Middle East studies in the News
100 Years After its Birth at Columbia, Anthropology's Identity Still Evolving [incl. Nadia Abu El-Haj]
by Joy Resmovits
Last weekend, anthropologists flocked to the American Museum of Natural History to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Barnard alumna and anthropology pioneer, Margaret Mead. At the 32nd-annual Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, spectators watched ethnographic films by luminaries such as Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston, BC '27.
Though the viewers may have seen a slice of anthropology's past, what they saw represents only one strand of the field's present. A comparative glance at the discipline's roots now reveals how anthropology has morphed in ways that its founders may or may not have imagined.
As a discipline, anthropology—"the study of the human condition"—began as a hybrid field, combining sociocultural analysis with linguistics, archeology, and the biological study of human history. But over the course of several decades of self-reflective debate and academic reorganization, the discipline has specified. At Columbia, this process has resulted in a department that is predominantly sociocultural, with strands of archeology, a new historical focus, and at this point, just a bit of biological anthropology.
From a pragmatic standpoint, the compositional changes to Columbia's department needed to occur, since so much knowledge could not fit under one department. But as it shifted along with wider forces, it lost part of its hodgepodge heart.
In a way, the evolution of Columbia's anthropology department is reflective of a trend across academia. Interdisciplinary programs, such as American studies, gender studies, and ethnic studies, have cropped up across the University, blurring departmental lines.
As "interdisciplinarity" has become the buzzword of academia, the organization of the humanities has come under fire. Programs that deviate from traditional structures, such as urban studies, are re-forming, and the story of the balkanization of anthropology—a discipline that was known for its broad focus in both social and hard sciences—is a reflection of this shift.
"The scholarly world has changed," said Columbia Provost Alan Brinkley, a history professor. "It's much more theory-driven scholarship in a lot of departments. There's a big divide between the hard social sciences—economics, political science, sociology—which tend to be very rigorously quantitative, and the humanities and some of the softer social sciences have become more theory-driven. In both cases there's a lot of interdisciplinarity. Even English departments are becoming interdisciplinary. It's the way in which the academic world is evolving."
At Columbia, anthropology's fluidity is particularly pronounced because of its interdisciplinary roots and focal change. Several decades after establishing itself as an academic discipline, anthropology had what some might call an identity crisis. During the Vietnam War and the Cold War, anthropologists realized that their fieldwork was being used to help inform U.S. military efforts, leading scholars to feel that they had exploited their subjects. As a result, anthropology has become more self-reflective.
The tension within anthropology has led to questions about the direction of the discipline's future. Academics agree that as the composition of what was once called anthropology has shifted dramatically, much of the discipline has switched jurisdiction.
Few anthropology departments still include all four of the original sub-fields in their original proportions. Even now, many courses taught in anthropology seem as though—given its contemporary definition—they could be taught in other departments in the University, such as English or American studies. For example, both Columbia's anthropology department and New York University's English department are teaching a course called Thing Theory. But the jury's still out on whether the department's flux has been a blessing, a curse, or simply the logical growth from its roots.
"Anthropology departments have split off," said Don Melnick, Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Conservation Biology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. Melnick founded the EEEB department in 2001 when physical anthropology split off from the department. "It's just a reflection of an explosion of information—the near impossibility of mastering all of that information."
That might explain how Columbia's anthropology department changed from a discipline that bridged linguistics, sociocultural anthropology, archeology, and biological anthropology, to a department dominated by sociocultural anthropology with elements of history.
"The anthropology department, once this split took place, became a social science department," Brinkley said.
Severin Fowles, a Barnard anthropology professor who specializes in archeology, sees it as paradoxical. "At the very moment in which the broader world of academia becomes more interdisciplinary, we see this value in interdisciplinary anthropology has begun to lose itself," he said.
The Faces of Anthro
It is a testament to anthropology's interdisciplinary nature that faculty in Columbia and Barnard's departments arrived by such different paths.
"Strictly speaking, I have no business being the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia," Nicholas Dirks, vice president for arts and sciences and Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and History, told students last year at a lecture at his alma mater, Wesleyan University. Dirks started in history, but his mentor—Bernard Cohn at the University of Chicago—trained him in anthropology. After decades of research in India, he ended up chairing Columbia's anthropology department in the 1990s. "It had to do with the fledgling nature of Indian research," Dirks said. "One had to turn to anthropology to cure the imperialist historical approach in India."
Past Barnard president and anthropologist Judith Shapiro overlapped with Dirks at Chicago. Shapiro also intended to study history, but she got her Ph.D. in anthropology because of the subject's breadth. "The essential message of anthropology is a struggle against provincialism," Shapiro said.
