What’s Wrong With Anthropology?

In December, I linked up Ann Gibbons’ article in Science about anthropology’s poor reception in the scientific community. I forgot to mention that months before that, in August, Kiplinger named anthropology “the worst major for your career.” Two months later, Forbes followed suite and ranked “anthropology and archaeology,” as the No. 1 on its list of “worst college majors.”

Suffice to say, 2012 was a tough year for anthropology, but at least we were number #1 in something! But all kidding aside, increased discussion is a positive outcome from all this criticism. What needs to be done is to increase the worth of studying anthropology.

In April of this year, Ty Matejowsky and Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster, two anthropologists from the University of Central Florida, wrote a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel, on the issue of the lack of “cool” factor in cultural anthropology. They have an empowering message,

Anthropologists need to take better ownership of our brand. The complexity of anthropological concepts such as “culture,” “power” and the “global” should not dissuade anthropologists from engaging in meaningful public discourse.

A couple of days ago, Savage Minds tackled the Orlando Sentinel guest column, saying our problem with our field is not just due to how we sell or brand ourselves, but in actuality how we conduct our work.

And last week, in the AAA blog post Anthropology News continued this discussion. Jennifer Long wrote, “Anthropology’s Response to Finding Jobs for Its Undergraduates.” Her approach general cites that anthropology is rather incestuous. Often those interested in anthropology gain positions within universities as researchers, which creates a bubble. She advocates for an experiential approach, to branch out and apply our field elsewhere… Much like Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Robin has recently written about trash and how our lives revolved around it. The book is titled, “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City,” and Collector’s Weekly interviewed her about it and the NY Times covered a book review about it.

With all this discussion about what’s wrong with anthropology, I want to turn to you, the readers and hear what you think is wrong with the field. Please feel free to comment and let us know what you find issue with the field — is it a branding problem; is it a problem with branching out and how we work?

7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Anthropology?

  1. From the Forbes article:
    “Most young people in college take whatever interests them, without thinking what it can really do for them.” says Anthony P. Carnevale, Ph.D., director of Georgetown’s CEW.

    I narrowly avoided being stuck in a commerce degree which I knew I absolutely no interest in besides money. After a semester of failed papers I changed to Biology and Anthropology, subjects which actually interest me (and contribute something meaningful to the world, unlike derivative trading and market speculation). What a relief! I’m heading mainly into Evolution + Behaviour with a strong interest in Entomology. When people ask me what sort of job I’m hoping to get out of insects I say “one that probably wont make me rich but one that will keep me motivated, interested and learning amazing things for my entire life”.

    The worst advice anyone can give is to do a degree which you hate but that will pay well after graduation. How many people are stuck in office jobs that feel torturous because of advice like this?

    It is not the fault of Anthropologists that the world does not care about asking genuinely interesting questions and would prefer to shower jobs and money on the superficial.

  2. My name is David and I am double majoring in Anthropology and Philosophy. I will say that branding is a big problem. The scientists have so many great people, and same with the philosophers. Barely anyone can recall a single anthropologist though and the reason is that branding problem. That being said not a whole lot has been found recently that science or another field takes credit for. So I feel one day a cultural anthropologist in media somewhere, maybe with a lucky break, will get his chance in media and spark the imagination of the nation. Every nerd has a hero, I know I did. In the end it was culture itself that captured my attention an no one particular person, so nothing was grounded to the thought of anthropology, and I feel many have that problem. So in the conclusion, anthropology needs a hero.

  3. Reblogged this on Lily Does Archaeology and commented:
    I’m glad to see some introspection from the field, especially in light of the large amount of new anthropology and archaeology graduates all seeking jobs. I definitely agree that branding is the larger issue, but I also see a lot of misinformation being circulated about both fields in the public forums; not a lot of people actually understand what it is we do, and that leaves others (like Hollywood) to answer those questions. I think anthropology/archaeology lacks a public “leader”, someone who can speak for all of us in a way, much like Neil DeGrasse Tyson does. Who that person is, has yet to be seen.

