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In my opinion

Why archaeology needs a divorce from anthropology

Ending the relationship might allow both partners finally to develop and grow.


A divorce? Really?

Why after more than a century as part of a four-field discipline might archaeology in North America feel it has no other options than to seek a formal and permanent separation from the other sub-fields of anthropology? (For those unfamiliar with the discipline of anthropology, it is divided into four sub-fields:  cultural anthropology and archaeology – the two largest – plus biological anthropology and the always under-represented field of linguistic anthropology). This request is deeply rooted in the way the sub-fields have emerged, the way they are taught and perhaps more importantly where each sees its future.

In a Huffington Post infographic about why couples divorce, based on a survey by law firm Slater & Gordon, the reasons that apply to human relationships also seem applicable to what has happened in anthropology over the course of my career. At the top of the list, Reason 1 is “Infidelity,” and while this doesn’t seem immediately applicable to anthropology, I’ll return to this one at the end.

Reason 2, “We were unhappy,” seems all too applicable to anthropology. As an adjunct assistant professor, and part of that large percentage of the academic community who has had difficulty landing a tenured position, I can say from my own experience in several anthropology departments in both research universities and liberal arts colleges, in the United States and Canada, that I have yet to find a “happy” department.  For the most part, all departments I have taught in have been at best fractured into small groups of individuals who socialized based on their sub-field. The biological anthropologists seem (perhaps following the primates many of them study) to be the most “social,” while cultural anthropologists and archaeologists rarely seem to mix outside the committee room.

Reasons 3 and 4 follow closely from this dilemma: “We argued too much” and “We fell out of love.” Acrimonious relations between sub-fields can be intense and in my recent experience all too common. My current department has had two failed job searches due to acrimony between the cultural anthropologists and archaeologists, and a third was filled by the candidate least disagreeable to both groups, rather than the candidate preferred by either. The most recent debacle left the department feeling shattered; the cultural anthropologists stopped talking to the archaeologists in any meaningful way, with office doors left closed. Argument and isolation had ended what had been a fairly close relationship.

Reason 5, “We didn’t communicate anymore,” and Reason 6, “We wanted different things” seem to be at the root of the breakdown in the marriage of anthropology’s largest sub-fields. Partly this relates to how each has evolved over time, with these changes increasingly leading cultural anthropology and archaeology in different directions as distinct disciplines. Anyone associated with cultural anthropology today can see that the research focus has become increasingly sociological. Very few cultural anthropologists are now involved in ethnography (seen by many as too closely related to the colonial past to be useful for modern academic study), even though ethnography is at the root of this sub-field’s development: it provided us with the opportunity to study “the other,” rather than just ourselves or other people like us (which is the prime focus of modern sociology). At the same time, archaeology has become more closely aligned in theory, method and practice with disciplines in the physical sciences, including biological, environmental and geophysical sciences as well as the longstanding relationships with the geographical sciences. Archaeologists have firmly embraced the use of the scientific method, and in the U.K., one department was renamed the Research School for Archaeology and Archaeological Sciences.

Reason 7, “They changed,” is a claim that both cultural anthropologists and archaeologists can make of each other: most cultural anthropologists (with apologies to applied anthropologists, who still seem to embrace ethnography) have become sociologists while archaeologists have become more firmly committed to using scientific data collection and analysis to underpin discussion and interpretation of the human past. All this has led to a situation where Reason 8 seems appropriate: “We didn’t feel like partners anymore.” Sadly, this is true not only for my current department, but also in many other university departments where we hear rumblings of discontent between the sub-fields, especially between cultural anthropology and archaeology. So far, this breakdown in the relationship has rarely led to Reason 9, “They were abusive,” – but give it time.


At the bottom of the list, Reason 10, but top of the list for many academic researchers: “We had money problems.” Modern academic research, especially the kind of multi-partner, multi-disciplinary approaches current in archaeology, are highly dependent on research funding. Where a cultural anthropologist may need a little travel funding and a research assistant or two, archaeology has huge demands to fund quality research, with spending more in line with the physical and natural sciences than with its old partner.

And this is where we come back to reason Number 1: “Infidelity.” By this I mean there has been a lack of “faith” from each of the key partners in this relationship. Cultural anthropology and archaeology no longer have faith in the approach taken by the other partner. In recent competitions under the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (at least the last four cycles), the anthropology/archaeology committee has been dominated by cultural anthropologists (often as many as eight out of 10) and they seem to have little interest in the scientific approaches of their archaeologist partners, despite often highly rated external reviews. It’s led to a serious dilemma for archaeologists: no funding, no research.

Moreover, while cultural anthropology had been flirting with History as long ago as the 1970s and ’80s, and is now clearly enamoured of sociology, some of this interest appears to be returned by the roving eyes of other disciplines. Scholars in sociology, international development and even human geography are all anxious to get their hands on cultural anthropology’s signature method: participant-observation fieldwork, usually without appropriate credit (but isn’t that always the way with secret affairs?) Meanwhile archaeologists are increasingly in bed (hopefully not literally) with experts from scientific disciplines on their excavations. How far we have drifted from the loving years of the 1960s when processual archaeology and cultural ecology were so cozy together!

So in my view, it is time for a divorce. A clear break and separation into two distinct disciplines seems the best solution for all concerned.

But who will get the children (if I may refer to the minority sub-fields of biological and linguistic anthropology in this way)? Linguistic anthropology would choose to stay with cultural anthropology, since it already shares much with the established field of sociolinguistics (in sociology). I suspect that biological anthropology would opt for the home of archaeology, since we share both the scientific method and the study of early hominid evolution. The grouping is often described this way already in current textbooks for a four-field approach to anthropology.

