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In my opinion

Four field anthropology and the “divorce” metaphor


Last week, University Affairs published an opinion piece titled “Why archaeology needs a divorce from anthropology” that garnered plenty of discussion and commentary from across the disciplines and throughout North America. Andrew A. White, an assistant research professor in the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina was moved to write his own response to the piece on his blog, and we’ve received permission to republish it in part here. 

Earlier this week I saw this anonymous blog post titled “Why Archaeology Needs a Divorce from Anthropology” that seems to argue that archaeology and anthropology do not work well and play nicely together and should therefore be split apart.  The idea of “irreconcilable differences” among the sub-fields is not a new one.  I’m sure the observations in the “divorce” post resonate with a lot of people.

The problem, however, is that the metaphor of “divorce” is misplaced.  It’s a nice rhetorical device, sure, but it misleads by portraying four field anthropology as a marriage of choice.  It’s not.  The four fields of anthropology as academic sub-disciplines by which we identify are, or course, “together” because we organize them that way.  But cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology were not just combined together randomly or haphazardly into “anthropology” in the late 1800s.  They coalesced as nominal sub-disciplines each more-or-less focused on one aspect of the complex, inter-related whole that is the study of humans.  They are together because they have to be:  no single sub-field of anthropology will ever be able to credibly claim it is doing good “anthropology” all by itself.

Even at its beginnings, however, it was evident that the four sub-fields (those nominal, somewhat artificial categories of study distilled from the complex, inter-related human whole) would have to consciously work to stay together. Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology, understood that natural tendencies toward fragmentation could rip the discipline apart (see this post about an interesting paper by Dan Hicks exploring the origins of four field anthropology).  Boas resisted fragmentation then, and we should resist it now.

The short version of my argument is that the four sub-fields are not “married” by choice and cannot, therefore, get a “divorce.”  They belong together whether or not you like it, whether or not you’re comfortable disagreeing with colleagues, and whether or not you can individually appreciate and understand the value of what anyone else is doing.  They belong together because they are all ultimately studying inter-related aspects of the same phenomenon.  Sure, we can study language “all by itself” and we can do archaeology without talking to linguists, but I don’t think we can really claim to be doing anthropology as a credible discipline if we let it fragment.  The past matters. History matters. Culture matters. Environment matters. Biology matters.

I recommend we replace the “divorce” metaphor with one that is more fitting:  how about “dismantle,” “demolish,” “disassemble,” or even “gut.”  Those kinds of metaphors would do a better job, I think, of conveying the ramifications of splitting the organic whole of anthropology into its constituent parts for the sake of getting along better at the copy machine.  The central nervous system, the musculoskeletal system, and the circulatory system can each be studied independently, but you can’t really understand the human body without understanding all of them and how they are inter-related (and the “divorce” of the circulatory system from the rest of the body would be a pretty messy affair).  It is no more possible to amicably “divorce” archaeology from anthropology than it is possible to amicably “divorce” your brain from your body.  I’m pretty sure the ill effects of either will far outweigh any short-term benefits.

Andrew A. White is an assistant research professor in the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina.  His research interests include hunter-gatherers, human cultural and biological evolution, complex systems theory, and prehistoric families. He initiated and maintains the Eastern Woodlands Household Archaeology Data Project, and has recently spent far too much time debunking claims for the existence of a prehistoric “race” of giants.

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