"Marginalization is never a welcome experience"

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From Nicholas Wade, "Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift", NYT 12/9/2010:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights. […]

The association’s president, Virginia Dominguez of the University of Illinois, said in an e-mail that the word had been dropped because the board sought to include anthropologists who do not locate their work within the sciences, as well as those who do. She said the new statement could be modified if the board received any good suggestions for doing so.

I note in passing that Nicholas Wade mentions three of anthropology's traditional four fields, but omits linguistic anthropology. This is consistent with that sub-field's striking recent decline. Thus  searching the program for the American Anthropological Association's recent annual meeting produces yields 40 hits for hegemony and six for counternarrative, but none for morpheme, phoneme, clause, quantifier, etc.

The other side's point of view:

Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, an affiliate of the American Anthropological Association, wrote in an e-mail to members that the proposed changes would undermine American anthropology, and he urged members to make their views known. […] He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.

The business about disciplinary suicide is apparently not entirely a joke — the 2009 Annual Meeting of the AAA was subtitled "The End/s of Anthropology".

Wade's article ends with a quotation that I found shocking:

Dr. Dominguez denied that critical anthropologists or postmodernist thinking had influenced the new statement. She said in an e-mail that she was aware that science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues. “Marginalization is never a welcome experience,” she said.

This appears to mean that the president of the AAA believes that "science-oriented anthropologists" are being marginalized (and perhaps should be marginalized?) within American anthropology as a discipline, and within the AAA as a professional organization. Sad if true.

[Update — see here, here, here, here, here, here for more discussion.]


  1. Murray Smith said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    I read Dr. Dominguez' quote as referring to "their nonscientific colleagues", but either reading seems possible.

    [(myl) I agree. In fact, I interpreted her statement as suggesting something like "Now you see how it feels". But this is falling into the trap of believing that a journalistic quote is not inaccurate or decontextualized — unfortunately the cited email was apparently a private message to Wade, so there's nothing more at this point for us to interpret. ]

  2. Marcio Baraco said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    "She said in an e-mail that she was aware that science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues."

    (…) science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues(…)

    It is the supposedly non-scientific guys who are supposedly marginalized. There is awkward phrasing all around those quotes. But i am pretty sure it does not make any sense to say that "science" is being "marginalized", neither in the phrase above or in "the real world" so to say — even creationism appears to be "the newcomer" in this dispute, albeit they are somehow defending an ancient book.

  3. Marcio Baraco said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    By the way, all mention of creationism seems like flame-bait to me… (Even mine!)

  4. Nick said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    When I took an intro anthropology class a few years ago (I'm an undergrad), we spent a few weeks on each of the three non-linguistic branches. We spent one or two days on linguistics, during which the professor misdefined diglossia and code-switching.

    As for the "science" issue, I find postmodern critiques of science very tiresome. Sure, science as an institution has problems–links to the military industrial complex, giant pharmaceutical companies, etc. But to say that the scientific method is patriarchal or authoritarian? What are these people thinking? Some philosophers have even told me that syntactic trees are "boring" and "authoritarian" because of their binary branching, and that Deleuze would have me draw them as a rhizome.

  5. speegster said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    This is consistent with that sub-field's striking recent decline.

    Apart from the keyword search, I'd be genuinely fascinated to hear about further evidence for linguistic anthropology's decline, and even more so why you think it's been happening.

  6. Alex said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    As an anthropology undergraduate student applying to graduate school for linguistic anthropology, I am dismayed at the lack of linguistic anthropology programs, particularly in those universities that are located in cities with a high amount of language-related issues (e.g. Hong Kong). I don't really understand the reason for linguistic anthropology's decline. Does anybody know enough to enlighten me?

    [(myl) I believe that this is part of several large-scale trends. As for the reasons, I can only offer not-very-confident speculations. If it's any comfort, there's no place to go but up, or so it seems to me.]

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    Where do the linguistic anthropologists see themselves in this dichotomy? Do they see themselves as part of the marginalized "scientific" camp along with the people studying hominid fossils and the people studying genomic markers to understand human migrations?

  8. marie-lucie said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    searching the program for the American Anthropological Association's recent annual meeting produces yields 40 hits for hegemony and six for counternarrative, but none for morpheme, phoneme, clause, quantifier, etc.

    The second set of keywords belongs in linguistics, not in anthropology. Would searching the LSA program for the upcoming meeting produce many hits even for "counternarrative"?

