Columbia and 4-fields

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Tue, 4 Apr 1995 05:57:21 -0400

In response to Ralph Holloway's query about teaching four-fields in
anthropology, and its loss at Columbia, the home of Frans Boas:--
Although I was originally educated in the US, I have spent my entire
career in the 'British system' in which there is no such thing,
really as '4-fields' anthropology. At my university in Johannesburg,
the 4-fields of the Columbia/Boas tradition are taught in 4
departments located in 3 different faculties. Archaeology is part of
the science faculty (they made the decision to go into that faculty
based on the belief that there would be more funding available in a
science faculty!), physical anthro, human anat and palaeontology are
taught in the Dept of Anatomy and Human Biology in the Medical school
(Robert Broom's and Philip Tobias's department-- though the latter is
retired now), linguistic anthro. is taught in a linquistics
department in Arts Fac., and Social Anthropology, my department, is
also in the Arts Faculty. There is also a Palaeontology research
institute that does some human archaeology as well. So the 4-fields
is not really part of the curriculum in any of these departments.
This is not to say that we do not recognise the need. The Med.
School faculty works on human growth and nutrition and needs the
cultural and social research expertise, while we in Social lack the
expertise to teach human evolution which is essential to discussion
of race and human difference of other sorts, at least -- ant this is a
very important topic in South AFrica. We have some cooperation
between Archaeology and Social ANthro., an we are currently designing
a NEW course that will integrate archeol. and soc./cult. anthro in an
introductory course that is aimed at poorly-prepared students in
particular. It is use ideas, data and techniques in archaeol. and
social anthro. partly as vehicles for development of basic skills and
concepts for these students. These students are primarily from Black
schools that were previously administered by the old Department of
Education and Training, which, under Apartheid, was the separate
education department for Black schools. Ther is a big deficit to be
made up here, and it seemed to us that background from archeol. and
anthro. went well together to answer some fundamental questions about
who we were (in S outh Africa, especially) and how we came to be as
we are in human evolutionary terms (long term) and social-cultural
terms (shorter term) as well as politically (shortest term). We ahve
not run the course yet, but it is interesting, from RAlph Holloway's
perspective, that it seemed necessary to return (?) or to move
towards a more integrated perspective at the sub-introductory
level, and at this point in history of the discipline. Next year
will be the first time, then, that we will be teaching a 2-fields
integrated course in this department. In some
ways, it seems to me even more necessary now to re-introduce, or to
begn to develop a more integrated -- if not 4-fields -- approach to
anthropology. Developments in neurobiology, gender studies, human
evolution, evolutionary theory more generally, make this essential.
I agree with a number of people on the list who have commented that
PoMo anthropology has become a bit unstuck, and it seems to me that
it is , to a degree, a lack of grounding in physical sciences and
mathematics, and an excess of attention to literary criticism and
and cultural studies more of less unconstrained by any limits of
reference to the 'real' -- even if the real is imagined -- that has
led to this intellectual impasse.
I have not yet seen any reference to Tim Ingold's excellent piece
on the integration of anthropological fields that appeared in
Anthropology Today a number of years ago. In a short editorial
piece, Ingold (U. Manchester) wrote that anthropology is 'philosophy
with the people left in' -- a marvellous phrase that I like to use as
often as possible -- and left no doubt that 'leaving the people in'
meant leaving the whole person in: mind, meat, boots and all. This
is probably the way it should be.
I am sympathetic to Columbia's dilemma -- or what I imagine it to
be -- that all four fields are just too much, and cause too much
blooming confusion to teach coherently, and that, perhaps, to teach
too little is worse than to teach nothing at all. A little
knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all. Most of our students
eventaully work for NGOs (develoopment, education, tourism), business
(advertising, personnel), and government (development admin., museums)
and the four fields are not terribly useful, even though they do add
educational breadth and *wisdom*. The fact is, we do not have the
time or resources to do what would be ideal, and try to do the best
to educate students in the areas that will do them the most good and
be most useful in the particular context of South Africa and Africa,
and our markets for the skills we have to offer.
Finally, I think that most of the old disciplines and the
boundaries between them do not adequately organise the knowledges that
we currently know and produce. In other words, the old divisions of
knowledge that ideas like four fields implies, are derelict. Why
four fields? There are any number of new fields, and it is not clear
to me that inquiries devoted to issues like violence, race,
depression, ethnopharmacology, sociolinguistics or ideas like chaos,
gender, power, etc. are divisible in any sensible way into four
fields, or that they lie at any definable juncture of the old
'fields'. What is needed is a radical revamp of our entire
classification of knowledge. There is more of it lying about in the
wastelands of the so-called 'inter-disciplinary' than we care to
admit. Dropping or adding 'fields' as defined, more or less, in the
nineteenth century would neither improve nor damage anthropology now,
but merely confuse the issue.
So, Ralph, I guess I would have to remain agnostic for now about
whether it is right or good to drop some or all of the 'sub-fields'
from anthrpology. If the reorganisation results in a more viable
educational programme, then it is good. But that may not be knowable
for many years to come.

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
Home tel: (011) 646-2578
---------------------"The New South Africa"--------------------------