Against the Lastest Research

One of the big objections to the AAA’s move to release material ‘open access’ is that it is useless because it does doesn’t include ‘the latest research’ which is, supposedly, what ‘science’ is ‘all about’. This is my reactionary post against this assumption.

‘Old’ material is valuable for a number of reasons:

  1. For some reason, sociocultural anthropology does ‘theory’ historically — theory classes are taught by reading chronologically from the beginning to the present. If/When the AAA makes good on its promise to release this material, we will no longer have to pay US$50-100 for theory readers (unless the editors really ‘add value’ to them). And this at a time when it seems students will have less and less money in their pockets in the forseeable future.

  2. Historians of anthropology now have a freer hand in the archive. Over are the days of Regna Darnell lamenting the fact that Sapir’s rejoinder to Kroeber’s article on the superorganic was not ultimately included in his collected works and thus never figured as prominently as it should in our historical understanding of Sapir. Soon — supposedly — you will be able to download it for free.

(2a. I for one would much rather read Sapir’s response to Kroeber than What’s Fashionable This Month in Anthropology. But I recognize that is just me. Sapir was smart. Really really smart. Reading him makes you smart. I promise.)

  1. It matters what happened in Palau in 1940. Human societies change over time — anyone who takes seriously the idea that social science must have a diachronic dimension will recognize the value of making older ethnography more widely available.

  2. The ‘latest results’ can always be delivered to us if their authors know about OA and are proactive in archiving their preprints. The older material has no such advocate, so the earlier we get the wall moving the better.

That’s it for now but I’m sure I can be even more reactionary if given more time….


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

7 thoughts on “Against the Lastest Research

  1. Rex, you speak for me on this one. The intellectual value of this material, in and of itself, is amazing. You are right to make this point clearly. We are not physics. Our work is pointless without historical context. I use very little of what has been published in AA in the past 5 years. I use older works from AA constantly, and not just because I am an Americanist. The literature is much more fragmented now, which means that one cannot be certain that the most important works appear there. The questions that arose at the Centennial concerning the next (last?) in the series of selected papers of the AA reveals this. (See Darnell’s introduction.) The centrality of AA before the section era seems beyond debate.

    Celebrating/recognizing the quality and value of the pre-70s material is separate from discussing the downsides of what is about to happen, relative to such things as delivery platforms, progress toward actual OA, JSTOR revenue impacts, AAA governance, etc.

  2. I also agree, but I think there is a more subtle problem, and it is related to our “field of care” discussions. Namely, I think professional anthropologists know how to use this archive in the ways Rex advises, and I think it can do nothing so much as enrich scholarship as a result. However, I don’t think students and non-anthropologists know how to use this material, which is to say, how to assess it historically and critically. I get far too many undergraduates who have discovered EHRAF and think they know something about the Khoi-San or whoever, and quickly fall into the timeless present fallacy which no self-respecting anthropologist would ever commit, but only because we’ve been so trained. So I suspect the worries about “old scholarship” are justified in this case… and it would might be nice if the materials were “edited” in some fashion… but this would entail foresight and an investment on the part of the AAA, neither of which seem too likely.

  3. Following on what Chris says, I wonder if we don’t need a serious rethinking of how anthropology is taught. My personal perspective is likely to be anachronistic; I encountered anthropology and went to graduate school in the mid to late 1960s. That said, however, what I remember is this. I took classic, old-fashioned “Peoples and Cultures of X” classes in which presentism and the treatment of “societies” and “cultures” as discrete wholes were pretty much givens. Theory classes had a temporal dimension but were very much along the lines of what historiographers I read described as “Whig history.” The mode was old-fashioned history of ideas in which newer ideas replace older ones because, it was said, they represented progress toward current ideas in the field. Any sense of a wider historical context was missing from both “Peoples and Cultures” and “Theory.”

    We have, of course, unlearned a lot in the last half century. Both the mosaic view of cultures as discrete entities and the grand narrative of scientific progress that underlay my training have been discredited. The question I ponder, however, is what should replace them.

    Thus, when Ruth and I were asked to write a chapter about Japan for Ray Scupin’s _Peoples and Cultures of Asia_, I chose deliberately to limit discussion of theory to three authors: Ruth Benedict, Chie Nakane, and Dorinne Kondo. The first two were chosen because, for better or worse, the ideas expounded in _The Chrysanthemum and the Sword_ and _Japanese Society_ (whose original Japanese title is _Tate Shakai_ “The Vertical Society”) still resurface constantly in both popular and academic discussions of Japan. Kondo was chosen in part because I like her work immensely but also to represent an alternative to the grand, essentializing theorizing found in Benedict and Nakane.

    The point to which I direct your attention, however, is the amount of space in the chapter devoted to the historical framing of these works. The discussion begins by reminding students that every example of anthropological theory is composed of ideas created by specific people, writing in and responding to specific historical situations. Benedict is writing at a distance, in the context of World War II, about “The most alien enemy” the United States had ever faced. Nakane is a Japanese woman writing in the late 1960s, as Japan begins the remarkably rapid development that made it the world’s second largest economy. She is trained in social anthropology in Britain, does fieldwork in India, then returns to Japan to turn her native anthropologist’s eye on her own society. Kondo is Japanese-American, returning to Japan in the 1980s in search of her Japanese roots. A pivotal moment in the book is when she sees her reflection in the glass covering a neighborhood butcher’s meat case and realizes, to her horror, that she looks just like the young Japanese housewives shopping around her. Roots as difference, that’s OK. Roots as this is who I am, this is what I’m stuck with–that’s an entirely different matter.

    Whether this effort succeeds with undergraduates, I don’t know. I’ve never taught the book; I just co-authored a chapter. But it seems to me that one way to address Chris’s concern is to start right away in Anthro 101 with a small set of questions about who the anthropologists they study were as people, what was going on in the world at the time their studies were done, what ideas were popular and how they responded to them.

  4. *delurks*

    typo alert – that does at the top should be a doesn’t?

    I’ll also weigh in as a law student and occasional fiction writer, I’m very glad they’ve done this because old anthropological works are interesting and useful for so many things. In fact, I’d guess that it is professional anthropologists that are most concerned with cutting edge work, not students and outsiders.

    P.S. This blog is fantastic.

  5. Yes it would be interesting to know whether it is professional anthropologists who are objecting due to the nature/age of the content or the public. I doubt it is the public since OA anything would be an improvement. Ironically most (?) academics already have access via JSTOR etc. (the day I discovered JSTOR, I sacrificed 10 pigs in thanks.)

    But isn’t focussing on the nature of the content something of a red herring? Since whilst the AAA has now allowed everyone access to the research paid for by our grandparents, the public and the universities still must pay twice for today’s research.For those of us currently producing research this new measure is ‘useless’ because it offers us none of the routine OA benefits such as increased impact for our own work…

  6. Intriguing perspective.
    Of course, there are many other issues with the AAA’s approach to OA (including its insularity). But it’s still fun to think about the potential implications of providing slightly better access to a selection of texts which may become useful to some people, whether or not they’re professional anthropologists in the United States.

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