  9. The Tufted Titmouse said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    I had the impression that within an academic discipline concerned with separating verifiable facts from opinion, fantasy, and just making stuff up, that methodological naturalism was the way to go, that without "science" or the generally accepted method of weighing evidence using tests of corroboration, falsification, logic, and parsimony, that you basically wound up with rylogy blart bguliz dqwerbie blort cthupie.

  10. John Lawler said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    The supposed decline of linguistic anthropology (or anthropological linguistics) is news to me. However, there is an asymmetry involved that may account for something like that.
    There are anthropology departments at most reasonably large schools; linguistics departments are rarer, but not infrequent. However, I know of no archaeology, physical anthropology, or cultural anthropology departments in the US separate from anthropology departments (though of course anthro depts often have subdivisions).
    The point is that there is no other natural administrative home for the three sub-specialties mentioned in the post, whereas scholars in anthro ling (or ling anthro, and the fact that both compounds exist is telling in itself) can hang out in many places, and often do. It's just one more specialty in linguistics, which already has dozens.

    [(myl) There's one department of archeology in the U.S., and a fair number in other countries. Physical anthropologists can hang out in biology departments, or other natural science departments depending on their particular interests. And cultural anthropologists overlap to some extent with sociologists, social psychologists, departments of "communication", area studies departments, and so on. I don't think the situation for linguistic anthropologists is any different qualitatively, and (compared to the alternative hangouts for other anthropological specializations) there are plausibly fewer linguistics programs in the U.S. where they would feel comfortable.]

  11. Henning Makholm said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    Up until now, it was unknown to me that there are anthropologists who do not consider their field a science. Do they at least think it is (or should be) a Wissenschaft?

  12. Joe said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    The Innovations blog at the Chronicle had some interesting comments in response to this blog, especially from Barbara Piper:


    It's not my field, but I do interpret the comment above as "now you know how it feels" (the comparison with Creationists gives some indication of the ill will on both sides. Still, it's unfortunate that language could not be found that includes both those anthropologists who think of themselves as scientists and those that don't. And it's a bit ironic that the Association didn't appear to recognize the symbolic importance of words when they drafted their revisions (or maybe they did).

  13. John said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    The whole discipline is breaking up, never having had much stability, to my mind, as it was the target of their inquiry, not the approach to it, that unified them. Some places still have anth/soc depts (anathema to my colleagues), for example, and archaeology has always been shared with classicists (though _their_ kind of arch isn't what anthropologists consider proper). Modern culturals are moving into areas "traditionally" held by sociologists as they run out of "primitive" cultures to study, and recent trends include more social-justice type stuff.

    Biology is slowly gobbling up chunks of other disciplines, as DNA takes over the world, so there goes physical anth. Similarly as BioAnth becomes more popular, those scholars are more bio than anth. Archaeology has never really been able to make it on its own (despite several notable exceptions), so they seem to be sticking with the culturals, though perhaps this latest tiff is indicative of something rotten there.

    Linguistics is for the most part gone in the US. This study on trends in grad degrees in anth doesn't even mention the sub-field:


    Another study by the AAA says:

    Collectively, they reported 125 active searches: 51% in cultural anthropology, 18% in archaeology, 13% in physical anthropology, 7% in linguistic anthropology and 11% in “other.”


    The same study shows lost jobs and the only place the linguists show up there is at research institutions.

  14. John Roth said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    While I hope it isn't true, I can see a far nastier interpretation of the "marginalization is never a welcome experience" comment. It's quite possible it comes from a mind-set that idealizes marginalized societies, and is aimed at people who don't have that experience. In other words, if you're not studying the disadvantaged of the world, with the proper mindset of course, you're worthless.

    I hope I'm misreading the context.

  15. Kevin McGowan said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Surely these were just the wrong lexical items to search for as evidence of linguistics in anthropology. I get 88 hits for 'speech', 58 for 'register', 22 for 'indexical', 16 for 'semantic', 4 for 'vowel', and 3 for 'consonant'.

  16. Qov said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    With respect to the non-scientific "members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender," how do they study it, just mining for anecdotes? Collecting data from which they deliberately draw no conclusions? Looking at examples and making up unrepresentative generalizations? I can't quite grasp an academic yet non-scientific way to study these things.

  17. aqilluqqaaq said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    So philosophical anthropology is extinct is it? Or does that come under ‘making stuff up’ too (apparently the only alternative there is to science)?

