Monday, January 10, 2011

Anthro bloggers send letter to the AAA Executive Board

Several anthropologists who maintain an active online presence and following via blogs, Twitter, and other social media have joined together to send a letter to the AAA Executive Board (EB) regarding our role in growing the conversation about the recent removal of "science" from the LRP as well as the subsequent controversy and debate. I include the full text of the letter below, as well as a link to a pdf complete with hyperlinks to all websites and Twitter profiles; feel free to distribute and post the document.

To: Virginia Dominguez
Cc: Leith Mullings, Deb Martin, Nan Rothschild, George Armelagos, Florence Babb, Laura Graham, Ana Aparicio, Alisse Waterston, Jason Miller, Hugh Gusterson, Susan Gillespie, Lee Baker, Jean Schensul, Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, Ida Susser, Ed Liebow, Kate Clancy, Daniel Lende

January 10, 2010

Dear President Dominguez, President-Elect Mullings, and the AAA Executive Board,

We are a group of anthropologists who maintain an online presence, through social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. The focus and tone of our presence varies, from outreach to research, from teaching to career development, from the personal to the political. However, we are united in our passion for our discipline. We join with those who have applauded the wording of the “What is Anthropology?” statement which clearly outlines the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology and its methods, both scientific and humanistic. This statement achieves the inclusivity that the removal of “science” from the Long Range Plan threw into question.

However, we also want to express our concern over AAA’s public characterization that it was only the mainstream media and other outside coverage that engaged in active discussions of the actions of the Executive Board (EB), or that this media coverage didn't in some ways reflect real tensions and reactions within the anthropological community. As a group, we played key roles in the online discussion regarding the AAA EB recent omission of the word “science” from the Long Range Plan (LRP), as well as subsequent responses by the EB. By parameterizing the public discussion as only taking place in the media and among "outsider" bloggers attempting to construct an “us versus them” binary, the impression is given that there has been no internal dissent or dialogue.

In reality, there has been a vibrant conversation taking place on our blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on other forms of social media, expressing myriad views regarding not only the LRP wording, the actions of the EB, and the role of science in anthropology, but also deeper questions of anthropological identity. Indeed, it was through blogs and Twitter feeds like ours that the media and outside bloggers first realized the depth of concern and confusion the EB’s actions elicited within the anthropological community. This concern and critique were more complicated, and frankly more interesting, than the dichotomous rift promulgated by the New York Times and other outlets, but it was real and it was taking place among anthropologists. We know the EB is aware of the vibrant online community of anthropologists that has been deeply engaged in this issue. We hope the EB will publicly recognize how anthropologists online helped advance debate over the controversy, playing a central role in creating a publicly available discussion that engaged the Executive Board, anthropologists of different persuasions, and the larger media.

Online communities represent a powerful tool for dissecting tensions and misunderstandings as well as for constructing a broad forum for interdisciplinary collaboration and identity-building. We believe this controversy could have been largely mitigated by more effective discussion of the Long Range Plan in public forums online, and more timely release of all documents related to the controversy. With respect to the association’s long-term planning, we also believe the EB will be well-served by developing a more explicit and robust approach to anthropology online, including issues around open-access scholarship, public dissemination of ideas, teaching, interdisciplinary collaboration, and connection with and support for anthropologists who work online. Our own experience during this controversy shows the potential and importance of online engagement. Many of us were operating in isolation before the news of the changes to the LRP allowed us to find each other, to coordinate postings and conversations both on- and off-line. We have been grateful for the online anthropology community that has come together because of our opinions on the AAA LRP. Some have described this conversation as a renaissance for the discipline, and others have committed to learning more about each other’s subfields because of the tension that we finally had to acknowledge, all because of the AAA’s removal of the word “science.” We encourage the EB to consider how to support anthropologists working online, and to encourage further online collaboration and dissemination among AAA members. This will strengthen the discipline, and also permit more timely discussion and engagement among AAA members as the AAA acts on its Long Range Plan.

We view our online role as anthropologists as contributing a valuable service to the discipline we love. We are hopeful that this episode in our shared history will prove to catalyze important and inclusive dialogue regarding who we are as anthropologists as well as the channels we use to communicate with one another. We encourage the EB and the AAA membership as a whole to participate in this online community, to hear and join with the voices that are coming from within our discipline. This is an opportunity to move past marginalization and work together toward rebuilding a truly interdisciplinary anthropology based on mutual respect.


