McGee, Boas and the organization of American Anthropology

I found this on the AAA website last week:

“The AAA has been a democratic organization since its beginning. Although Franz Boas had initially fought to restrict membership to an exclusive group of 40 “professional anthropologists,” the AAA’s first president. W. J. McGee, argued for a more inclusive membership embracing all those who expressed an interest in the discipline. McGee’s vision still guides the Association today. Business affairs, likewise comprehensive with 24 Councillors selected from the membership, and Executive Committee of 9 in 1902, are now conducted by a 38-member Section Assembly representing each of the Association’s constituent Sections, and a 17-member Executive Board. This increase in representation reflects the growing diversity of the discipline, which is viewed by many as a source of strength for the Association and for American anthropology as a whole. In Richard B. Woodbury’s words, “. . .the AAA has remained the central society for the discipline, addressing with considerable success its increasingly varied interests and speaking for anthropology to other fields, the federal and state governments, and the public” (Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, 1994). aaalogo15notext

As one suspects, the story of the AAA’s founding is more complex than a blurb on the AAA website can get over. But, it is true that Boas was in favor of organizing a core group of professional anthropologists to govern the AAA and was opposed McGee’s suggestion of a confederation of groups which would include local organizations and interested amateurs. As was the case throughout his life, Boas’ main concern was with professionalizing anthropology and securing anthropology a durable place in the academy. At stake was this question: Should the mainline of anthropological thought lie within academic departments or within a confederation of organizations which include a large contingent of interested amateurs?

One of the complexities missing from the AAA’s web verbiage is any mention of the context of the philosophical conflict between Boas and McGee. McGee was an autodidact who made important contributions to the geology of the American West, invented several agricultural implements and was instrumental in the development of irrigated agriculture. But, he was also a horrifically amateurish reader of evolutionary theory and the inventor of “The Human Zoo.”  And it was this McGee that Boas was reacting against when he proposed  tight control on membership and worked to displace evolution with culture. Despite the AAA’s protests to the contrary, it is clear that through its history the AAA has been a professional organization more in line with both the organizational and philosophical vision of Boas than with McGee, a fact which lends a bit of irony to the oedipal rage in the quote above.

Day 2 of the German Conference on General Education Reform

The conference took interesting turns. Homage was paid to Goethe, Weber, Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach, and Bourdieu on the habitus of academic silos. Not the sort of thing that would have happened in our GE meetings at Chico State where the Engineers, Soil Scientists, and Business Profs would have shook their heads in bewilderment. Here in Geramny they did not. In CHico, I think that only the Sociologists and Anthropologists likely would be smiling at such references!

This was followed by a presentation about German “Bildung” a concept which is sometimes translated as “education”, but really means something like “cultivation of the human being.” This was done by teacher who is somehow between art and psychology. He had prepared an engaging presentation using art to represent the General Education curriculum and society. Wow, that was a stretch!

General Education, Distance Education and Cotton in my Ears

I spent the day sitting in meetings at my new “home campus” in Lueneburg, Germany, listening to lectures about their new innovative General Education program.  And Distance Education.  I avoid meetings about such subjects when I am home campus at Chico State.  How did such subjects follow me here?

I have lots of opinions about both General Education and Distance Education, but remain really quiet.  Listening to German like all day is like sticking cotton in my ears, a task my brain copes with poorly.  Trying to say anything in German is like trying to speak with a mouthful of–cotton swabs.  The brain is willing, but the ears are too slow, and the mouth too dry.  Tomorrow is another day of this.

Portraits of American Men Holding Hands

Some days the internet is full of cats and cheeseburgers and other days it is full of anthropological nuggets like this collection of American men holding hands. A good reminder to always ask: When is identity?

Opening a window on “The Closing of American Academia”

It has been difficult over the past few weeks to miss Sarah Kendzior’s article in Al Jazeera and the ensuing rounds of reaction and counterreaction in the anthropological blogosphere. In her article, and in other recent writing about adjuncting, there is more than a passing element of nostalgia for a vanishing class escalator. The argument in brief: Meritocracy has fallen victim in the academe to the larger economic trend of offering serial un- and under paid internships in lieu of the middle class security of tenure, thus ensuring that only those who can afford to work without compensation (read children of the elite) may enter the academic ranks. The argument is cogent, tragic, and impossible to deny on intellectual or moral grounds. But, it also carries an assumption that the mainline of anthropological thought must always flow from academic anthropology departments outward. Perhaps it does, but then again…

There is a veritable army of anthropologists conducting research outside academia. Too many, in fact, not to change the profession in meaningful ways over the next 10-15 years. This isn’t much of a surprise given that think tanks, corporations, and NGOs are knowledge generating institutions which feel their way forward through research. Some of the best anthropology of the last 30 years came from Xerox PARC during a long-term project examining the mundane and uber-modern problem of copier breakdown and repair. Without rehashing the entire project, the PARC unit at Xerox brought anthropologists into a working relationship with computer scientists over the topic of how people use copiers. The internal debate pitted the assumptions of cognitive science and its allied fields in computer science and psychology against the messy realities lived by the firm’s customers and repairmen. The anthropologists helped to rethink the relation of people to complex information machines to Xerox’s benefit, but they also furthered a long standing intellectual debate about the nature of human action in the world. It says something wonderful and hopeful about the kind of knowledge produced by anthropology that anthropologists in “applied” areas are constantly bumping into such basic questions about humans.

Since the Xerox copier study, a number of venues have become available for anthropology produced outside of academia. High quality venues such as the EPIC conference, and new journals such as The Journal of Business Anthropology (though I think it should be named the Anthropology of Business) have emerged as sites where anthropology comes into contact with both allied and oppositional disciplines.

There is theoretical ground being broken (and old ground revisited) in these venues. I particularly like “A Funky-Formal Fashion Collection:  Struggling for a Creative Concept in HUGO BOSS” by Kasper Tang Vangkilde in Business Anthropology. This article is about deliberations at Hugo Boss to create a clothing line which is exactly funky-formal. That is, neither funky, nor formal, yet containing the element of both in a way recognizable as “Hugo Boss.” He hits the innovation paradox on the head. What kind of thing is new, yet recognizable? The article is a lot of fun (and that counts). But it is also a reminder that innovation is one of the classic anthropological problems and has been addressed by anthropology since Boas wrote “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” in 1887. Innovation, now a sacred word to industry, was important enough to warrant an entire chapter in Boas’ General Anthropology  and fashion was thought important enough for Kroeber to use it to make a point about change over time in “On the Principle of Order in Civilization as Exemplified by Changes of Fashion.”