Saturday, October 1, 2011

What's wrong with anthropology?

This field needs a kick in the pants.

How else can I explain what's going on in American anthropology? Just at the time the public and our institutions are crying out for more open publications, anthropology's largest professional association closed off its journals. Not that it matters much, nobody reads them anyway. The New York Times, on the other hand, many of my dear colleagues (and all our administrators) do read. There, they find articles about anthropology once every six months or so, which lately have featured a nightmare tale of foot-shooting and backpedaling. Not good.

President Obama's mother was an anthropologist. Never has the field had such name recognition and exposure at the top level of government. So naturally, our expertise is highly sought by government agencies, scientific funding sources, lobbyists and opinion leaders, right?

Isn't it strange? Anthropology, supposedly engaged deeply in diverse communities around the world, is almost totally disengaged with the American public. Long ago, anthropologists spoke out on our origins, history, and diversity. Now, the public is much more likely to hear about human relationships and diversity from popular books and television programs hosted by amateurs. The most celebrated (and most watched) television program today touching on anthropology is Ancient Aliens. Not good.

Our final refuges within ivy-covered walls are now threatened by changes in the political climate. Years of a sliding economy have left their mark: Young people see a university education as an expensive luxury that will saddle them with debt. More students pursue two or more years of training on secondary or correspondence campuses where anthropology simply does not exist.

Universities are shutting down or shrinking anthropology departments. Hardly anyone thinks of expanding them. That's because hardly anyone thinks of anthropology at all.

We can fix this. We can build on our traditions to create a new foundation for American anthropology in the twenty-first century. But we cannot do it within academia alone.

Our universities are shedding their ivory tower exoskeletons, working to gain the support and engagement of a broader public. Anthropology can step forward to lead this academic revolution. To do so, we must strengthen our historic connections to communities outside academia. We must reinvigorate the core of anthropology, showing how our approaches work in applied contexts. We must inspire people by helping them discover their heritage. And while doing these things, we must step up the quality of our academic research.

Here's how:

1. Embrace new forms

Anthropology's hashtag ends in FAIL. If you don't know what that means, you're one of the reasons.

In anthropology, the average time to the first publication resulting from fieldwork stretches to years. Other fields communicate their results rapidly. For anthropology, it can be like waiting for messages from Alpha Centauri.

Our catastrophic situation has been carefully but imperfectly hidden from administrators and junior scholars. A substantial fraction of the funded fieldwork undertaken by tenured anthropologists will never lead to a publication.  Many mid-career anthropologists go years without publishing anything. Senior archaeologists and biological anthropologists retire or die sometimes with years of work left undescribed.

Critics see this as simple laziness. I see it as a symptom of the total failure of scholarly communication in anthropology. Instead of encouraging our colleagues to quickly disseminate their ideas and results, we straitjacket them into nineteenth-century forms that take years to produce results. The only communication going on is the smell of academic machismo as we make young scholars hurdle the arbitrary barriers to publication.

We can bring back the inventiveness of our predecessors, but to succeed we must abandon their forms.

The ethnographic monograph was a masterpiece of compromise. Look at the problems faced by a salvage ethnographer: Many observations could never be replicated, but the rapid development of a base of comparative data might enable other scholars to more effectively record and systematize observations on other cultural groups. The essential comparative body of knowledge existed mainly in the minds of a few hundred people. In 1930, a book could capture attention long enough to transmit the essentials, while archiving observations for future scholars. Few today appreciate the cleverness of this solution, rooted in 19th-century printing technology. A monograph could justify the expense and labor involved in typesetting and printing only by fitting the needs of libraries and a few hundred buyers. "Peer review" emerged as a marketing tool, assuring the academic press of a minimum standard of quality to ensure library sales.

The archaeological site report involves skilled labor at every stage, from drafting maps and original drawings of artifacts to the preparation of data tables and text. In the past, it was necessary for the final report to follow excavation by a long interval of time, because all these parts had to come together. But today, every one of these parts is prepared digitally, many of them as excavation is proceeding. Why do we tolerate a publication strategy in which the total description of a site can be held up by the slow work of a single collaborator? In biological anthropology, key articles often appear in edited volumes as an outcome of conferences. These typically appear in print two years or more after the conference occurs, at an average cost of more than a hundred dollars per volume. The quality of these contributions are highly variable, because many of the authors fully realize that so few people will read them.

