What Happened at #AAA2015: The Good, The Bad, and the Bibs

Last week, Denver welcomed about five thousand anthropologists to its Gilded Age (and Gilded Age revival) downtown for the massive anthropological blowout that was the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. So what were the main trends of the meetings? Well, in no particular order they were:

The Bibs: This year’s membership badges were, well, slightly larger and redder than they were in the past. I think that the goal was to reduce plastic waste, since the badges were made of cloth. That was a great goal and I think it was well-achieved, and if bibs are the future then that’s fine with me. But… yeah…

#AAA2015 member badges were larger than in previous years
Member badges were larger than in previous years

Another feature of the badges  was a QR code, which could be used to scan your fellow anthropologists. No one I know actually tried to scan anyone else — most people I talked to feared what they would learn. However, according to AAA material, in the future being labeled with a QR code will enable us to participate in ‘scavenger hunts’. That’s right: scavenger hunts. The mind boggles.

AAA members voted to vote on boycotting Israel’s educational institutions: 2000 people came to the business meeting on Friday, producing overflow crowds. It looked impressive, but in fact it was less than half of the total number of people attending the conference, and far less than the total number of AAA members. At the meeting, AAA membership voted to put a measure on the spring ballot to sanction Israeli educational institutions. It was a long and emotional, and many others will have much more to say about it than I will. One thing that I do think deserves mention is how well everyone conducted themselves. AAA leadership came to the meeting with a clear plan for keeping things civil, and Monica Heller (the AAA president) showed tremendous professionalism as well as a touch of wry humor. There was also a parliamentarian. While the AAA will doubtless face a lot of blowback about the decision that was made at this meeting, I don’t think anyone can argue with the class and style that was shown by both members and leadership.

Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus  and Lucinda Ramberg’s Given to the Goddess  won big. Lucas Bessire won the Bateson Prize for Behold The Black Caiman (richly deserved in my opinion) and (if I can toot my own horn) my own book took home the politcal and legal anthropology book  prize. But Simpson’s volume walked away with the Sharon Stephens prize (AES) and got honorable mentions from APLA and SANA (not to mention awards from American Studies and NAISA, the Native and Indigenous Studies Association).  Given to the Goddess left Denver with even more medals around its neck, winning the Ruth Benedict, Michelle Rosaldo, and Clifford Geertz prizes.  Take a look at both of these volumes if you want to get a sense of what the powers that be thought was high quality.

The AAAs is looking more and more like a professional meeting — which may or may not be a good thing. AAAs levelled up this year from hotel venues to an actual convention center. Too big to fit into a hotel lobby, but still not quite big enough to fill an actual convention center, many people felt disconnected from fellow conference participants as they wandered the massive, Cyclopean halls of our conference venue in search of four dollar water and meeting rooms with ceilings that stretched upwards into infinity. Some people felt it made it harder to connect — others enjoyed freedom from the constant press of anthropologists.

Things other than size made the AAA feel less like a meeting of scholars and more like a meeting of dentists or ophthalmologists. There were banners on city blocks near the convention center welcoming us, and we kept receiving emails from our ‘sponsors’. An anti-boycott ad ran continuously along the bottom of the scheduling app, paid for perhaps by Bibi himself. At the business meeting a short, embarrassing movie hyped up Minneapolis (our next meeting location) as a fun place for straight white people to eat meat in the dark, but failed to mention Prince. On the one hand, I feel like the AAA is increasingly drifting away from the smaller, more vital, anthropology meetings that the section have, and which were a hallmark of our past. But on the other hand, I think these false notes just reveal to ourselves what, in some sense, we really are: A large professional organization whose size and influence pulls us to the bourgeois middle.

On the other hand, AAA is becoming more attentive to indigenous issues — John Emhoola Jr., a Kiowa and Arapaho cultural practitioner, was at the opening of the conference, and Monica Heller began the business meeting acknowledging the people of the place, which was great. In fact, the governor of Colorado was there. Perhaps this says more about how small the state’s small world is, but I think it reflects the AAA’s growing influence as well.

The papers were actually good: A lot of people are cynical about the AAA’s value as anything other than an opportunity to network. But this year pretty much everyone I talked to thought the papers they heard were good. Some people even went to panel voluntarily, even though they were not on them. This was my experience as well. Of course, my impressions are based on so little evidence that they shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But… that’s never stopped me before. And I’m glad to say that in this case I and others I spoke to had a very positive impression of intellectual quality of the conference.

