Four Sick Fields?

My own training as an anthropologist has been so narrowly sociocultural that it seems almost laughable for me to advocate a ‘four fields’ approach in anthropology where equal time is given to archaeology, linguistics, sociocultural anthropology, and biological anthropology. But I was struck recently by “John Norvell’s”: blog entry entitled “Daddy Please Come Home”: There, John writes that an anthropology undergraduate trying to build connections across the four fields “reminded [him] of an adolescent pleading for his parents to get back together and can’t life just be like it was?” John carries the metaphor of the unhappy and broken marriage further, wondering aloud: “Doesn’t he know it’s all over except for the occasionally-ugly-but-usually-not alimony and child support negotiations?” The punchline of the entry is its categorization: “the four [sic(k)] fields.”

Setting aside the issue of whether or not this is an appropriate way to talk about your students in public, I was struck by John’s remarks because of my own experience as a young professor. Throughout my career in graduate school I’ve been surprised to find myself moving away from John’s skepticism and becoming more and more interested in the four field approach that his student was advocating.

To be sure, John points out that anthropology students “have friends in history or English or social studies and feel engaged with them in a somewhat common project without an overarching structure” despite being in different departments. This is spot on — anthropologists have always played well with (some) other disciplines, and so we might wonder why it is so vital to keep anthropology’s four fields within one department. Why not send all the sociolcultural types to offices in the Sociology Building, or the biological anthropologists off to the Biology Building? I admit that after a century of modern anthropology the logic which connected the four fields to one another can seem antiquated. But is it really true, as John says, that there are “huge methodological and theoretical gulfs between the fields?”

Let’s start with an easy example — are there huge methodological and theoretical gulfs between sociocultural and linguistics? Of course there are different kinds of sociocultural anthropology and different kinds of linguistics, but if anything I’d say that the last couple of decades has seen an enormous flowering of linguistic and anthropological theory and research based on how people examine the relationship between language and culture.

How about archaeology? In my experience there are at the moment a number of professors out there who have really demonstrated the utility of archaeological models for sociocultural anthropology and vice versa. For instance, perhaps the most comprehensive review of the anthropological literature on drinking that I’ve seen is in Driven By Drink — an article by archaeologist Michael Dietler! Adam Smith’s (relatively) new book The Political Landscape is both a close reading of the archaeological record as well an original contribution to anthropological theory that sociocultural anthropologists can learn from. I do not know very much about archaeology — I know of Dietler and Smith only because they are both in the department where I’m a student — but my sense is that archaeology and sociocultural anthropology are moving closer together, not farther apart.

The real question is biological anthropology. In today’s sociocultural anthropology, where social studies of science and technology are so popular, the term ‘scientific’ runs up a red flag, and ‘scientistic’ is used with derision. People who do biological anthropology, for there part, don’t understand why cultual anthropologists answer all questions regarding the physical composition of humans with the line “Boas proved race doesn’t exist years ago.” Here there are indeed theoretical and methodological divides, but the imperatives for bridging them are more important than the chasms are deep.

Too often people working in genetics discover ‘races’ and other essentialized identities within their data due less to the data themselves and more to the unsophisticated notions of identity that inform their interpretation of it. Equally, some sociocultural anthropologists may find critiques of science, truth, and so forth rich and compelling. But if we rely solely on them and not on some sort of deeper engagement with concerete technical-cum-ethnographic issues in genetics or biological anthropology, sociocultural types will simply end up ghettoizing themselves in a professional culture increasingly distanced from the public and other subfields — a strange fate for a discipline obsessed with making itself ‘relevant.’ Both fields will be better able to do what they want to do if they loose their naivete about the other.

So in fact I think that there is a logic and connection between anthropology’s four fields. Not surprisingly, I consider my own field — sociocultural anthropology — to be the great unifier here. A little bit of sociocultural anthropology goes a long way: it can inform (and be informed) by other disciplines, making the relationships between each one richer and more rewarding.

Of course, anthropology shares its subject — people — with many other disciplines, and I am not one of these guys who think that anthropology is somehow intrinsically superior to sociology or philology because of its ‘holistic’ nature. Nor do I feel that sociocultural anthropologists should necessarily be more committed to building bridges with biological anthropology than, say, history or literature. I am not even particularly tied to the idea that a four fields approach must be carried out institutionally in the form of a ‘four fields department.’

What I am saying, however, is that it is not “all over.” An orientation to all four fields — whatever its institutional incarnation it takes– makes anthropologists smarter, and is something that they should work to maintain. Like all marriages, happy relations in anthropology don’t just happen automagically — they require work. And like all long-married couples, the current state of relations between our fields might be quite different from what it was when we tied the knot. But this does not mean that the unique configuration of our discipline is bankrupt, or ought to be actively dismembered simply because it is old. The relationships between anthropology’s four fields may at times be ‘sick’ as John suggests, but the solution, at least as far as I’m concerned, is to bring them back together again. We need medication, not amputation.


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

15 thoughts on “Four Sick Fields?

  1. To the extent that each of the four fields relies on mutually exclusive research methodologies: DNA analysis, carbon dating, literary theory, conversation analysis, etc. there isn’t much point in combining them into one discipline. But the best work in each of those fields does not rely on such limited methodological grounds.

