Tag Archives: American Anthropological Association


The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is now over, as is Thanksgiving. Now that we are over the hump and have a bit of perspective, we can ask: How well did the AAA handle the meetings?

#tweetup #aaa2016
The Spaghetti Factory-turned Irish Bar named The Local hosted 8 events by anthropologists a day, 6 days a week in November, including the #tweetup. I’ve added a filter to this image to give you a sense of what it looked like after two pints.

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Farewell, Oona Schmid

No, it’s not the title of a whimsical new Wes Anderson movie, it’s news of changes within the American Anthropological Association’s publishing program. Ed Liebow, the executive director of the AAA (i.e. the big boss) announced in early January that Schmid will be leaving the AAA to become the Director of Publishing at the Association for Psychological Science.

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What a cooperative proposal means for the AAA

Social media was a-twitter (see what I did there?) today with an important statement about the future of anthropology publishing posted at both Cultural Anthropology and in the latest number of HAU. But what precisely is this post about? What are the broader politics that form its context, and what is its point?

The basic idea is this: We have long known that the American Anthropological Association is unable and/or unwilling to innovate on its own. Most of the developments in open access anthropology have happened outside of the AAAs structure. Sure, the AAA has tried various things such as a faux-open access journal and open access book reviews. But its core business model has been to throw in its lot with a large corporate publisher.

Our recent proposal to the AAA marks an important watershed in open access anthropology because it represents something new. Now, open access is not only growing outside of the AAA’s auspices, it is actually feeding back into the AAA itself. Instead of just going its own way, the open access community is now saying to the AAA: “You can’t develop a robust open access business model on your own. But what if we developed one for you? What if we could prove to you that there is a financially sustainable way for you to run your publishing unit? If we build it, will you come?”

My guess is that, no, the AAA will not endorse the model. The AAA has published American Anthropologist for over a hundred years, and their fundamental goal is to make sure that it continues for another hundred years. In the past couple of years the AAA has done a good job of building capacity, but it is still a conservative institution which is very risk averse.

But we can hope. And hopefully the cooperative proposal we have set out will receive lots of pushback from the AAA and people in the publishing industry to tell us that It Cannot Be Done, You Don’t Understand The Numbers, and so forth. This will only lead us to sharpen our argument, gather more data, and make an even stronger case. And — if you don’t mind my saying so — I think the open access movement deserves a lot of kudos of continuing to press its case with an institution that it very easily could have walked away from. In the end, the only way to test the business model is to actually try it, and I hope that someday we can prove to the AAA that our proposals are indeed feasible. If we do not, it will not be for lack of trying on our part.

Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.


Open access: What Cultural Anthropology gets right, and American Anthropologist gets wrong

Two different editorials about the future of open access appeared recently. The first, Michael Chibnik’s editorial in American Anthropologist, was gloomy about the prospects of the journal’s going open access in the future. A response from the board of the Society for Cultural anthropology ( ‘SCA’ the publisher of Cultural Anthropology) also recently appeared on the website. So what are these people saying, what is at stake, and why should we care?

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Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously

In this piece I would like to explain, in detail, why I think Peter Wood’s recent piece in Anthropology News is fundamentally misguided. For a lot of readers, there will be no point in my doing so — they will just write Wood off as ‘racist’ and move on. I’m, shall we say, extremely sympathetic to this point of view. But I do think that Wood’s piece deserves some scrutiny to explain why so many people find it so misguided.

In his piece, Wood takes issue with four essays in Anthropology News responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction in Ferguson. Wood  argues that the essays are “a retelling of… the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson: facts submerged in a sea of fiction”. He goes on to argue that these authors’ accounts of Ferguson ignore “the record of events established by the grand jury”. He claims that the concepts of “structural violence” and “structural inequality” used in the essays are “intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances” which “remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as victims”. In doing so, he claims, anthropology “erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces”. In the end, Wood claims, it is a “just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege.” In  fact, he says, “this is, quite plainly, a myth. There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.”

These are amazing claims, and it is difficult to understand how Wood can make them in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves exactly the opposite of what he claims. Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant.

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Hellz yes National Anthropology Day is ON

The Internetz were atwitter recently with the announcement that 19th February 2015 is officially going to be National Anthropology Day. And yet some people expressed confusion. What is National Anthropology Day? What does it mean? What are we supposed to do? Some questions were quickly answered: If the holiday is generically labeled ‘National’ that must mean ‘They do it in the US’. But others questions persist — why this day, instead of other days? What, concretely, will occur?

The Official National Anthropology Day website provides  some useful handouts, but no deeper contextualization of what the holiday is supposed to be about. This has led some people to grouse that it is a ‘fake holiday’. For this reason I wanted to write this blog post to help people understand why 19 February 2015 is finally getting the attention it deserves.

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What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves. Continue reading

American Anthropologist now shares peer reviews with all reviewers

I recently did a peer review for American Anthropologist, and was surprised (and delighted) to receive a note for them thanking me for my work and telling me that decision the editor made regarding the manuscript and — this is the new part — attaching all the feedback all the other peer reviewers gave the article as well. I’m familiar with this model, which is widely used in the biosciences, and I think it is great . Peer review is central to what we do but we rarely teach it to our graduate students, and the process itself is wrapped in a secrecy which makes learning on the job difficult.

At times peer review is like some sort of kinky Victorian sex act that Foucault would dissect: secret, unmentionable, but totally central to our academic/libidinal economies. People speak of it in hushed tones, afraid of the terrible secrets that will be disclosed if their behavior ever became public. Opening it up like this will help increase the quality of peer review by making review more transparent. I think it will also encourage peer reviewers to not act like total assholes when they review pieces. Which, let’s be honest, is something that needs to be encouraged.

I was curious about how this change was made so I reached out to Michael Chibnik, the editor of  AA, and asked him how it came about. Thanks to Mike for answering these questions so thoroughly.  Continue reading

This copyright week, Let's make the AAA's monographs open access

I have a suggestion for Copyright Week: Let’s ask the AAA to release their books and monographs into the public domain. After all, one of the easiest, most important, and least risky things the American Anthropological Association has ever done is to put into the public domain all of its journal articles published prior to 1964. By doing so, the AAA took our heritage as anthropologists and made it available to the world — exactly as it should be. The decision making behind this move was a little complicated (I can tell you about it later), but the decision making behind our next one doesn’t have to be. Let’s do the same for all the books and monographs the AAA hold copyright for — regardless of when they were published.
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