Ontology Down, Anthropocene Holding Steady: Ontology, the 2013 buzz word, had definitely lost its cachet, and seemed to be used almost as a term of abuse or a strawman by people who described it as an apolitical, head-in-the-clouds approach. The anthropocene and climate change, 2014’s word, held steady, you know, our ecosystem may still collapse in our lifetime. Although it didn’t get as much buzz, I also think that we saw Peak Ethics this year, with the publication of several volumes focusing on the ethical turn that has been circulating in some spheres of anthropology. Look for more of that later.

I liked Denver: I’d never been to Denver before, and was pleasantly surprised. The convention center and hotels were close to one another. There were nice swanky restaurants nearby, but you could also find a drug store and a clothing store nearby, in case you needed something. Best of all, hangovers could be excused away as ‘altitude sickness’. The one thing I missed was a restaurant across the street where you could drop five dollars and be served a thousand calories two minutes later. For the tenured swankonauts, the up-scale locations on Larimer street were fine, but for the precariate (or simply the famished) seven dollar mini burritos at Big Bear Coffee just didn’t do the trick. But overall I enjoyed the venue and would happily go back to Denver again.

That’s about all I have to say about the Denver meetings, at least for now. What did you think about AAAs? What were your favorite moments of the conference? Will Minneapolis be able to compete with Denver? Let me know in the comments.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “What Happened at #AAA2015: The Good, The Bad, and the Bibs

  1. Cannabis was a strong theme, appropriate to Denver’s legalization context: at least 4 panels on marijuana in various dimensions and the APLA-sponsored “Cannabis Tour” which was basically an “420-friendly” bachelorette bus filled to the brim with anthropologists and bags of Cheetos. For 2015 buzzwords, I’d vote “infrastructures.”

  2. I believe it was the Blue Bear Cafe, though the one outside the convention center was also very big. I agree that the Meetings seemed scattered — the convention center is too large (and Hyatt across the street too small for the whole conference), and I spend four days there not seeing a lot of people I would normally bump into. Your impression of the papers was a little better than mine. Not as bad as they were, routinely, in the past, but still not quite living up to the sexier abstracts. I always have the impression that, when you have to present a paper in order to get travel money from your institution, the motivation to write a well-developed, dynamite paper is reduced, and once again I heard of a number of people at the sessions I attended complaining about dashing off something at the last minute. I also gather that the AAA is somewhat reluctant to reject too many proposed sessions, since in many cases people need to present in order to attend, so it’s a bit of a vicious cycle. My expectation of Minneapolis is that it will be cold.

  3. You’ve captured my experience exactly, Alex. Spot on! I did keep my large cloth badge for a toddler I know who is just starting to eat solid food.

  4. I went to a show at City Hall on Friday, after the AAA: the rapper Redman and Ky-Mani Marley (the son of Bob Marley and a ping-pong champion)… Anyway, it was actually a “book launch”, for a book about how to grow indoor marijuana, with dashing stewardess, a photobooth and fancy lightings. The book (called Three a Light) had no more than 50 pages, many pictures and not much more than 5 lines a page. Well, the first thing that came to my mind was that: 1) Legalizing is easy money, 2) If we did the same party for everybook launch at the AAA’s, exhibitors would be very high !

  5. Scattered is definitely the word. I greatly enjoyed Denver itself and heard a number of genuinely engaging papers, I was surprised at how few people there were at most of the panels and meetings I attended. I wondered if it was the topics or if people simply got lost. I had members of one of the sections I’m involved in unable to locate any information for the Section because of a problem with labeling in the App. But otherwise, I thought things overall went well. I did try scanning my own QR code but it just gave unusable lines of code. Maybe I did it wrong? I kept waiting for someone else to eventually know how to work it, but I never found anyone that did. It would be great if the QRCODE could serve as a replacement for exchangING business cards. But I think the AAA will need to provide an instructive blog post next time. Hopefully we can use these to exchange contact info in the future. One scan and all your contact information and social media is uploaded into my phone’s address book. Maybe that’s what it did if anyone got it to work right?

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