Why Stephen Colbert’s Job is Safe: Dirimens Copulatio

Not only am I not arguing what you say I am, I’m arguing some of the things you say I’m not.

Your title, “circling the wagons,” implies the exact opposite of what I was suggesting. This metaphor suggests insularity and defensiveness, at best. In fact, my essay could easily be interpreted as a call to anthropologists to come out of the closet and start insisting on their relevance not only to the academy, but to the world. If your response were actually about my essay, it might more accurately be called “Maintaining the four fields is not the way to improve anthropology’s relevance” – a point you might or might not actually agree with – readers can’t tell.

Furthermore, absolutely nothing in my essay implies that applied anthropology is lesser than academic anthropology. In fact, nothing would please me more than to see the military, the government, public education, business, entertainment, sports, hell, the hospitality industry – you name it – FILLED with anthropologists. My point precisely was… I think that the results would be better if they were trained as anthropologists – REAL anthropologists. That’s right, I said it: real. And by real I do not mean those with PhDs, I mean all those who have studied and understand the core principles of holistic, four field anthropology.

All anthropologists in today’s world have career trajectories that compel them to engage in the application of their research to real world problems and peoples – regardless of whether a university writes their paycheck. Similarly, all anthropologists have an obligation to be analytically rigorous, well-versed in both the strengths and weaknesses of their discipline, and to make informed, deliberate decisions about the theoretical concepts that underpin their work – regardless of whether a commercial enterprise writes their paycheck.

You’ve also thrown in a total red herring in the form of post-modernism, utilizing a manipulative rhetorical device popular with political pundits called ad populem: “Everyone hates post-modernists. I’ll imply that her opinion would please them and thus avoid needing to use sound reasoning to disagree.” Suggesting that the strength of anthropology lies in the intellectual tensions created by dialogue and negotiation among the four fields is hardly a post-modern concept!

In fact, as you specify in your blog when you purport to “only speak to cultural anthropology,” you reveal that it is you who writes from an academically provincial viewpoint. This is particularly absurd when you are accusing someone else of having a narrow vision of the discipline.

If anyone in (on?) this blog should be tsking and shaking her head in disbelief it is I, Cindy, not you. No amount of posturing or rhetorical misdirection on your part is going to turn me into your anti-applied, holier than thou academic straw-chick. And sorry, we all know you chose to get an advanced degree in anthropology, not business. Maybe next time I’ll choose to respond to your self-serving distortions of my opinions with an anthropological version of “The Word.” For now I’ll settle for giving you a wag of my finger, and letting you know – you’re on notice, Dawson.

Anthropology’s strengths lie in the combination of attributes that make it unique: these include commitments to the concepts of extended fieldwork and cultural relativism, a comparative perspective that encompasses all of human space and time, a humanistic perspective that views individual variation and difference as objects worthy of study, and the holism that is embodied in a thorough consideration of how the four fields can bring insight to any given question about the human condition – even if they yield contradictory data!

Every anthropologist I have ever known is passionate about his or her vision of the discipline in one way or another. My call to arms is both a call to share the object of that passion and to insist on its value – don’t take just culture – take anthropology, and anthropologists, too.

send anthropology’s wayward street walking child home!

Tony Waters of CSU Chico has kindly posted a response to “Circling the Wagons is not the solution.” Thanks for adding to the conversation Tony!

Mark, Mark, Mark! I think you miss Cindy’s point which is that culture [editor note: Cindy thinks this is a typo and Tony means Anthropology has a special role and made me add this... shes mean to me.] has a special role as the parent of culture. The same could be said of writing for English, government for political science, calculus for math, and the past for history. Writing, government, and the past are of course relevant to many disciplines. But, the classroom where their very nature is best evaluated, mulled, and debated effectively are staffed by people trained in those disciplines.

During the last twenty years, culture (but not anthropology) moved to the center of many university curricula in response to very real political, cultural, and economic concerns. As a result, culture is part of many university general education programs in the same way that writing, mathematics, history, government, etc., have long been. What is different is that English, math, history, and political science departments colonized their subjects years ago, and received money to hire trained people to teach their subjects. As a result, generations of college graduates write essays as taught in English classes, believe that calculus is synonymous with college math, and have shared knowledge about the nature of American history and government.

None of this is a bad thing—I think a history course is best taught by someone trained in history, calculus courses by people trained in math, etc. Rather, the point is that the same thing could have happened with culture and anthropology, but didn’t. Instead, as Cindy writes, culture is now an academic streetwalker without an academic home. As a result, unlike similar English, math, government, and history requirements in the undergraduate curriculum, “cultural literacy” requirements are satisfied by taking courses offered by departments ranging from English to business. But, is it really legitimate to assert a student is proficient in “culture” because they have taken marketing from the Bennetton executive who developed a “many colors” campaign in the Caribbean? I think not. I see nothing wrong with the Bennetton executive teaching marketing in a business school—indeed such a person would make a fascinating colleague and good guest speaker in an anthropology class. But I have a problem when a marketing class is used to meet a university’s general education cross-cultural requirements.

