Whither BioAnthro?

A Harvard sophomore has written an article in the Crimson about the demise of the biological anthropology program, which seems to have been killed off by the creation of a new “human evolutionary biology” (HEB) program which “was identical to biological anthropology in every way except that it replaced social anthropology and archaeology requirements with pre-med classes.” The results were predictable, there are now only three biological anthropology majors left.

As someone who graduated from a four fields anthropology program, I’m glad that I had to take courses in biological anthropology, and many of my friends in that program were similarly happy to have taken their share of cultural, linguistic, and archaeology classes. Still, it was clear that the programs were moving further and further apart. The “linguistic turn” in Anthropology long ago moved cultural anthropology further towards the humanities, but more recently the increasing importance of genetic data have placed additional strains on biological anthropologists. My colleagues told me that the amount of specialized training required to handle genetic science placed tremendous demands on them, forcing them to take far more biology courses.

It remains to be seen if the remaining four-field programs will continue to hold together. Another source of pressure seems to come from the success of specialized programs in medical anthropology and science and technology studies. These programs seem to offer a truly interdisciplinary approach to combining science and cultural anthropology whereas traditional four-field programs are increasingly loosing their raison d’être.

21 thoughts on “Whither BioAnthro?

  1. Personally, I think the four-field approach is dead. Before someone says there is a whiff of sulphur in the air, let me suggest the four field approach was dead some time ago. Antagonism between anthropologists in each of the fields has certainly led to separation of the fields, not only in practice, but in physical location on campuses. The most famous is the case of Stanford, where the physical approaches segregated itself from the cultural.
    In addition, universities are remodeling themselves, emphasizing credentials/accredidation. Students often choose universities for their cache in the work-place, and often pursue classes for their future appeal to potential employers. So goes physical anthropology, away from its old domains towards the legitimacy of pre-med, biology or human genetics.
    I grant that there is a lot to learn in biological anthropology, but the work load can be accomplished with an extra year or two. Though, its seems to be the norm that genetic/biological anthropologists require a post-doc for a year or two to help round out their education.
    But I suppose most grads in bio-anth find an unease with the highly abstract character of cultural anthro texts. There just doesn’t seem to be a connecting thread between culture theory and bio-anth (except in “Culture Studies for Dummies” sort of level). The end result is frustration at so little returns.

  2. Except, of course, that Stanford’s department is being reintegrated.

    Anyway I think this discussion of four-field approaches can usefully be supplemented by one about interdisciplinarity. What sort of intellectual relationships are reflected by academic (re)organization? After all, historical anthropology relies on history, but history has never been one of the four fields. Linguist anthropologists talk to phoneticians, who are normally in linguistics departments, and so forth. Would we still have a ‘holistic’ approach to humans even if the institutional arrangements that originally provided it changed over time?

  3. The Fifth Field is coming and it will be glorious.

    The Fifth Field will be military anthropology.

    Military anthropology will move us to the next level.

    Military anthropology will combine cultural, linguistic, and physical anthropology in new and lethal ways that will anthropology realize its true potential.

    Keep preparing the way for the Fifth Field, and it will soon arrive.

  4. Rex, I didn’t know about Stanford. According to this article it sounds like a very top-down move which doesn’t have much support among the faculty, although the article does mention that it was facilitated by the recent departure of some faculty members (presumably those behind the original split). It will be interesting to see what happens …

  5. I think that a lot of the reason for the “death” of the four field approach is problematic overspecialization in various departments. For example, a department that has biological anthropologists focusing on bioarch, archaeologists and cultural anthropologists doing ethnohistory has a lot more overlap than a department that has bioanthropologists focused on primates, archaeologists focused on classical Greece, and cultural anthropologists focused on symbolic anthropology (Note: These are hypothetical examples of specializations. They don’t actually represent real departments). In the latter case, each subdiscipline at the hypothetical university has become so specialized that they not only do not talk to each other but in some cases, they are only in a narrow dialogue with other people in their own discipline.

