here is our letter (pdf) to the Executive Board:

January 10, 2010

Dear President Dominguez, President-Elect Mullings, and the AAA Executive Board,

We are a group of anthropologists who maintain an online presence, through social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. The focus and tone of our presence varies, from outreach to research, from teaching to career development, from the personal to the political. However, we are united in our passion for our discipline. We join with those who have applauded the wording of the “What is Anthropology?” statement which clearly outlines the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology and its methods, both scientific and humanistic. This statement achieves the inclusivity that the removal of “science” from the Long Range Plan threw into question.

However, we also want to express our concern over AAA’s public characterization that it was only the mainstream media and other outside coverage that engaged in active discussions of the actions of the Executive Board (EB), or that this media coverage didn’t in some ways reflect real tensions and reactions within the anthropological community. As a group, we played key roles in the online discussion regarding the AAA EB recent omission of the word “science” from the Long Range Plan (LRP), as well as subsequent responses by the EB. By parameterizing the public discussion as only taking place in the media and among “outsider” bloggers attempting to construct an “us versus them” binary, the impression is given that there has been no internal dissent or dialogue.

In reality, there has been a vibrant conversation taking place on our blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on other forms of social media, expressing myriad views regarding not only the LRP wording, the actions of the EB, and the role of science in anthropology, but also deeper questions of anthropological identity. Indeed, it was through blogs and Twitter feeds like ours that the media and outside bloggers first realized the depth of concern and confusion the EB’s actions elicited within the anthropological community. This concern and critique were more complicated, and frankly more interesting, than the dichotomous rift promulgated by the New York Times and other outlets, but it was real and it was taking place among anthropologists. We know the EB is aware of the vibrant online community of anthropologists that has been deeply engaged in this issue. We hope the EB will publicly recognize how anthropologists online helped advance debate over the controversy, playing a central role in creating a publicly available discussion that engaged the Executive Board, anthropologists of different persuasions, and the larger media.

Online communities represent a powerful tool for dissecting tensions and misunderstandings as well as for constructing a broad forum for interdisciplinary collaboration and identity-building. We believe this controversy could have been largely mitigated by more effective discussion of the Long Range Plan in public forums online, and more timely release of all documents related to the controversy. With respect to the association’s long-term planning, we also believe the EB will be well-served by developing a more explicit and robust approach to anthropology online, including issues around open-access scholarship, public dissemination of ideas, teaching, interdisciplinary collaboration, and connection with and support for anthropologists who work online. Our own experience during this controversy shows the potential and importance of online engagement. Many of us were operating in isolation before the news of the changes to the LRP allowed us to find each other, to coordinate postings and conversations both on- and off-line. We have been grateful for the online anthropology community that has come together because of our opinions on the AAA LRP. Some have described this conversation as a renaissance for the discipline, and others have committed to learning more about each other’s subfields because of the tension that we finally had to acknowledge, all because of the AAA’s removal of the word “science.” We encourage the EB to consider how to support anthropologists working online, and to encourage further online collaboration and dissemination among AAA members. This will strengthen the discipline, and also permit more timely discussion and engagement among AAA members as the AAA acts on its Long Range Plan.

We view our online role as anthropologists as contributing a valuable service to the discipline we love. We are hopeful that this episode in our shared history will prove to catalyze important and inclusive dialogue regarding who we are as anthropologists as well as the channels we use to communicate with one another. We encourage the EB and the AAA membership as a whole to participate in this online community, to hear and join with the voices that are coming from within our discipline. This is an opportunity to move past marginalization and work together toward rebuilding a truly interdisciplinary anthropology based on mutual respect.


Julienne Rutherford, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
Blog , Twitter @JNRutherford

Kate Clancy, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Blog , Twitter @KateClancy

Daniel Lende, Associate Professor, University of South Florida
Blog, Twitter @daniel_lende

Ryan Anderson, PhD candidate, University of Kentucky

Krystal D’Costa, Digital Analyst, New York City
Blog , Twitter @anthinpractice

Francis Deblauwe, Program Developer, Alexandria Archive Institute

Carlina de la Cova, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Twitter @Bonesholmes

Eric Michael Johnson, PhD candidate, University of British Columbia
Blog , Twitter @ericmjohnson

James Holland Jones, Associate Professor, Stanford University
Blog , Twitter @juemos

Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Blog , Twitter @rajoyceUCB

Eric Kansa, Project Lead, Open Context

Erin Koch, Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky

Kristi Lewton, Lecturer, Harvard University
Twitter @kristilewton

Carl Lipo, Associate Professor, California State University, Long Beach

Megan McCullen, Visiting Instructor, Alma College
Blog , Twitter@GLEthnohistory

Carole McGranahan, Associate Professor, University of Colorado
Twitter @CMcGranahan

Colleen Morgan, PhD candidate, University of California, Berkeley

Eugene Raikhel, Assistant Professor, Unversity of Chicago

Douglas Reeser, PhD candidate, University of South Florida

Michael E. Smith, Professor, Arizona State University

Matt Tuttle, Journalist, Norfolk Anthropology Examiner
Twitter @Anthroprobably

Kyle W. West, Research Coordinator, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Blog , Twitter @kyle_west

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One Response to Anthropologists Online – Our Letter to the American Anthropological Association Executive Board

  1. gregdowney says:

    Thanks for posting this, Daniel. Only sorry I didn’t get on board to sign.

    I originally commented over at Michael Smith’s website that I think this is part of the AAA’s technology problem; publishing and communication are really changing around the association, and I don’t think that they’ve figure out yet how to deal with it. There’s so much good discussion occurring online that might help advance the field, especially the public outreach dimensions that were highlighted in the revised mission statement, and yet the organization hasn’t really taken advantage of the activity. Kudos to the AAA staff who try to maintain a reasonable output on the organizations blog (Damon, Amy, Sabrina, and the others), but it’s just not the same as the roiling energy that we find in dozens of online forums.

    They could even harness some of the energy by putting up a page on ‘Anthropology online’ that would link to us. A few automatic feeds, and the content would flow through. Add to that a little banner or graphic that said something like ‘Member AAA Online Anthropology’ with a link back to their site, and they could get it all done for virtually no cost. All it would take is a bit of imagination and openness.

    Worst of all though is the situation of open access in anthropology and has been discussed in a number of places. Here, I REALLY think we’re missing the boat, and the AAA, unfortunately, has been leading to the rear. Even the Associations newsletter, probably the most accessible, most obvious conduit to do public outreach, has the most onerous and restrictive access policy. So news and announcements, and the kind of short, accessible opinion pieces that do well online are locked up.

    I wrote on Michael’s blog that I think the only way to get change is going to be to introduce competition. I still favor an open access journal to put out a challenge to the ‘keep it locked up’ restricted access policy in publications. I just don’t see how we, as a field, can kid ourselves that we’re doing outreach if we let no one who’s not in the AAA or got access to an academic library read what we right. Until there’s access, most of the public outreach online is going to be done by the free agents, and the AAA is not really going to be a very active player in it. The problem will only grow larger in the future as the trend toward online access is just going to edge upward.

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