Anthropology: Out of Date Since 1935

From the Washington Post:

In the November 1944 edition of the Journal of Higher Education, Richard Stephen Uhrbrock discusses the attitudes of 60 graduates toward their colleges’ curricula in an article titled “College Courses in Retrospect.” Twenty-six schools are represented, including Cornell, Columbia and Princeton universities; Yale University had the most respondents, 11.

Here is what some graduates, all of whom were unnamed, said about courses they disliked:

Anthropology was “a complete waste of time. . . . I think it would have been a good course back in 1890. By the time 1935 came around it was a little old and out of date.”

8 thoughts on “Anthropology: Out of Date Since 1935

  1. Hello there,

    I wouldn’t say that anthropology became out of date since 1935, but it is not progressing either in 2008, cause it stopped in 80’s.

    I have a graduation in anthropology, I’m currently doing a master degree program (two years, the first one is just like another year of graduation, and the second is the thesis writing and presentation; I’m on the half of the first year), and to say the truth, I’m thinking in quit and change my scientific area, cause anthropology seems to have stopped or it is going into discussions which lead us to nowhere, and are almost ridiculous compared to the past of the discipline. Recently, in a Savage Mind’s post titled: Anthropology News: Special “Safety Valve” Edition, one user named Zé, said one of the truths: «Anthropology nowadays is a mess and a disappointment. Look at us, the biggest problem we’re discussing in our present times, is the anthropologists in war zones, and the theme of open access. It is such a ridiculous era to be an investigator and student. Long live the classic anthropology, cause the present and the future, is totally ridiculous comparing to the past».

    Other problems exist nowadays in the anthropological discourse: a) People tend to problematize a lot silly things: what is ‘society’, what is a ‘person’, what is ‘kinship’ what is this, what is that, and in the future, anthropology becomes unviable, cause we can’t use any term, if we’re constantly problematizing everything; b) There are, still today, investigators who are looking for the real «Bongo Bongo» lost somewhere in the Amazon forest or something: the true Indians with bow and arrows. We must cut with that kind of anthropology. It was done in the past by capable people, why should us, in the 2008, reinventing the wheel? Ridiculous; and last, but not the least, c) The vast majority of the «great» anthropologists / intellectuals of nowadays, not even have 10% of the capacity, knowledge, and wisdom, of the classic anthropologists.

    Anthropology is dying, my friends. But it’s not only anthropology, cause other social sciences are also in true crisis, and this is not going to get any better, but on the contrary, we’ll get worse and worse. You just need to do a small exercise to get the picture: look how many important intellectuals had the Humankind in the past (I’m speaking people like Kant, Kuhn, Durkheim, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Kierkegaard, Derrida, etc, etc), and look to the intellectuals we have nowadays: the present intellectuals, don’t have the figure, the knowledge, the capacity, and the public importance, that all these dudes had during their lives. Many of the old intellectuals, like Sartre, for example, had not only importance in the Academy, but also in the street, among the anonymous population. What I want to transmit, is the idea that year by year, we’ll have less intellectuals than in the past, and the ones we have (today and future), can’t even compete in several terms with the past generations of people. It will be always a decreasing in terms of quality and importance.

    Sorry for my bad English.

    Hugs and Kisses

  2. Jean, I happen to agree with a lot of what you have said here, but then there’s something… _ironic_ about saying this now in relation to an article suggesting that students have shared this sentiment since at least 1935. I wonder just how far back the ‘anthropology is dying’ theme goes. I know it has been very popular since the 1990s… but I wonder if anthropology has perhaps ‘always’ been dying. There is a kind of ‘elegiac’ structure to much anthropological discourse (thinking here of Clifford on the ethnographic pastoral). I also think there is something vaguely funereal about the anthropology’s obsession with its own ancestors. The ASAO listserv, for example, has for weeks now been obsessively (and fascinatingly) been focused on discussion of Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead, and all the controversies and secrets (& lies) about those two. Do other disciplines engage in the sort of ‘ancestor worship’ that we do? This is a question that has long interested me.

  3. Isn’t the ‘Anthropology is dying’ trope tied to the fact that the world is always changing? Heck, the Torres Strait expedition was framed as Salvage. You could make the argument that the formation of anthropology began with the very dying of an earlier ethnology. One way of looking at this is to say that change in the discipline happens when the example of one’s forebears is perceived as no longer an appropriate model for contemporary practice. Students always feel this way – when the examples presented in class by dusty old tenured profs do not compare well with their own experience. So Jean, if you don’t like it, change it.

    In terms of ancestor worship, I should note that dissatisfaction with one’s forebears normally only extends to the immediately previous generation (i.e. one’s parents if you want to get Freudian. And I don’t!) since beyond that, nostalgia, curiosity, amazement etc have room to breathe and grow. Ah for the old days…

  4. Off course anthropology will not die, it will continue to exist. It existed before us, and it will continue to exist after us, but you’ll have to admit that anthropology nowadays, it’s a little bit depressing in terms of theory production, intellectual debates, and on freshness at all levels. But as I said, it is something structural in social sciences, cause I also see it in other disciplines.

