American Anthropologist (long, argumentative)

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Wed, 21 Feb 1996 00:41:33 -0600

I'm forwarding a message I sent in answer to a friend's comment
in a non-public message. After I wrote it, I realized that the subject
is one that we haven't discussed recently here on anthro-l. It's also
one that is deeply interesting to anthropologists acting as such. What's
more, I know there is a lot of difference of opinion on this subject. As
announced in my subject line, this is about American Anthropologist.

What I say here is NOT offered as flame bait. I don't want to start a
fight, and I sure don't want to be in one. I have expressed one man's
opinion; I ask you to respect it, not to agree with it. Please don't
attack me for what I said; please express your disagreement if you think
I'm wrong. Don't curse me, educate me.

I really am deeply interested in hearing what others THINK about this.

mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 1996 23:30:19 -0600 (CST)


I've only got time to respond to one little part of what you said,
because I feel a long essay about it coming on. (What I'm really doing
is writing something out to see what I really think on the subject.)
You said:

> Speaking of AA, do you know what the controversy about their "new
> editorial policy" is all about? I believe it began in 93-94 when I
> didn't yet receive the newsletters. Obviously AAA is making strong
> efforts to "diversity" anthropology -- and the recent issues look very
> nice to me -- which must mean that I'm also on the "other side" of this
> one from those who like the OLD AA & refuse to even subscribe to the new
> one.

As it happens, I do know something about it, and I care a lot.

When the editorship of American Anthropologist came open, subscriptions
had been declining for years -- slowly, but steadily. The new editors,
Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, were charged with reversing that trend. They
have adopted an editorial policy which they think will accomplish that
end. I totally disagree with the thrust of that policy. Even if it
succeeds in raising the number of subscribers, I think the policy subverts
what I feel should be the aims of its publisher, the American
Anthropological Association. I speak not as outsider, but as a long-time
Fellow of the AAA and a former member of the AAA Board.

Before I go on to say why I oppose current AA editorial policy, please let
me say that my difference with the Tedlocks over *policy* is NOT an attack
on their *persons*. I deeply admire their personal accomplishments in
anthropology. Dennis Tedlock's translation of the Popol Vuh is a
masterful, major literary work. It fully deserves the prestigious notice
and awards it has received. Barbara Tedlock's work belongs with the best
in its field, and I say so out of firsthand knowledge of Maya sorcery, her
major subject. The Tedlocks are unquestionably first-rate scholars.
Their published work reflects glory on our whole field.

COMMENT: In my opinion, the reason that AA subs declined is simple. A
review of its history, and ours, since World War II shows why.

Way back then, AA had a tradition of trying to cover all of anthropology,
piece by piece. When Sol Tax was editor in the mid-1950's, AA expanded
from four slim issues a year to six fat ones. Sol himself believed that
anthropology was a single, integrated field. He encouraged articles that
bridged fields within anthro whenever possible, and if the articles didn't
come in over the transom he went out and commissioned them. By the time
he left the editorship, he had firmly established a tradition that AA was
a place for anthropologists of widely varying interests and viewpoints to
talk to each other across the gaps of interest and viewpoint.

Succeeding editors (eventually assisted by specialized section editors)
implemented this approach by seeking articles to give at least some
representation to each of the traditional "four" fields in every volume of
AA, if not in every issue. Authors were instructed to write what they had
to say in terms that could reach out to anthropologists in other
specialties than their own. A long succession of editors also followed a
policy of balancing different styles of approach, again, at least in every
volume if not in every issue. Room was made for those with a heavy
science orientation AND those whose work was much more humanistic, if not
literary, in its outlook. "Symbolism" in one article might be the
symbolism of Levi-Strauss, while in another article the same word
obviously referred to the canons of symbolic logic.

That was a beautiful ideal in the 50's and 60's, the heyday of four-field
training for everybody on the way to becoming anthropology professionals.
Articles were solicited and/or chosen on the basis of their ability to
communicate something to "anthropology", conceived of as a unified
discipline in which a linguistic anthropologist could be expected to
understand, if not contribute to, studies of Australopithecus, and an
archaeologist could be expected to see the significance of the analysis
of unilateral cross-cousin marriage.