Anthropologists already use tools that can radically improve communication of our scholarship. Who among us still has the luxury of preparing manuscripts in longhand for typesetting? How many of us fail to transfer our field notebooks and observations to digital form? Most young anthropologists work entirely digital, from data collection to publication. They work in film and video, in photography and digital recordings.

Imagine an alternative, in which fieldwork is reported as it happens. Site reports can be updated daily and followed in real time. Each interview as a part of ethnographic fieldwork can be published, each story told on its own before it is assimilated into the larger picture. Conference volumes can be e-books, published before the meeting so that they enhance the value of the face-to-face event. Meetings can be archived, linking presentations, discussions, and text.

The technology to enable such new communication patterns is already available to us. Today, anthropologists are far behind the pack but the tools are in place for us to take the lead. We can invent new forms for the 21st century, if we simply abandon our 19th-century expectations. Universities and libraries stand ready to help us adopt new forms, because these forms serve their needs and constraints today.

We must change not only for practical reasons but for moral reasons as well. Anthropological research depends on the cooperation, interest and goodwill of many communities, both today and in the past. People do not donate their cooperation lightly. Wherever anthropologists do their work, they are lucky to have the help of these communities of people. Whether biological, archaeological, or cultural, our research relies on unique resources that in many cases cannot be duplicated. We bring these things to light, for the broader appreciation and education of the rest of humanity.

Having our work read by twenty people is an not acceptable communication strategy. Failure to share results broadly betrays the cooperation of the communities who enable our research. Changes in form are necessary to improve our scholarship. These changes don't require more work, they require different work. Greater engagement is one of many benefits, which requires us only to recognize the value of the changes already underway.

2. Defend good science.

Anti-science reactionaries are spreading nonsense among the public. Why are so many anthropologists on their side?

Yes, I know that many anthropologists today in the U.S. engage in work that is not empirical, and that they do not consider themselves to be scientists. Many of them are skeptical of science, others believe that scientific and humanistic approaches within anthropology complement each other.

This is nothing new. Alfred Kroeber criticized Frans Boas for his unwillingness to build theories that go beyond the data. Boas called Kroeber "Epicurean", insisting that when we go beyond the evidence, we have nothing to guide us besides our own preferences. Since those days, many anthropologists have chosen the Epicurean route. For the most part, they've coexisted with empiricists under Kroeber's big umbrella.

Through most of the 20th century, this tension made anthropology stronger. Our field became a refuge for scientific questions that could not be asked elsewhere.

Consider the path followed by postwar behavioral and biological sciences. Behaviorism, started by John Watson and B. F. Skinner in psychology, gave rise to a productive research program but utterly failed on questions of mind, language and culture. Mainstream biology forged a synthesis with genetics but left unexamined on the table its old understanding of race and variation. It was within anthropology that progress continued on our understanding of cultural ecology, social learning, and race. Anthropologists demonstrated the pattern of human genetic variation, first using blood groups and later other characters. They challenged the traditional concept of race from within anthropology, and extended those challenges to biological variation outside humanity. Anthropologists were among the first to extend the evolutionary synthesis to behavioral ecology, studying the flexibility of the human organism to cultural variation and the social learning of cultural traits in non-human primates. And while many anthropologists continued to go in for grand theoretical schemes, a lively tradition of critique of these grand schemes led to real methodological progress in cultural anthropology and archaeology. In a scientific establishment tied to reductionism and biological determinism, anthropologists were radicals.

Like any radicals, they weren't always right. Any working scientist will be wrong about most of the details, if we revisit his work after fifty years. What makes anthropology weak today is that so many anthropologists learn nothing about scientific anthropology after Boas. They're reactionaries against science, without knowing what today's scientists do.

Consider our scientific history. With sheer empirical observation, anthropologists unshuttered the folds of humanity, raising people who had been derided as "primitives" up to their rightful place beside the pampered dons of Western culture. In so doing, their science transformed "civilized" culture itself.

We fought the revolution. We won.

