Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Do cultural anthropologists consider archaeology as part of “Anthropology”? – Comments on a new magazine, “Anthropology Now”

Since I began teaching in a program that is not called a “Department of Anthropology” three years ago (it’s the “School of Human Evolution and Social Change), I’ve done some thinking on the discipline of anthropology. Many anthropologists in the U.S. have made lots of noise over the years about supporting the notion of “4-fields anthropology”—that is, an academic discipline made up of several subdisciplines: cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics (Brenton 1996). Of course there are doubters and skeptics, and these may now be in ascendance (Borofsky 2002; Segal, and Yanagisako 2005). In my experience, discourse promoting the 4-fields approach was mainly expressed in order to convince university deans that anthropology is a good thing, that we need more resources, etc.

For a long time, it seemed to me that a major obstacle to achieving some kind of integrated 4-field anthropology was the attitudes of cultural anthropologists. The basic attitude of many cultural anthropologists I have known is that cultural anthropology is the “real” anthropology. Archaeology and physical anthropology are part of this “sacred bundle” of four fields, but they are definitely junior or inferior members of the team. Most departments need them for their undergraduate enrollments and grants, but their practitioners are not really anthropologists in the same sense as cultural anthropologists.

I recently came across information on a new anthropology magazine called Anthropology Now, referred from the excellent blog “Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in [**CULTURAL**] Anthropology” (Oops, I accidentally inserted a word! But wait, it makes the blog name more accurate!) Here is the goal of the magazine:

“ABOUT THE MAGAZINE: Anthropology Now focuses on the ways that anthropological theory and research can inform and affect contemporary public discourse and public policy debates. It offers readers thought-provoking and timely content focused on contemporary issues and debates.”

The editorial statement goes on to say that other subdisciplines already do well in the popular media, but “For a variety of reasons, cultural anthropological approaches to current social issues do not often get incorporated in existing media.”

In case the orientation of the magazine is not clear, look at the Editorial Board. Not surprisingly, all members are cultural anthropologists.

Now I have nothing against a new magazine in (cultural) anthropology. In fact, I think it’s a great idea. But the text on the website just confirms my jaundiced view that cultural anthropologists consider themselves as the “real” anthropologists.

I am of two minds about whether I think this matters or not.

(1) From an intellectual perspective, I would be happy to have cultural anthropologists go ahead and appropriate “anthropology” for themselves. I am an archaeologist, and in my own research I get much more mileage out of literature in urban studies, geography and history than I do from works in cultural anthropology. I disagree VERY STRONGLY with the view that “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing” (Binford 1962; Gillespie, and Nichols 2003; Willey, and Phillips 1958). That is just a silly statement that made some kind of sense back in the 1950s, but is completely off base today.

(2) From a professional perspective, however, U.S. universities are stuck with anthropology as a discipline. If it splits up into factions, this has very real negative consequences for the research and teaching of all concerned. Anyone in a university knows that there is strength in numbers and factionalism is typically punished by deans. Even when an intellectual case was made for splitting anthropology into two departments at Stanford University, they ended up merged again by top-down fiat (with little or no consultation with faculty). So like it or not, U.S. anthropology departments in U.S. universities are stuck with four fields (or as many of them as a small program can provide).

Sorry to ramble like this. I wish the new magazine best of luck. We really do need something like this. But reading the web site brought back some old resentment about the attitudes of cultural anthropologists toward archaeologists. But now that I teach in a “program formerly known as anthropology,” I don’t need to worry about such things myself. It has been intellectually liberating to be able to concentrate on my research and have lots of diverse colleagues (anthropologists and others) to interact and cooperate with. My courses, however, are still labeled “Anthropology,” which is just fine.


Binford, Lewis R. (1962) Archaeology as Anthropology. American Antiquity 28:217-225.

Borofsky, Robert (2002) THE FOUR SUBFIELDS: Anthropologists as Mythmakers. American Anthropologist 104:463-480.

Brenton, Barrett P. (1996) Four-Field Approach. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, pp. 508-510. vol. 2. Henry Holt, New York.

Gillespie, Susan D. and Deborah L. Nichols (editors) (2003) Archaeology is Anthropology. Archaeological Papers vol. 13. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC.

Segal, Daniel A. and Sylvia J. Yanagisako (editors) (2005) Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Willey, Gordon R. and Philip Phillips (1958) Method and Theory in American Archaeology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


tingotankar said...

I agree with most of what you say in this post (especially the part about cultural anthropologists being the main obstacle for a more complex understanding of anthropology). Having a background in both, I think that it is next to impossible to be an archaeologist without also having at least some understanding of CA and its main critical issues. However, anthropologists could really use som temporal depth in their understanding of culture, such as Polly Wiessner has managed to highlight for instance.

The big problem in Europe is that here the distance between these sub-disciplines is far greater than in the US. Here archaeology is treated almost as a branch of history. Mostly because nation states are studying "their" past (whether accurate or not) rather than a prehistory decidedly different from historical events.

The problem is that we all overlap with other different disciplines, and all sub-disciplines fear being over-shadowed by the one that is currently most in fashion. I don't mind us being separate disciplines, I just wish there was a better organization of Higher Education that made cooperation and joint projects more easy to start up and finance.


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Larry Stout said...

I'm a retired geologist -- neither an anthropologist nor an archaeologist, but very interested in the ideas both, of which I have read a fair amount. It's my considered opinion that cultural anthropologists would do well to seek some approximation to a rational consensus among themselves, about all kinds of things, before they worry about inclusion or exclusion of archaeologists. After all, a field that frequently insists upon an "aesthetic" dimension to its studies and incorporates all manner of philosophies has a way to go before it can claim to be a rational "discipline".