    I guess anthropology is also a little bit an hypocrite discipline, you know? We’re constantly saying: respect the others; don’t be racist; colonialism is wrong; but then, a big part of anthropologists, choose to work in third world countries because is cheap; they can control and subjugate the «other»; and are constantly looking for some reminiscence of our past in the «others». For example, if I propose an investigation to an audience of anthropologists: a) Study something in New York, Tokyo, Oslo, or another big city; or b) A community, one tribe, lost somewhere that never got in contact with some foreigner; I bet that the vast majority would choose the tribe. Why? Because we, anthropologists, who say that «evolution» did not happen, think instantly in our minds, in a possibility that the tribe who never got in contact with someone, may represent, in some kind of way, our ancestors and past. Isn’t it hypocrite? Did you ever thought why there are so many ethnographic works about Africa and so little about Scandinavia? We could say that maybe Africa is more interesting then Scandinavia, I would accept that idea. But the truth – at least the way I see it –, as I said above, is that in Africa – and I can say India, Amazon, whatever –, I can control in a better way the «other», and make use of my money, my power status to obtain the information. Imagine that I wanted to do ethnography in Norway. Any Norwegian earns probably more in one month then me in three, so I can’t control them, I can’t domain, and I can’t use them. If they don’t like me, the say: go to hell, and I loose all my investigation. It’s all about relations and power, disguised in altruism for the «other». We live in 2008, and we’re still practice «colonial anthropology» but in a subtle way. Anthropology is a fake.

    In terms of Freeman, I must confess that I love Derek Freeman. He’s a hell of a character. I would love to see more people like Derek Freeman in the Academy. In my opinion, science is only interesting if we have debates, confrontations, intellectual feuds, because its only in that way, that we can mature our ideas and look for some of the fake idols the Academy and public adore, but who ain’t got any value to be a idol. A lot of Academies around the world are full of people who occupy seats, have prestige, and fame, but who don’t deserve any of the three. We all know people like that. Freeman knew it also, but it decided to smash the idol, and just like Nietzsche who chooses God, Freeman made Mead his public enemy number one. Off course Freeman thesis is problematic in some aspects, but he did the most difficult thing in the world: faced one idol, who was adored and almost enthronized in the community. It is such a pity the way Freeman was treated and still he’s. He deserved a lot more respect, recognition for his work, and a better place in the history of anthropology.

  5. bq. For example, if I propose an investigation to an audience of anthropologists: a) Study something in New York, Tokyo, Oslo, or another big city; or b) A community, one tribe, lost somewhere that never got in contact with some foreigner; I bet that the vast majority would choose the tribe.

    Jean, while sympathetic with much of what you are saying, I doubt that this particular assertion is true. I am aware of well over 100 anthropologists who have worked in urban settings in Japan and suspect that there are at least as many who have worked in Chinese cities. My cursory reading of journals like American Ethnologist and Cultural Anthropology has included work in Egypt, India, etc., and there is, I believe, a very active AAA section devoted to the anthropology of Europe. Other sections, e.g., for the Anthropology of Work, are also composed of people who work mainly in what we might call modern, urban world settings.

  6. Jean, as an undergraduate close to graduating and applying for grad schools, I too, “feel the pain” of anthropology’s particular notoriety and colonial legacy/persona.

    Through many classes I struggled with the elusive and ever so frequent phrases like the “problem with anthropology” or “the crisis of anthropology”… and so on.

    However, I am sticking with it (I am a mature student who has studied anthropology more than my credentials might indicate)because it seems like there is room for originality in anthropology; it is especially a rewarding endeavour when applied to interdisciplinary practices and the intellectual “turf” is ignored. Great strides are made by so manyin political anthropology and legal anthropology that are activist enougth (which is a good thing), original enough and edgy to keep me inspired.

    In fact, I think anthropology will be quite important in years to come (if it isnt already?).

  7. While I was a sociology sudent, the head of my department confessed to me at an intimate moment, that when back in the 80s she began her studies in the states, she was aiming towards a career in anthropology. It was her professor/mentor that advised her to switch to sociology, for anthropology was about to die. In retrospect, I consider this story one of the most decisive factors in my decision to switch to anthropology.

    Tribes are rare this days, aren’t they? But, is it not short sighted I wonder, to consider a discipline that calls itself anthropology bound to a specific moment in human history? Is the disappearance of the tribes, upon which many an anthropologist build a career throughout the 20th century, the end of human culture? Oh, perhaps it is. Perhaps respectively there’s no reason to be left since May ’68 is not likely to reoccur. But even so, say that the horrible twentieth century managed to erase original cultures from the map. Isn’t the procedure of how exactly this happened an interesting one, one from which we can learn? Well, if we hesitate, Cultural Studies will take the job. Kidding, but this is what is happening, in the case of urban environments. There has been a need to understand (or to diminish) very complex cultural relationships within an urban environment, where the city noise disturbed everything anthropologists tried to do, in their holy-structural-butterfly-net- quest . Not even Barthes would help them. So, what happened is that Barthes became a discipline himself and some anthropologists closed themselves in ivory towers they’ve build at various remote and exotic spots, while other anthropologists consider that if change is what’s happening, then why not study change. (Although I guess that giving up the Indiana Jones dreams must not have been easy). And, this is pretty much what serious anthropologists are doing right now in whatever environments. Are they self-reflexive a bit too much, this is not necessarily to say that they do not produce theory, it is perhaps to say that theory itself has changed.

    This is how I see it. In English.

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