A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow

“Anthropology isn’t in the crisis that parts of the media would have you believe, but it must do better, argue Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks.”

So goes the tagline in the commentary Anthropologists Unite! by Kuper and Marks published in Nature yesterday. And quite a tag-team they make. Adam Kuper is a prominent social anthropologist in the United Kingdom, Jonathan Marks a prominent biological anthropologist in the United States.

Together they tackle the recent controversy over the American Anthropological Association dropping the word “science” from its long-range plan, and use the controversy as a platform to reflect on the past and the future of anthropology.

I will do the same. What has the AAA controversy shown us? And since the long-range plan proved divisive rather than inclusive, how can we create a compelling vision for moving forward as a field? Where do we go from here?

Revisiting the Long-Range Plan

Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks almost say it, but don’t quite get there. So I will.

The AAA long-range plan is a cultural document, the creation of a particular historical moment, involving a range of social relations and ideologies within the association and anthropology as a whole. This point is implicit in Kuper and Marks’ historical review of the discipline.

Apparently, a committee had floundered in trying to come up with an agenda for anthropology that was baggy enough to accommodate its very various research programmes… [A]nthropologists cannot agree on what the discipline is about. Many, probably most, anthropologists have walked away from their traditional mission, which is to build a truly comparative science of human variation. We need to work out where we are now heading.

The reason that the AAA got into such a pickle is that – like geography, even perhaps like biology – anthropology is a nineteenth-century discipline that fragmented, spawning a variety of specializations. Biological anthropology, archaeology and the various traditions of ethnography are bundled together in many university departments and professional associations such as the AAA and, in Britain, the Royal Anthropological Institute. However, relationships are often distant.

We have heard the “floundering” part before. Rex at Savage Minds called the controversy a PR Meltdown, while Hugh Gusterson, a member of the AAA Executive Board, presented the decision to approve the long-range plan as seemingly routine business at the end of a jam-packed 12 hour meeting.

In his informative essay What If They Gave a Science War and Only One Side Came?, Gusterson writes that as the angry reactions began to pour in:

It was becoming clear, as a sympathetic colleague put it to me, that the executive board had “stepped in something it didn’t mean to.” The revisions had been intended to make the long-range plan more inclusive and to give an enlarged sense of the increasing body of research paradigms that anthropologists these days embrace. It had never occurred to the subcommittee rewriting the plan, or to the executive board, that the revised wording would be seen as excluding or attacking science.

But the revised wording provoked exactly that reaction. Many scientific anthropologists did more than just object. They struck back, saying things like “many but not all of [the new cultural or social anthropologists] are postmodern, which seems to translate into antiscience” and “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought.”

Tempers have settled down since then. Indeed, one of the most interesting moments in the whole controversy was listening to Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, and Hugh Gusterson, agree for the longest time on The Brian Lehrer Show’s Anthropology: Science or Humanity?

Still, a negative taste lingers in the mouths of many biological anthropologists, as is evident in John Hawks and Kate Clancy’s Bloggingheads discussion of the controversy.

Hawks: Last fall anthropology declared itself no longer science. Is that fair?

Clancy: That’s certainly how it felt to a lot of us.

It is a light-hearted introduction to the controversy, and the two go on to talk about what anthropologists did about it and then to discuss the role of science in anthropology.

But the question remains, why did the AAA do this? It’s easy to say that it was just part of association business which turned into a pr failure afterwards. But that’s after-the-fact.

The long-range plan is also a cultural document. It strikes me as more diffuse than inclusive. Instead of the older “science of anthropology,” the plan provides a long list of sub-disciplines, slanted towards those allied with cultural anthropology. Rather than a vision for advancing a field of knowledge, the long-range plan for the association focuses on “public understanding” and “professional interests.”

It is a bureaucratic document, and wishy-washy about taking a stand about what the association is and can achieve. I think that is a mark of our times. We turn to something bland, something that can make it out of committee and through executive approval. (I am sure I too would have voted to approve it if I were in Gusterson’s position.) This type of document gets the job done, except when it turns into #aaafail because it hits some deep faultline that cracks open its featureless surface.

Anthropology: It’s Not Either/Or

The debates of the 1980s and 1990s, of genes versus texts, each read by the respective parties to say what they wanted, were divisive. It was nature vs. nurture, that old ideological debate in Western thought. Nature red in tooth and claw versus freedom from the constraints of nature and history.