  18. Acilius said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 12:17 am

    I do think Mark made a vital point in his response to the first comment above. We don't have the context for the quote, only Wade's selection of it. Given Wade's strong interest in physical anthropology, we might expect him to take a dim view of this move and to seize on remarks that make it seem unjust.

  19. JG said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 3:58 am


    how do they study it, just mining for anecdotes? Collecting data from which they deliberately draw no conclusions?


    Really, don't you know the formula?

    Money quote in the abstract would be something like this:

    "Previous work on ethnic Thai transexual prostitutes in Vietnam has created the impression that the phenomenon is exclusively an urban one, neglecting the perspective of those employed in rural areas. Here is his story."

    Make sure to thoroughly diss anyone who has published broader statistical generalizations, however careful, about prostitution, transexuals, Vietnamese sex culture, or (god forbid) male and female sexuality.

    The one-off becomes the phenomenon. Exactly the opposite of science.

  20. JG said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    here is his story

    Sorry, probably "her story", but that would be based upon a generalization!!!

  21. Justin L. said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 5:01 am

    @QoV: From my experience, a lot of them use humanistic methods (i.e. criticism and interpretation) closer to what's more common in a media studies or literature piece, but applied to human communities or societies as their "texts". A friend of mine is getting her PhD in Ethnic Studies–which has its own department, but is quite tied to Sociology and Anthropology here–and is writing on "dialectics of globalization" in the ethnic group she's studying. While there is some qualitative methods–interviews, observation, textual analysis, and the like–the real focus is on the theory and impressions.

  22. Jonathan said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 6:10 am

    I'm a stranger to any of this debate, but I do like to pay attention how isolated quotes are treated. I'm certainly glad to see reminders that they may be inaccurate or decontextualised, but I have trouble understanding the interpretation here.

    Surely if someone says they are removing a word to "include" the non-science-oriented, later remarks that this group had from time-to-time been subject to disapproval, then says that marginalisation is never welcome, then the simplest (or at the very least, least hostile) reasonable interpretation is that she is explaining what was supposedly wrong with using the word, not saying "now it's your turn…". You'd have to have a fair bit of context to imagine otherwise.

  23. Sam said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    As a social/cultural anthropologist trained in Australia and located in the UK, I am bewildered by this whole hoo ha. The depiction of the different sides – both in the NYT article, the earlier Higher Ed article, and by many of the proponents – strike me as utter nonsense. Despite working in the field, I've yet to meet one of these anti-science cultural anthropologists (nor do I read their stuff) and thought most people had stopped using the term 'post-modern' years ago.

    I think some of the problem here relates to what is understood by 'science'. I suspect those in favour of dropping the term from the long-range planning committee's statement of the AAA (not, mind you, from any authoritative description or missions statement of the discipline as whole) see 'science' as referring to a deductive 'scientific method' aligned with and akin to the 'hard sciences' rather than referring to systematic empirical study. Most of us take the latter for granted.

    That said, I do think some of the 'non cultural' branches of the discipline do feel marginalised – and I read Virginia Dominguez's statement as acknowledging this (with the caveat that one does need further context to interpret it) – if only because they are smaller and get less attention and have less influence over the AAA. Over here at least, biological/physical anthropology is a demonstrably smaller discipline (we don't have the four fields approach so I can't comment on linguistic anthropology) and is a largely separate concern.

  24. Charles said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    As a PhD student in Linguistic Anthropology, I don't think we are declining as a subfield.
    The search terms you used: "morpheme, phoneme, clause, quantifier, etc [?]," maybe did not yield any hits, but the Society for Linguistic Anthropology lists over 40 language related panels at this years meeting: http://linguisticanthropology.org/blog/2010/10/18/circulating-among-the-language-panels-in-new-orleans/
    Try searching "linguistic" (http://www.aaanet.org/mtgs/dev/results.cfm) and see what pops up… It seems that language, counter-narrative, and hegemony can all mix together:

  25. Ken Brown said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    The notion of archaeology as a subcategory of anthropology is new to me. Obviously I haven't been paying attention. Or maybe its just because I'm British When I took some undergraduate anthropology courses many years ago the two halves of the subject were physical and social. One was a mixture of palaentology and ethnobotany, the other seemed to be about kinship, structuralism, and partying with strange people. Archaeology was a separate department. At the university I work at now archaeology goes with history.

