Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Anthropology is Bad for Archaeology

A recent job posting for Colgate University on the SAA website illustrates some ways in which the continuing identification of archaeology with anthropology is a Bad Thing for archaeology and for archaeologists. The post in question reads as follows:
The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Colgate University invites applications for a tenure-stream position in Anthropology at the level of Assistant Professor (Ph.D. expected by time of appointment) to commence in the 2011-2012 academic year. The Department invites applications from candidates committed to interdisciplinarity, ethnographic fieldwork, and social theory. [...]. Teaching interests in one or more of the following are desirable: transnationalism or migration; social movements; collaborative or indigenous archaeology; race and postcolonial theory; urban ethnography; medicine and the body. Geographic area of expertise is open, but the department especially encourages applications from candidates who work in Latin America, South or Southeast Asia. Teaching duties will include Introduction to Cultural Anthropology or Research Methods, and a Senior Research Seminar, and will include participation in the University’s Liberal Arts Core Curriculum (teaching an interdisciplinary course in the candidate’s areas of specialization). [...]
Of course, I have no idea what the context of this advertisement might be, but the fact that it was listed on the SAA website suggests that there is some intent to hire an archaeologist. However, a quick read of the text shows that they really want a cultural anthropologist, since their areas of interest and teaching duties have very little to do with anything that archaeology, as a discipline, might find interesting or substantive.

Steadman Upham, currently the president of the University of Tulsa, and an accomplished archaeologist, argues in a 2004 essay in the SAA Archaeological Record, that archaeology is poorly served by its disciplinary association with Anthropoology, which he describes as a "mature field" that has "lost important academic ground in the last decade." Reading the Colgate job posting makes clear one of the reasons why this is the case. From a disciplinary perspective, Anthropology is a lodestone hanging from the neck of Archaeology.

Uphams's solution, in part, is this:
[...] the field of archaeology must secure a separate and distinct institutional identity within the academy. What this means in different institutional contexts will vary, but archaeology requires an identity that segregates it from its most fractious and fragmented social science and humanistic kin on the one hand and places it outside of departments of anthropology on the other.
I agree completely.


  1. I would hate to see it come to pass, Matt, because some of the best anthropologists I know are archaeologists. I believe the American tradition of four-fields departments is a strength, not a weakness. The fact that some departments (OK, a LOT of departments) don't do four-fields well, or at all, doesn't make it a bad idea from the outset

    I don't like the conflation of a political problem (the position of archaeology within academia, and in relationship to their colleagues in other anthropological fields) with an intellectual one. I think there's a strong intellectual argument for four-fields departments, even if they are politically troubling.

  2. I'm not so sure that this one job ad makes a strong argument for divorcing archaeology from anthropology. But I can think of a bunch of other reasons. Cultural anthropology has little to offer archaeology today. Few cultural anthropologists do work that relates to archaeology. Few of them care at all about archaeology. Cultural anthropology is full of postmodernists, which may be fine for some archaeologists, but not for those of us who take a scientific approach.

    Four-field anthropology is a historical accident of the development of the field in the U.S. But why should archaeology be any more closely associated with cultural anthropology than with sociology, geology, political science, ecology, history, geography, etc. etc.? This is the main reason why I have taken to calling archaeology (that is, the kind of archaeology I do) as a comparative historical social science rather than as a branch (or "sub-discipline") of anthropology.

    Nice blog. I have some comments on early villages, demographic scaling, etc. (from your UA press book), that I will send along separately in an email.