  4. I initially pursued an Undergraduate degree in Anthropology, but half way through, I decided to double major in History. The problem that I found with Anthropology was that there were no outlets for me to make a career with it. My dream was to work in the field and work with other cultural anthropologists or archaeologists; the reality is far from that unless you have deep seeded connections, which I did not. As a result, I had quickly learned to use the knowledge that I acquired my using it towards my Graduate degree and career in teaching Social Studies. I keep telling myself that one day I’d like to use my summer vacation to get a second Masters in Anthropology and to pursue self-funded research…but a part of me says that is probably unlikely the way the field is today and the lack of support it offers newcomers.

  5. I have two masters degrees – the first was in Anthropology and the second in Library Science and Archives. The library science degree is what opened the door for many jobs and that have shaped into a carrer. These jobs also help me pay on my student loans. I use the knowledge gained from my anthro studies but as other commenters have said, anthropology is a bit academic focused and insular. Never as an undergraduate or graduate student in Anthro did any professors in those departments consider life outside academics for anthropological work. If anything people who outside academia were considered failures who couldnt cut it in the “publish or perish” world of seeking tenure.

    Its sad to say but a lot of the change needs to come from the anthro community which always seemed to be exclusivly faculty (if Anthro meetings are any indicator). It’s a great area of study but good luck on that degree alone helping you to get a career going outside a university setting.

  6. The truth, I feel, is simple. is that anthropology has a very large pool of incredibly intelligent people who can look at situations in minute detail while still seeing the large picture. Yet, these incredibly intelligent people have been brain-washed into believing that the only way to validate their choice of study is through the academic world.

    I find it sad, really, because who better to create real change in the world but anthropologists. Where are our classes on anthropology in the business world? Why can’t anthropologists have a positive impact on the corporate paradigm, especially when it comes to foreign affairs? Why isn’t having an anthropologist on staff an industry standard, one that is highly valued? Why isn’t the anthropologist’s ability to see both sides of an issue from an educated and objective point of view being touted as a necessity for newspapers, businesses, governments?

    The real question, I feel, is why does anthropology suck on the teat of academia while shunning the real world, and any true positive impact we could make?

  7. I came to Anthropology relatively late in life as an adult student. My studies began after an accident and I found myself undertaking Police Studies and Criminology which included a core subject in Social Anthropology. Over time I became enthralled and eventually switched majors. Amongst other things I had a background in journalism.

    In the second year of a 3-year degree I was permitted to spend a year in Canada doing supervised readings and fieldwork (spending an academic year studying ethnically-designated transnational gangs). At that time I was also undertaking a separate degree in Law.

    I had already worked out how I wanted to use my anthropology studies; combining real-time, real-life fieldwork with law, criminology, and terrorism studies in an effort to better understand the cross-border social and cultural causative aspects of lethal conflict and violent criminal behaviour and activity. I had decided I wanted to go into academia whereby I hoped to work both as an ‘Academic’ and as a professional researcher / consultant external to any academic institution; providing not just professional expertise to those working within the fields of transnational crime and terrorism but also as a ‘public’ writer and investigator, bringing my work and findings into a wider, public arena. It was about sharing information.

    From this perspective I became a licensed private investigator and, working with a law firm as part of their criminal defence team, I was gaining, through my own volition, experiential training where I could not simply put my journalistic skills to use but also take the academic aspects of anthropology out of the classroom and apply (and test) them in real-life situations. As I later found, this desire to take my studies beyond the realm of academia was seen as academic heterodoxy. Interestingly though, it was the younger faculty who were opposed rather than the older members.

    On finishing my Degree I was invited to undertake my Honours Degree in Anthropology (at that time in Australia you could only take a 3-year degree with Honours being by invitation only). I focussed on ‘Lethal Conflict – Connecting the modern institution of war with globalisation’. On its completion I received a letter indicating my thesis was not an Honours Thesis but rather a Master’s. This led me to gaining a full scholarship to undertake a PhD in Anthropology. Notice I say ‘a’ PhD not ‘my’ PhD. It was at this time that I ran into the difficulties of ‘branding’ relative to Anthropology. For me, it was rooted in differing academic views of the social sciences and the breakdowns – or barriers – between notions ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science.