Reality stepped in. “Selfish genes” was a metaphor. The evidence for cooperation and mutualism throughout evolution, and sophisticated understandings of how genetics actually work, undercut an approach to reduce evolution to genes controlling lumbering organisms. The infinite variability of interpretation, and how becoming aware of how ideologies control us and power shapes our lives was supposed to unleash human potential, met up with the reality of inequality and the stubborn patterns of our everyday life. Things couldn’t be reduced to either genes or expanded to interpretation alone. If only human life were so simple…

The thing is, these divisive debates were also incredibly motivating! They gave people purpose, a clear identity, lines in the sand about who was good and bad. And we’re just not in that space anymore. As Kuper and Marks write:

In the past few years [anthropologists] have drifted to a sadder-but-wiser default position, some documenting the range of differences in human biology, others studying the world of social institutions and belief systems.

Sadder but wiser doesn’t sound motivating to me!

Hugh Gusterson also emphasizes how the field has moved on.

In the mid-1990s, when the “science wars” were at their height, and you had to be either for or against Foucault, there might have been some truth in such a characterization [of “postmodern fluffheads”]. Those were the years when it was fashionable to talk about “the social construction of scientific knowledge.” As a sign of the times, the Stanford University anthropology department split into two departments, one of anthropological sciences and one of sociocultural anthropology.

But times have changed. The two Stanford departments have remarried; the French anthropologist Bruno Latour, high priest of the “social construction of science” school, has long since published an anguished article in Critical Inquiry—”Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”—worrying about the tacit complicity between “postmodernist” social thought and oil companies seeking to deny the reality of climate change.

In my experience, younger cultural anthropologists tend to describe themselves as pragmatists, and they see the debates in the 1980s and 1990s about “writing culture” and the politics of knowledge, which were so formative for an older generation, as a part of the discipline’s history they have assimilated and are moving beyond.

The question becomes, Beyond to what? That is much less clear. We are pragmatists – we recognize the need to rewrite an outdated long-range plan and the need to be inclusive. We are sadder-but-wiser, ready to get on with things, but not really clear where we need to be getting to.

The long-range planning document reflects our times. That doesn’t make it the best possible document for guiding the association into the future. Anthropologists do seem to be searching for a new identity, something to lend us vision, a plan of action for the future.

Looking for Coherence: Kuper and Marks Unite

Kuper and Marks propose “comparative science of humankind” as the core identity for the field. To stake this arena out, they focus on how to characterize human nature, the need for interdisciplinary research, the focus of most science on Western populations and ideas, and the importance of making generalization based on wide-ranging evidence.

Human Nature:

The human species has been co-evolving with technology for millions of years. Advances in contraceptive techniques have transformed our sexual behaviour. The most fundamentally hard-wired human adaptations – walking and talking – are actively learned by every person, in each generation. So whatever human nature may be, it clearly takes a variety of local forms, and is in constant flux.


So there is a need for a truly comparative science of human beings throughout their history, and all over the world. This requires more interdisciplinary team research in anthropology…

A rare exception is the field of medical anthropology, where cultural anthropologists engage regularly with biologists in studies of HIV and AIDS, or post-traumatic stress disorders, or investigations of folk medical beliefs and practices.

Western bias:

[Anthropologists] do not feature in the front line of current debates about cognition, altruism, or, for that matter, economic behaviour or environmental degradation, even though these debates typically proceed on the basis of very limited reliable information about human variation…

Anthropologists do share a great common cause. They would agree that anyone who makes claims about human nature must learn a lot of ethnography. This does not mean parachuting into the jungle somewhere to do a few psychological experiments with the help of bemused local interpreters, or garnishing generalizations with a few worn and disputed snippets about exotic customs and practices. Unfortunately, very nearly all research funding in the human sciences is directed to the study of the inhabitants of North America and the European Union.


Only a handful still try to understand the origins and possible connections between biological, social and cultural forms, or to debate the relative significance of history and microevolution in specific, well-documented instances.

This is a great pity, and not only because the silence of anthropologists has left the field to blockbusting books by amateurs that are long on speculation and short on reliable information.

I admit, I do find it a compelling vision. It is a vision that I believe many scientific anthropologists, whether archaeological, biological, or cultural, could embrace. Generalizations about human nature, based on an understanding of both biological and cultural variation, and grounded in ethnographic practice – sign me up!

The Other Side – The Greater Humanities

Okay, I’m signed up. Now I actually want to set out to do this sort of work, and get anthropology to the frontline of current debates. And suddenly the old comparative view, grown from Boas and Malinowski, is not enough.

What is striking in the Kuper and Marks piece is how they do raise the arguments of the “cultural theorists” but then do not incorporate them into their overall vision. Yet if anthropology is really going to be the study of people, grounded in both science and humanities, then the humanities needs to be part of how we understand ourselves.

James Clifford, in his proposal for “the greater humanities,” synthesizes four important things that the humanistic approach provides.

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.

Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.

Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable.

Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.

Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.

You may disagree with my shorthand characterizations, but I hope you will recognize a set of intellectual dispositions, a habitus, that link the humanities, a lot of the social sciences and the theoretically-informed arts.

I hasten to add that many of the dispositions I have identified above are active in the so-called hard sciences. Many individual scientists are potential allies, or fellow travelers, of the actually existing greater humanities. In some ultimate utopia, the university would be healed of all its divisions.

This broad perspective on the “greater humanities” highlights what is missed in calling for anthropology to be a comparative science of humankind. If we are interested in what people do, and in change over time, then it is not enough to just focus on “the origins and possible connections between biological, social and cultural forms.” These forms do not exist independent of human interpretation, knowledge, and power. Rather, interpretation, history, and power help form the reality of biological, social and cultural forms.

Kuper and Marks write that, “Anthropologists do share a great common cause. They would agree that anyone who makes claims about human nature must learn a lot of ethnography.” In his synthesis, Clifford highlights another core aspect of anthropology.

Alongside comparative variation, based on in-depth knowledge of specific places and times, anthropologists share the common cause of placing claims in the context of human interest – we are not objective observers, certainly not of our own history, and we don’t create our own history from an objective viewpoint.

Nature and Society

The role of interpretation, history, and power is to develop our understanding of reality through a human point of view, not an objective one. The meaning of acts and symbols, the particular happenings in time and space that make one place different from another, the way people uses ideas and institutions and violence for their own advantage – these provide a more accurate understanding of reality. Claims about human nature and human society need to be grounded in these considerations as well.

Kuper and Marks do leave out how many anthropologists are more interested in questions of human society, rather than human nature. Take video games, now one of the most popular and successful forms of entertainment on the planet. I have a particular interest in how individuals engage with new technologies, for example the sense of absorption gamers can experience. But to say that “sense of absorption” accounts for the rise of gaming overlooks the technological achievements, the role of globalization, the types of narratives and socialization gaming provides, the rise of an entire industry, and so forth. More broadly, a great number of anthropologists focus on questions related to globalization, politics, economy, and human rights. This type of research is better framed as the comparative study of society.

So anthropologists focus on human societies as well as human nature. And I actually think that many of the most interesting questions we have focus on the intersection of nature and society. Take the question of agency, or more broadly, free will – individuals’ sense of freedom, and their ability to act, intersects with the opportunities and constraints of their particular society. Or language – is it something innate or something learned, and how does language shape the way we think? Nature and society mix together in this most human of capabilities. To sum up, a view from both sides is necessary to understand these basic things about humankind.

Anthropology as a Borderland

Greg, in his post on the AAA controversy, Late to the science – anti-science bumfight, describes anthropologists as “living at the border zone in intellectual life between science, social science and humanities.” This border zone gives anthropology a rich and productive vigor:

One of the great lessons of anthropology, unlike those fields that are faithfully devoted to a more narrow set of research methods, is that methodological versatility and resourcefulness in research design allows anthropologists (and similar researchers) to ask and answer questions that other fields can’t wrap their hands around…

In addition, analytical versatility, the fact that the field does not all march under the same theoretical banner, means that anthropology isn’t an intellectual sausage factory. In homogeneous fields, whatever goes into the mix, you’re pretty sure you already know what the end product is going to taste like. As I tell my students, theoretical diversity means that we can see more sides of the same problem, comb through the old data and notice patterns that someone else missed.

I like the metaphor of anthropology as a borderland, where fascinating combinations and new syntheses can emerge. It does make the broad field more difficult to define, and as Greg points out, people outside the field are only too happy to use anthropology as a surrogate in any number of intellectual and political fights.

These outside critics use anthropology as a convenient strawman for some argument that they want to illustrate. For example, in my teaching career, I have had to counter students being told in their introductory classes in other disciplines that anthropology should be rejected out of hand because anthropology is: irremediably colonialist, imperialist and Western; culturally relativist and therefore unable to condemn what the Nazis did; anti-science and advocating cultural conversion to whatever culture the anthropologist studies (by implication, nihilist, I suppose); insufficiently ‘objective’ because anthropologists get too close to their subjects; and culturally relativist and therefore unable to be a science at all.

In other words, if you sum up the critiques of anthropology, they are incoherent, cast from multiple sides because we are the border: for some, we are imperialists, for others too ‘politically correct,’ for some the handmaiden of ethnic exoticization, for others, too close to the natives to be trusted, for others not scientific enough, for others, too scientific…

And when the outsiders successfully get someone in the border zone riled up – or when someone in the boundary area doesn’t realize what is at stake and acts insensitively – the warring parties sitting on the sidelines get the vicarious thrill of watching us try to rip each other apart (well, in a rhetorical manner of speaking).

