Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Revisiting a controversy of debated etiology

It may be a new year, but the fascination with the #AAAfail story marches onward. Regarding the change of wording to the LRP, I had two central concerns: 1) the wording itself (and the constituency involved in making it and their rationale for doing so) and 2) the response by the AAA EB to criticism and concern from within its own anthropological community. Though related, these are separate entities in many ways. I think the What is Anthropology? statement is a wonderful antidote to the unfortunate damage done by the LRP changes, but I have also been concerned by the lack of public acknowledgment by AAA that debate took place “in house”, not only in the pages of the NY Times, as well as minimal disclosure of the process that preceeded these changes.

Recent blog posts by fellow anthropologists have raised more interesting questions about the nature of the reaction within the anthropological community. For example, I found it particularly interesting that UC Berkeley archaeologist Rosemary Joyce refers to the situation as a "manufactured controversy" based on Wade's reporting. As Dr. Joyce reminds us, Wade did indeed draw really unfortunate and inaccurate battle lines (e.g. anthropologists who study things like gender and race versus those who are scientists). Few anthropologists (any?) subscribed to this sensationalized version of events, and the AAA EB was right to smack Wade down on this front. However, as many of you know and have personally experienced, there has been genuine, non-manufactured controversy within our discipline. There have been active disagreements among anthropologists about how much value to ascribe to the wording itself and how to interpret the EB's actions that preceded and followed. Some of us have argued that it’s no big deal and have accepted the wording and EB response as appropriate and inclusive while others have engaged in serious critique of both. I have not performed statistics on this, but it is my (perhaps self-serving) impression that the latter view is largely held by biological anthropologists and some archaeologists.

Does this necessarily signify the huge dichotomous rift portrayed by the NY Times, or that I advocate an “us vs. them” binary, a resurrection of the “science wars”? No, what’s going on is far more nuanced than that. But to deny that the media coverage did indeed capture some element of internal tensions doesn’t seem to me to be a productive means of moving forward. If you experience something and I tell you that *I* didn’t experience it that way so your experience is not of relevance to me, it’s difficult to work together toward a collaborative solution of better understanding. And to dismiss this issue as merely a rehashing of science wars by a hopelessly entrenched faction also fails to provide a pathway to greater inclusivity and a restoration of the holism American anthropology has always aspired to (and been frustrated by). I think it is unwise to disguise or minimize real disagreement and critique in the interest of debunking Wade's unfortunate coverage. It is very real that the AAA as an organization and conference have long been viewed as irrelevant to many of the very people it ostensibly wants to contain under its umbrella, and the "science" situation (not the one portrayed in the media, but the one that really happened) only served to further that impression. That's a problem for all of us, even those who found the whole thing rather yawn-inducing.

I’ve gained really interesting perspective from my colleagues who have viewed this situation very differently than I do, and in many ways I have tempered some of my original positions as a result. Greg Downey at Neuroanthroplogy recently made some excellent arguments against allowing ideological positioning to poison our common goals as researchers and teachers:
I sound like my mother, pleading with everyone for greater civility and politeness (‘Why can’t you STOP YELLING!?’ I yell.). But I think we’re getting played when we fall for the crowding cheering us on to ‘Fight! Fight!’ Do we really want to demolish our home discipline, one that offers us unique opportunities that we would not get were we to find other homes? Do we really look around and, aside from the truly pathological departments, and think we’d be better off in some other discipline? And even if you do want to move on to a difference discipline, can’t you leave anthropology here for those of us who love the joint?

I agree with Greg that allowing ourselves to be goaded into a fight is counterproductive. And I’ll admit that I’ve contributed my share of arm-waving and sarcasm in ways that perhaps some colleagues and commentators have found glib or unprofessional. Without apology, I am passionate about this discipline and what I do. As I posted earlier, my position in a non-anthropology department has engendered a surprising-to-me drive to engage in anthropology on a scale I had not considered before. I continue to advocate for greater communication across the span of anthropological endeavors while also pointing out where obstacles to this noble goal still exist.

I know (and frankly am envious) that many anthropologists have the good fortune of having been trained in or currently work in really cohesive collaborative programs in which all the fields equally respect one another (even when the numbers are skewed). I know there are programs in which all anthropology grad students are required to take a holistic course of study. That is commendable and may well be something to which the discipline as a whole should aspire, but the reality remains that many of us don't have that experience and that does have unfortunate and real consequences. As I posted earlier here ("it is like confessing a murder"), “my training in cultural anthropology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels is inadequate. That lack of training fostered a lack of interest, and a sense of distance and illiteracy (reading the titles of papers and symposia in the AAA program only heighten my sense of speaking a different language). I don't know what's going on in cultural anthropology today; I mostly just feel like it's water I'd rather not tread. I'm not taking pride in that assertion, I'm just sayin'. And I doubt I'm alone. I honestly don't know what it means to be an integrated anthropologist, but I'm trying to learn.”

The point I’m trying to make is that while I wholeheartedly agree that there is much to be lost by turning this into an internal fight, we need to embrace the reality that many of us did/do indeed feel threatened or at least dismissed by not only the wording but also the subsequent fallout if we want to better understand the state of contemporary American anthropology and shape its future.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this Julienne. You reflected my thinking on this as well -- I have been unsatisfied with recent writing that says that this issue is "manufactured," even if elements of it are manufactured or hyped by folks like Nicholas Wade.

    Now, I actually do think this is a good thing, because I'm the kind of person who thinks it's better to talk things out than put them in a mental vice.* I'd like to think this would lead us towards more roundtable conversations about where our home departments are really at, whether we belong together or not. And I hope we all decide anthropology is stronger with all the fields. But we may not. Some of the strongest bio anthro departments in the country... are bio anthro departments, not four field departments.

    Do we need each other? Why did we become anthropologists? I need cultural, specifically medical anthropologists, to continue to push me to think holistically about human beings. I became an anthropologist because it seemed like the best way to become a human biologist. I don't want to be a physiologist in a medical school, in large part because my work is often critical of medical interpretations of the body. I don't want to be a straight evolutionary biologist, because they rarely study humans.

    *anyone get the 30 Rock reference? anyone?