    As an student faculty representative at two universities before my current PhD. institution, I often witnessed this during highering situations. When one of the subdisciplines was hiring, people in that subdiscipline would often push for people who were doing something extremely similar. In one small department for example, two bioanthropologists who were left after retirements (and another prof leaving) wanted to hire more evolutionists despite the fact that those who retired had researched other aspects of bio anthro. A biocultural anthropologist or bioarchaeologist would have made much more sense in this instance since it would have filled certain gaps in the department and it would have allowed for dialogue between bio and the other disciplines.

    Once specialization becomes entrenched and a university becomes known for specializing in one aspect of a subdiscipline then it becomes very hard to turn back the clock. In order to continue to get a critical mass of grad students, funding and/or administrative support you have to continually replicate what your good at. In the long run this leads to departments that break into very tiny enclaves.

    Second, I’m tired of the science/not sciene debate in anthropology which increases the disciplinary divide as well. Someone really needs to put a metaphorical bullet in the extreme postmodernists who apparently can’t stand being in the same room as bioanthorpologists and extreme “real” scientists who call everyone who doesn’t share their narrow theoretical approach “hippies” or “stupid.” I’m sick of professors using theory to justify being assholes to people in other disciplines (or even in their own discipline).

    I especially feel for the grad students in departments other than mine who are pressured to not hang out with people from other disciplines. In my master’s department and my current Phd. department, I have been lucky in that I have not had that pressure and I have made many friends in other disciplines. However, I still occasionally run into people who have trouble seperating their disciplinary commmitments from their ability to live their lives (in the sense that they see anyone who doesn’t share their perspective as an enemy and will never hang out with them under any circumstances). Unfortunately, some of these people will go on to have jobs and perpetuate this problem. I think that this socializing aspect cannot be ignored when we discuss the divide between disciplines.

  6. Sorry about the grammar errors. I should really stop posting on blogs this early in the morning.

  7. Wow — I think I’m a student in that hypothetical department. I can think of a professor for each of the specializations you mentioned.
    There are gaps, but they do talk.
    But I’m just an undergraduate…

  8. I think that lamentations of the demise of the four-field approach that then go on to enumerate *three* fields are unwittingly pretty funny. There was a long letter to AN a couptle of years ago that did exactly the same thing, and other posts here at SM. Perhaps practitioners of the fourth field (like myself) are just being touchy, but I do sometimes wonder about the sincerity of such lamentations when the lamenters can’t even remember all four fields ;).

    GSG, I’m just being smart-alecky; I otherwise find much to agree with in you post.

  9. My oversight of linguistics is largely to due to the fact that most anthropology departments where I have studied, generally only have one or two full time linguistics professors (as compared to four or more in other subfields). Administrators seem very resistant to hiring linguitic anthropologists if there are other linguistics programs on campus. Apologies to all of the linguistic professors out there.

    Btw….how do you go about posting a smile here?

  10. Kerim, the article on Stanford’s reuniting the two anthropologies does seem a top-down decision by the dean of H&S. One that, from a few comments, is not well received by faculty. As Gupta notes, the success of reintegration seems doubtful, as the underlying problems may not yet be resolved. Which begs the question, should the unification of four fields be imposed while the natural drift/tendency is towards differentiation? One aspect of the article I was wondering about was, if the four field approach is not represented in the Anthropology Department, will this reflect in a diminishment in the breadth of research by faculty?
    There isn’t a law we should have a four field approach, and as some have made clear here why not five field, six or . . .. I certainly see the contribution of history, having just finished Bruce Triggers’early work on Huronia. I might also mention Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests as another example.

  11. While the four in the four fields was not given by god, as Fred points out, I do think something like 4 field research is going to re-invented elsewhere if anthro departments abandon it, to our long-term disadvantage. & ironically, I think the re-integration will become more and more possible as … the “science” side of things advances!

