Sharing a Divided World

Throughout my time in anthropology (as an undergraduate and now a graduate student) I have acclimatized to the environment within the discipline, however it wasn’t easy at first.  I knew I was really interested in aspects of the subject, but like most people I had a hard time understanding what anthropology was and what its goals were.  Looking back on this period in my academic development I feel like it took me longer to find a home within the discipline and longer to understand what it means to be an anthropologist because of the way the discipline is organized and how the discipline is divided.

Departments

Every undergraduate anthropology department is structured slightly differently.  At one end of spectrum departments emphasize a four-field approach (biological, cultural, archaeological and linguistics) and ensure all undergraduates get at least introductory training in all aspects of anthropological inquiry.  While at the other end of the spectrum there are departments that are essentially organized into the same subject in name only.  In these departments students can go through their undergrad training only specializing in the sub-field of the subject they want to.  It is likely that students in these departments will take courses outside of anthropology that more closely align with their interests (i.e., biological anthropologists will take biology courses, cultural anthropologists will take sociology or cultural studies courses, etc.).

At my undergraduate institution there was essentially a three-field approach with all first and second year courses for archaeology, biological anthropology and cultural anthropology being mandatory.  For me, this was an extremely confusing organization, not because this is an inherently bad way to organize anthropology, but because of the obvious theoretical divide between the sub-fields and the tension between the professors.  There were times when I felt like I was majoring in three different subjects at the same time.  Cultural anthropologists knew very little about biological anthropology, and would actively go out of their way to ridicule the field and occasionally insult the people who studied it.  To be fair, there were times when I realized the reverse was occurring.  Many biological anthropologists rarely took the time to understand cultural anthropological theory or apply it in their research, and I’ve even met biological anthropologists who thought social construction was meaningless ‘word salad’.  Although I think it is fair to say that biological anthropologists were more open to understanding and applying cultural theory.  Regardless, this made me feel as though I was majoring in three divided subjects, instead of one unified scientific study of humanity.

For me this divide within the department created real issues, and in some ways erected barriers to my own professional development as an aspiring anthropologist.  I knew I was interested in human evolution and primate behaviour and actively sought out ways to pursue these interests and learn as much as I could.  However, during one of my first presentations at an undergraduate symposium I was made to feel incompetent by a cultural anthropologist who, I came to realize, simply did not respect anything any biological anthropologist was studying.  However, at the time I took his disrespect for my presentation as a personal attack.  The event was scarring as an undergraduate who was attempting to find a niche within a subject that seemed impossibly large, and theoretically impenetrable.

Shaping students

What I have come to realize now is that professors who are products of a divided subject, shape students and create barriers between the subfields.  Students in their first or second year who may be open to employing their knowledge holistically and understanding everything anthropology has to offer quickly find themselves aligned with a professor or two within their subfield, forever barricaded on isolated intellectual islands.  For me, I became a biological anthropology graduate student who felt like cultural anthropology was alien, uninviting and unaccepting of people who struggled with their language and theory.  In my experience, professors had attempted to mask (or protect) their ideas with jargon and any attempt to understand their language was met with hostility and condescension.  I felt like most people within the discipline, and most developing anthropology undergrads enjoyed living on their divided intellectual islands.  Disintegration wasn’t just happening, it was being actively pursued.

This creates anthropologists who do not even understand their own subject.  How can you study the social without grounding in ecology, evolutionary theory and a basic understanding of genetic variation?  Consequently, how can you study past human populations, our primate relatives or human evolution without grounding in cultural theory?  I would argue that any attempt would be seriously impeded without integrating perspectives.  This became evident to me when I was placed in an office with several cultural anthropologists during the first year of my Masters degree.  We were all smart, ambitious and well read.  We were all anthropology graduate students.  But we didn’t speak the same language.  We didn’t understand each other at all.  Evolutionary theory was foreign to them, and I didn’t know how to approach an understanding of social theory.  However, I will say that throughout the year I made a genuine effort to understand the conversations they were having.  My lack of understanding was not met with hostility and condescension, as it had in my undergraduate program, but with an appreciation that I wanted to learn and approach anthropological issues holistically.

More talking

This experience made me realize what I had always thought was best for the discipline of anthropology.  We need to talk more with each other and make an effort to approach problems with a bio-cultural perspective.  Departments should still attempt to keep anthropology together in a meaningful way, however that cannot be done if there are professors within those departments that disrespect and ridicule everyone who is not within their sub-discipline.  Students are going to naturally gravitate towards certain aspects of anthropology (as I did) but that does not mean that the other aspects of the subject should feel alien, uninviting and impenetrable.  Departments and the professors working within them should create an environment where those other areas remain thought provoking and accessible.  In an environment like that, anthropology would remain united, and interdisciplinary anthropological research would provide our subject with a stronger voice throughout academia.

Anthropology is the scientific study of all aspects of humanity throughout space and time.  Its goal should be to better understand where our species came from, how we evolved, how we structure ourselves socially, how we produce knowledge and where we are going in the future.  Without a concerted effort to continue understanding these issues anthropology would fracture permanently and become subsumed into the structure of other disciplines.

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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