Science is still transforming society, in ways that may alter people's conceptions of identity, genealogy, social bonds, and human dignity. Technology has given new opportunities to connect and follow social networks, while enabling new forms of coercion and surveillance. Genetics is opening new windows on human health and human origins, while showing that some traditional ideas about human diversity are obsolete. We are still lifting the once-primitive into our recognition of humanity, while questioning the boundary between ourselves and nature.

Our work inspires people, and they are engaging with science in a broader way than ever before. Anthropologists are forming public-oriented projects to provide samples, answer questions, and donate resources. The ideal of participant observation has been inverted -- now it's not only the researcher who observes by participation, it is the observed who participate in research.

I witness its power of this approach every day in my own research. The engagement of ordinary people in our work is greater than ever, while the core anthropological training provides a background lacking in other fields. Many of my friends in human genetics have been surprised by the power that this anthropological perspective can yield.

I don't claim that every anthropologist must be a scientist, or that we cannot develop anthropological knowledge using non-empirical approaches. But our field makes a fundamental mistake when it divorces itself from science. Science reactionaries enable anti-science forces of all kinds, from creationists and homeopaths to vaccination opponents and white supremacists. Science reactionaries are the reason many people see "anthropologist" as a fancy way of saying "kook".

We can be part of the future by reinvigorating anthropological science and by developing a deeper conversation with other scientists outside anthropology. Tomorrow's anthropologists must know the field's successes as well as its failures. The way to combat bad science is to do better science.

3. Empower students.

Where are your students getting a job? If you think it's not your problem, then why do you have students?

The highest-ranking anthropology Ph.D. programs today allow roughly half their students to finish by the end of their sixth year, and place half their students in jobs at graduation. Those jobs include academic and applied contexts, both temporary and permanent. Those are the best programs for student outcomes, the average outcome is much worse. Only 20 anthropology programs in the United States finish more than a fourth of their Ph.D. students in six years.

When those figures were published by the NRC last year, most anthropologists met them with a shrug. What can we do? We all know that fieldwork can drive anthropology Ph.D. programs to seven years or longer. If you don't do your time in the field, you're not an anthropologist.

As a result, students who could be bright anthropologists find much brighter options in other social sciences. The best sociology programs finish around two thirds of their students in six years and place 90-100% of them in jobs at graduation. Geography programs also place nearly 90% in jobs at graduation. The reason is not hard to see: These social sciences have forged much stronger ties in corporate, government, and industry settings than have anthropologists. While we're busy talking to ourselves, other social scientists are talking to people who matter.

As an teacher and advisor, I make sure my graduate and undergraduate students get skills that will transfer into the broadest chance of success. Graduate students teach, they engage with the public, and they cross disciplines in their work. They present their work repeatedly, at professional meetings, for our faculty, for other students, and outside of anthropology. Most important, they develop skills that translate outside academia. For some students, this means anatomy, for others genetics. All of them learn to program a computer, most learn to browse genomes and operate on genetic data. My assignments are collaborative, students blog and participate in conversations; they produce and edit videos; they participate in real research.

For my students, anthropology is a preparation for a networked future. Engagement is not an option, it is a requirement.

Making our students more competitive for non-academic careers does not mean turning our back on what we already do well. Our students learn how to think in ways that other students don't. Fieldwork gives our students tremendous advantages that most industry professionals can only look on with envy.

We should reinforce those essential experiences and make them greater opportunities for engagement. Why are anthropology students going into the field without contracts to write weekly or monthly about their work? Why do our professional associations do not support themselves by becoming clearinghouses for ongoing field reports? Where are the workshops and press kits that will enable our young researchers to build ties to media and communities outside their institutions?

We may not be able to finish most students in six years. Fieldwork will always be an essential part of anthropological training. But we can do more to make the world recognize the quality that our students attain as a result of this long training. We must give our students more opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of engagement skills. We must ease the path to publishing their observations, not saddle them with additional years of waiting for a monograph after they return from the field. We must increase the proportion of our students supported by research grants, and provide support for a second grant while students write the results of their first. Most important, we must create a culture where progress reports, written engagement, and presentations to non-academic audiences and institutions are a routine part of students' training. That means working more closely with applied and industry-based anthropologists and allied scientists, and bringing those people back into academic anthropology to share their knowledge.

