Open Thread: Who owns anthropology?

Following up on some of the comments and discussion going on in Matt’s latest post, I wanted to open up a thread to talk a bit about this important question: WHO OWNS ANTHROPOLOGY?  Do PhDs own anthropology?  If so, which ones?  PhDs in the US, Europe, Latin America?  Who gets to define and control what anthropology is all about?  And what about other degrees in anthropology–MAs and BAs?  Where do they belong in the hierarchies we create?  What about the general public–where do they fit?  So feel free to comment and answer this question…and then maybe think about answering this question: Who SHOULD own anthropology?  Ok, fire away.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

14 thoughts on “Open Thread: Who owns anthropology?

  1. Some academics in linguistic anthropology have been looking into aspects of this issue. Around ten years ago people began to notice, for example, that although more than 80% of the PhDs in linguistic anthropology were earned by women, almost 95% of the few linguistic anthropology job slots were going to men. Some departments have tried to become aware of this bias and things have been slowly changing. Another group of scholars published an article in Language in Society (2003) that looked at how gender correlates with publication and citation over a 35-year period. It isn’t surprising that even though there are more publications by women in linguistics and linguistic anthropology, the scholarship by men is cited more often (and it isn’t that it is so much more brilliant). Laura

  2. Laura,

    Thanks for this note, and for the statistics. I certainly have found that sexism and gender stereotyping have haunted us, even in a discipline that ought to know better, and figures such as the ones you offer from linguistic anthropology are stark evidence of this. For some time now the majority of anthropology major and anthropology graduate students have been women, and but I think we are yet to see really significant changes in the gender balance of tenure-track hires in most of the sub-fields (I think of Donna Haraway’s comments on women in primate studies..) While it’s a little OT from Ryan’s post, perhaps I can suggest that his question — who owns anthropology? — is not just a matter of what degrees people possess, but also their gender. I wonder if popular impressions of anthropology’s work would be so dominated by books written by someone named Geraldine Diamond?



  3. I recall a comment that I have seen attributed to Thomas Kuhn: In science new thinking does not change the minds of adherents of old paradigms; the old paradigms disappear when their adherents die.

    Also, in addition to gender, I would raise the issue of seeing anthropology in America-centric terms. Even in anthropology, the world is increasingly multipolar: think Brazil, China, Japan. Based on recent experience at conferences in China, anthropology and other disciplines seem to be growing and thriving there. The economy has taken off, the university system is rebuilding itself in the wake of the decimation caused by the Cultural Revolution, and demand for “foreign experts” seems strong. In this respect, China now seems to resemble Japan a few decades back. One recent memory is of a German friend who is moving with his Japanese wife and their child to a new university in Suzhou. We met in passing at the hotel where one of the conferences I mentioned was held.

  4. Kuhn was quoting Max Planck: “Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, daß ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, daß ihre Gegner allmählich aussterben und daß die heranwachsende Generation von vornherein mit der Wahrheit vertraut gemacht ist.”

    Nobody owns or should own anthropology, because anthropology is not a thing, and because ownership implies strategic management or a consistent direction, neither of which anthropology has. It’s a project to understand humankind in all facets, not a corporation. It should be ‘owned’, if at all, by intelligent people interested in the issues, regardless of background. If you have a PhD and work in the academy then you have a responsibility to produce good work, but that doesn’t mean you own the project. Science shouldn’t have an owner.

    If it has an owner, though, it would probably be a collective of people operating under a vast, multi-generational Abilene paradox.

  5. The academics think they own anthropology, whichever parochial part of the world they come from. And the apprentice academic s are the worst since they have their eyes on the prize of getting a job that recedes from their gaze with every passing week. As a result, academic anthropology has become a species of writing — all the theses, conference papers, book chapters and journal articles that allegedy promote professional advancement. Here fieldwork appears as soundbites in support of a deferential reading of “the literature”. Young people try to survive by biting off some fast-breaking topic and sources that they hope few other people have heard of, especially senior gatekeepers. Reading classical texts has the opposite effect. There is no end to it. The lemmings all jump off the cliff.