Like Shapiro, Colin Felsman, CC '09, said he never planned to study anthropology. He took an interesting course, and saw it as alternate lens for viewing the world.
"Anthropology is a discipline that seeks to critically investigate and study social relations, seeks to expose the often arbitrary structures that society creates, and seeks to critique why we organize ourselves in certain ways," Felsman said.
At times, this self-reflection is frustrating. "Anthropology is in search of the authentic. What drives anthropology is that it will never cover what is truly authentic," Felsman said. "This is cool and a downer at the same time."
Teachers College Professor George Bond can trace his family tree to American slavery. His ancestors used academia to transfer to the life of free men, and became professors in sociology. Bond intended to become a doctor, but an anthropology class shifted his focus. Plus, he didn't enjoy his time working in a hospital. "I couldn't take the indignity done to the human body in the name of curing it," Bond said. "I was in the cancer ward, and I saw it wasn't for me. I much prefer to see something grow and manifest itself in social terms."
Roar Anthro Roar
American anthropology was officially born at Columbia in 1896. Franz Boas created the department and field, and "was committed to the idea of the uniqueness of each culture, and to the observation and recording of those cultures "in the field," in all aspects and as much detail as possible," according to the department's Web site. Boas trained many hotshot anthropologists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, BC '27, who proceeded to shape the discipline.
Boas had a background in physics and natural science, and read widely in philosophy. He preserved the materials and histories of cultures he thought would die out, and created Columbia's department. He recognized that Hurston was a promising student and sent her to study her roots down in Eatonville, Fla., the setting of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
With the broad purview of studying humanity, the hybrid field was born with feet in the camps of science and humanities. Over time, the standard composition of anthropology became known as the "four-field approach." The four fields relied on the commonality of fieldwork—the collection of fossils, stories, tongues, and materials—to study the human condition.
The bulk of anthropological research produced ethnographies, or studies of cultures, but there were limits to that practice.
"At some point, it began to be clear to sociocultural anthropologists that you couldn't really do that," Barnard anthropology professor Nan Rothschild said. "An anthropologist is not an objective observer, and everyone brings their own point of view to looking at something else. ... People realized not only had they brought their own ideas, but in trying to study somebody else, you were assuming that an outsider could say more about their culture than they could."
Boas became a controversial figure in the field when he questioned imperialism 60 years before it was fashionable—he was berated by his Columbia colleagues and censured by the American Association of Anthropology for being less than patriotic. As a statement of defiance, he transferred his teaching and office across the street to Barnard. He was so embittered by the experience that he only returned 10 years later, after a long courtship by Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler.
The Boasian view that acknowledges ingrained biases in fieldwork ultimately infiltrated anthropology at large.
"The detour that anthropologists take by first studying a society that's very different from their own not only helps them to understand that society, but it helps them to turn back and look at their society with more objective eyes," Shapiro said. To reflect that, Shapiro said that during the 1968 protests, the department office remained open and students went to do fieldwork in Queens.
Perhaps due to anthropology's inclination to question itself, departments throughout the country have reconstituted recently. In 1998, Stanford's department split in two—into science and humanities—only to reunite nine years later. Duke's department split as well.
Anthropology also struggles to define itself in comparison with sociology.
"You have different disciplines moving forward. Once they develop forward, they develop structures," Bond said. "To be crass, they become jobs. Then they develop their own approaches, and separate. It depends on arbitrary departmental lines you want to draw."
The ebbing of interdisciplinarity is an "awkward moment for anthropology," Fowles agreed. "Anthropology is growing and suffering in a brave new world of post-disciplines."
Anthropology at Columbia
When he was recruited from University of Michigan to become Columbia anthropology's chair in 1997, Dirks set out to rebuild the department.
"I sought to hire anthropologists from the parts of the world that have typically been the objects rather than the subjects of anthropological inquiry," Dirks said. The department now has sociocultural experts from all corners of the globe, including the Middle East, France, India, China, and Madagascar. Like Dirks, many of these professors hold joint appointments in both anthropology and history.
Dirks founded a joint Ph.D. program in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan, the department he raided when he moved to Columbia in the early 1990s. He said his vision of anthropology combined "cultural or social anthropology with the kind of historical training done in history departments," adding that in his view, learning languages trumps studying linguistics and sentence structure.
Under Dirks, predictably, Columbia's anthropologists became primarily socioculturally oriented, and the department acquired a newer historical focus. While some archeology classes are still taught within anthropology, Columbia also now has a department of art history and archeology. Linguistics has become a concentration, and physical anthropology split off—except for Professor Ralph Holloway, a minority who is still clinging to the interdisciplinary structure of anthropology he prized during his 44 years teaching and researching the evolution of the human brain at Columbia.