The way forward

Academic fields follow the irregular meniscus of human knowledge as it flows outward. Genetics is not what it once was, nor are physics, psychology or economics. Some once-bright ideas were shot down, others fell off the fashion train. But each keeps certain essential traditions, its core.

American anthropology has a Boasian core. This is a contingency of history, which enabled many successes of the past, but is not the only model for the study of humanity. Economists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, biologists, human geneticists, and others all want a piece of our turf. Even within anthropology, many colleagues see the field on life support and pray that administrators will pull the plug. They see academia as a zero-sum game and are whetting their teeth for the spoils. The work will go on, the question is whether anthropologists will do it.

I know my young friends, working hard to build their own personal brands in a world where anthropology has lost its self-respect. I'm not the last of the four-field dreamers. It is time for us to create a new anthropology that steps forward from the past and once again engages people in discovery.

Public interest in anthropological topics has never been higher. As anthropologists, we are stewards of unique cultural and biological resources. If cultural resources lie unused, unwitnessed, and unappreciated, then human heritage dies. With technology, we can protect and promote those resources, enabling people to discover their cultural and genealogical heritage.

We can engage communities in real academic and scientific research. Some anthropologists have already taken the lead by listening and absorbing the contributions of their participant communities. As public funding for universities comes increasingly under threat, our institutions face a desperate need to demonstrate their value by bringing constituents into our research and academic communities. Anthropology is perfectly placed to enable such engagement, and universities are ready to support us in those efforts. Smart departments will use their limited positions to bring young anthropologists who advance engagement. Scholars who engage with the public will engage with their departments and campuses, changing the academic climate.

Engagement is the antithesis of condescension. Embracing a model of engagement means changing our mode of communication. Write every article for real people. Some say that means "dumbing down" our research. Don't dumb it down. Sharpen it. Your scholarship will improve as a result.

I'm not interested in driving old friends to retirement parties. Let's rebuild anthropology as the radical science it once was. We must not miss this chance, because it may be the last. Consider your pants kicked.

John Hawks is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His blog is here.


Iain Davidson said...

Well written. I particularly like the idea that all students should be encouraged to write monthly reports on their fieldwork and should be encouraged to engage with a real public. I heard recently of a recent academic appointment who pulled out of giving a seminar to his colleagues (not the general public, note) because he did not think he could "dumb it down enough for them to understand". Head up the wrong bit of his anatomy. Communication is everything. And Anthropology has unique insights which might help some of the stupidities we see burgeoning in modern public life.

John Hawks said...

It's such a simple thing that will yield great dividends for these students. Naturally, there are fieldwork projects where complete openness is impossible for ethical reasons. But even in those cases, we can provide opportunities for students to write (and podcast, and videocast) regularly.

What we need to encourage are ways for students to quantify the impact of these efforts. We need to move to a model where we recognize a portfolio instead of a CV. Show your work, early and often!

Anonymous said...

I am a student who jumped ship after getting my BA in anthropology with a focus on cultural/cognitive anth. I did an honors thesis on applying an empirical methodology to an ethnographically documented phenomenon that won a university-wide social science prize. I was the kind of promising student which anthropology as a field should be trying to retain – someone with ideas, creativity, and able to produce original research early. While an undergrad, I had every intention of continuing on in anthropology. However, after graduating and sitting down to figure out where to apply to graduate school, I discovered that getting a degree in cognitive anthropology would be a pretty horrible life plan if I wanted to have a career based on my graduate training - few programs and no jobs was what I found. So I turned to cognitive psychology and cognitive science more broadly. They are doing the research in cognition that I was and am interested in. There is a bit too much of a focus on the American college student in these fields; they could definitely benefit from anthropology’s lessons about human diversity, but at least they have a lively academic community focusing on cognition and there is considerably more hope for finding a job at the end of my graduate school years than I would have had in anthropology. From what is now an outsider perspective, the AAA ditching science in its mission statement suggests to me that I made the right decision. Anthropology has already lost intellectual territory to other disciplines, seemingly without a fight. Other disciplines aren't just passively waiting to take anthropology's turf. I'm sure my story is not unique and that anthropology is losing many would be scholars to other disciplines. It's ironic that a field which studies human diversity seems to be successfully killing off its own intellectual diversity.

