Monday, January 3, 2011

American Anthropologist implies that archaeology is not part of anthropology

Just got the Dec. 2010 issue of American Anthropologist. There is a special section titled "In Focus: (Not) The End of Anthropology,  Again? Some Thoughts on Disciplinary Futures" edited by John Comaraff and Karl-Heniz Kohl (wow, what a nice postmodern-sounding title). There are three articles, each by a sociocultural anthropologist, about the future of the discipline of anthropology. Oops, I mean the future of "cultural anthropology," although only one of the articles (by Andre Gingrich) has the sense to use "cultural anthropology" in its title. The article by Ulf Hannerz ignores archaeology, and the one by John Comaroff uses "archaeology" only to mean the "past" or "history" (deliberately echoing Foucault's usage, I'm sure). Gingrich does mention archaeology when he says, "Other neighboring disciplines among the “four fields”—for instance, archaeology or physical anthropology..."

These three authors, like many sociocultural anthropologists, apparently view their own subdiscipline as the "real" anthropology, with fields like archaeology or biological anthropology as dimly-related hangers-on. These fields aren't really part of anthropology, unless one is forced into 4-field discourse for some reason. These authors certainly seem to think they can write about the "discipline of anthropology," but only talk about cultural anthropology. And by implication one can infer that the (sociocultural anthropologist) Editor of American Anthropologist feels the same way (otherwise one might expect a note from the Editor, or perhaps more precise titles of the articles).

So where does this leave archaeology? The flagship journal of the main anthropological association, in a featured series of papers, implicitly dismisses archaeology as an important part of anthropology. When this is added to the insults from the AAA science fiasco, it helps push people like me further from anthropology. In the past few years I have come to view archaeology as a comparative historical social science discipline of its own, rather than as a lesser subdiscipline of anthropology. I discuss this briefly in "Archaeology is Archaeology" (Anthropology News, Jan 2010, page 35 - I'll try to post this on my website soon).

If I were a sociocultural anthropologist who wanted to drive archaeologists out of the AAA, I'd probably do things like fiddle with the wording of planning documents to alienate archaeologists, plant hegemonic articles in AA, and cut archaeology sessions from the AAA annual meeting (this initially occurred in 2002, and was the impetus for the founding of the Society for Anthropological Sciences). Hmmm, all these things have happened.


Anonymous said...

I suspect this is an American situation that is due to historical circumstances.In most European countries archaeology is much closer to the historical sciences than to anthropology. In my view anthropology is indeed "cultural or social anthropology". Archaeology is, in my opinion, a very different discipline with completely different methods, empirical data, etc. I see no problem separating them but both disciplines should be called scientific...

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, the concept of "4-field anthropology" is definitely a North American phenomenon, and it is largely kept alive (in my opinion) by university politics, not by any true intellectual integration. Quite a bit is published the merits of the 4-field approach, but most consists of "could" and "possibly" and "maybe" rather than actual existing intellectual fusion. For me, one advantage of considering archaeology as its own field is that it brings in the European and other scholars, as you mention.

In North American anthropological archaeology, many students are socialized to think that non-anthropological archaeology consists of upper-class British men in pith helmets searching for marble bathtubs, with no consideration for society or culture. But some of the most "anthropological" archaeology is being done by Classicists, and some of the most boring, non-social, work by "anthropological archaeologists."

Mick Morrison said...

In Australia, both fields are very much distinct from one another to the detriment of both, I think. Many archaeology departments lack cultural/social anthropologists and the same applies to anthropology departments who lack archaeologists. Undergraduate students frequently emerge with no generalist degree in anthropology, but as archaeologists or cultural anthropologists. I teach in one such institution as an archaeologist.

I think this is a terrible situation because students emerge with a complete lack of knowledge of one discipline or the other, yet in practice as researchers or heritage managers, having a broad knowledge base is of course critical, particularly when working with Indigenous Australians.

It will be interesting to see how this debate develops in the North America - thanks for posting about it.

Anonymous said...

This is more than simple academic word play. I was recently reviewed for promotion by my Chair (a linguistic anthropologist) and was dinged for focusing my teaching, course development, and research on "archaeology" rather than "anthropology." This was done to minimize my efforts and to suggest I was not a team player. Of course, no other subdiscipline specialists are so denigrated -- and sadly, from the outside, this kind of criticism is seen as legitmate.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that this has something to do with current budgetary issues that many Anthropology departments are facing. Universities may be able to cut corners by reducing the number of departments. One of the strategies is separating subdisciplines and merging them with other departments.

In a crisis of being shut down, each subfield needs to make an argument that they are distinct from other subdisciplines of anthropology and essential part of education, thus merit support. I expect to see more discussion like this in an effort to establish new identities to survive.

In my opinion, archaeology necessarily use multidisciplinary approach. Whatever archaeology is part of, I'd study cultural/social and biological anthropology and use anthropological data among other social and natural science.

fredmsander said...

Where one draws the line between physical sciences and social sciences and other such boundaries is not dissimilar from the lines between the South and the North before the Civil War or where the lines are drawn for congressional districts. it is usually about power.
Whether economics is a science or psychiatry (my profession) also struggles with these questions which are largely about power and money. No diagnosis, no remuneration. More diagnoses more patients, more drugs etc etc.
Fred M Sander (

Michael E. Smith said...

@fredmsander - I wouldn't want to discount power and resources, but its not a simple situation. Cultural anthropologists are numerically dominant in most academic settings, and if they want to claim to be the "real" anthropoloigsts they can look to anthropology in Europe, where that equation works. Archaeology and physical anthropology get more grants, which is one reason cultural anthropologists in university departments resent those fields. And of course the science/humanities divide cuts through this obliquely.