Yes, it seems to me a divorce is the best way forward, and it might bring a sense of relief to all the parties involved. Not only would it end the ongoing trauma playing out in committee rooms and departments, but a divorce would also allow cultural anthropology and archaeology, finally, to develop and grow without feeling shackled to a partner who simply doesn’t understand them anymore.

Phil Octetes is an adjunct professor of anthropology in a Canadian university. This is not his real name.

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  1. Alex Barker / August 18, 2015 at 13:57

    There is a subtle irony in the nom de plume. While it may have been chosen for other reasons (Wordsworth and abandonment, perhaps?), Philoctetes inherited the bow and poisoned arrows of Herakles, and was later disfigured (in some versions) by a poisoned arrow. While as an archaeologist I’m sympathetic to the sense that cultural anthropologists are different from ”us,” I fear this may be similarly poisoned dart. Equivalent tensions characterize most if not all academic departments, and of all disciplines Anthropology should be most sensitive to the dangers of viewing diversity and difference as inherently problematic, and thus best served by breaking up into more homogeneous, like-minded groups.

    The problems and tensions described here are real and need to be addressed. But separating anthropological scholarship into competing camps is unlikely to result in a more holistic and coherent understanding of the human career. Philoctetes was left behind by the Greeks on their way to Troy because they thought they could get on better without him. Ten years later they returned for him, because they learned to their sorrow that their goals could never be achieved by such separation.

  2. John Hawks / August 18, 2015 at 19:50


    • Billy Bob the Not so Anonymous / August 19, 2015 at 23:26

      You seem to be in denial. My experience is in line with the authors. But, as usual, anthropology departments close ranks when there is criticism . . . kind of like the whole “Darkness in El Dorado” fiasco.

      • Alex Barker / September 7, 2015 at 13:31

        Having experience with both kinds of departments (those in which anthropology includes multiple subfields and where archaeology is separated), I don’t see separation as accomplishing anything in and of itself. In departments where resources are either adequate or at least where there is a perception that they are fairly distributed these problems are manageable or even negligible. In departments where they are not these tensions exist and grow, regardless of whether archaeology is part of a larger department or constitutes a department in its own right. There are multiple, valid ways of studying the past, and multiple, valid (or at least well-meaning) approaches to departmental priorities and pedagogy, and these simply become the new fault lines along which departments fission.

        I was rather amused, however, at the suggestion that anthropologists always stick together. It seems more common that we (anthropologists of all kinds) circle the wagons and shoot into the middle…

  3. Mark C / August 18, 2015 at 20:54

    “But who will get the children”? The children are the bickering faculty you wrote about, those bright whiners that refuse to get along because their specific research is soooo important that they can’t be tied down to one discipline, the Mother Discipline. Anthropology is the comparative study of human social behavior across time and space, and Anthropology is THE umbrella discipline under which practitioners work their particular method(s) (social/cultural, archaeological, linguistic, physical, and the globally-vital development anthropology) in efforts to contribute to that comparative study. In all its aspect, Anthropology is the original diversity program, and always has been since its inception; it defines diversity, and no other discipline does that. Anthropology has always borrowed and adapted concept from other disciplines, and it should, because it advances knowledge, and that borrowing doesn’t replace the holism that is Anthropology.

    A PhD in Anthropology with archaeology as my primary (but by no means sole) method to gather data for my contribution (but not solely archaeology), I know a good number of these discontented faculty. Anthropology and anthropologists without these subdisciplines, and without people working across subdisciplines, will lead to the jettisoning of Anthropology, or worse, to the training of a generation of bad anthropologists.

  4. Gregory Reck / August 18, 2015 at 22:45

    The claim that cultural anthropology is enamored with sociology is so absurd that it is laughable. Sociologists would find it just as laughable as I do. While I don’t disagree with most well-conceived positions that argue for a break-up of the “sacred bundle” of the four fields conception of anthropology, I find this article unconvincing sings what acrimony exists is due to reasons that have little to do with the noble goals of “the holistic study of humans.” Perhaps the author should come to Appalachian State University where a department of more than 10 tenure track faculty and some 175 undergraduate majors work cooperatively to further this holistic enterprise.

    • Whitneu C / August 19, 2015 at 15:00

      Though I would tend to agree that a more holistic approach to anthropology is needed – and separation is not a solution – I find your comment to be exactly what is wrong with anthropology departments today. The article makes good points about problems that need to be addressed and though they may not be problems in your department, they are in many. Your argument lacks constructive criticism and further expounds on the “whiner” reaction of those three author discusses. Scientists should not draw conclusion without sufficient evidence to support their claims, which is what you have done here. This is a prime example of why many in the other disciplines begin to see you as having more in common with sociology than other hard sciences.

  5. Matt / August 19, 2015 at 10:15

    Stick together. For those of us working with Metis, First Nations, and Inuit groups in Canada, the boundaries between archaeology and ethnography are not as easily delineated as this author implies. Some of the best research that has really pushed the discipline forward in terms of expanding its scope and bringing anthropology the forefront of public awareness has really championed this overlap. Certainly, in applied field, CRM and TLU are increasingly brought together as well – now is a time to emphasize mutual interests, particularly in terms of the education departments offer.

    The murky adjunct world is frustrating, but it won’t settle by splitting up.

    • Jane / August 23, 2015 at 08:28

      Agreed. As a geoarchaeologist who incorporates ethnoarchaeology into my research, it is critical to keep the group together. Apart from the obvious divide and conquer approach of many university admins, in-fighting simply exhausts time and resources.