    I just went to a physical anthropologists dissertation defense where he talked about the need to move beyond just identifying which population had been somewhere “first” and starting to delve further into the data to understand the cultural and political behaviors which influenced migration. Similarly, good linguistic anthropology is informed by social history and ethnography.

    Do socio-cultural anthropologists need the other disciplines? Considering some of the misconceptions about language upon which much contemporary social theory is based, it might be a good idea to have some more training in the area. (For a more complicated discussion of this last point, see my exchange with Mark Liberman.)

  2. Well I do think that some of each field’s research methods that are more or less unique to it and we shouldn’t try to ignore that fact — that’s why we refer to them as seperate subfields! But that is different from saying that all four have completely mutually exclusive research methodologies — the fact that they don’t is why we refer to them all as anthropology. And as you point out, the more overlap, the more better.

    Also, I do see value in the other three fields for socioculturals. I don’t want to be one of these people who think all other subfields could learn from their speciality, but that their subfield has nothing to learn from others.

  3. Hi guys. I readily acknowledge areas of overlap between the “subfields,” some with long histories, others that should overlap more but don’t. I find lots of archaeologists’ and biological anthropologists’ work interesting, usually in a detached way, the way I read about physics in Scientific American (okay, not really, but, go with the analogy…). In one of my major areas, race, knowledge of some current human population biology is essential. But no more so than my familiarity with Brazilian historiography and the history of the Latin American novel. The so-called “four-field” model assumes a natural affinity that is now largely mythological. The question is one of institutional politics and the best arrangements to do the best teaching and research. In many departments and, increasingly, at the AAA, the marriage of convenience isn’t so convenient anymore. More back at my place…

  4. By the way, the main referent of the “[sic]” part of my category pun is the number: for me linguistic and cultural anthropology are joined at the hip. I usually “three,” myself.

  5. Hmm…. so you consider linguistic and cultural anthropology to be joined at the hip, and you’re interested in biological stuff because you work on race, so… basically you dislike archaeologists :?)

    Seriously though, thanks for your comments and feedback.

  6. I never met an Anthropologist that I didn’t like. You may want to shuffle the ‘bone diggers’ off by themselves and make it a holy trinity. They always were an odd lot.

  7. I like archaeologists, too! They’ve usually got the party going on. I read archaeologists. I just consider them second cousins. And a few of them are nasty.

  8. I agree that it’s an uneasy alliance — freakin’ Boas! I wouldn’t be so quick to write off biological anthro just yet, though — in addition to race, let’s not forget that all that stuff about human evolution, e.g. how we came to be culture-using creatures, is in their territory as well. As someone whose graduate department was explicitly sociocultural only, I find that I’m behind the curve on a lot of topics — though having covered the rudiments of the 4-fields as an undergrad, I think I’m in a better position than most non-anthros to pick them up. But in my own work, I definitely find more of use in history, philosophy, and literary criticism than I do from archaeology or biological anthro.

  9. Well, if engaging with biological anthropology is the issue, a good start might actually be to include a biological anthropologist in a group anthropology blog.

  10. Tigerbear: We’ve talked about this amongst ourselves at length and have been looking around for archaeolgoical and biological anthro contributors. Any reccomendations?

  11. As an archaeology grad student at a dedicated 4-field school, I find this “ugly cousin” sort of attitude disappointing. Us bone diggers have plenty to contribute, and we read your work; read ours. We have temporal depth, and we encounter social forms that do not exist today, anywhere. Maybe you’d learn something. Culture, the unifying concept.

  12. Seems to me, based on my experience as a rising graduate student in archaeology, that the four fields aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they are becoming more defined because of the branching off within those subfields (ethno-botanist, archaeo-astronomer, etc.). It’s just a very easy and efficient way to organize the vast field of anthropology. I have yet to encounter any tension between the fields (only because I’m relatively new to academia) but I’m not worried.

  13. By the way, I’m not sure about this at all:

    People who do biological anthropology, for there part, don’t understand why cultual anthropologists answer all questions regarding the physical composition of humans with the line “Boas proved race doesn’t exist years ago.”

    There’s no reason why this hypothetical biological anthropologist should be satisfied by that answer at all, pertaining, as it does, to a time when aristogenesis was still a viable scientific theory. I don’t know exactly what orange-related question this person was asking, but the soc anther’s response is purely about apples.

  14. Wow, since this was posted ages ago I’m sure no one will see my comments, but I had to respond. I am a biological anthropologist and I was surprised at what a reductionist interpretation of bio anthro passed as correct here. As a reproductive ecologist that examines socio-environmental factors and their relationship to reproductive function, my work doesn’t have anything to do with genetics or carbon dating. If you want a great unifier, look to bio anthro’s subdisciplines of behavioral ecology and reproductive ecology. Lifestyle’s influence on biology is, to me and many others, greater than genetics’.

    By the way, Lewontin did a pretty good job showing that race is not biologically significant back in the 70s with blood haplotypes (which is altogether different from saying it’s culturally significant). Most good bio anthro folks are quite satisfied with his answer.

    I’d also have to echo Duke: we read your work, read ours and you won’t have such disdain for science. I’m continually amazed at the derisive shouts of “sociobiologist!” I’ve gotten from sociocultural… especially from people who have read only selected critiques of EO Wilson, not his original (or subsequent) work.

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