There is going to be a lot less anthropologists in the future. This is partly a statement about the precarious state of our economy, but really it’s mostly a statement about how ridiculously well-funded — I mean, world-historically well-funded — the academy was between 1945 and 1977. The result was a huge amount of baby boomer anthropologists who produced a huge amount of baby boomer anthropology. My question is: who is going to read it all?
If you are an anthropologist of the Pacific you can find the senior Micronesianists, say, and they can give you the oral history of their discipline, including its origins literally from nothing to the present day. They know which anthologies and articles were ground-breaking, and which edited volumes were central to the academic networks that produced them. In the coming decades, though — and I don’t want to sound too grim here — the group of scholars to whom this oral history was transmitted is not going to be a couple dozen people, its going to be a couple of people.
Even as the oral learning is attenuated, we will still have the publications: the glorious, thick, un-DRM’d publications. Publications that do not wink out of existence if you don’t pay your monthly rental free to Ingenta, publications that don’t have special software designed to keep you from copying passages into your notebook. But in an era of scholarly decline, will there be enough personnel necessary for these works to be read in any serious way? As archival and unpublished work comes online, the amount is going increase exponentially. We will have a feast of digitized fieldnotes, diaries, and dissertations, and no one (or at least not enough) people to read them.
The situation is aggravated by anthropology’s penchant for particularism. We have fine regional syntheses (in PNG, for instance, edited volumes like Papuan Borderlands and Children of Afek) but most of our synthetic and generalizing papers derive from what Sahlins called “uncontrolled comparison”: reading tons until it comes together in your head, and then writing it up. This is a time-honored tradition, but requires large amounts of exactly what we lack: scholarly work cycles. Without any sort of rigorous metanalysis — or even standards for structuring our articles, wading through the literature is a rewarding but laborious project which is not fit for our upcoming shortage of labor.
Despite the interest in tagging, crowd-sourced vocabularies, decentralization, and so forth, if I were a funding agency these days I would begin developing programs that promoted scholarly synthesis using new technology but with very old-fashioned goals: to start synthesizing, cataloging, and summarizing the work that has been done in the past half century. In a world of increasingly restricted budgets, where we have less and less scholars with more and more to read, it represents an important, achievable, and timely goal for anthropologists working today.