Julienne Rutherford, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
Blog, Twitter @JNRutherford
Kate Clancy, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Blog, Twitter @KateClancy
Daniel Lende, Associate Professor, University of South Florida
Blog, Twitter @daniel_lende
Ryan Anderson, PhD candidate, University of Kentucky
Krystal D’Costa, Digital Analyst, New York City
Blog, Twitter @anthinpractice
Francis Deblauwe, Program Developer, Alexandria Archive Institute
Carlina de la Cova, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Twitter @Bonesholmes
Eric Michael Johnson, PhD candidate, University of British Columbia
Blog, Twitter @ericmjohnson
James Holland Jones, Associate Professor, Stanford University
Blog, Twitter @juemos
Rosemary A. Joyce, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
Blog, Twitter @rajoyceUCB
Eric Kansa, Project Lead, Open Context
Erin Koch, Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky
Kristi Lewton, Lecturer, Harvard University
Twitter @kristilewton
Carl Lipo, Associate Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Megan McCullen, Visiting Instructor, Alma College
Blog, Twitter@GLEthnohistory
Carole McGranahan, Associate Professor, University of Colorado
Twitter @CMcGranahan
Colleen Morgan, PhD candidate, University of California, Berkeley
Eugene Raikhel, Assistant Professor, Unversity of Chicago
Douglas Reeser, PhD candidate, University of South Florida
Michael E. Smith, Professor, Arizona State University
Matt Tuttle, Journalist, Norfolk Anthropology Examiner
Twitter @Anthroprobably
Kyle W. West, Research Coordinator, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Blog, Twitter @kyle_west


  1. There is a certain amount of reality to the AAA's original characterization of anthropology. First of all, the overwhelming majority of anthropologists are not biological anthropologists, and anthropology departments are never housed in schools of natural sciences (at universities that have such separate schools or colleges). Second, there is a true, serious problem within biological anthropology: a pervasive lack of scientific rigor, and a certain self-satisfied acquiescence to that. We almost never interact directly with colleagues in the "hard" experiment-based natural sciences, and we avoid such interaction in order to avoid serious critique--or that little half-smile that they may be trying to conceal. The truth is that biological anthropology is not all that scientific. A certain complacency has cemented our reliance on methods that are incapable of elucidating cause and effect. This is particularly true where sociobiology (human and non-human primate) is concerned; in that case, there is not only a usual lack of experimentation, but a lack of any tangible entity of known physiological mechanism as the object of analysis (grandly labeled "the phenotypic gambit"). Why is no one honestly discussing these issues? Instead we get a lot of defensive, insecure rhetoric in order to avoid a painful but necessary critique from without.

  2. It is clear to those who have been actively following the discussion that it is not only biological anthropologists that have objected to the removal of the word "science" from the LRP, as well as the subsequent responses by the EB, nor has it been argued that all biological anthropologists do or must identify as “scientists.” So that is at least one point I take exception with. Second, I reject the proposal that there is a systemic lack of scientific rigor in the whole of biological anthropology because you haven't supported it. What is your evidence for this statement? Your sample? Your method of assessment and quantification? If we're going to argue rigor, these things are sort of foundational to rigorous scientific exploration.

    From my perspective, I haven't experienced this pervasive problem you describe - although I assume you have and would appreciate an expansion of this claim. As do many of my biological anthropology colleagues, I extensively explore the "hard science" literature that is relevant to my research (actually, I'm currently far more engaged with that literature than I am with the anthropology canon), I attend "hard science" conferences, I seek out lab training from non-anthropological "hard scientists", I use methods that most non-anthropologists would not equate with anthropological research. I even work and teach in a basic science department in a clinical college. Indeed, I don't know who among my colleagues actively avoids such interaction with the "hard sciences", which you portray as the norm. Again, you suggest your experience is at odds with that so I'm not going to argue that you are wrong – you know what you know. However, even though that self-imposed ignorance may be clung to by some biological anthropologists (and from your description, wear it as a badge of honor), my personal experience, collegial interactions, and my observations of the quality of the program at the AAPA and ASP conferences simply does not corroborate what you're saying.

    In many ways, biological anthropology shares a legacy and a toolkit with other arms of evolutionary biology/theory and not all of it is based on conventional experimentation, nor do I think it needs to be. However, in some cases, that has indeed led to unfortunately sloppy just-so stories, and indeed there are some recent articles by biological anthropologists that make me cringe. But I reject that as an indictment of the subdiscipline as a whole, but rather motivation to “grow the science.” I see the thirst for rigorous study design and hypothesis testing increasing, particularly because the tools outside of anthropology are becoming more accessible and relevant and also because competition for NSF and NIH dollars is so intense. If the science isn't sound, you're not going to get funded. I know a lot of NSF- and NIH-funded biological anthropologists, so at least some of us are getting it right.