Anthropologists as Academic Cannibals: Grad Students for Breakfast, and Academic Grandparents for Dinner?

Anthropology is going through yet another bout of self-flagellation as Marshall Sahlins, Napoleon Chagnon, and others refight battles going back to the 1970s, gleefully aided and abetted by the New York Times.

This follows quickly on the heels of an attempt to kick Jared Diamond off of the anthropological island he never was on, and stretching back another, oh perhaps 3 or 4 weeks, savage minds.org took a run at banishing James Scott for his book about the highlands of Southeast Asia.

In a voyeuristic way, I guess I enjoy watching this anthropological cannibalism, as do apparently a lot of others.  But I would appreciate a story in the NPR or the New York Times about Nigel Barley’s ethnography more.  Or perhaps a Carol Stack retrospective on All Our Kin. But so far as I can tell, neither anthropologist spits bullets, so no story for NY Times (But then how did E. O. Wilson make it to Philosopher’s Stone on the front of the NY Times website with more Socio-biology the other day? Why wasn’t Barley invited?)

Anyway, this brings me back to the better known victims of anthropological cannibalism, graduate students.  As is well-documented in savageminds.org and elsewhere, anthropology has an unusual capacity for devouring its own graduate students, with the symptom being high drop out rates, and for those who survive, extraordinarily long time-to-PhD.  Still, I’m not that impressed—this unfortunately is a characteristic shared with a number of other disciplines—the Humanities come to mind quickly, and even the natural sciences have their own peculiarities.

What I am starting to conclude about Anthropology and academic cannibalism is that somewhat uniquely, the discipline seems to go after their academic grandparents too. Kind of like having graduate students for breakfast, and academic grandparents (think Margaret Mead, B. Malinowski, Boas, etc) for dinner.  Ye gads.

The funny thing is that even though I was eaten for anthropological pre-breakfast when I didn’t get into anthro grad school in 1987 (and 1988), anthropology continues to be among my favorite fields, and anthropologists among my favorite people.  The flavors of the discipline are indeed unique, and the stretch from linguistics to archaeology (with everything in between) is invigorating.  Plus anthropologists themselves are some of the most interesting people around.  But please, couldn’t you get someone to hire a press agent for the discipline?  Proctor and Gamble, the National Rifle Association, and Chico State all have have press agents to spin their image whenever one of their members does something embarrassing.  Heck, maybe AAA can get a press agent to talk to the NY Times and have Nigel Barely or Carol Stack write something for Philosopher’s Stone, leaving E. O. Wilson consigned to blogging grumpily about socio-biology from his Harvard perch.

Speaking of blogs, I might also had anthropology has some of the most active and invigorating blogs out there—starting with savageminds.org where there actually was briefly some refreshing backlash against the Sahlins/Chagnon business in the comment section.  But why oh why is the story itself highlighted with so much huffing and puffing?  One would think that Napoleon Chagnon had personally directed the destruction of the Amazon Basin over the objections of the mining companies, farmers, oil companies, traders, armies, police, and a host of others not mentioned.  Chagnon must have been quite the guy to have single handedly created so much Amazonian destruction, and then go on to making hundreds or thousands of Anthropology PhD. Instructors require his book for Anthro 101 despite his obvious anthropological incompetence.

Anyway, to see a slightly less jaundiced view of this problem, have a look at what John Hawks posted recently at anthropologiesproject.org What’s Wrong with Anthropology.  Again, a good reminder of why I really like anthropology.