Alex said...

I'm currently a Ph.D student in biological anthropology. As a bit of background, I actually had no undergraduate anthropological training and only did so at the post-bacc level after I realized I wanted to be a paleoanthropologist. Sort of the opposite of the above anonymous commenter. It's not like I was gonna get a job with that "Great Books" Liberal Arts degree.

I in no way long for the death of the traditional American anthropology department, but I remain unconvinced that the four-field approach is actually in the best interests of my (our) subfield. You seem to make some sort of link with core anthropological training and the engagement of "ordinary people." What specific advantages does the anthropologically-trained human geneticist actually have over one who is not?

What is it exactly that unites what I do and what Ann Dunham did? If nothing else, a drastic reevaluation of the Boasian synthesis should be undertaken, taking into account the numerous developments in all four subfields over the past century. How many physical anthropologists even belong to the AAA these days?

All that said, great essay!

Daniel Dybowski said...

Nice paper. Although I would like to argue against your views of anthropology as being too much of an ivory tower. We do produce papers in layman's terms, depending upon the particular platform (or framework) we produce them. We do engage with the public, whether or not they are people whom you suggest may be missing the point of science. Perhaps it may be a human fallacy to think that those whom we wish to reach are reachable?
Anthropology as a discipline is provocative. It is up to the individual to become interested in science on their own, like we have. We cannot force it upon them, which quite frankly, is much more respectable and attractive. I suggest practicing a much more conservative approach, and combat those who produce false logic by citing those who have in the past, already gone over the very same epistemological problems we face yet again. The unwillingness to do so, will inevitably open the door for rhetort.

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks again for this great essay, John! There's a lot here to get people thinking and rethinking anthropology.

My favorite lines:

"Engagement is the antithesis of condescension. Embracing a model of engagement means changing our mode of communication. Write every article for real people. Some say that means "dumbing down" our research. Don't dumb it down. Sharpen it. Your scholarship will improve as a result."

I agree with this completely. Especially the point about sharpening research. Complex ideas can be expressed in clear terms, and through concise writing. It can also be interesting to read! Imagine that!

John Hawks said...


"We do produce papers in layman's terms, depending upon the particular platform (or framework) we produce them. "

I'm going to be a hardliner on this one. Sure, there are exceptions, and I look to them as the way anthropology will be published in the future. But take a random selection of CVs from any academic anthropology department. I would be surprised if more than 5% of their collective body of work is written or produced for non-academics.

Anthropology has not been provocative for 30 years. It has been complacent.

John Hawks said...


Your comment deserves its own essay-length response. It is an important question that I see as central to the field's survival. I have an answer, but it deserves to be larded with examples.

"If nothing else, a drastic reevaluation of the Boasian synthesis should be undertaken, taking into account the numerous developments in all four subfields over the past century. How many physical anthropologists even belong to the AAA these days?"

That is a symptom of the field's complacency. I agree entirely. Many academic programs have abandoned teaching the core altogether, because too many of our professorate do not see the point.

Maybe it's too late to turn back. But I think we should worry more about the answer here. Because if our students can't explain why anthropology exists, except in broad historical terms, then they'd be better off learning biology.

Ryan Anderson said...


"Anthropology has not been provocative for 30 years. It has been complacent."

Exactly. And our conversations are stuck in a perpetually closed loop. That's why it's such a shocker when we hear about someone like Gillian Tett getting mentioned outside of the discipline! We need more of THAT, and more of what you're pushing for here.

Anonymous said...

"Anthropology, supposedly engaged deeply in diverse communities around the world, is almost totally disengaged with the American public."

I've been saying this (or trying to!) in an AAA publication for years to no avail.

And this is one of the major reasons I've lost heart with completing my doctorate. "We" - the anthropologists - are pretty much preaching to the choir.

Greg Downey said...

Great post, John, and I whole-heartedly agree about embracing science, even when we do critical studies of science. And this is my perspective having been trained in cultural anthropology in a department that was trying fervently at the time to eliminate any last vestiges of at least one, and probably two, of the other subfields.