A university that purports to require students be culturally literate should fund anthropology departments to teach culture. The academy needs to send anthropology’s wayward street walking child home. And faculty budgets need to reflect this.

A small story about micro-loans.

Kiva.org front pageAbout 10 months ago I joined www.kiva.org for my first experiment with a micro-loan. If you have not encountered this yet, micro-loans are a growing industry in developing nations all over the world. The idea is quite simple, these are very small loans many less than a few hundred dollars to help someone start or expand a business. They have a remarkably low default rate and 100% of your loan goes to the person in question. It is not charity… it is a loan they have to pay back, and when you read stories about it, there is great social pressure to do so. You don’t have to cover all the loan yourself. With Kiva, you can fund as little or as much of the loan as possible.

I signed up to the tune of $200, to help complete a loan for a woman wanting to expand her clothing store.

Today I was fully repaid, and it was repaid early! With Kiva, you don’t take your money back out. When the loan is repaid, you you can use the credit to make more loans. So I have reinvested in two more people and can keep doing it over an over. A nice little system.

go to http://www.kiva.org

Circling the Wagons is not the solution to anthropology’s problems

margaret meadCindy, Cindy, Cindy! The problem with academic anthropology today (and I can only speak to cultural anthropology) is that the concept of culture is the most static and smothered at the hands of anthropologists! The problem is not that all these other disciplines are misusing culture, but that most academics in anthropology can’t accept that the study of culture has taken on a much wider, and more practical, role in understanding many parts of our lives from business to the military.

The most influential books that speak to cultural issues today aren’t written by anthropologists, they are written by journalists, physicists and mathematicians to name a few. Anthropologists didn’t lose culture; we started an endless string of post-modern debates about just what culture means that pushed the discipline away from relevance. The other disciplines went out and explored how culture interacted with their professions while anthro’s sat home and engaged in intellectual masturbation. When Former President Clinton made the famous statement “It depends on what your definition of is, is.” I am sure many cultural anthropologists nodded their heads believing that would be a perfectly reasonable and exciting discussion to have before proceeding further, given there is no such thing objective truth.

Anthropology can’t claim to own the study of culture anymore that MBA programs can claim to own the turf of business today. Plenty of anthropologists are working on questions of business, just as there are business school researchers working on questions of culture in the context of business. What anthropology can do is develop a point of view about cultures that are relevant to questions we (business, governments, and others) are asking. Many cultural anthropologists are still fighting tooth and nail to prevent the discipline from have any practical application. The latest example being the committee to form an official position on the use of anthropology in the military and intelligence communities. Good grief, the larger anthropology community is so anti-applied that some people were floating the idea that people that didn’t teaching in universities should just be called practitioners.

You see other fields as misusing and misunderstanding culture. I see it as pulling out of the bubble it was placed in by over-protective and elitist parents. You are right, those of us outside the academic world spend very little time debating the parameters of just what is culture. We’re comfortable with the slipperiness of the definition and figure that’s good and we can work with that.

Ok, now that all the blog software problems have been worked out, I can actually blog! Actually, they were all worked out by a very nice young lady in Baku, Azerbaijan that converts lot of blogs from Movable Type to WordPress.

Can (and Should) Anthropology Share Culture?

For me, the short answer to this question is obviously, yes. We want EVERYONE to know and love the concept that we consider to be our finest intellectual creation, the lynchpin of our diverse discipline. And yet, could it be the case that we have shared ourselves out of jobs, or worse yet, allowed our baby to be turned into the “working girl” of the social sciences? This is the undercurrent of Tony Waters’ opinion piece from the December 2006 issue of the AAA Newsletter entitled, “Who Stole Culture From Anthropology?”

Waters, a sociology professor at CSU Chico, has three major points he would like anthropologists to consider. These are as follows:
1) In not more carefully guarding culture as the intellectual purview of anthropology we are “Giving Away Curriculum.” He points out that students are just as likely, if not more likely, to hear about the concept of culture from professors in departments of “education, business, genetics, political science, psychology, history, or sociology.”
2) These professors, however proficient in their own disciplines, are unlikely to truly have a background in our discipline and this means we are, as Waters puts it, “Losing History,” and giving the impression that intellectual issues of “culture” can be taught by anyone who knows the word.
3) Anthropologists, he argues, are now suffering the practical effects of not stopping these intellectual leaks in the realm of “Academic Politics.” That is, because courses on culture have been “hijacked,” new faculty lines are not going to Anthropology Departments, but rather to all of those other departments “where culture is now taught.”

