Friday, May 13, 2011

Will transdisciplinary work destroy anthropology?

When the Department of Anthropology at Arizona State University was planning its transition into the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in 2005, a member of the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association said in an interview, "This kind of program isn't going to strengthen anthropology, its going to destroy it." A bunch of non-anthropologist faculty positions were added to the program, mostly new hires, and bunch of new anthropologists were hired (including yours truly in 2005). Now that the new school is five years old, has anthropology been destroyed?

Not according to an article in the current issue of Anthropology News ("Transdisciplinary Anthropology at Arizona State" by Alexandra Brewis, Christopher Roberts, Rhian Stotts, and Amber Wutich, Anthropology News, May 2011, page 21). This group of faculty and students conducted a network analysis of faculty collaboration within the school, gathering data on research collaboration and communication among faculty within the school.

Figure 1 reports research collaboration on formal projects, and Figure 2 shows communication (email, phone calls, etc.). It is interesting that the non-anthropologists, group 5, are in the middle of the anthropological subdisciplines. Archaeologists (group 1) collaborate most often with bioarchaeologists and non-anthropologists. I collaborate on research projects with a few archaeologists and a few of the non-anthropologists (e.g., see our transdisciplinary urban project, a funded research project within the school. This is one of a group of transdiscplinary research project in the school, called "Late Lessons from Early History"). As for communication patterns, it looks like physical anthropologists and bioarchaeologists are always yakking (while the rest of us are too busy doing research...... ha ha, only kidding!).

The results of the network study confirm my own subjective impression of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Anthropology is alive and well here, but many or most of us anthropologists are also engaged in transdisciplinary work and collaboration that both extends and strengthens anthropology. The fact that all of our faculty are empirical scholars with a scientific epistemology certainly helps processes of interaction and collaboration.

I can't link to the Anthropology News article because its not posted online yet. I find it very frustrating that they don't get around to posting their issues until after the paper copy has been distributed (I got my copy today). I'll try to add a link after the AAA gets around to posting the issue. On the other hand, since AN is not open access, many readers will not be able to access it. So maybe I'll download the article and post it on my website. The things one has to do to get around AAA publication policies!

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