I think critical studies and ethnographic studies of science have been really good for the cultural part of our field. Some really remarkable works have been produced by anthropologists who have gone into labs and medical schools and other places like this to demonstrate how even scientific thought is socialized -- putting the ethnographic detail to Kuhn's theory, we might say.

But this has produced a really nasty relationship with anti-scientism, instead of more anthropologists being engaged as positive collaborators in other forms of science. It's almost like the critique became the end goal, not a step on the way to producing better science.

For example, we've been critical of some psychology for using too narrow a subject pool, but how many anthropologists have helped to expand the scope of psychological research, to expand and deepen and 'anthropologize' psychology? Although I know many anthropologists worry about losing disciplinary territory to other fields, I guess from my perspective, I see so many ways that we could inject ourselves into other fields, to help other scholars do their own jobs better by making them more like us.

Great piece, though, and some excellent concrete advice. I still worry about my own career progress as I get riled up to rip up the rules for business as usual -- so much of the most interesting stuff we do, the collaboration, the accessible writing, the non-writing outputs, the outreach... it's all just invisible in the current regime of grant awarding and promotion.

Some university somewhere is going to have an unreal staff when they find a way to attract and reward the real innovators, instead of just applying the old metrics, crushing innovation by sheer force of ignorance and neglect. I know I'd airmail them my CV!

PacEth: Applied Anthropology Just About Everywhere said...

Spot on, from an academic POV.
There are some of us, busting our collective asses in the trenches, who:
1. are in the field all the bloody time
2. are communicating results quickly
3. are finding relevance among business who care about doing the right thing--for their employees and customers
4. struggle to make a living at it (don't be fooled: business anthropology is not a ticket to a big house and a fast car, unless you are one of the few very clever folks who have a formula, a good publicist, and a trust fund behind them. . .but I digress).

I rely on University folks for useful theory and sound methods, and for capable grad students who know how to sell the benefits of anthropology into the emerging forms of market around the world.

Business anthropology is full of rich and interesting ethical problems, but it forces us to engage, and directly. It forces us to examine what is useful, what is not; who is helped, and who is not; what our future might be, and what it must not be.

Thanks for a great article!

Ken Erickson

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Very nicely put, John. In part in response to Alex and Anon1, I think this kind of thinking and motivation also needs to be explicitly impressed not just on grad student, but especially on undergrads from the very beginning of their training in/exposure to anthropology - this is doubly true for those taking only one class as an elective, say. God knows I try to do it in my Intro class this term: just today, we were discussing how archaeology (to focus on my own subfield for a sec) can lead both to meaningful policy change and to a better popular understanding of how some of the social and ecological issues we face today as a society fit into a much larger history and set of issues. I know other subfields (and hybrids like paleoanthropology) have equally important insights to contribute, and we shouldn't wait for our students to be in grad school to begin to excite them about (let alone train them in!) the usefulness of doing this kind of outreach/engagement. We should be training them not only to write for broader and more diverse audiences but to think in terms of real contributions anthropology has to offer to a wide range of issues. And once we do this systematically and effectively, we can also hopefully stop thinking about anthropology PhDs as being geared mainly for academia, but actually foster a new generation of engaged intellectuals that can operate outside of universities, but also in tandem with them when the need is there.

One question, though: in practical terms, where do you see this refocus of our disciplinary perspective taking place, or at least starting out? I mean, academia seems like a logical starting point (pretty much all we've got right now), but how do we foster this within the bounds of the current framework, especially given the segment of the professoriate currently most likely to be interested in doing this (i.e., young, often untenured folks)? I agree we need to push to change the system, but my question is how do we do this realistically? Right now, it's a call (a few) people are heeding beyond and beyond the 'normal' load of obligations at that level, wouldn't you say?

J. Riel-Salvatore, A Very Remote Period Indeed

Shannon Randolph said...

Every anthropologist, social scientist and humanities academic, for that matter, can begin to make the changes John recommends right now. The constraints named by some of the commenters to accomplish these changes - namely the expectations of the university, the concerns to get tenure and keep your job - stem from the self-perpetuated societal and institutional bounded expectations which limit personal and institutional potential for change that would better fit the needs of modern day society. Only by imagining and beginning to create a new reality, a new form of academia, will this come to be.