Now Waters, who says he routinely hires anthropology PhD’s as adjunct faculty in his department when he needs a course taught “about culture,” clearly loves anthropologists, for as he says, “Who but an anthropologist can talk about Durkheim, chimpanzee behavior, linguistics, archaeological stratigraphy, and mitochondrial DNA?” It’s true, and it warms my heart to say so, but why then, why, why, why, in an era when diversity, multicultural, and globalization are some of the most common buzzwords in forward thinking academic administration, do anthropologists not rule the roost?

Okay, by now it is probably obvious that the metaphor of culture as a beautiful, headstrong child we let run away for a life as an academic streetwalker came from me, not Waters, but you see it breaks my heart to see culture, our pretty baby, so misunderstood. Now she’s turning tricks for business and communications, selling herself cheap to evolutionary psychologists and literary analysts. Oh sure, all of these “others” think they know her, but they fail to grasp her complexity. They fail to see how she requires constant attention and stimulation; only thrives in a context of rigorous debate, and stagnates if you treat her as a utilitarian means to an end.

For one thing, although it may seem cliché, poor culture comes from a broken home: four parents, all in different sub-disciplines, and these days often refusing to speak to each other. I was a PhD student at Berkeley when Tim White (the famous palaeo-anthropologist) packed up and left Anthropology for Integrative Biology. I don’t recall anyone shedding a tear or suggesting family counseling. Well, except me.

I’m sure the question of the future of four-field anthropology is one to which I will return in this forum, because it preoccupies me greatly. But for now, let me say that culture without the “culture” of anthropology, is a poor culture indeed. It’s like eating pad thai and thinking you understand Thailand, watching sumo on ESPN and then writing a book on Japan (with apologies to Ruth Benedict), or collecting Kwakwaka’waka masks and then assuming you could hold your own potlatch. Or, indeed, wearing a Cesar Chavez t-shirt and imagining that you’re part of the revolution while you sit at Starbucks contemplating number 38 down in the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle over a chai latte.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above activities, but they illustrate something that American anthropologists have known since Boas et al. vanquished the museum model of the “hall o’ spears” and “hall o’ basketry:” cultural traits removed from their context lose much of their meaning (not to mention analytical power). Hula without knowing the context of Hawaiian spirituality it celebrates is a tiny bubble compared to the glorious and powerful religious artform it can be when thriving in its traditional context. Similarly, culture, without an understanding the full context and culture of anthropology, is impoverished.

Culture grew up in the crucible of the four-field tradition. She thrives on the continuing tension among perspectives of natural sciences, historical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Culture is a robust and beautiful analytical concept precisely because of its continued negotiation – it is the dialectic that keeps her alive and relevant. One day she is an algorithm, the next a web of significance, then a material culture trait list, or even a suite of behaviors – she is all of this and more, and that is why we love her.

For you see, culture is not only the concept most dear to us American anthropologists, but also the most contentious. Students do not leave my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology without learning at least four different definitions of culture. They understand that the one you chose to believe in and employ makes a very big difference in choosing a research topic, the nature of the questions you will ask, the data you will perceive as relevant to record, and the conclusions you will entertain as feasible.

When culture is imported to these other disciplines, it becomes static in their hands. Without the constant bickering of the four fields, culture starts to become reified. It goes into their “toolboxes” to be pulled out at opportune moments, but doesn’t really get the attention it deserves. Take the hula without understanding Hawaiian culture and it is still exciting, but you sure are missing alot. Take the culture without understanding the rest of anthropology and it is still useful, but you sure are missing alot.

So, should anthropology share “culture” with the rest of academia, not to mention journalists, educators, etc.? Absolutely. But, can anthropology share the concept of culture without giving away its (meaning anthropology’s) heart and soul? This is a harder question. It is also one we should face head-on, and not ignore. Waters concludes his essay by stating that “while the anthropologists were out in the field, the subject of culture was appropriated by others” and so were the jobs.

It’s time to fight for primary custody of culture and the holistic anthropological perspective she embodies. Sure she can visit those other folks, but unless anthropologists can convince the world that there is something truly unique and relevant about our holistic perspective and our insanely broad training (compared to other academics today), we are destined to become the “Roman Empire” of academia. Our culture, language, history, and even genetic material will be assimilated into daughter disciplines — hybrid cultures to whom we are a distant, dimly understood ancestor. Maybe that is an inevitable course, and maybe that is even better for culture (and anthropology?) in the long run, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.