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June 03, 2005

Scenes from a Marriage or No Weddings and a Funeral: Part I

This originated as a comment I posted to John Norvell's piece Anthropology: Scenes from a Marriage. Since I have started a blog here, it seemed more appropriate to take over ownership directly.

There are three themes in John's posting, which I will respond to separately.

The first is the “Scenes from a marriage” analogy. Although this suits the “Four Field Myth”, it does not apply well to the ethnographic roles the divisions of anthropology condition for anthropologists.

Borofsky’s 2002 AA article is cited to demonstrate the low rate of collaboration by different ‘fields’ of anthropology. Come on! -- 9.5% of articles surveyed is huge, more than enough to indicate that the four fields structure is a very productive disciplinary ‘grand narrative'.

I think the differing opinions of the significance of this extent of overt collaboration arises from the tension between the orchestra model as a disciplinary ideal vs the battle of the bands model (or maybe in today’s world the “Pop Idol” AKA “American Idol” model).

If we actually read and ponder our critiques of other disciplines, it is pretty clear that what defines a discipline is not some common set of methods and questions that people work on, but the ability to influence other’s conceptions of what they are doing and how this can be interpreted and built upon. This does not require that each anthropologist be aware of and be influenced directly by every other anthropologist (or even every category). It just requires that the network be dense enough to where there is influence, however indirect. 9.5% direct interaction represents more density than one might find in a discipline such as physics, for example.

Physicists are not a unified happy group of people. There are major structural divisions, for example between experimental and theoretical physicists (probably the most fundamental division), but also a whole raft of internal specialisms with their own base information, questions, conceptualisations, methods etc. which are unique to a specialism, and with poor comprehension between specialisms with respect to these internal issues. The results from the specialisation become useful to others when the results can be expressed in a manner that is ‘relevant’ to another specialisation. This is a tiny minority of activity within the discipline.

Why anthropology should be more coherent than physics I can’t imagine. Holism is not attained by explicit interactions alone, but rather by assumptions of direct and indirect influences and constraints.

Despite the complaints of some sociocultural anthropologists, the four fields (and more) are active and working in anthropology, and it would be a great shame to let departmental politics overtake good sense.

I should add that in the UK we are undergoing somewhat a reversal of the American trend - so far about half of all departments are reincorporating areas into anthropology that have been separated for more than a half century. Even with formal divisions the intellectual connections survived, and the need to interface with the world as it is becoming just seems to be a bit easier when people come together in an organisational sense as well as satisfying intellectual needs.

Posted by mdfischer at 01:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Introduction - Michael D Fischer

Introductions are boring, but probably necessary. The really boring details you can check out at, though I need to update this a bit as I have just received a personal chair, which in the UK system means I am finally a professor, fully empowered to bore and irritate people to my heart's content.

I'm Michael D Fischer, a thread of the biography melded with my doppleganger Michael M J Fischer. It's an interesting blend, all the more fascinating because he and I have approached issues from pretty much different directions while arriving at more or less the same places. He wins the biography on points (I get the name, he gets the photo). This biography gave rise to a future project of a panel at the AAA someday consisting entirely of speakers named Michael Fischer. [Update: Due to independent meddling by my sister, who spotted this, this interesting amalgam has now disappeared with only my details remaining]

Although I am now British, I was born in the USA in a small town in Oklahoma. All my formal education was in the US, at the University of Texas, Austin. Anthropology was my third career, and I have been at the University of Kent, Canterbury for the past 20 years. I began there as a Lecturer in Anthropology and Computing, an inspiration of John Davis, now Warden of All Souls, Oxford, who had spent a year at Berkeley and was quite taken by Gene Hammels' Quantitative Anthropology Laboratory. He went back to Kent in 1984 and wrote two proposals, one to acquire equipment for the entire Department for Teaching and Research, and another to fund the post that I eventually occupied. The post was under this really terrible Thatcherite programme called "New Blood", and formally I replaced Paul Stirling, the founder of the department who was offered a small fortune to retire early. He remained at Kent for another 13 years as my mentor and colleague, where we produced what was probably the first complete set of fieldnotes available online in 1994, spanning 45 years of research in the Turkish Village. This is presently in the middle of a face-lift to incorporate new technology and so is not entirely operational, but can be found at It will be relaunched in October, on his birthday.

As one might guess a lot of my work has related to methods, though I have always related these methods to ethnographic work in progress. Since 1982 when I became an Anthropology graduate student to present I have been in the field about six years, mostly in Pakistan and the Cook Islands, but including work on all continents except Antarctica, which I hope to fit in some day just to be tidy. People (such as Georgina Born) often assume that I am that 'straw anthropologist" that is so unpopular in post-structuralist discourse, but that is usually because they are not paying attention. It is true that I consider a lot of my research and teaching as 'science', but it is also true that a great deal of it is scholarship with more of a humanities orientation. I chose Anthropology because it did span the humanities to the sciences, and was not one or the other. The UK has turned out to be a good place to be during the dark ages of anthropology in the USA, where both the humanities and sciences influences in Anthropology were marginalised by powerful political cliques. In the UK we could largely do Anthropology rather than argue about it, and anthropology in the UK is funded by all the different disciplinary focused research funding bodies depending on the specifics of the research. When you consider that we have perhaps 300 permanent academic anthropologists in the UK, against perhaps 5000 in the USA, we have managed to publish beyond our weight in the confusion.

Whatever the value of what I've had to say, I have been active in developing online resources for anthropologists since the late 1970s, though its fair to say that little of this had much impact until the WWW took off sometime in 1995. Since that time we have created a great midden of resources at in what we call the Ethnographics Gallery, founded in January 1994, the direct descendent of our first web site in April, 1993, which basically extended our BB, gopher and ftp sites to the WWW. The EG is currently undergoing a transition to new grid-based technologies (so-called E-Science) which will make it much easier to find and use our materials and make possible many more services on our part. Much of this transition will take place over the coming summer, and new services will begin over the following year.

Anyway, that's far more than you want to know at the moment.

I do want to commend John Norvell who has taken the initiative to set up this site.

Posted by mdfischer at 03:02 AM | Comments (2)