What happened towards the end of the 60's, of course, was an era of
protest, initially directed at U.S. participation in the Viet Nam war.
But "power to the people" somehow got converted to "courses have got to
be relevant AS I SEE RELEVANCE." Student leaders demanded that nobody
expect them to know about Australopithecus because that's not relevant to
ending the war. (Honest to God, I remember meetings of groups that
called themselves "Radical Anthropologists" and "The Student Anthropology
Collective" that demanded that Australopithecus be dropped from the
graduate anthro curriculum precisely because something that happened 3
million years ago can't possibly be relevant to human concerns today. In
context, it was clear that the only true test of "relevance" for these
folks was whether knowing facts of a particular type would or would not
contribute to the success of some political action they supported.)

The result was clear. Fewer and fewer departments asked their grad
students to have in-depth knowledge of anything but their own specialties.
Four-field exams became an endangered species. Practically nobody who got
a Ph. D. after the start of the 70's took any courses in linguistics per
se. Many departments dropped or loosened their foreign language
requirements, and practically none of them continued to require grad
students to cite publications in languages other than English in their
term papers, even if they still did have a formal foreign language
requirement on the books. Budding specialists in social/cultural
anthropology might never be required to look a fossil in the face. A
shortage of knowledge of basic facts of population genetics ultimately
became the foundation for some of the most ungodly crap ever seen,
masquerading as sociobiology. While some archaeologists became more and
more sophisticated in using statistical inference, the once-common general
requirement that an anthro grad student have some sophistication in
statistical reasoning became rarer and rarer.

In other words, we fragmented to the point where most newly-bedoctored
anthropologists simply could not understand most of what was published as
articles in AA. At the same time, as more and more highly specialized
subfields came into existence (maritime anthropology or chimpanzee
behavior, e.g.), people with the kinds of narrow interests that were
becoming more and more common might not see anything in AA that was
"interesting" -- i.e., precisely within their own specialization -- for
years on end.

One group of people with a specialized and, to my mind, narrow view of
what anthropology could or should be about became *politically* powerful
in the AAA and in (U.S./Canadian) American anthropology in general. Like
any in-group, they developed a language opaque to outsiders -- and
heartily rejected the concerns of those outsiders. In a very loose sense,
they became "post-modernists" of one sort or another when they turned from
political activism (inside and outside anthropology) to anthropological
publication. (Yes, I know that there are many post- modern traditions,
each group owing allegiance to its own vision of what their collective
guru meant but never got around to saying: Geertz or Derrida or Foucault,
say. Or some distorted view of a piece of some philosopher so dense to
outsiders that nobody pays attention to what the philosopher himself was
saying: Huizenga, say, or Pierce or a Marx so transformed that even
Engels wouldn't recognize him.)

As these folks took power in more and more anthropological organizations,
journals produced by those organizations got narrower and narrower. I
think of Cultural Anthropology, for example. It's got lots of good stuff,
which is why I haven't -- yet! -- dropped my subscription. But there is
an overall sameness of viewpoint that characterizes a typical article in
that journal, a strong tendency to cite the same small band of
authorities, and a frequent descent into arguments over fine points of
doctrine that resemble nothing so much as a discussion of how many angels
can dance on the head of a pin.

I've seen all that before, in other venues. One good example, no longer
as well known as it once was, is what happened to discourse within various
branches of Marxism. Another place to see the same kind of thing is in
*The Nation* magazine, home of one segment of a part of the splintered
sectarian left. Figuratively, they got hung up on proving that breathing
through the left nostril is healthier than breathing through the right
nostril. That became so important to them, even if nobody else in the
world cares, that they devote most of their energy to "proving" that
rightnostrilism is a pernicious perversion of The Revealed Left-Nostril
Truth. They argue the case so intently that they miss the fact that the
people in power are hellbent on forbidding anybody to breathe at all.

