Since 2009, the blog AnthropologyWorks has created an annual list of the “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations.” Being included on this list seems as if it might be a grand honor, but is it? Unfortunately, the answer is no, not really.
Here is why: the process for choosing the “best” dissertations is problematic. It consists of one anthropologist reading the abstracts of dissertations published in that year. Just the abstracts; no actual dissertations are read to determine which are “best.”
But it gets worse: only abstracts of dissertations in certain research areas are eligible. In order to be considered, one’s scholarship must overlap with the focus of the AnthropologyWorks blog, as follows: “food, resources, and livelihoods; power and politics; health; conflict and violence; population dynamics; stratification including race, class, gender, and age; activism, programs and policies.” This list is wide, but is not inclusive of all possible anthropology topics. If you don’t do research on any of these topics, you are not even considered for “best” distinction.
For the final blow, only scholarship from the USA is included. Have a PhD from outside the U.S.? Is it fantastic? Too bad. You’re not eligible for consideration.
None of this might matter if the list had a different title. Perhaps something like:
- Dissertations I’d Most Like to Read
- My List of Promising U.S. Dissertations from [Year]
- Most Compelling Dissertation Abstracts From U.S.-Based Anthropologists According to AnthropologyWorks
Instead, by being titled “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations,” the list misleads. Here at SM, we’ve thought this for a while, but also felt these points were so obvious as to not need us to point them out. However, as the social ecology of online anthropology changes, and not all read the fine print of such “awards,” this PSA came into being.
Anthropologists, go out and do excellent work. Do it wherever you are. Do it on the topics that matter. And trust us, as frightening as it might sound, there are indeed people beyond your committee who are going to read your entire dissertation. And (hopefully) they will think it is excellent.