Simone said...

You make some good points, John, but it's also important to recognise colleagues who do already do these things - there have been several ventures in the UK for 'live' fieldnotes - or fieldnote blogs. So there is a precedent already there to follow, with lessons learned on the ins and outs of this approach. There are also open archives that exist from before the net existed whose use has much to teach us about our methods.
The European PhD has also changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, with a 4 year deadline increasingly obligatory, and monthly reports a matter of course. The 4-field approach I can't comment on at all, but we clearly have much to discuss in relation to the other points.

Simone said...

Just one more little plug, if you will forgive me - the ASA has gone in the opposite direction to the AAA and opened up a new publication as a completely open and free series of peer reviewed papers. It is new and developing, so if you believe knowledge is for sharing, you can support ASAonline by reading and submitting papers. Any topic, any time.

John Hawks said...


"You make some good points, John, but it's also important to recognise colleagues who do already do these things - there have been several ventures in the UK for 'live' fieldnotes - or fieldnote blogs. So there is a precedent already there to follow, with lessons learned on the ins and outs of this approach. "

Thanks so much for this comment. We are facing a culture here where many young people are ready to start, or are already doing many of these things, but get no credit or recognition in the job market and tenure process. Our academic departments, in other words, are selecting against outreach and engagement.

KateClancy said...

John wrote: "We are facing a culture here where many young people are ready to start, or are already doing many of these things, but get no credit or recognition in the job market and tenure process. Our academic departments, in other words, are selecting against outreach and engagement."

*coughs politely* +1.

And yes, I am intentionally using internet language here (like the "fail" John refers to in his piece).

Matt Cartmill said...

Almost any discovery or problem can be made intelligible to a general audience. I don't see any reason why any scientific or scholarly idea needs to be presented in such a way as to limit its potential audience to specialists.

True, in some cases dozens of technical terms have to be used in the same article, and it would take too long to stop and explain every one of them. There isn't any simple English equivalent of "cavum epiptericum" or "retroposon."

But such cases are rarer than academic writers like to think. Most problems and answers can be conveyed in their basics without using more than a few alien terms or concepts. More usually, unintelligibility results from a persistence of the grad-student habit of using jargon to show that you have mastered it. I think I went through three post-doctoral publications before I started writing "hands and feet" instead of "cheiridia"...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the provocative article.

To ask a question: if I closely read and chew on the material as well as the previous comments... can I add it to my CV (akin to comments for a target article in Current Anthropology, ...)?

#aproprossarcasm #thanks

Anonymous said...

I have a theme interpreted from your essay. "Evolve, adapt and or perish- Anthropology itself must evolve.". Definitions of all things are changing due to the rapid cross-pollination of scientific fields! This was an excellent call to arms by Mr. Hawks, most excellent! I'm especially inspired by your call to "open source" one's study into the digital arena, in real time. Risky, bold and a shot in the arm! That will put science first and ego last, so refreshing.

This sort of removal of stops and impediments to information flow...will speed the formation and testing of theory. Old ideas are in need of replacement, and you are just the kind of person to describe a better, more modern methodology for a newer science of anthropology, which is more conductive to both testable theory and to the wrecking of the unproven!

Gwen said...

John, I completely agree with everything here, and I hope to see a future of many more open journals published online, but though that will make knowledge more accessible in a technical sense, it doesn't address the issue of engaging with the public.

I have been thinking more and more recently about the role of museums - and how much of a role they have played in the past, though they struggle in the current economy and have been heavily criticized by the scholarly establishment, they have a real potential, given some resources and with the concerted efforts of scholars, to communicate a lot about evolution, culture, diversity, and a myriad of things that anthropologists do. I personally would like to see a much stronger engagement of anthropologists of all stripes, with museums and other public establishments to bring the results of our research to the public in a way that is fun and interesting, and accessible to all ages.

John Hawks said...


Museums have been so important to the field, and many of them are making successful moves into new media. But much of today's anthropological research doesn't translate into museums in the same way as past topics of research. To take an example in my area, it is very hard to do genetics well in a museum context. Yet this is a key area for communicating what we now understand about human prehistory. It's a great challenge for the future.