    I once proposed the use of “anthropology” to mean all the knowledge relevant to making a better world for humanity, an interdisciplinary project of public education — even lifelong learnign — that would include sociologists, historians, philosophers, geographers, political economists, literature specialists and perhaps even some anthropologists. Something like what “development” used to be. I went out of my way to say that this was not intended to replace academic anthropology which had other priorities. A senior Scandinavian anthropologist present said that what I proposed would destroy what he had spent his life building up. End of discussion.

  6. Thanks for the question. Following the recent trend in anthropology to “pluralize” everything, I would like to propose two answers for this. My first answer will be history.
    Yes, history of anthropology owns it. Critical anthropology of postmodern aura notwithstanding, we still use theoretical foundations of anthropology, which is deeply grounded in eurocentrism, modernity-centrism, agnosticism, and positivism. From this regard, we are not able to be critical enough towards our discipline, because we are still trained by those theories. This legacy is heavy enough to suppress any alternatives, any new ideas and turns. We are trained that our ideas SHOULD be connected with the previous body of work.
    My second answer, which echoes the first one, is capitalism. Due to the subject of “this inquiry”, anthropology today has a perfect combination of money, power and knowledge. As long as these domains remain overlapped, anthropology is unable to fully recognize potential of its agency. We decentralize the world culturally, while remain ethnocentric and highly capitalistic institutionally. Name any other discipline which inherits such an awkward contradiction in itself, can you?
    And last short comment, we are all aware of all this. And this awareness seems to produce positive feelings towards future. Sometimes these feelings, coupled with postmodern critical stand against everything elevate to salvationist supposition that present is not bright but future will certainly be so. But historical legacy and present marketization of the discipline is impotent to turn this belief into something palpable. While anthropology is written with capital A, nobody dares to speak about “anthropologies”, as if the discipline would itself reduce to a subject of the study by the “other”, whoever or whatever that other may be.
    So, it is not us, PhD students, professors, or even departments who own anthropology, but ownership rights belong to the spheres lying outside of it: the history and the “mode of production of knowledge”. Anthropology “of” conceal the fact that it has always been “for”.

  7. @Keith Hart

    You write “…academics think they own anthropology…” Thanks for this important observation. I was struck by this years ago when the American Anthropological Association expected me to list my academic affiliation on my name badge for the AAA meetings — I declined, and have ever since, feeling that my university does not pay my membership dues (or conference registration) in any professional organization; I do not represent any academic institution when I interact with those professional organizations; and my work, as both a lawyer and anthropologist, focuses on human rights issues in West Africa, and so I “associate” myself with communities of people rather than with an academic institution. In Washington, where I am located, local groups such as WAPA have been sensitive to the issue you note for a long time. Thanks again. Barbara

  8. @Barbara

    Perhaps it is time to form an Anthropology Unleashed association, whose meetings will be begin with ceremonies venerating Lewis Henry Morgan (lawyer) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (insurance adjuster) whose contributions to anthropology were serious hobbies.

  9. Several responses:
    First, Al, I found your response really intriguing, and I agree with you that no one should own anthropology. And this is why I think Keith Hart’s comment is instructive: it points to why I raised the question of who owns anthropology and the prestige its degrees confer, in response to Matt’s previous post, in the first place. The issue is the chasm between prescription and practice: between no one *should* own anthropology and the practices of those who act as if they do own anthropology–especially because they have the institutional authority and race/color/gender privilege to get away with this behavior and the proprietary claims on Anthropology (yes, v. anthropologies) which they make.

    Laura Miler’s first response to this post is really instructive in this regard, showing how institutional sexism and implicit bias perpetuate disciplinary/academic/institutional/structural inequality, thus producing the power asymmetries which enable those benefitting from this inequality to feel that they own anthropology. As such, I think that Savage Minds needs not only to have this discussion thread on who owns anthropolology, but also needs to have a new post on implicit bias and the (re)production of both inequality and abuse in anthropology.

