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.
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.