Anonymous said...

I'm an interested, non-professional who last sat in an anthro classroom more than forty years ago. Nevertheless, I love what I saw in anthro.
Government employment was calling and so I went another way.
Not being a pro in the field, I am probably one of the folks who Prof. Hawks and others think need to be engaged with/by the professionals.
So I ask, what is the practical use of anthropology? My interest in it won't support it.
I understand that Human Terrain Mapping has a mixed reputation, serving as some may say illegal or immoral purposes of State or Defense. It does, however, pay.
Perhaps the field could generate some guidelines that would allow professionals to work in HMT without being seen as agents of a nefarious purpose.
Still, I suppose, we might encounter something similar to the tension between journalism and intelligence in which intelligence agencies are requested not to cover their agents as journos in order to protect the real thing who might look dodgy, going around asking questions.
Whatever happens, the fact remains that the folks currently seeing themselves as paying might want to ask for a practical result. It would be well to have an answer. Whatever it is.

LAAnthro said...

Great essay, thanks. I am a new master's student, trying to follow the up-swell of digital tools, online collaboration, etc. I noticed the technological lack in my department and am working to learn and disseminate any and all tools that will keep anthropologists in touch and at pace with the rest of the world.

I am going to ask the silly question here. I didn't get the reference to fail and the hashtag. yes, I know what a hashtag is. And yes, even asking this question I AM the technologically forward one in the department. I'll take all the help I can get.

Also, @anonymous: as to the practical use of anthropology, this might be helpful: It is a response from anthropologists to Rick Scott's recent comment that Florida doesn't need anymore anthropologists. The practical applications of the field displayed in the presentation are much less controversial than HTM. I'm glad to see the circulation of this prezi.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John. Another terrible aspect of this is that students are excited and ready to contribute early. This joy is squashed very quickly, and makes the field take on a soul killing cast later on and contributes to attrition. Now one is increasingly caught between the sludge of what the field is in many instances, and the equation of research with money (in many instances when an administrator speaks of research, see if money is not actually interchangeable and decide what they are really talking about). I am fed up with it. I have come to find this field social sciences among the most antisocial, and often believe my former love was misplaced. This seems to be confirmed on a daily basis.

Kez Wallis said...

As a relative newbie to Anthropology I love what you have written here because here are the concerns that I have been having over the last few months. To be fair a lot of my concerns are regarding the Social Sciences in general, but Anthropology does seem to be not taking up the opportunities that it could be.

One thing that has amazed me since I embarked on postgraduate studies are the numbers of graduate students who aren't publishing their work anywhere and everywhere they can. It's only cutting edge research until someone else writes about it and there's a long time between starting your research and publishing your thesis. With digital publishing and online sites like this there are no excuses for not getting your research out there. I am in the process of trying to get myself up to speed enough that I can blog some of my fieldwork experiences as they happen. Not only is this a great way for me to write about how I am feeling and what has happened as it happens and allows my supervisors easy access to this information, it also allows me to put my thoughts out there into the world and hopefully to show how amazing anthropology can be!

D said...

Great article! I am just finishing up my fourth year undergrad. I love the field, and I believe it's something worth being passionate about. Every time I read an anth article I am saddened by how esoteric it is (with some amazing exceptions). You HAVE to be an anthropologist to some extent to understand any of it, and for proof of this look no further than this: ask anyone what anthropology is. The most educated non-anthropologists can think of archaeology or forensics, not a vast, rich, radical, parturient tradition (not to say that archaeology and forensics are not so!). I think informants need to be included in the research way more than is the norm, as you said. And it definitely needs to update its format to be more popular; purism is death. Ultimately, I'd love to see it become decentralized, democratized: everyone can be involved, everyone can learn, everyone can and should be empowered. It needs to be opened right up, cultivate the kind of pride that can only emerge from honest vulnerability. Psychology, biology, linguistics, I think make great companions for example. Even as an insider I feel alienated at times by the indolence: the crunch to be more phenomenological, more symbolic, more post-structural, more whatever. I think embracing the chaos that births spontaneous, emergent self-organization is the way of the future. I could digress endlessly. Anyway, good luck to all the nascent anthropologists; I look forward to working with you.