What was encouraging about the controversy over anthropology and science was that it started out as just this sort of internal battle, anthropologists picking sides based on allegiances to arenas and ideas outside the field. It started out as a replay of the science wars.

But then the discourse changed – common ground was forged in defending anthropology, in the important and unique contributions it makes, and in explaining to others why we love our field.

It can be hard to explain a borderland if you haven’t traveled there. I think anthropologists are getting better at producing travel guides to the richness of what anthropology is about, though I would love to see even more of this sort of work.

The Anthropology Brand

But there is still the problem of how to represent the field to the outside world. A lot of discussion has happened recently over the anthropology “brand” – diversity as our brand, anthropologists owning human nature, on diversity and human nature, anthropology and publicity, present barriers and past baggage, and popularizing anthropology.

One main point that emerged from these discussions is that we need different branding approaches for different audiences. On one side of the border, we can scream out “diversity” and on the other we can scream out “human nature.” For a broad audience, the adventure of anthropology might work; within academia, it could be the comparative science of human nature and society. We do need a set of well-crafted messages that we can employ in timely and effective manners.

I also think we could better embrace our borderlands status.

We are the crossroads of science, social science, and humanities. We are the internet routers of the intellectual world. We are the interchange between global diversity and global discourse. We provide hybrid vigor and intellectual ferment. We are a melting pot of academia, constituted from comparative science and greater humanity.

Being Interdisciplinary

An important point made by Kuper and Marks focuses on how anthropologists handle well the demands for interdisciplinarity in our teaching.

In the new millennium…. there is a student demand for the whole package, the study of human origins, history, and diversity.

Today, anthropologists may teach more or less happily in interdisciplinary teams, but they seldom collaborate in research projects that breach their disciplinary specialties.

It is a good point, that we do this kind of work in coordinated fashion as departments but less so as researchers, where the emphasis on solo productivity and specialization in specific areas have helped reinforce a “lone wolf” approach in anthropology.

I do think that among younger scholars, there is greater acceptance of being “interdisciplinary.” Given how popular it is as a buzzword, it’s almost de rigueur in intellectual conversations. And I think there are strong groups of anthropologists using interdisciplinary teams of researchers on specific projects.

But the larger point by Kuper and Marks is that we don’t have a core interdisciplinary project as a field. Certainly it would be easy to say that anthropologists can go tackle top social science questions as well as any other field. But how do we coordinate our strengths and skills as a field, particularly in the American context where archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology constitute the classic “four fields” of the discipline? If we can outline what different fields can give, then we will be in a better position to create a stronger vision of what anthropology does and what it can become

Sub-fields Unite!

Here is my proposal to how different sub-fields can contribute to a more integrated and cumulative approach to anthropological knowledge. Since I’m a medical anthropologist, and Kuper and Marks specifically mention that area, I’m going to throw that into the mix with the other fields. I look forward to how people might expand these initial observations.

Archaeology: Archaeologists already work in interdisciplinary teams, and handle multiple types of data with ease. From the technical dating, to studies of pollen, to studies of pottery shards and trade routes, archaeology is the leader in anthropology in this arena.

Biological anthropology: Focusing on both primates and people, and examining different populations around the world in terms of adaptations and function, biological anthropology is a strong comparative field. Its focus on basic mechanisms and processes helps to see how we get universal or varied outcomes, and could be expanded into other areas.

Cultural anthropology: Ethnography, that in-depth understanding of local life, is essential to building a data-driven comparative science. Cultural anthropology also adds interpretive context to the comparative approach, whether that is at the local level or in understanding knowledge production.

Linguistic anthropology: Language is both universal and relative, and thus captures the core debates of the borderlands. Knowledge of local language is crucial to good ethnography; language also separates us from species. Here we find one of our most central lenses on human nature and society.

Medical anthropology: Doing research across the major divisions of biology and culture, and science and interpretation, medical anthropology offers a pragmatist approach of getting on with research that matches the reality of the problem, rather than ideological divisions. Medical anthropology also highlights how applied work can be part of research, and increase the value of what the field does.

Our various strands of research can be knit together into a more cohesive proposal about how to do exactly the sort of integrative, applied work that many students find compelling. Each sub-field embodies different ideals of good anthropological work. If we recognize what those ideals are, what the specific strengths each sub-field offer, we are much closer to building a more cohesive vision of what our borderland discipline is and can do.

The Future Is Now, and It’s Online

The Nature commentary by Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks is behind a paywall. It costs $32 to buy, unless you have institutional access. Ulf Hannerz’s article in American Anthropologist, which Greg drew on extensively in writing about diversity as anthropology’s brand, is available either through institutional access or by joining the American Anthropological Association. The cheapest AAA membership costs $70. You can read this blog for free.

