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.