Ethnography as a solution to #AAAfail

One of the things #AAAfail has revealed is not just wide divisions within the anthropological community about what anthropology is — I think we all knew those were there — but also wide division about what the terms to evaluate those divisions mean. Especially the term ‘science’: does this mean a general belief  ‘in reality’ and ‘a broad commitment to empiricism’ or something more specific like ‘deductive research methodologies, an attempt to minimize the subjectivity of the researcher, extremely specific genre choices about conveying research results’ and so forth. One of the biggest problems, in other words, is that we have no ethnography of what anthropologists believe about their discipline.

What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’. As a scientist (in the general sense of the term) my training tells me the first step in resolving the issues raised by #AAAfail is to get some data on the phenomena we want to study.

Now, one body that would seem to be the obvious candidates to do that would be AAA themselves. After all, we know they can run surveys: I for one feel like I get emails requesting me to take them all the time. Why not design a research program to spend, say, 10 months figuring out what anthropologists actually believe their discipline is about? The results would be a lot more interesting than those produced by other surveys the AAA has run, most of which seem to focus on how many times a week I read the AAA blog and how likely this is to make me want to donate money to them.

But of course this won’t happen, because it would actually mean the genuine democratic assessment of member’s beliefs in a way that could change things, which is a lot more trouble than most of the people running AAA want. Instead I think we are probably on our own on this one.

What if, as an alternative, we started a grassroots movement to say, in a public and synthesizable way, what we thought anthropology was about? An anthropologist’s creed, as it were. They would have to be short, a paragraph each, and address (hopefully in the same order) a concrete number of issues: what the word ‘science’ means to them, what disciplines are adjacent to anthropology, what research methods are important, the role of the analyst, the appropriateness of politics involvement, and so forth.

There are enough anthropology bloggers out there these days that I bet we would have a pretty nice hunk of empirical material to work with — even if it wasn’t a scientific random sample. Since it would be a chance for bloggers to narcissistically reflect on themselves, participation would be high. And then we could just make Daniel Lende summarize it all up for us over at Neuroanthropology…. 🙂

What say you, is it time for a round of anthropological creeds?


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

17 thoughts on “Ethnography as a solution to #AAAfail

  1. Though there are plenty of us out there who don’t blog but might want to contribute to such a meme. Maybe there should a website where such things are collected and made available? Btw, although I’m posting pseudonymously here, I think that such opinions would be most useful if they were signed with name and affiliation so we had a sense of where they were coming from. I like your list of topics as a starting point: sense of “adjacent disciplines” is, I suspect, a telling fact.

    As far as the science thing goes, I have mixed feelings. I like the word science, I think I do it, in a way not so different from the way Geertz claimed to do it (and lets not forget Boas’s distinction between physics and cosmography as two KINDS of science. I think the great strength of anthropology as against, say, philosophy and economics, is its empiricism.

    That said, I have a very different idea of science from many of those attacking the AAA:

    –Indeed, I very much don’t think we should surrender the term “science” to approaches that insist on the kind of drastic oversimplification of the world required to produce things like “testable hypotheses” and “replicable results.”

    ( Neuroanthropology has a more balanced discussion)

  2. I have actually wondered why AAA seemed very… disorganized when it comes to thoughts and what’s right or wrong. They have never used ethnography on themselves? Were there ever an anthropologist or a team of anthropologists that officially and deeply studied the community of anthropologists in United States, starting with the AAA and published their studies without “censors”?

    However, the whole issue with “science” boggled my mind because it was one of the most pervasive defences that anthropologists keep employing when they feel that their career isn’t valued as intellectual or scientific by others… I understand the switch to “public” but to delete “science” from EVERYWHERE ELSE?

    Your idea has piqued my interest and if you ever actually make it a research, I’d like to know… I am willing to help, if you need it.

