Re: sci.anthro ???

Norman Sides (
18 Aug 1995 16:48:31 -0700

Julie Locascio ( wrote:

: As a non-anthropologist and very new user of the Internet, I was not
: really sure what to expect from newsgroups like this. My study and work
: experience in academia leads me to pose a Devil's advocate sort of question
: here: is it possible that the people with the most important things to say in
: academic fields are still saying them primarily in journals, and that internet
: user groups are actually dominated by students of these disciplines or
: "amateur" interested parties? If you have been disappointed with this group,
: you should see the environment group! Every now and then I see a very
: professional, academic sort of posting, or a posting by a professional working
: in something like waste management, but the group's dominant threads seem to
: have been hijacked by people who have developed personal vendettas against
: each other, and are not afraid to use 4-letter words to express their points
: of view. It's sad.

I also am a new user (four months), but I've had time to look into a number
of groups in the sci. and comp hierarchies. You're no doubt right that
leaders in various academic fields will prefer to publish their finished
papers in peer reviewed journals rather than on the internet, but some of
these groups appear to serve as meeting places where basic issues and many
items of current interest within disciplines are discussed by people who
have important things to say. Marvin Minsky, for example, and other leaders
in the field of artificial intelligence post to It seems to be a
place where ideas central to the field are debated informally (and perhaps
sometimes with considerable fervor). One can lurk for a while and learn
something about what people in the field are thinking.

I have read some anthropological and sociological literature, but that was many
moons ago, so I thought I would look into the relevant newsgroups to see where
the fields are heading. From all I can tell they are headed no place in
particular.I haven't seen any posts that provide much of a clue as to what
the central issues and primary areas of research might be. Some of the threads
in this group are interesting, and there's nothing wrong with discussions of
pyramid building or word derivations, the origins of particular ethnic
customs and so forth, but where is the central focus? There doesn't seem to
be much meat for the students and interested amateurs to get their teeth
into. What are the new ideas firing the imaginations of young anthropologists?
Is this field still alive and growing?

As a former anthropology and sociology buff, I know there are some issues I
would like to see addressed. The concept of culture is supposedly the
foundation on which cultural anthropology is based. What is it precisely?
What are the biological roots of culture? Do we have a language instinct?
How do biologically influenced abilities and predispositions figure in the
creation and maintenance of organized cultural systems? What is art?
Are humans innately predisposed to religion? How do societies reinvent
themselves when confronted with social change? How does society "get inside"
people and affect individual psychology? Is human behavior determined
primarily by individual or group psychology or some combination of the two?

I know these questions, and many others I could ask, are broad and
ill-defined. I'd like to learn more so that I could frame more intelligent
questions. If cultural anthropology deals with "all aspects of studying
mankind," it ought to provide conceptual tools by which one could at least
begin to ask the right sorts of questions. Is cultural anthropology no longer
asking fundamental questions? Is it no longer developing new conceptual tools?
Is it never going to be a "real" science? If anthropological ideas are to
remain relevant they have to continue to develop and change, as societies
and cultures are themselves changing. Fixed mindsets can stultify any
science. Of course it may be that cultural and social anthropology are
alive and dynamic, but it's not much reflected in this newsgroup.

My apologies to any anthropologists who may be offended by these half-baked
and ill-informed pronouncements. Consider them a troll. I just wondered
what sort of response they might evoke.

Norman Sides