A negative view of writing online (i.e., blogging) and a closed view of knowledge production (i.e., through institutional access or society membership) is still predominant in anthropology.


To take one example, the American Anthropological Association highlighted the negative side of blogs in their public statements. In the public release of the long range plan, thoughtful criticism by email is contrasted with blogs that amp things up.

[I]mmediately after the highly attended 2010 AAA Meetings in New Orleans, some criticisms of the plan were circulated electronically that had not been sent our way prior to the Meetings. Among them were thoughtful responses from several quarters, many queries about hearsay, and some suggestions for improvement or change. These responses, however, were amped up by blog headline editors earlier this week: “Anthropology Without Science,” and “No Science Please. We’re Anthropologists.”

This notion of blogging is antiquated and ill-informed. The “Anthropology without Science” piece came from Inside Higher Ed, and was written by the reporter Dan Berrett, who subsequently followed the developments in the story with the piece Affirming Science’s Place. In other words, it wasn’t blogging – it was journalism. The larger point is that blogging and journalism are merging on the web.

The same is true of blogging and academic work and discourse – they are merging online. The “No Science Please” piece was certainly in the blogging vein, and included the memorable line calling cultural anthropologists “fluff-heads.” But it was written by Alice Dreger, who has a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science. Her negative take came in part from her coverage of how the AAA dealt with the Darkness in El Dorado controversy and the censure, and its subsequent retraction, of Napoleon Chagnon. But Dreger also drew on emails and interviews with prominent science-oriented anthropologists in her post. Her writing, though one-sided, was more than an amped-up rant by an unthoughtful person.

Kuper and Marks recreate this negative notion of blogging, casting it as a place of “rumblings of discontent” and accusations of an “anti-science conspiracy.”

The new long-range plan also provoked rumblings of discontent (still ongoing) in the blogosphere… Apparently, a committee had floundered in trying to come up with an agenda for anthropology that was baggy enough to accommodate its various research programmes. Is this news? Indeed it is, but not, as the bloggers and The New York Times suggest, because an anti-science conspiracy has hijacked American anthropology.

Let me contrast that with what actually happened. One of the earliest posts by an anthropologist, Recycled Mind’s Anthropology as Science, cautiously applauded the AAA’s decision. My December 1st post, Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding (viewed more than 5000 times now), provided a balanced coverage of the controversy. That post also lists more than 150 pieces online related to the controversy. The unfair and inaccurate reporting by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times was contradicted here the same day it was published, with a more accurate accounting of what really happened provided. Anthropologists online took the long-range controversy as an opportunity to move forward.

One last piece of evidence? Kuper and Marks write that the AAA moved too slowly in responding to the controversy.

[T]he association’s executive committee scrambled somewhat belatedly to reassure the public – and its own members – that it had all been a misunderstanding. They had not intended to cast doubt on the scientific character of the discipline. And in fact the same committee had come up with a simultaneous text entitled ‘What is Anthropology?’, which describes anthropology unambiguously as a science.

The ‘What is Anthropology’ statement was officially announced in a press release by the AAA executive committee released on December 13th. The What is Anthropology statement was first announced here, on this blog, on December 11th.

My point is that blogging is now part of media and knowledge production. For anthropologists, it is one of our best ways to create media, access the public, and convey our research. Blogging can be more timely, better informed, and with greater depth than traditional media reports.

Collaboration, New Media, and Open Access

Blogging can also be an important part of academic pursuits, including finding common cause in discussing disciplinary problems. As a group of anthropology bloggers wrote, the #aaafail controversy actually united us, taking advantage of how the internet helps us communicate and collaborate in new ways.

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.

Kuper and Marks finish their essay Anthropologists Unite! by writing:

So there is a need for a truly comparative science of human beings throughout their history, and all over the world. This requires more interdisciplinary team research in anthropology. A good start would be for anthropologists to read each other’s papers, to attend each other’s conferences and to debate concrete cases and specific hypotheses.

Journals, conferences, and debate – it is an old view of academic discourse. Ideas are not found only in peer-reviewed papers these days. Attending conferences can be expensive and timely, whereas watching a video online can get some of the same effect. Debate doesn’t really happen much in journals, which publish the occasional letter, often several months later. A much richer discussion can happen online, and within the same timeframe as the actual publication.

Collaboration online is also a powerful new form to do interdisciplinary work. While departments can be good entities for interdisciplinary teaching, most anthropology departments aren’t built with the aim of fostering synthetic scholarship.

