Monday, December 13, 2010

An Academic Field Implodes: Anthropology

The tremors of change have radiated out from Anthropology over the last week, and related fields are feeling queasy from all the turmoil.

What is the fuss? It seems the executive board of the American Anthropological Association has stripped the word "science" from its long-range goals for the field. Only cultural anthropologists who do not rely on data are welcome (so it seems).

How long has this been going on? The lead up to it has been unfolding over the last decade, with clear lines drawn in the funding-agency sands over the last six. Agencies, such as the NSF, have had the audacity to require actual methods and data to support anthropological claims. Cultural anthropologists have been outraged by what they claim to be oppressive enforcement of European, positivist thought.

How hot is it getting over there? The science-based anthrofolk are now calling the cultural anthrofolk names, arguing that their supposed scholarship has as much quality as that of "creationists".

Why should folk in an English department be interested? Anthropology as a field is very much like many English departments. Linguists would play the role of the science folk, and cultural studies faculty would play the role of the cultural anthropologists (where words like hegemony and hermeneutics come up a lot).

Language Log has several good discussions here and here (with many links and updates therein).


  1. Hmm, very interesting. I fear that if something like that DID go down in our English department, I'd be screwed. Because I am a student of both types of work, and am interested in both!

    But anyway, how has this affected the WVU Anthropology Department? Anyone know?

  2. Does this mean we're supposed to throw you out of the Department? :-)

    Seriously, the difference between cultural Anthropology and Cultural Studies is that I don't think cultural critics make any serious pretensions to truth. While, obviously, the cultural critic thinks that his or her analysis of the gender politics of Glee is correct, our primary criterion for assessing a good argument is finally whether or not it's interesting. In this respect, Cultural Studies is closer to Philosophy than any form of Anthropology.

    Besides, we're all liberals and want everyone to have a chance to talk. Well, except you, Science Boy. (I am totally kidding.)

  3. Thanks for posting, Kirk! I'm interested in the phrase "actual methods and data" from your sentence about the NSF funding. Does the debate center on competing definitions of "methods and data," that is, that cultural anthropologists are employing qualitative research methods (interviewing, observation) and generating/analyzing the kinds of textual data that gets produced through those research methods? Or is the cultural anthropologists' claim something along the lines of "we needn't define our field in terms of the research methods it employs and the grounds on which it can make knowledge claims"? Either way, it does indeed bring up interesting connections to our department. Consider, for example, the "research methods" requirement in our newly configured undergraduate English major. I think Dennis' literary theory course falls under that umbrella, as does the English 301 course that I teach for Professional Writing students. I meet that "research methods" designation by teaching students ethnographic research methods and how to analyze the data they generate through this research in order to create a report of a professional writer's writing practices. I'm imagining that your approach to a "research methods" course would be significantly different in that it would operate according to a different definition of "data" and the terms under which data is considered to be legitimate. In the ethnography-style course I teach, the "data legitimation" comes through the process of triangulating data, that is, analyzing/comparing data from the different research method streams (say, for instance, comparing what a professional writer says about his or her writing process in an interview against what evidence the researcher sees when analyzing multiple drafts of a document that writer produced and/or what the researcher observed when watching the writer at work in planning/drafting/revising/editing that document). What might be a working definition for "data" and/or "data legitimation" (or some parallel concept) in the way you would teach a research methods course?

  4. We'll see what Kirk says about the 301 course.

    This may simply be a function of the cynicism of old age, but in the Literary Theory survey, it seems to me that the "methodologies" are simply conceptual approaches to the material that, finally, do not produce objective data. I'd be more inclined to see them as generating "truth-events" for the critic in Badiou's sense rather than truth per se. So: belief rather than truth (although this reads Badiou through Zizek). In other words, Glee is about gender politics unless you believe it's really about social class.

  5. I'll get back to this one soon (it is too important to leave). Too busy catching up on Glee at the moment.