    Barbara Piper was quick to concede that sexism is still a problem in anthropology (though I can’t tell if she is making the same allowance for racism), and reading her response I found myself thinking about Mahzarin Banaji’s admissions about her own gender bias, though herself identified as female and a person committed to gender equality. Discussions of proprietary claims to anthropology cannot be honestly or productively engaged absent frank discussion of anthropologists’ implicit biases and the kind of discriminatory (and abusive) behavior such biases produce, even toward other members of marginalized groups to which one belongs (e.g. women discriminating against other women):

    John, I was struck by what you wrote about anthropology as multipolar, for how it gestures to another topic which deserves its own post–and is directly related to the gender bias and linguistic anthro hiring stats Laura noted: the cult of white male authority/expertise in relation to georaciality. Not all bodies can move from one geographic location to another with the same assumptions of expertise and intellectual competence–or expectation of deference and respect. Especially given your examples of China, Japan, and Brazil, I think we need to be honest about which anthropological ‘experts’ can circulate easily from one geographic domain to another. This is yet another place where race/color/gender (along with nationality) matter profoundly to who is seen as an ‘expert’ and deserving to be ‘a legitimate part of the anthropological community’, which is, again a proprietary claim. And this issue of race/color/gender/nationality, assumed anthropological expertise, and georaciality very much informs why some anthropologists feel entitled to make ownership claims upon anthropology, such that they unreflexively silence, ignore, dismiss, and exclude those they see as having no right to be equal members of their anthropological community–which becomes defined as The Anthropogical Community.

    I am in agreement with Keith Hart’s vision of what anthropology should be, and that’s why I think we need to honestly confront anthropologists’ implicit biases and the deeply embodied investments in structural inequality and privilege that such biases produce. Because, no, no one should own anthropology, but this isn’t stopping a whole lot of people from acting as if they do (including via censorship practices and Old Boys Club deference to certain anthropologists of the contemporary, here on Savage Minds).

  10. @DWP

    Nice summary of the discussion. I may be too strongly influenced by living and working in Japan, but I rarely find confrontation an effective approach to changing minds or institutions. My memories of the great movements of the sixties suggest that confrontation is only effective en masse. The anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights and feminist movements were mass movements, in which huge numbers of people had a direct, personal stake. But even then, things got messy (we remember Birmingham Bridge and Kent State;see the current situations in Syria and Turkey for examples of how bad it might get).

    As most of the world sees it, the fate of anthropology is of little concern.
    The fate of the humanities is a larger issue and suggests a fertile ground for seeking allies. Still, at the end of the day, the concern is largely confined to academics.
    The fate of white-collar knowledge workers who once could earn middle-class incomes by channeling and filtering information (work increasingly done by computers) is, however, a huge issue of direct concern to lots of people. There is where some serious political traction might be found.

  11. Not that I put much stock in Rate My Professors to begin with, but I was shocked to see the Coast Guard Academy and RPI near the top/bottom of that worst professors list. What’s the correlation here? Low acceptance rates + focused curricula?

  12. Anthropology as a subject taught in universities might be thought of as “thing.” Departments determine what sort of thing anthropology is on their campuses: consider University of Missouri Columbia, where they just hired Napoleon Chagnon. He will join fourteen in that department, only two are cultural anthropologists. There is no linguistic anthropology. Many departments don’t have linguistic anthropologists and often assume that it is the same discipline as linguistics. It is not taught at Princeton, for example, and I once had a conversation with a faculty in anthropology there who kept insisting that linguistics and linguistic anthropology are the same thing. I once asked the chair of anthropology at the University of Florida why, out of more than thirty TT-faculty in anthropology at that time, not one was a linguistic anthropologist. He waved his hand dismissively and said “we don’t do that here.” So these departments have their own versions of anthropology as a thing delivered to a university campus under their “ownership” as it were.

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