The digital world offers ways to do that. For example, online collaboration and exchange is the new way for interdisciplinary teams to explore ideas and share results. Check out the Tsimane Amazonian Panel Study.

Here’s another example– this blog.

Greg and I met while teaching at Notre Dame. He subsequently went to Macquarie University in Australia, a very different situation from him being two doors down. This blog, which we founded together, has become the primary way we collaborate. We’ve organized sessions at conferences, even a stand-alone conference. We read each other’s work, and collaborate on other writing projects. In other words, we do everything Kuper and Marks say. We also email regularly, and talk occasionally. But for ideas, this blog is our intellectual lifeblood. I see the latest ideas that Greg has, and he see mine – and we share that with the world.

Online media, not just writing, is an incredible way to reach the public. Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist who became interested in new media and teaching after doing his doctoral work in Papua New Guinea, work with his students to create a video, A Vision of Students Today. It has been viewed 4,136,850 times. That is an incredible impact.

And open access? Take PLoS One. It was founded in 2006, and covers research in science and medicine. In five years, it became the world’s largest journal. That is incredible success. One of its more technical journals, PLoS Biology, was founded in 2003, the first of the PLoS journals. It has been the highest impact journal in biology, as ranked by the Institute for Scientific Information. Open access isn’t just viable – it is the way to reach the broadest possible audience and have the greatest scholarly impact.

On Amazon, which came to fame and financial success by selling books online, its #1 product is its Kindle e-reader. Books themselves are going digital. And not just books. Amazon recently launched Kindle Singles, which presents “a compelling idea–well researched, well argued, and well illustrated–expressed at its natural length.” Apple’s iPad offers ways to integrate multi-media features with traditional text. Digital innovation in how we present scholarly material is already happening, and will continue to grow extremely rapidly.

Anthropologists need to go digital – blogging, collaborating, creating, sharing, and disseminating the field online. Blogs, the integration of new media with text, e-publications, and open-access publishing need to be part of how we keep our borderlands discipline healthy and vibrant.

To do otherwise, is to make the field into a marginal borderland, rather than the key meeting place and vibrant area of production the anthropology is today and can be even more so in the future.

What’s at Stake

We need a more concrete vision for the future for two pragmatic reasons. We need funding to support the ethnographic and comparative work to continue to develop this hybrid field. And we need to have more people join anthropology, to get enough numbers to take on the incredible array of questions we can fruitfully ask in this field. Funding and numbers matter. A coherent and compelling vision can help with both of these things.

Anthropology is the crossroads. It offers a comparative science of human nature and society, full of novel ideas, important critique, and vital data, and using both scientific and humanist methods and theories, with an eye on better understanding and solutions for core human problems. These are things to offer to the public through the power of the digital age, from blogs to open-access journals.

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21 Responses to A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow

  1. KBHC says:

    Phew! Took me a while to get through it all, but I did. :) A few things:

    I think you make some lovely points about the accessibility of science. Right now blogs are about the only scholarly work accessible to the public (yes, open access journals are also free, but free is not the only determinant of accessibility). We are doing meaningful, important stuff. The vast majority of our colleagues don’t get it, and have, as you say, antiquated notions of what blogging is.

    Kuper and Marks hold to the same definition of blogging — that only people with an axe to grind get a blog and they use it to be divisive (I thought it interesting that they made such a throw away comment about blogging and didn’t provide a single citation). You illustrate the power of blogging in academia here, in your description of your relationship and collaboration with Greg. It’s an amazing thing.

    For many of us who are the only person in our departments who do what we do, blogging can be a lifeline and a chance to connect with other scholars. It can be a way to communicate our passion for science to the broader public. So I am still confused as to why so many scholars have unexamined assumptions about blogging, and if anything are proud of their lack of knowledge.

    Anyway, enough ranting on my part :). Part of me is dreading a resurgence of #aaafail, but the way you have told the story here and scaffolded it with a broader context, is useful and inspiring.

  2. gregdowney says:

    Great post, Daniel, and as you know from our back-channel communication, I strongly share your conviction, shared at the end, that part of the way forward for our field is going to be new publishing models, new ways of collaborating, and new forums for active discussion, simply so that we simply don’t shrink into obscurity.

    Folks at the AAA should be afraid of what’s happening now, not because they’re in obligatory danger, but because they need to get closer to the front of this wave. There’s so much energy, thinking, and exchange happening online, and people are agitating all over for better online solutions. If the AAA simply refuses to get on board, the groundswell will eventually find someone who will provide what they’re looking for, and it may shatter the AAA’s lock on professional activities in the US in our field.

    For example, if the world association of anthropology pulls it together, puts out an open access journal with credibility, brings under its tent some of the best bloggers and provides them real support (and gives aspiring writers an aspirational goal)… there’s a real unfilled niche here.