    For so long, we’ve been in the position of feeling like the more humanistic aspects of anthro are the ones lagging behind: we don’t make discoveries, have grand unifying theories, systematize all previous knowledge generated, we just sort of wiggle around interpretively, sighs & lamentations.

    So the science side has been eager to march onwards and upwards and doesn’t want to hear the humanistic side whingeing and ankle-biting, or complaining about an unequal distribution of lab space or whatever. And the humanistic side has (quite rightly, often enough) said: fine, suit your narrow-minded selves.

    But really — the advances of the past 20 years in the biological sciences are just amazing, and they are sort of approaching a point where there is a lot of interesting interface with the squishy mysterious bits in which the humanists are interested. So if anthro gives up on that kind of collaborative approach to the human story *now*, we’ll be doing it just in time for biologists to have arrived at a moment when they are looking for insights from the humanistic side. So novel departments / programs will be cobbled together & probably do a lot of wheel re-invention of insights from, say, structuralism. I really think it would be too bad if anthro as a discipline gave up on the four fields just when the spirit of four fieldism could be getting really exciting.

  12. Kathleen,

    I haven’t paid much attention to discussions of the relation between bio-physical and linguistic-cultural anthropology subsequent to the sociobiology debates of, well, about 20 years ago. So I find your post quite interesting, and wonder if you might clarify how or if any of these recent developments in biology suggest ways of bridging the distinction between natural and social facts that (at least as far as I understood them) seemed to be the at the core of those debates. Thanks – Jeff.

  13. Hi Jeff, Well, I am thinking of stuff like emerging work on epigenetics and in evolutionary developmental biology that posits complex relationships of causality between genome, organism, and environment. The sociobiology stuff lurked about in the space created by the absence of positive knowledge about the actual mechanisms of genome regulation, so that sociobiologists could just sort of make things up about “a gene for cheating” or “altruism” or whatever and posit it as functioning directly in the world via organisms or even entire societies but with the organism or the society only present as a kind of inert media. Many sociocultural anthropologists felt strongly that this was stupid and wrong. It turns out we were right — not just on the ideological merits, but as robustly evidenced by emerging work on the biological science side of things. I think it’s no accident that someone like Richard Dawkins has retreated from any pretense of writing science to the much safer ground of religion-bashing just about now. Anyway, the recent Ingold article cited in another thread (it’s from the current _Anthropology Today_) is very good on this and has some additional cites.

  14. I couldn’t agree more with Kathleen Lowrey. From my position as a socio-culturally trained anthropologist who more and more finds himself in bio-anthro territory, I think that, if we don’t do it, someone else is going to reinvent four-field anthro under another name. They might do it better than us, but I hope to be part of that new field (along with people like Tim Ingold). And I’d prefer it be happening in our departments as it’s likely to be exciting stuff.

    It seems to me that new discoveries in neurosciences, genetics, ecology, evolutionary studies, and related biological-environmental fields have opened up a whole new set of questions and generated surprising new data. The psychologists and sociologists currently flooding into the gap to interpret these findings really don’t understand them, or they have their own agendas to push, rife with reductionisms at which the biological scientists themselves often cringe, problematic understandings of social evolution, and the like. In other words, a huge intellectual market niche (if I may be so bold) is opening with the social and cultural interpretation of new biological findings, and many of the fields involved crave the kind of cross-cultural data (and cautionary tales) we might be able to provide. Four-field anthropologists are some of the few people with even close to the background to interpret the new material. Ironically, as brain scientists, for example, are learning more about mechanisms for brain plasticity, sociocultural anthropologists are retreating from engagement with psychology, the brain, cognition, and anyone in our field who might be tainted by dealing with these things.

    To my mind, our discipline’s romance with history, political economy, semiotics, and humanities is far too faithful. We should also recognize intellectual opportunities to be gained on the biological side of our field. Theorists like Ingold are a great example for what can be done. Admittedly, it takes a lot of work, but true interdisciplinary collaboration can also make that work a lot easier. In addition, these collaborations can open up avenues for us to generate new sorts of data (some of which lets us insert our concerns into fields that typically ignore us), engage in debate in the public sphere, benefit from funding targeted toward these emerging interdisciplinary fields, and a host of other salutary developments.

