May 17, 2005
Anthropology: Scenes from a Marriage
I just watched Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage over the weekend. This is us to a "t," and I'd like to extend the analogy. Marianne and Johan have a marriage which is hilariously idealized in the press. But it's loveless, despite mutual respect and admiration. They split up, painfully and fitfully, but continue to meet furtively over the years. I'd really like to get to the point where I can tryst occasionally with a biological anthropologist in a cabin on the sea in Sweden (I'm liking the analogy more and more...) and then return to a marriage that works on a daily basis.
(I guess I was supposed to put a disclaimer that I'm going to give away the plot...it's a classic, so -- too bad.)
Rex and Kerim seem a little skeptical.
If there are anthropologists who believe in holistic anthropology, believe their work exemplifies it, and pass this value onto their students, wonderful. Rob Borofsky's 2002 AA article shows this would be the exception to the rule. I'll be eagerly reading Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle when I get to Claremont week after next to see what others have to say. I fear the four-field myth is somewhat cynically pushed in departments that need to advance a common project to convince deans and provosts not to axe them. Politically, no problem, at least until other arrangements can be made to protect jobs and research, and this won't be easy in many places. But it's intellectually dishonest.
My reaction on this blog was to students at Harvard who seem fond of the model in the absence of faculty encouragement or institutional thrown-togetherness. I really don't mean to be critical; I'm genuinely puzzled and hope to bring some of them into the conversation to talk about it.
I am tired of seeing sociocultural anthropologists get hit over the head by archaeologists -- archaeologists! -- for abandoning "science." If you can produce a chi square analysis of potsherds measured to the micron, you're free to infer just about anything, it seems, and call it scientific. But mention "discourse" and then, well, you're just making up stories. "Scientism," in this case, is precisely the right term, and the less institutional power folks like that have over me or the meaning of "science" or "anthropology" the better. I realize that it goes both ways and also that archaeologists are in the minority in most departments (and sometimes archaeologists and physical anthropologists combined). I could be wrong here, but I do think that, a Donna Harraway here and there notwithstanding, cultural anthropologists don't usually sling terms like "scientism" or "positivism" unless provoked.
Take the Neel/Chagnon debate: the charge was that one biologist and one evolutionary anthropologist were "unethical" and not because they were evolutionists, although many are skeptical of some of the specific scientific claims in this case. The response: you're dirty, rotten postmodernists for raising such an issue. From scanning comments on the current AAA referendum, it seems that the wagons are being circled on largely sub-disciplinary grounds.
So, yeah, I think it's time for us to start seeing other people.
May 14, 2005
Daddy, please come home
This week the Anthropology Club at the World's Greatest University hosted a really nice event where senior thesis writers volunteered to give short presentations on their work to an audience of faculty, staff, and fellow students. There are some excellent theses this year, and the presentations were interesting.
The club founder gave a little speech after his own thesis presentation in which he riffed on the "good fences make good neighbors" theme, imploring us not to "turn the fences into walls." This to faculty members absolutely segregated by subfield, there in the room, by building (socioculturals from archy/bios, anyway), social life (I think), and governance. The student's tone reminded me of an adolescent pleading for his parents to get back together and can't life just be like it was? Um, like back in the fifties? Doesn't he know it's all over except for the occasionally-ugly-but-usually-not alimony and child support negotiations? He suggested more cross-subfield requirements rather than the fewer the department seems to be leaning towards.
I don't really see what's at stake in the four-field debate for undergraduates in a big department with a marriage-of-convenience model like Harvard's. They grasp or are told of the huge methodological and theoretical gulfs between the fields. Their work is assessed by faculty in their chosen subfields. So, the question is, What are they reading or hearing that makes f-f anthro seem viable to them? Do they want their cross-subfield friendships validated disciplinarily? If so, why? Certainly they have friends in history or English or social studies and feel engaged with them in a somewhat common project without an overarching structure, no? It's a real mystery to me.