  3. ryan a says:

    “You can read this blog for free.”

    If the point is to disseminate ideas and information, then online, open access publication should be the goal.

    “A negative view of writing online (i.e., blogging) and a closed view of knowledge production (i.e., through institutional access or society membership) is still predominant in anthropology.”

    The negative view about blogs and online publishing is kind of perplexing. Some people ask if “real” scholarly work can be published online.

    Well, the same 26 characters from the English alphabet sure do show up on the screen, so I see no reason why there are any doubts. The limits to what can be done are primarily self-imposed.

    Thanks for this post. You and Greg make me want to put more time and effort into my own site and see what can be done. Greg also has me thinking a lot about an online publication of some sort or another. Just need to get done with these seminars to free up some more time…

    Keep up the great work, Daniel.

  4. Megan says:

    Getting at the lone wolf and collaboration issues – I think this is something that anthropologists should be more concerned with. When I talk to my friends who have gone into hard sciences, they work as part of a lab, and their graduate training involves them in an up-and-running big-idea project. Each student plays a role in the fulfillment of that larger research question. In my experience in anthropology, students align themselves with faculty that have some sort of similar interest, but it is the exception rather than the norm for students to do their dissertation research as part of a larger project their advisor is working on. This leads to several issues, some good and some bad.

    1) Graduate students in anthropology learn how to design research from the bottom up, apply for grants and think through all the major aspects of a research project. This is great, but it also means it takes us much longer to complete graduate school, and funding can be a struggle. I also suspect this is part of the reason for our non-completion rates.

    2) Students do not get the collaborative dialogue that hard-science students do. We anthropologists talk about all of the great ideas we pass back and forth at the bar at conferences – imagine if we were having monthly meetings with a collection of interested parties at our own school, this could foster new ideas and build a support network. Blogs are becoming an effective tool for this kind of collaboration as well, but having a consistent and reliable set of peers on hand seems like it could be very beneficial.

    3) Our system reinforces the idea that you develop your own projects and do them by yourself, and so anthropologists do not learn (culture!) HOW to create an interdisciplinary team and balance roles and responsibilities with others in an effective fashion.

    Phew, long comment, sorry about that .

  5. Very nice post. A few observations:
    (1) Kuper and Marks promote interdisciplinary research within anthropology, and you talk about this. For some research questions, this is fine. But in my own case (comparative premodern urbanism), I can’t find any urban anthropologists interested in the topic (with one lone exception). Yet I find many urban geographers, planners, sociologists, and others very interested, and now I do research and collaborate with those people. So I’m not sure why I need anthropology. When I explained on one of my blogs that I now prefer to consider the archaeology I do as a social science that is independent of anthropology, one of the commenters accused me of “reactionary rage.” I don’t feel rage, and I don’t think I am reactionary. But it does suggest that my abandonment of anthropology really rubs some people the wrong way. I will probably drop my AAA membership and join the Social Science History Association.


    (2) Gusterson’s wording suggests that the merger of the two anthropology departments at Stanford was a happy affair (he calls is a marriage), a response to changing intellectual forces within anthropology. This is FAR from the truth; the merger was a top-down administrative fiat made without prior consultation, generating much consternation among all parties. I find it interesting that when the original Stanford department split, it was much written about in anthropology and the media. In contrast the merger has received little notice outside of Palo Alto. It would be very interesting to see what the intellectual fallout has been.

    (3) I now consider Neuroanthropology as the best anthropology blog, superior to Savage Minds. Keep it up.

    • megan says:

      Regarding your first point, Michael, I had a similar experience once when trying to firm up my grounding in the social theory I need for my research. I went to a colleague asking for reading suggestions and she just kept saying “well I don’t know anything about archaeology so I don’t think I can help you”. I don’t know how many different ways I said ‘I’m not talking about archaeology right now, I’m just trying to learn what cultural anthropologists are saying about this social process’ but I couldn’t get anything out of her except a suggestion to read about the African Diaspora because she knew there had been archaeological work done on it. I gave up on her and found other anthropologists who were more open to discussion. I wonder if training in a program that does not emphasize an introduction to the 4 fields is what leads to less willingness to cross sub-discipline boundaries? We’d need a survey to figure it out!

      • gregdowney says:

        I wouldn’t necessarily chalk this up to something peculiar about cultural anthropologists. I think if you asked very ‘scholastic’ members of most social sciences or humanities, you might be likely to get the same sort of weird obdurateness.