Now, and finally, back to what has been happening in American
Anthropologist. From their appointment as editors, the Tedlocks have
clearly and openly espoused a single viewpoint within anthropology.
They have declared it to be their intention to exclude articles that take
too "scientific" a stance, and they don't even want to consider
mathematical approaches to anthropological understanding. They have
lined up on the side of those who not only believe that there is no such
thing as objective knowledge, but that in fact the universe itself has no
objective existence in the first place. In that world, the standards of
literary criticism are the only ones that SHOULD be applied to written
work in anthropology. Ethnographies, in such a view, are fiction anyhow.

This editorial stance is what has been drawing all the flack about what's
happening to AA. Although there have been a few articles recognizing an
occasional biological question, I think that most physical anthropologists
find that the current AA has no room for their professional concerns.
People who are famous for their long-standing concern with questions of
anthropological method (H. Russell Bernard, Pertti J. Pelto, A. Kimball
Romney, to name a few) feel that the current editors have simply told
them to get lost. The kinds of archaeology now presented in AA are so far
from the concerns of most anthropological archaeologists that they say,
among themselves, that now more than ever they find no reason to read AA.
Applied anthropologists, who perforce are engaged in the world, find the
kinds of things talked about in AA a kind of dreamy never-never land.
And social anthropologists who are concerned with what's happening out
there where they do their fieldwork find it more and more difficult to
address reality within the covers of AA.

Questions of "voice" are important to me. I have always been deeply
concerned with who talks in an ethnography, and who they're talking to.
Much of my own work, even before my dissertation, has a strong reflexive
element. But that's not all there is in the world! Issue after issue of
AA under the editorship of the Tedlocks takes up these and other concerns
of post-modernist viewpoints to the exclusion of most of anthropology.

A year and a half ago, some anthropologists with more generalized
interests than are currently represented in AA presented a resolution to
the annual business meeting of the AAA calling for a broadening of the
kinds of subjects appearing in AA. In the discussion from the floor, the
debate quickly became framed in terms of a struggle between generations.
The resolution was defeated, and to my eye there was a strong tendency
for older anthropologists to vote yes, younger ones to vote no. In its
wording, the resolution asked for a broader AA *because* anthropology has long
included people who are biologically or statistically or archaeologically
or linguistically sophisticated. The thrust of the resolution was to the
effect that those people should be entitled to fair consideration for
publication in what is supposed to be the flagship journal for all of
American anthropology. Supporters of the resolution concluded, when it
was defeated, that they were being told that "anthropology", or at least
the journal called American Anthropologist, had no obligation to answer
to the interests of anyone but post-modernists.

My own interests in anthropology have been in questions that I think of as
methodological and epistemological (how do we know that, and what does it
mean?) and my training included in-depth knowledge of at least four fields
of anthropology. I have subscribed to AA continuously since 1955. I've
watched editors come and go, some of them good, some of them so-so, and at
least one of them downright bad. In all that time, I found the expressed
aims of AA editors very compatible with my view of what a general journal
in anthropology should be doing. (That was true independently of whether
the editors themselves were good, bad, or indifferent, in my view.) We
have so few high-level, general journals that I think the few that there
are deserve every encouragement to continue in that tradition.

I don't think that American Anthropologist under its current editors is a
general journal any more. Furthermore, the Tedlocks have repeatedly
stated that they do not intend to produce that kind of journal. I think
that's a terrible shame. For the first time since 1955 I am seriously
considering dropping my subscription to AA: I already subscribe to a lot
of one-sided journals with limited viewpoints, and I don't see why I need
yet another one.

Whew. That's a load off my chest. Now that I've re-read what I said
here, I'm going to send this message to anthro-l. (I'll delete your name,
of course, and all but a snippet of what you said.) As I said when I
began, I wrote this to see if I could discover what I think about the AA
today. I'm wide open to hear people who disagree. Who knows, I might
even change my mind about some parts of what I said!

I've got to get back to work. Nos vemos mas tarde --

mike salovesh, anthropology department <>
northern illinois university PEACE !