Mailbag: Anthropology in transition

Re: Anthropology in transition:

I was alerted by your point on the abandonment of early anthropology. I always thought it was just in Europe, and that America was grounded in Boaz. Related to this: isn't the concept of "social sciences" a misnomer? There is a lot to study in Anthropology and Psychology (and probably Economics) which not at all social. Calling anthropology 'social' makes a major assumption about the nature of our species, and I would argue, gives undue support to the notion that social and cultural evolution were THE driving forces in human evolution. How, then, can this hypothesis be tested? Maybe Psychology has been lucky. Although philosophical in origin, it has properly merged with biology and anatomy. There are so many new labels like Cognitive Sciences, Brain Sciences, and especially Neurosciences. Scientifically-based approaches can then fit in, with much less commitment to a particular philosophical theory. However, I don't think this has had a negative impact of the stability of Psychology as a field, but rather made it more generally useful - and perhaps even less obliged to be 'social'. Is the problem is that Anthropologists are tugging a war over a name, and may fit together more comfortably after creating some new ones?

Truly, much of Anthropology is not social, and arguably most of psychology is not, except insofar as they involve social creatures, not social dynamics. On the other hand, the things that make my kind of anthropology different from biology mostly involve social processes – otherwise, why am I not simply a biologist?

I had a reply from another reader who was surprised that this is such an issue in the States. She was trained in Russia. I think that the importance of Boas can’t be overestimated, and yet so few students actually engage with this history. To be honest, I can’t point to many other biological anthropologists in my generation who know, say, Ruth Benedict or Alfred Kroeber, real first generation Boasians.

Will the dispute go away? Sure, the whole thing is about control of resources at the university level. For many of us, it’s a non-issue. My primatologist colleagues care a great deal, because to be very honest, no biology departments are hiring primatologists. If there is going to be a dedicated field of primatology in the States, it is going to be grounded in anthropology. So to see “anthropology” pushing away these science approaches, that is a real threat.

I think anthropology works just to the extent that prominent anthropologists are role models for good work. It’s sort of like “complexity studies” – if someone did good work, nobody would question whether there is a real field of study there.

Well, that may not answer your questions, but it’s a start!