    It would be a huge shame if a few bad encounters with close-minded colleagues would convince us that such collaboration is either impossible or without benefit. We probably all know both knee-jerk biological and cultural reductionists, the kind who automatically assume anyone who works in a lab must be racist, all biological data must be rejected and biologists morally suspected, etc.

    As I wrote in a column in AN a while back, I found when I emigrated to Australia that, without some grounding in biology, it was very difficult to argue with scientific racists, genetic determinists, and other assorted intellectual villains. I couldn’t just shout ‘race is a construct’ at them and expect them to go away. A good four-field-style education (whether it includes three, four, five or other number of fields) is exactly the kind of remedy we most need. I’m sorry some of my colleagues think a four-fields approach is ‘dead’; I hope that the next few decades find that news of its demise has been premature.

  15. I am sympathetic to the values of a well rounded liberal arts education, the productive potentials of interdisciplinary collaboration, and commitment to participation in building the public good. But if the living core of an academic discipline is a coherent methodology, then it seems problematic to try to integrate the natural scientist’s working assumption of context-independent causality, which allows their theory to advance as the cumulative “progress” of their discipline, with the linguistic/cultural anthropologist’s working assumption of the “arbitrariness of the sign,” which generates relativist context-focused explanations grounded on criticism of all grand theories of trans-historical causality. For purposes of provocation (“throwing stones to draw jade,” as we say) I would phrase my skepticism of the coherence of the four fields in terms of my inability to answer the following (grossly oversimplified) question: What kind of new data could possibly mediate the chasm between (A) seeking to explain fundamental genetic differences between people and birds, versus (B) seeking to explain how people create realities in which (in certain contexts) they are birds?

  16. Jeff,

    I think the real question isn’t whether or not people need to bridge the gap between various disciplines – they are doing so already. (Look at the real questions people are asking, not hypotheticals and you’ll see that many require drawing upon a variety of methodologies.) What is at stake is whether or not it makes sense to structure this interdisciplinary training under the umbrella of “anthropology” or whether we should just define anthropology more narrowly and let individual students or faculty work together collaboratively on a more ad-hoc basis.

    I think there is much to said for the ad-hoc approach. It would allow, for instance, visual anthropology programs to work more closely with film programs and linguistic anthropologists with linguists, physical anthropologists with biologists, etc. Ironically, what is lost with such interdisciplinarity is a certain kind of holistic training, in favor of more narrow specialization. There are also the realities faced by university departments in terms of securing funding and lines for new professors, much of which is easier to do within a more traditional structure.

  17. Jeff says: But if the living core of an academic discipline is a coherent methodology, then it seems problematic to try to integrate the natural scientist’s working assumption of context-independent causality, which allows their theory to advance as the cumulative “progress” of their discipline, with the linguistic/cultural anthropologist’s working assumption of the “arbitrariness of the sign,” which generates relativist context-focused explanations grounded on criticism of all grand theories of trans-historical causality.

    Have you been paying attention to the natural sciences in the last two decades? You’re dancing with straw-men!

  18. I was just about to weigh in with a nod to Kathleen’s comment there when I noticed my name! It’s very true that biological sciences (or the natural sciences more generally) have become hugely aware of the context-dependency of biological systems. Jablonka and Lamb’s highly readable book Evolution in Four Dimensions is an excellent introduction to much of this work on epigenetics, behavioural plasticity, symbolic inheritance etc.

    I do think it’s taxing to become a biological anthropologist nowadays, partly for the “biological” reasons discussed above (fast pace of genetics/bioinformatics etc), but also because of the “anthropologist” bit: anthropology encompasses so much in both theory and practice, and one wants to do a good job of it and not give any credence to the “narrow-minded scientist” stereotype.

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