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”:http://www.anthroblogs.org/norvell/ blog entry entitled “Daddy Please Come Home”:http://www.anthroblogs.org/norvell/archives/2005/05/daddy_please_co.html. 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.