Specializing (was Re: Cyborg anthropology

Wed, 9 Feb 1994 15:48:20 EST

On Wed, 9 Feb 1994 04:28:38 EST John O'Brien said:
>How about a rousing debate on the necessity of specialization in the
>social sciences anyway . . . why don't we get rid of all departments
>and simply lump everyone into the same building under the name of
>social and behavior scientists . . . might destroy lots of vested
>interests, but it also might create some genuine dynamic . . .
>but then, how could you justify reinventing the wheel every five
Oh, I'll gladly enter that debate. I chose anthropology as my undergraduate
major because I liked its potential to deal with so many different areas
of human experience. My work habitually "steals" from sociologists, psychol-
ogist, etc. Anthropology is just there to hold it all together in a framework.
I *want* to be a generalist. Vested intrests be damned. Applying to grad
school though (not to mention actually being there now), people keep asking me
to me to define my "research interests". If I'm cornered, I list whatever six
subjects I'm thinking about at the time. Otherwise, I say "this or that" and
make the quickest escape possible.

Anyway, I study a lot of things that a lot of people think should be left to
sociologists or psychologists, often because I'm not satsified by the conclu-
sions drawn from narrower research interests. Now, I doing some preliminary
research on symbolic action in computer networks (something ANTHRO-L sorta
helped convince me to do, by the way), which I'm sure nobody but my advisor
and I will believe can be done anthropologically, so I expect to here "Is that
anthropology?" for the next two years....

That's not to say I'm declaring myself a Virtual Anthropologist for life. It
just happens to be what I'm interested in at the moment. Two years from now
I'll probably work on something completely different for a Ph.D., assuming
anyone will accept a student with such a weird master's thesis.

I've got a problem with two kinds of "specialization": Interdisciplinary (i.e.
are anthropologists allowed to study the same things studied by more special-
ized fields like economics, pop culture, or computer information studies) and
intradisciplinary ("What school do you follow?" "What's your paradigm?").

So, my vaguely-defined question (especially to those of you in teaching pos-
itions): Is there any point in being a non-specialist anymore? Am I allowed
to just investigate any subject I find anthropologically interesting, or do I
have to graduate from a special program in [insert specialty here] Anthropol-

With regards to our teaching colleagues, what do you do when a problem child
like me shows up? Encourage him to specialize, encourage generalization, or
write him off as hopelessly directionless?

While I'm here, what's the practicing/applied anthro viewpoint on specializa-
tion? Is it necessary for applied work or can an intelligent generalist re-
search on a project by project basis?

I'm just focused enough to know I'm a cultural anthropologist, but that's it.
If somebody asks me what school or paradigm I follow, I try to ignore them,
but I have a feeling that might not work if one of my professors asks (I think
they've decided I'm a symbolic type) avoidance would be a nonproductive

Specialization within anthropology is a favored topic of bartalk among anthro
students here in Kent, so I know I'm not alones in that regard. Otherwise, I
don't know. Does anybody out there worry about this stuff, or am I just

(Not exactly what John O'Brien had in mind when he asked, I know, but it's been
on my mind. My apologies for run-on sentences--it happens when I get worked

Michael Bauser, Dept Anthro, Kent State U, PO Box 5190, Kent 44242, USA
mbauser@kentvm.kent.edu | mbauser@kentvm.bitnet | Tel: +1 216 672 7380