“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.
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.
[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.
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
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.