  26. peterm said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    JG said (December 12, 2010 @ 3:58 am)

    "The one-off becomes the phenomenon. Exactly the opposite of science."

    So astronomy, paleontology, botany, zoology, chemistry, geology and medicine – disciplines which publish accounts of one-off phenomena – are not sciences then?

  27. Stephen R. Anderson said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    I've watched in dismay as this development has played out at my own institution, with more and more positions in Anthropology attributed to the "Cultural" part of the department, our (excellent) physical anthropologists and archeologists marginalized, and despite a nominal commitment to the traditional four pillars of the field, linguistic anthropology following the path of the cheshire cat, with even the grin now more or less gone. And this in the Department where Edward Sapir had students like Mary Haas, Morris Swadesh and Stanley Newman, and where Paul Postal took his degree as Floyd Lounsbury's student … When I came, Lounsbury and Hal Conklin were valued colleagues who kept that tradition alive, but none of it remains any more.
    With regard to the decline of linguistic anthropology, not only at Yale but more broadly, I think an important influence is a lack of commitment to the notion that anthropology should seek to understand the full range of the world's people and cultures. Linguistic work was previously seen as an essential tool of the discipline: only by acquiring a control of the language of a culture could the anthropologist understand anything that was going on, or collect meaningful texts, etc. When I suggested at an administrative meeting a few years ago that it would be really good if Anthropology could offer a field methods course, I was told that that was out of the question: none of their students would take such a course, because they didn't need to. No one was interested in studying a group of people whose language couldn't be studied within the usual university curriculum.

  28. Ken Brown said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

    @peterm: "So astronomy, paleontology, botany, zoology, chemistry, geology and medicine – disciplines which publish accounts of one-off phenomena – are not sciences then?"

    To use old jargon, they are Natural History, not Natural Philosophy.

    Which is fine by me. Us biologists got over our physics envy long ago.

  29. JG said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 1:32 am


    All of the disciplines you mention include the scientific method and statistical analysis as crucial components. However, this doesn't mean that every paper published in those fields should be called "science", nor every practitioner a "scientist". I would venture that a large majority of M.D.s are not scientists. (Memorizing a whole lot of facts derived from science, and then assimilating them in a hands-on way, is very different from being a scientist.)

    I'm not really interested in such terminological quibbling. The important point is that, whereas scientific analysis of cultural phenomena (bearing in mind the findings of related disciplines) is extremely important, far too much "cultural anthropology" happily wallows in the idiosyncratic. The reason many view this as a problem (as it is not for, say, German literature) is precisely that science is getting short shrift in an area where it has a huge amount to say.

  30. Tyrone Slothrop said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    For a recent sense of the state of linguistic anthropology, one could look at the 24 books nominated for the Sapir Prize:


    See also the discussion of the winner of the Sapir Prize as well:


    One would be hard pressed to look at the works of Hanks, Galloway, Mandeville (Scollon), Webster, O'Neill, and Bate and not see a focus on the empirical analysis of language in use (which, I concede, is redundant). And one could trace echoes of Boas and Sapir in all of their work.

    One could also look at recent issues of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and Anthropological Linguistics. There one will find any number of articles based on empirical research and analysis. Paul Kroskrity's recent article on the many senses of "voice" in Tewa verbal art is an exemplary piece (as are ealier pieces by Alan Rumsey and Janis Nuckolls). Note also the special issue of JLA on Performing Disputes, rich in ethnographic and linguistic research and analysis.

    One can argue with some of the focus of recent linguistic anthropological work, but, for my money, I am far more confident in the empirical grounding of linguistic anthropological research than I am in the research done by putative "linguists". But then, as a linguistic anthropologist, I have always found languages as human concerns and practices the interesting object of research.

  31. JNM said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    @Stephen R. Anderson:
    I think this varies geographically. I graduated from BA program in the West, and at my university, almost all of the professors were archeologists. We had one cultural anthropologist, one linguistic anthropologist, and one physical anthropologist — the rest of the professors were archeologists. (There were linguists in the English department, but the anthropology department just had the one.) It was quite frustrating to me, someone with aspirations for linguistic anthropology, that the archeology bias was so heavy; and, aside from Californian universities, most of the Western colleges and universities seem to be biased in much the same way.

  32. JimG said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    Is it April already?

  33. Morgan said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    I briefly subscribed to the AAA blog's feed, but dropped it when it became clear that there was no anthropology (as I understand it) being discussed – only a string of rather mundane political posts.

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