Danny Yee >> People >> Mike Salovesh
Date:         Sat, 15 Apr 2000 04:08:35 -0500
From:         Mike Salovesh <t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU>
Subject:      Talking about the past . . Part 1.

I started a message about something Wade Tarzia said about how being the kind of humans who live today has to involve being able to talk about past events. Halfway through what I set out to say, I realized that I was speaking a language many on this list don't understand. The reason why some of us old far . . . flung representatives of the profession speak a language unknown to many of you also requires talking about past events.

I guess I'll just have to make two messages out of what I want to say. In this one, the past I want to talk about is the past of anthropology and the teaching of anthropology.

When I began studying anthropology, the consensus in our profession was that anyone who wanted to become an anthropologist should learn a lot about each of what were called the "four fields". That belief is not necessarily shared by a majority of anthropologists today -- so it might be well for me to list just which four fields used to be thought of as THE four. They were generally taken to be (prehistoric) archaeology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and social (or sociocultural or cultural) anthropology. (The alternation among the adjectives "social", "sociocultural", and/or "cultural" was largely a matter of local traditions at various influential university departments of anthro. Chicago, for example, claimed to be an outpost of British social anthropology, while Berkeley put most of the same substantive concernes into a box they called cultural anthropology.)

The Chicago department, in those distant times, not only preached the foursquare gospel of a fourfield anthropology, they added a peculiarly local article of faith. We were taught that the fields of anthropology made up a single integrated whole. We were constantly encouraged to crossover among the fields. The ultimate justification was faith in the belief that any explanation of human behavior that ignored what all four of the fields might contribute was not going to be a good anthropological explanation.

The idea that anthropology is a unified whole became the bedrock of my faith, and I believe it still. (On the other hand, I've given up believing that four is such a holy number that there have to be four and only four subfields of anthro. I can see a case for arguing that anthropology today has at least six or seven major subfields, and I wouldn't reject a larger number out of hand.)

What I see in the teaching of anthropology across North America suggests that my faith in the unification of anthropology is a dying creed.

Yes, there are departments that pay lip service to the ancient faith by requiring students to take X number of courses in each of four (or five or six) fields, but it seems pretty clear that the requirement does not reflect a theoretical stand. Most anthropologists today have no idea of what's going on in linguistics. Very few of us have any inkling that the subfield we call linguistic anthropology has split into a number of factions that no longer understand each other. (In fact, linguistic anthropologists no longer come close to agreeing on what their subject matter is, let alone agreeing on what approaches are worth pursuing in trying to understand whatever their subject is.) There are very few social or cultural anthropologists who have even a clue as to the meaning of something as utterly simple, in population genetics, as Hardy-Weinberg predictions. Physical anthropologists who actually know the fossil record well enough to have an informed view of how Neanderthal (I stick with the traditional spelling) is or is not related to anatomically modern H. sapiens can work a lifetime without learning enough about living primates to distinguish a troop of bonobos from a troop of non-bonobo chimps. Unlike the faith of anthropologists of the past, we now allow and even encourage this kind of isolation among practitioners of anthropological subfields.

Departments that still have some requirements that students take a minimum number of courses in all "four" fields usually do so out of reasons of internal political balance rather than theoretical conviction. Adopting a four field course requirement keeps the linguists from cutting out the tongues of any physical anthropologists who might dare to suggest that some nonhuman primate or another actually exhibits language-like behavior. It forces the social or cultural anthropologists to allow somebody else to focus on things (like hand axes or traces of house posts) instead of what's really significant: social relations. Reassured by the guarantee that at least some of their courses will be populated by students destined for other pursuits, physical anthropologists can stop worrying that the customary incompetence in statistics that characterizes most anthropologists won't snowball into those mushyheaded others kicking out the only true scientists left in the anthropological fold. Fourfield course requirements mean that the archaeologists can eat departmental space for their bulky labs and never have to worry about being evicted by the folks whose fieldwork results are encompassed by a stack of photos, tape recordings, computer disks, and paper records that could all fit in one corner of an experimental dig five feet square taken down to a five foot depth. Hell, a properly defined distribution of course requirements can even make it possible for a specialist who works in Papua New Guinea to live in the same department as another who is dedicated to understanding street gangs in Chicago and neither will have to take care of the other with one of the weapons traditionally used in the field.

ASIDE: Just in case it isn't obvious, please understand that I do not have any of the negative views of our colleagues that I just attributed to SOME people in various subfields of anthropology. It's just my way of underscoring a point.

In recent years, it has become more and more obvious that this absence of cross-cutting threads of unification can't go on forever: either anthropology, as such, will fail to survive at all, or we will split into a series of warring camps with no base of mutual understanding. I can see movement in both of those directions. It worries me a lot.

All of this has been about explaining how fossils like me came to be the way we are. It's no surprise to me that my old classmate Irv Devore still says, from time to time, that he thinks he's always been a social anthropologist, even when doing his field studies of baboons. Patty Jo Watson was another classmate, and she has been widely honored for her accomplishments in archaeology. It was no surprise at all to hear her give a distinguished address to the American Anthro Association in which she said she never thought of herself as an archaeologist. Instead, she is an anthropologist who happens to do archaeological research as her part of our commmon anthropological enterprise.

There's nothing strange about me, an anthropologist whose main work has been concerned with politics and kinship, intergroup and interethnic relations, and such, based on fieldwork in Mexico, Central America, and the U.S., keeping a close eye on recent discoveries and interpretations of fossil hominids and other primates. That was simply a routine expectation for all anthropologists once upon a time. We also were supposed to be fairly sophisticated about linguistic analysis, and that's what leads me to an occasional explanatory excursion like those I've dropped into Anthro-L recently.

Keeping a broad, multifield viewpoint of anthro has its costs. Keeping up with everything that's happening within anthropology has become impossible for any one human being. Just keeping enough basic competence to understand what those who specialize in some restricted part of anthropology say to the public takes one helluva lot of work. Spreading your interests across a wide part of anthropology does let you see connections that others might miss, but the price is that you can't allow yourself to dig too deeply in any one corner. The best defense, in my opinion, is to expend lots of effort on explanatory principles, on ways that one part of anthropology sheds light on apparently unrelated matters, on what implications any part of some subfield may have for anthropology considered as a whole. The details -- the little persnickety distinctions that any specialist makes within a special subfield -- simply have to be left to those specialists.

That said, I promise to get back to some persnickety details about what Wade Tarazia said. But for the time being I have to let that other message sit, so I can get back to finishing my part of our joint income tax return. (Ugh.) Maybe I'll be able to take a break tomorrow night and consider the other kind of talking about the past.

-- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu> PEACE !!!