What's wrong with anthropology?

2 minute read

Anthropologies is an online project organized by Ryan Anderson that brings together voices reflecting the state of the discipline today. The current volume has the theme, “Anthropology with purpose”. My essay has riled a lot of people already: “What’s wrong with anthropology?”

Academic anthropology in America is complacent, at a time when budgets are falling, academic departments are being closed, and a larger and larger number of people have become skeptical of the value of science. It’s time for an intervention.

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.

I argue for three strategies:

  1. Embrace new forms: use technology to change the way we publish our work.

  2. Defend good science, acknowledging anthropology’s unique place.

  3. Empower our students: leverage the incredible value of fieldwork by requiring translational work from the beginning.

A section from this last:

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?

I’ve served up some real red meat in this one, and I’ve been so heartened to see the growing comment stream. A sample:

I did an honors thesis on applying an empirical methodology to an ethnographically documented phenomenon that won a university-wide social science prize. I was the kind of promising student which anthropology as a field should be trying to retain someone with ideas, creativity, and able to produce original research early. While an undergrad, I had every intention of continuing on in anthropology. However, after graduating and sitting down to figure out where to apply to graduate school, I discovered that getting a degree in cognitive anthropology would be a pretty horrible life plan if I wanted to have a career based on my graduate training ... From what is now an outsider perspective, the AAA ditching science in its mission statement suggests to me that I made the right decision. Anthropology has already lost intellectual territory to other disciplines, seemingly without a fight.

Some great names have already chimed in, and I hope that many more will take the opportunity to join the conversation.