    I intended to take material from my year in Canada and look at understanding what made / prompted war refugees with previously non-criminal histories to become involved in violent, criminal gangs within their host countries. This was to involve fieldwork in several regions globally – including six months in an active war zone known as a major source of refugees along with three months each in Canada and Australia where a particular diaspora were well known for their transnational criminal activities and/or affiliations. Indeed, the organization to which they were aligned was at that time listed by over 30 countries as a terrorist organization. In the process I was also looking at a different theoretical approach which may or may not have had a bearing on the reasons why such actors became or did not become involved in such activities. I also had a hope that such work may have been (eventually) applicable to better understanding how and why (some) street kids coming from previously non-criminal backgrounds found themselves involved in major, often violent, criminal activities.

    While based within the Criminology Department of a leading Australian university I was told when drawing up my ethics proposal and various fieldwork funding applications that my writing was too journalistic. My response was I wanted my work read and understood by people other than academics (who were, of course, the target audience for my dissertation). I had a strong belief that part of the reason many fields of academia especially within the social sciences, lacked public credibility was because the public was often excluded from the discourse because material was too often couched in academic jargon. That is, academia spent too much time and energy talking to itself and not to those outside. That unless you spent time pursuing ‘publication’ and funding grants, your success was likely to inhibited: a view I see some 13 years later expressed by Ryan on Savage Minds Backup where he writes:

    “Look at graduate school training. What does that training produce? More academics, who are theoretically supposed to get university jobs, get their own students, and do more of the same. It’s all about building of specifically academic credentials: going to conferences, getting internships, writing papers for awards, seeking grants. It’s a big, and very insular, loop. It’s a factory designed to produce people for tenure track academic positions …”

    I soon came to realise that academic snobbery played a part in the branding of anthropology as a (not so) useful or pertinent discipline. Aside from the cries of my work being too journalistic, I had a psychologist within the Department tell me: “Anthropology is not a real science” and that the concept of ‘invulnerability’ I was seeking to tease out as a theoretical approach in my studies (in that ‘I am invulnerable because whatever you may choose to do to me today or tomorrow is insignificant in comparison to what I have already been through’ or alternatively, ‘put me in jail for 10 years, that’s fine. I’ve already lost most if not all of my family or I’ve been tortured beyond comprehension for my beliefs, by both sides through years of war). My response was, “Well isn’t that what academic research is about, at least in part, proving or otherwise the existence or otherwise of theory?”

    I also had a Head of Department (who at the time did not have a Post Graduate qualification but who was nonetheless considered an ‘expert’ in his field) question the need for fieldwork; he did not consider fieldwork a necessary component, believing the material could be extracted through previously published data and via surveys et cetera. Further, I had a lead supervisor openly complain to me about having to do the ‘hard yards’ (my words); gaining an Honours Degree, then a Masters before being able to undergo a PhD (without any scholarship or other financial assistance). Put differently, this person was miffed that someone could enter the Department without having done the work. My response: “Well I was the first and only undergrad (at that time) to have been allowed to undertake (supervised) overseas field work and that my Honours thesis was considered to be in the realm of a Masters dissertation.

    The academic snobbery showed me that even within the social sciences, broadly speaking; and even among anthropologists themselves, there was a clear lack of understanding – perhaps unwillingness – to see what anthropology was/is capable of outside of the discipline. That is, that aside from the theoretical aspects involved Anthropology teaches empathy which cold, data analysis cannot. Anthropology is supposed to bring ‘understanding’. Also, that studying anthropology enables us to look beyond the historical and into the real lives of real people and too apply its findings in understanding and, where appropriate, negating the many of the ills faced by differing cultures and societies. It is not just about writing papers basically intended for internal distribution.

    That was some 13 years ago. Needless to say I soon dropped my studies.

    Those anthropologists involved in teaching and/or mentoring students of anthropology need to understand that many come to the discipline with a strong sense of social justice and deep desire to learn about and understand people’s culture and society generally. Very few, I would suggest, consider going beyond their undergraduate years and more likely see their study as a means of broadening an already generalist approach to their futures.

    That said, it is incumbent upon both the student and teacher to understand how the actual study of anthropology may be used in other areas. If anthropology is to be ‘branded’ it needs to be done in a way that has the ‘academy’, the general public, and (potential) end users understanding that anthropology is about providing the wherewithal to understand what drives us and others socially and culturally and how those drives may be used to engage with and enhance the multifaceted world in which we and they live, particularly in a world where few remain untouched by the ‘global’ no matter how insular their world may (by perception) be.

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