Holism and Interdisciplinarity at Columbia University

Roger Nelson Lancaster (rnl3@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Fri, 5 May 1995 20:03:35 -0400

5 May, 1995

I proposed the current version of the graduate breadth requirements in the
Columbia department of anthropology. I do not count the new requirements
as my own unique intellectual property -- such ideas have been batted
around in the department for some time, and various constellations of
them have come from biological and cultural anthropologists. A substantial
majority of the department -- including wide majorities among both
social-cultural and biological anthropologists -- voted for the present

Much of anthro-net discussion has portrayed the new requirements as either
a watering-down of graduate training, or as a move away from
anthropological commitments to holism and interdisciplinarity. Some have
attached dire consequences to this move, including the imminent break-up
of the discipline. Needless to say, I do not see matters this way.=20

In fact, the subdisciplines have each grown far too complex and
specialized for graduate instruction to be organized around traditional
ideas of four-fields competency. Most major departments of anthropology
dropped four-fields graduate requirements years, even decades ago. I
understand the concerns of my colleagues who voted in the minority -- I
even share some of them. Over-specialization from the start bodes ill for
a discipline understood as the study of humanity in all its dimensions.
And I do not want to see my own subdiscipline absorbed into either
sociology or cultural studies. The best response to our current dilemmas,
I believe, is a more integrative and less mechanical approach to graduate
instruction: an approach faithful to the traditional anthropological
ideal of holism and interdisciplinarity, yet pitched to the concerns of
current scholarly research -- and to the graduate student interests that
will be the driving engine of future research.=20

Those of us who voted in the clear majority undertook this curricular
reform very much in the spirit of the approaching Boasian centenary. We
did not simply eliminate graduate breadth requirements -- as most of our
peer institutions have done in the past. We are pleased to announce this
new curriculum, conceived partly in recognition of the weaknesses of the
previous system, and partly in response to the ongoing discussions about
the future of anthropology that have dominated the pages of the
Anthropology Newsletter for the past couple of years.

Under the old requirements, students took two courses out of their
subfield. Most students took two introductory-level courses. While
exposure to a range of subdisciplines is good and desirable, such a
strategy shows few signs of informing students' graduate or professional

The new requirements add two new courses that will stress the benefits of
topically-focused interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarily-informed
research. Rather than affording introductory exposure to discreet
subdisciplines (an approach which scarcely advances a Boasian
synthesis!), then, the goal is to introduce sub- and inter- disciplinary
approaches through current research. Students thus focused in their early
training may well opt to take more courses out of subfield. Nothing in the
new requirements dissuades them from doing so. Hopefully, their
experiences will encourage them to do so. The new requirements will
facilitate focused inter(sub)disciplinary conversations, not only among
graduate students, but -- for the first time in years -- among faculty as

Below, I review the new requirements:


Proposed Course Description (for graduate bulletin): "American
Anthropology emerged at the turn of the century as a pliable, holistic
practice, and it flourishes today as the space of an active and dynamic
interdisciplinarity. This topically-focused course will survey
contemporary research using interdisciplinary methods; it incorporates not
only the traditional four fields of anthropology, but also spans the
broader spectrum of the life sciences, the social sciences, and the
humanities. By approaching topics of contemporary research from a variety
of perspectives, this seminar provides exposure to the strengths of
various disciplines, while modeling the methods, approaches, and
creativity of focused interdisciplinarity today."=20

All students, without exception, will be required to take this course for
a grade.=20

This course will always be team-taught by a pair from at least two
different subdisciplines. The instructors of record will solicit input
from their colleagues on course topics and contents. Here's an opportunity
for four-fields enthusiasts to significantly shape the scope and content
of students' research -- and their input will be crucial. By design, it is
the responsibility of this course to explain to first or second year
graduate students (a vast majority of whom are social-cultural) why human
anatomy, or evolutionary genetics, or archaeology, or linguistics, are
useful in understanding dance, or the body, or the modern city, or gender.=

By way of example for a particular unit, I gave the following
illustration: Problems of culture, biology, and perception can be
introduced with lively and engaging material -- I alluded to the example
of Oliver Sacks's "To See or Not To See," from AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS.
Such problematics can then be unfolded in various directions, in some
depth: philosophically, using chapters from Merleau-Ponty's PHENEMENOLOGY
OF PERCEPTION or STRUCTURE OF BEHAVIOR; historically, revisiting the
controversies of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; ethnographically, with any
of the newer "ethnographies of the senses"; biologically, with the new
research on sensory perception.=20

Since my invocation of Oliver Sacks seems to be the object of particular
mirth in these discussions, I offer yet another example of how his
parables might work pedagogically: Excerpts from THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS
WIFE FOR A HAT might well lead to Jakobson and Halle's wonderful
linguistic treatise on aphasia; into questions about Saussurean semiology
versus Peircian semiotics; into Chomsky's notions; into the prevailing
textual theories that rule in the humanities and much of the social
sciences; and into the new neural research on speech and language.
Hopefully, students will emerge from a series of such units with a new
perspective on the value of interdisciplinary approaches to focused

Any number of topics lend themselves to this kind of treatment: the new
medical and genetic technologies; culture and ecology; studies of the
body; and so on. If this course works, students will begin thinking of
their own research interests in an interdisciplinary and holistic way
from the start. Faculty will be exchanging ideas in a public,
interdisciplinary forum. An interdisciplinary conversation -- not
subdisciplinary monologues -- can begin.=20

It seems to me that this approach is far more sound pedagogically than its
forerunner. It is not meant to be a substitute for specialty training in
biological, linguistic, or archaeological anthropology. But it does not
assume that such specialty training is appropriate for every student.


For the first time in years, the Wednesday once-monthly talk in the
department will have a four-fields and interdisciplinary scope.
Previously, the Wednesday forum has featured either social-cultural or
humanities topics. Local and guest speakers will give talks on their
current research. Graduate students are required to attend these talks for
the first two years of their training, and will receive one credit
pass/not pass each semester for doing so. This forum will thus provide
sustained exposure over a long period of time to the discipline as a
whole. (Faculty, too, will be expected to attend these talks, and will
hopefully engage speakers in productive conversations.)


In the aftermath of almost any major decision, there will be anger and
hurt feelings among participants, and second guessing by onlookers. I hope
that the spirit of these reforms is not lost in the ensuing discussion.
The new requirements, taken together, represent a contemporary innovation
within the Boasian tradition. I think I speak for the majority of the
department when I say that we are proud of this new curriculum. It
reaffirms and modernizes anthropological holism and interdisciplinarity.
And it might suggest a more productive model for graduate training in
other departments facing similar questions.=20

-- Roger N. Lancaster
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Columbia University