Monday, August 1, 2011

Introduction: The anthropological clash

Since I am in the middle of a road trip across the country (and since my hotel check-out time is looming oh so near), I am going to keep this one short.  Ya, I know all about the clashes between the different sub-fields of anthropology.  I have heard all about the histories of the departmental split at Stanford, and how biological anthropologists, linguistic anthros, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists sometimes just can't seem to get along.  Some of the biggest divisions and clashes--whether philosophical, methodological, or even personal--exist between cultural anthropologists and biological anthropologists.  I understand the arguments between these two children of anthropological thought, but I have never really felt that they were so insurmountable as to warrant outright disciplinary meltdowns.  Some folks seem to argue that biological and cultural anthropology have certain irreconcilable differences, and that they therefore belong in completely different spheres.  But I don't buy it.  Maybe it's because of the fact that I was trained in more than one four-field program, but I really do not see the need (or the use) for all of the discord between the different anthropological perspectives and approaches.  In fact, I still think that having all of these perspectives is incredibly valuable--and productive.

Now, don't read me wrong.  I am not saying that there are no differences between cultural, biological, archaeological, and linguistic anthropology.  There are plenty of differences, and this is precisely why there is so much potential for conversation, collaboration, and dialog.  Sometimes it's good to look at things in a completely different manner of perspective.  Productive collaboration and dialog can indeed come from very different--and even competing--perspectives.  While the majority of my own training has been in cultural anthropology (with archaeology coming in second), I have always gained immensely from keeping up with what's going on in the other territories of anthropology.  I think it's pretty fascinating to see how different anthropologists approach similar or overlapping problems.  Being open to different ways of looking at and thinking about human behavior has immense benefits. 

Granted, I am coming from from a particular US-based, four-field perspective.  In other parts of the globe, what I would call sub-fields of anthropology are arranged in some pretty different ways.  But my argument still stands: even if all of the fields of anthropology are considered completely different disciplines, I still think there is plenty of room for synergistic collaboration.  Does this mean that all anthropologists need to sit around a campfire and start singing sappy songs together?  Nope.  My argument is that actually listening to one another--and taking the time to really understand different perspectives and arguments--would be a lot more interesting than maintaining personal and academic divisions based upon self-imposed disciplinary boundaries.  Even more importantly, creative, productive dialog does not require complete agreement.  It can, in fact, benefit tremendously from the knowledge that arises from intersecting--and divergent--points of view.

This issue features essays by Kristina Killgrove, Kristi Lewton, Britteny Howell, Amanda Ellwanger, Nicholas Ellwanger, and Erin Blankenship-Sefczek.  Britteny Howell also put together a good selection of readings in biological anthropology--feel free to add more references in the comments section if you want!  Thanks to all of you for taking part!


L'Anthropologue said...

Wow, what a subject!

I completly agree with you on building a real dialogue between our separate, but similar, anthropologies. I come from the same "four-field" anthropology program, only canadian and francophone. I must admit that during my bachelor's degree, I hated that we had to study biology and linguistic. I went into anthropology BECAUSE I was sooo bad in any of these fields. Moreover, most of the courses we had as undergraduates in biology, linguistics or archeology were presented by our teachers as so different then my concentration, ethnology. In some courses, the teacher were litteraly warning us to leave our ethnographer's mind behind or we would fail their class. And this was 2 years ago, not 20. I hated their perspective. It was a bump in the road more than a welcome smooth multilane highway (wow, what a bad metaphor).

I think it's in research or when you enter grad school that these differences become less of a pain. Now, I see my "four field" degree as very helpful.

I agree on the concept of dialogue and I truly look forward to real collaboration between subfields, but the reality is that it's not there yet. From what I observed anyway. Maybe it's my university, or my teachers, or my country, or the way I see anthropology, but I think that collaboration is needed but not a reality. It's a shame. Speaking from what I experienced, these collaboration should start in every undergraduate class.

Ryan Anderson said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree with you--these kinds of conversations can definitely start early on in the education process. It's true that departments (even four field programs) are all over the place when it comes to actual collaboration between the different subfields. Sometimes it's all just lipservice, not much more. And then some programs really try to build the links--it all depends. Anyway, despite all the differences and debates and such, I think there's a lot to be gained from looking all around the field. The good news is that there are indeed lots of anthros out there who ARE doing this kind of work, and who are pushing the importance of the different subfields.