  3. Are we sure this hasn’t been done before by the AAA? Even if it has, it would be useful to get an update and create a comparison to quantify (eep!) how we’ve changed . To pull in an old-school ethnographic tool, I think having people free list terms they associate with anthropology would be an interesting study (it could include both ‘ethnography’ AND ‘bickering’ and might tell us some other interesting info). It might also be interesting to have someone do a network analysis – do people who list bickering generally also list ethnography, while those who list ‘political-economy’ also list ‘social action’? Perhaps we’d see ourselves falling out into various categories – or perhaps we’d see that it really varies from individual to individual.

  4. Rex I thought your comments were quite interesting. Susan Trencher has done some useful research on the profession. There might be others. The field of archeology has also had many ethnographic studies done on it; but none seem to focus on your question.

    Trencher, Susan R.
    2000 Mirrored Images: American Anthropology and American Culture, 1960-1980. Bergin Garvey, Westport, CT.

    2002 The American Anthropological Association and the Values of Science, 1935-70. American Anthropologist Volume 104, Issue 2, pages 450–462.

  5. Hi Rex and others,

    This is not the first time an ethnography of the AAA has been proposed.
    While not a traditional ethnography I set out at the 2009 meeting to get some opinions of older anthropologists. I was interested in how the meetings and discipline has changed, and where they thought the profession was headed. I received some very frank and honest answers that are relevant to the recent discussions of the change in the long-range plans.

    I have put the project on hiatus, but have large plans for the future of this project. These plans may or may not involve myself, for I could see the project being a very nice organic element that finds its way into the AAA meeting itself or perhaps as a series of blog posts from anthropologists at any stage in their life. Almost like an NPR “This I believe Segment.” Addressing three broad topics. The first, History of Attendance, 2nd change since first attendance, and 3rd future of discipline/meetings. While these are largely open-ended questions, I feel they lend themselves nicely to a short video.

    However, this is not to say that the AAA or the discipline would not benefit from a traditional ethnographic study. Herbert Lewis has put together a very detailed history of the meetings in his lifetime. Entitled “The Radical Transformation of Anthropology: History seen through the annual meetings of the AAA, 1955-2005” published in Histories of Anthropology Annual Volume 5. Regna Darnale & Fred Gleach (eds.). University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

    If anyone is interested I have uploaded a small sample of what I recorded in 2009 to youtube:


  6. Brilliant Idea. It would be fascinating for the discipline to gather data on the community in order to analyze and come to conclusions, while negating false beliefs. Sounds like something social scientists would and should do. ;^) But seriously, that is a really good idea.
    Now the problem is to figure out who is, and find the anthros. that are not easily found inside the academy. The AAA has never really represented those outside the academy, which is a large part of the problem.

  7. “What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question…” Isn’t this in fact what anthropology journals publish on a regular basis, viz., statements by anthropologists about what they think anthropology does? Isn’t this what books like ‘Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary’ are about? Isn’t this what the whole History of Anthropology book series has been about? In fact, I think anthropology is extremely attentive to its own concepts — their histories, institutional framings, and so on. ‘Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle’ anybody? I don’t think we actually lack this information. But rather than actually looking at what we know about ourselves, we let polemics by Dreger et al, fan the flames of a conflict that is simply over-blown.

  8. OK, so the popular website Gawker has now picked up the science story. It’s a snarky and brutal dismissal of anthropology, but what’s fascinating is the comments sections in which anthro majors, minors, PhDs and random people who once upon a time took a single class generally bash anthropology and those who teach it while a handful of people defend it (by just blaming cultural anthro). While no doubt infuriating to some, it’s fascinating to see how people respond when the AAA gets coverage from a major blog.

  9. An Ethnography of the AAA? Ha ha ha! How delightfully old-fashioned and not updated to the “needs of the membership”.

    Too bad the Executive Board also saw fit to excise the word “ethnology” from the LRP as well. The word “Ethnography” has now been officially ceded to Social Work and Business School Marketing programs (who use it happily). Look it up.

    Things everyone missed while looking at the “science” war:

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