Quote: 'Disciplinary integration' in anthropology is a myth

I’ve been reading a new open access book by the anthropologist Rob Borofsky: An Anthropology of Anthropology: Time to Shift Paradigms?. The book is available for free download.

Borofsky has become well known as an advocate for “public anthropology”, the idea that anthropology should interact with a broader public, and be of service to the public.

I may point to a number of passages in the book as I read it. There is a great paragraph on page 23 that I want to highlight. Borofsky looked at several journals including the American Anthropologist and others to assess how many articles involve more than a single subfield – that is, when the research question actually requires core concepts and original data from two or more different kinds of anthropology.

The lack of subfield integration in times past is readily apparent when you read through old issues of the American Anthropologist. So why would anthropologists affirm something about the past—that the subfields previously collaborated in significant ways—that is clearly at variance with established fact? The myth of an earlier “golden age” of disciplinary integration constitutes a “social charter” for today’s departmental structure: It holds up an ideal. Disciplinary integration is imposed on the past—an “invention of tradition,” to quote Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. But it also does more. It implicitly represents a call for more disciplinary integration to resolve the current problem of departmental fragmentation. The myth allows anthropologists to address a problem of social structure—intellectual fragmentation within a department—without the pain of anyone actually having to change. It allows them to pretend that they all once worked together as a team.