After Dirks brought in sociocultural specialists, the anthropology department re-evaluated the undergraduate major. The department created tracks within the major, and the professor in charge of each sub-field choose which other sub-field courses to require of their students. While biological/physical anthropology requires its students to explore other areas of the discipline, other tracks did not make their students take the more scientific courses. To Holloway's chagrin, students can now graduate with degrees in anthropology without knowing about evolution—a piece of knowledge he saw as key to understanding the human condition.
Professor Marina Cords, who researches primates, came into Columbia's anthropology department with a Ph.D. in biology because, despite her degree, she found an opening there. "I had a feeling back then that the biological people were well on their way to becoming an independent department," Cords said.
In 1994, biological anthropologist Don Melnick received a large grant to create a consortium with five institutions in New York that focused on the conservation of biodiversity. At the time, Columbia's biology department was more cell-focused. The consortium became known as the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, and CERC started an undergraduate major and graduate programs which became popular quickly. Melnick used the grant to hire faculty. After a number of years, the program seemed to outgrow its bounds as a center and needed a new structure to survive. After a lot of paperwork and meetings, E3B formed as the first department created at Columbia since before World War II.
When E3B formed, the undergraduate biological anthropology major ceased to exist within anthropology, becoming instead a program within E3B. The content survived, but it left the discipline.
Because of the new makeup of anthropology, the split seemed natural.
Melnick said the division was favorable, and reflected on the expanding realms of knowledge in each sub-field. "I didn't think there was any way in which department structures of the 20th century would be department structures of the 21st, just because the structures of the 20th century weren't those of the 19th," Melnick said. "It seems to me a natural progression, and it's happened before."
But Holloway, the lone holdout in anthropology, still feels shafted, and says his field has become "the service arm" of anthropology. Holloway, who is often consulted by scientist to interpret discoveries, stuck to his anthropological guns, and did not agree to join the new department. He resents the degree of specialization within the sociocultural sub-field.
At Columbia, at least, Holloway is alone in his resistance to anthropology's drift. Holloway said that he feels he doesn't understand what his colleagues do. "They think biology is basically a social construct. It's been so many years since graduate students regarded this as a cohesive whole that studied the entire human condition," he said. "How can you study humanity and ignore the biological basis for human behavior? We're animals!"
Holloway only teaches undergraduates, and plans to retire soon. When he does, Cords said, it might be up to E3B to decide whether to replace someone with expertise in physical anthropology, or to hire an E3B specialist. "For us, the choice would be clear," Cords said. "We're E3B, and that's where we would lean. This would have negative consequences in biological anthropology."
For the first time, Columbia's department of anthropology would lack a biological anthropologist.
The Politics of Academia
In some ways, Holloway's departure would symbolize the end of an era. Though he is currently a pariah within his department, Holloway espouses a philosopher that harkens back to Boas. The forces of academic change have dictated a balkanization of anthropology's varied traditional sub-fields. But in the process, Columbia's anthropology department seems to have found a new voice as the haven for postcolonial studies.
Some students say that classes at Columbia are now all taught from the same theoretical conclusion, the perspective of post-colonialism, which questions the Western focus of study, and is therefore the logical theoretical continuation of anthropology's reflective turn.
Dirks said that this change happened naturally when a more diverse set of anthropologists entered the field. "The problem with the term post-colonialism is that it's really ceased to have any meaning anymore. For a long time, it was an important category for thinking about different ways of looking at history, anthropology, literature," he said. "But it doesn't mean what it used to mean. In a world now where India and China had growth rates of 9 percent in a year, the particular legacies of colonialism are in some ways less important than the new institutions of global finance capital. It seems to me that we need to change the kind of focus, on how you think about the categories of work. These terms have utility of particular moments. Often, they get used far longer than they are good for."
Regardless, the theory still pervades the department, to the chagrin of its critics. "Not all problems of the world are caused by colonization," Holloway said. "I'm on the faculty listserv, and political things are being e-mailed. I forwarded this anti-post-colonialism article. The response—it was like I had done a very, very bad thing."
Perhaps because of its philosophy of deconstructing power, the department has also been active in many controversial political debates in recent years. Last year, many anthropologists signed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' petition that berated University President Lee Bollinger about academic freedom. The tenure case of Barnard anthropology department chair Nadia Abu El-Haj was also widely scrutinized outside of Columbia's gates because of the subjects of her scholarship.
Though some critics say that the controversial turn of anthropology is to the detriment of the department, some anthropologists say that it's just the nature of a field that has long drawn from those with an anti-institutional bent.
"Anthropologists are bohemian radicals," Fowles said. "You become an anthropologist because you want to do good in the world, and you're looking for places to intervene and cultural translation. But at the end of the day, we're all paid."
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