        I think many academics have a very hard time translating out of their own specialities into a more general discussion, and I’m not sure that they really keep across the broader currents in their field. I’ve had a hell of time, for example, with getting some psychologists to talk more generally about trends in their fields or resources to think about more general ideas. Because in their day-to-day work they spend so much time reading and writing very specialized discussions, it’s hard to pull back to the big picture. Certainly grad students have this problem, too, when in the throes of their thesis writing.

        My suspicion is that good generalists are hard to come by, that our training does militate against it, but that folks can get better at being boundary crossers if they are trained in a particular open environment with cross-sub-disciplinary engagement, frequently teach across sub-disciplinary boundaries, write general genres (textbooks, sweeping intellectual projects), or just have a kind of attention-distracted reading style (which can be counter-productive for their own career advancement).

        I think that I have all three of the latter, but no training to be sub-disciplinary: I like teaching 4 field intro (or just straight up other subdisciplines than my training), want to write ‘big picture’ pieces (and often fail), and generally enjoy reading anthropology from other sub-disciplines (and so frequently distracted from what I likely should be doing).

        Maybe the reward structure in our discipline can make it hard to really stay cross-disciplinary in outlook and willingness to engage.

        • megan says:

          I agree Greg – I didn’t mean to imply it was only one subfield. Just the general issue of folks becoming very specialized from the get-go, rather than being taught to see the forest for the trees.

  6. This is a great post–thank you for continuing to push these issues. It’s an inspiration to all of us. As great as it is to see the headline “Anthropologists Unite!” even people with institutional access can be stuck behind a 12-month (or much longer) wall. But instead of waiting until February 2012, an excellent summary and critique here. Kudos.

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  9. anthrochimp says:

    Interesting post. In it Daniel suggests that journalism and blogging are not mutually exclusive, but highly overlapping activities. I agree with this point and of course there are exposes that have broken in the blogosphere, bearing out this point. I would caution, however, that journalism involves sourced facts and many blogs seems to trade in opinion liberated from fact, sourced or otherwise, and these two different goals need to be distinguished from one another.

    In Daniel’s post, he also seems to imply that the scholarly journal and the blog are not mutually exclusive, but highly overlapping activities. This is harder for me to agree with. The scholarly journal offers a lot of development of the authors idea, through review and selection. Reputable journals hence provide a service in helping credential authors and help readers know they are using their time effectively. Although there is talk about post-publication review, and some blogs may be able to make this claim, this system is the antithesis of the value proposition of the peer-reviewed journal (the idea that filtering ideas in advance, and editing down papers, is a valuable service to the reader).

  10. We also need more anthropologists who can translate what’s going on in anthropology (four sub-fields) to a wider audience. Maybe offer scholarships or various incentives to graduate students in anthropology to take a few journalism classes. Team up writers and researchers to produce books, blogs, videos, etc.

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  17. I am not an anthropologist; I am a professional artist of over 20 years. In my profession, it has been said that art reflects the current state and attitudes of society as a whole. I visited your website in hopes to gain some insight into my quest to understand a possible cause for professional concern within my own field.

    How can history move forward when there is such a chaotic present? In the art world, I am concerned that art works have become so individualized and diversified it appears we are loosing our basic structure, continuity, and foundation in which we begin to build, grow, change and understand ourselves and our responsibilities as artists within the art world. As a result, we have lost the definition of what “art” is and in how one would define an art form today. Unfortunately, many artists want to express themselves in spite of what has been done in the past. In my professional estimation, this attitude is literally breaking down the basic structure and foundation of art that once was defined. Theories of the past that gave artists a technical and psychological approach to design has been mostly rejected and or unstudied for years. I believe the loss of such historical structure is confusing the makers of art and art fans, giving way to defining good art as now being mostly, “in the eye of the beholder.”

    We currently live in an environment that changes faster than any of us can even comprehend. In addition, we also live in a society that has wanted instant gratification without “doing the work.” It appears we are living in a society that is and has been looking for that “quick-fix” for instant gratification. As individuals, we feel we have a right to our own decisions and judgments regardless of what has been done in the past or how it affects others and society as a whole today and in the future. In the process, we are loosing our ethics, self-pride and purpose; all at the possible demise of our own fields. Have we lost our balance as a society?

    As I read your article, what appeared to be an honest overview of your field, I realized the state of your profession is no different than mine. What a sad state of affairs! Do all professional fields need to redefine themselves today? And what has happened for us to have reached such a state? Have we dissected ourselves so much that we have lost our common sense? Perhaps in answering some of these questions, we can somehow understand our dilemma we all seem to face these days. Perhaps history continues to reveal such truths; art reflects the state and attitudes of society.

    I thought your article was honest and well written with undertones of the same concerns I have in my field. I commend you and appreciate your efforts on your website and in your quest for redefining the structure of your field. I welcome your comments.

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