The Boundaries of Anthropology

The AAA/Science (non)event was a manifestation of existing fissures within our discipline, and a certain amount of defensiveness about whether anthropology is a science or not (on both sides).

I’ve been wondering if part of the problem is the nature of anthropology. I’ve mentioned before that I think anthropology is somewhat promiscuous–we often borrow our ideas, methods, and practices from other disciplines. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it does beg the question of where the boundaries of our discipline are.

For instance, the shift from “physical” anthropology to “biological” anthropology. Shifts in nomenclature are rarely without reason. What are the reasons behind this shift? Does it provide for a greater affiliation with biology, rather than anthropology? Are physical anthropologists simply human biologists? I would say no, because the concerns of physical anthropology are at the same time both wider and more limited than those of human biology. The anthropological interest in human anatomy, for example, reaches further back into history than most other disciplines concerned with human physiology. At the same time, anthropological focus is limited by our interests in specific aspects of human physiology.

Or is it? Here, I think, is the question. Is the development of a specific gene, for example, an anthropological concern? Is the in-depth analysis of a specific linguistic variable an anthropological concern? If we study what it means to be human, what are the limits of our discipline? If our interests are unlimited, so long as there is a human element, is there anything standing between anthropology and chaos, or indeed, nihilism?

Can we fail to fission, if we study everything?

I’m not advocating a return to some hoary tradition of only studying fossils/human osteology/stone tools/faraway cultures. Far from it. I enjoy the wealth of new knowledge and methods anthropology has acquired over the years.

I’m struggling with a genuine question, prompted in part by teaching. When I teach my intro class, students frequently ask me, “how is this different from sociology/psychology/insert-interdisciplinary-department-here.” In my classes, I borrow from a variety of disciplines, teach history, geography, linguistics, and political science, and generally take what I need from where I need to teach what I believe are the principles, methods, and theories of anthropology.

Do I confuse my students? I hope not. Can we distinguish anthropology based on our methods and principles? (Because I don’t think we can based on our interests).

And if we can’t identify the distinct space that anthropology occupies, is it a bad thing? I think, in the balance, it might be. First, because an inability to identify with a distinct discipline, when we all study such wildly different things, leads to a lack of cohesion. We all know when happens then. Second, at a more unfortunately pragmatic level, if we cannot carve out a space for anthropology, can we convince university administrators of our necessity, in these anti-intellectual times?

Is this question even relevant? I welcome comments. If you’re out there and listening, I’d love to know what you think.

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One Response to The Boundaries of Anthropology

  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

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