Paid-up AAA members got an unusual email in their inboxes the other day from Monica Heller, the president of the American Anthropological Association. It’s unusual to get AAA direct mailing, and those of us who do often are halfway to hitting the delete button before we even get around to reading the subject line. This is one email, however, that we should all take seriously: Next week the House of Representatives will be debating the ‘COMPETES’ Act (H.R. 1806), which will, in essence, cut NSF funding of anthropology in half. This is one to worry about, folks.
I’ve argued in the past that the NSF already radically underfunds the social sciences. This new bill cuts the budget of the SBES (social, behavioral, and economic sciences) 45%, and targets a third of funding for one units (the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics) while leaving the other units to fight for the scraps.
Luckily, it is easy to tell your representatives what a lousy idea you think this is — head over to Vox Pop and follow their simple and easy process to send an email to your representative letting them know that you think anthropology and the social sciences deserve better.
Not all anthropologists practice a version of our discipline that is scientific — that’s why we also apply for funding from agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities. But for many of us, anthropology is a STEM discipline: an evidence-based research science interested in generating generalizable models of cultural and social process. It may not always look this way to non-anthropologists, mostly because hypothesis formation in inductive, qualitative field research looks a lot different from the version of the scientific method you are taught in high school. But that’s ok — numerous studies of bench science have shown that lab work doesn’t look very much like high school version of the scientific method either.
Consider, for instance, the winner of the 2015 Bateson Award, Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think. The Bateson award is given out by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, the section of the AAA most likely to be named as anti-science by people who consider themselves pro-science. Kohn’s book is widely viewed as a part of the theoretical turn towards ‘ontology’, which is in turn seen as being the most anti-scientific approach imaginable. In fact, Kohn is quite frank in emphasizing his debt to Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist who does interdisciplinary work in neurobiology and human evolution. As counterintuitive as it may seem to some, books like How Forests Think are tied to a scientific project which the NSF currently supports — but might not for much longer.
So take the time to click through this link and help support federal funding for anthropology. Thanks.
NSF recently awarded the latest round of the NSF GRFP, aka the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. These awards are given to graduating anthropology undergrads or first year graduate students. To make a long story short, they are very prestigious, pay for most (or all) of graduate school, and prove to grad schools and future funders that you are For Real. These awards set you up for success. So who got them and who didn’t says a lot about our discipline and where it’s going. So: what do they tell us?
[This is an invited post by Tony Waters. Waters is a Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and occasionally blogs at ethnography.com. His application for a PhD program in Anthropology was rejected in 1988 because he was unable to put together the appropriate charms needed by the admissions committee at an unnamed western United States university. In an attempt to please the gods of the tribe he has since offered up his first-born at the altar of an unnamed Anthropology PhD program in the eastern United States.]
I made a somewhat off-hand comment one of Ryan’s posts about graduate education. I think I warned graduate students about “fetishizing” various types of grant sources like NSF, NIMH, Fulbright, and the various others sources of grad student funding which students compete to get. This initially got me a deserved sharp rebuke from Ryan. After all, who was I as a fully tenured, overpaid, and underworked full professor to complain about graduate stipend which (obviously) are few and far between? Well that question is fair enough—but Ryan has also graciously offered me a chance to elaborate.
First my backstory. One of the reasons I am not an anthropologist is that in 1988 after eight years working in Thailand and Tanzania mostly with refugees (which is what I wanted to study), I would need at least eight years to become an anthropologist. In large part, it was explained to me that this was because (obviously) fieldwork is required for a doctorate in anthropology, you might need to try two or three times before success. But never mind while waiting for the grant to come through you would need to work 2-3 years as a t.a. waiting to strike gold. It was sonorously explained to me that to do field work, you would need pre-research visits, protocol visits, and finally what was in the early 1990s a $20,000 grant from Fulbright or NSF to buy your plane tickets, fly back to places you have already been, collect the data to do the field work. The field work would then take another year or two to do the write-up, and so forth.
So I ended up in Sociology, and completed a PhD in 5-6 years, without fieldwork and wrote a dissertation based mainly in the library. I also heard that I would never get a job unless I:
- Could get a grant, preferably one via NSF or one of the other federal agents which pay “overhead.”
- Curried favor with letter writers (i.e. they themselves) who controlled the job market via social networks.
- Delivered multiple papers at conferences, preferably those organized by their networks.
- Made a theoretical break-through in your dissertation, which they would sign off on. Continue reading
Nicholas Cristakis’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” has a lot of things going for it. I appreciate his call for more hands-on teaching of research methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the application of social scientific knowledge. To make this point, unfortunately, he mischaracterizes the social sciences as “stagnated”, “boring”, “counterproductive”, and “insecure”. He calls on us to “change the basic DNA of the social sciences” in order to “evolv[e] with the times” as the natural sciences have. What’s more, his piece mischaracterizes the natural sciences in important ways. Christakis’s piece is remarkably data-free and lacks any concrete reference to the social-scientific work it stigmatizes and merely asserts our dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t have much space and was writing for a popular audience, which probably explains this fact. An account of how the social and natural sciences actually work, however, makes clear that the difficulties of the social sciences stem from quite different sources then those that Christakis points to.
The first and most obvious difficulty that the social sciences face is funding, pure and simple. Compared to the natural sciences, we receive peanuts. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NSF got roughly 5.5 billion dollars from Congress to spend on research. Before you press the ‘Read More…’ link in this article, ask yourself “what percent of that was spent on social sciences?”