Majoring in Anthro

Jay Nordlinger

Not long ago, Eric Owens of the Daily Caller wrote an article about the latest antics of the American Anthropological Association. (They were threatening to boycott Israel.) He described anthropology as “the most pathetic college major” whose name “doesn’t end in the word ‘studies.’” This made me grin and wince simultaneously (if such a thing is possible). I thought the remark was funny. I also thought it might be true, and this pained me — for I myself was an anthro major, and I once had great respect, even love, for the field. I still do, in a way. But I know that the field was long ago captured by the flaky Left, to use a shorthand.

By the way, I was interviewing Jeb Bush a few years ago and brought up the fact that he majored in Latin American studies. I pointed out that this field is dominated by lefties. He said, “Well, most ‘studies’ are dominated by lefties, when you think about it.” True.

What has happened to anthropology can’t be separated from what has happened to academia as a whole. But anthro may have pride of place, when it comes to political correctness and the corruption of scholarship. Stanley Kurtz says, “I’ve always bragged that anthropology is the worst of all the disciplines, much worse than English, despite what some of our conservative friends think.” Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and an anthropologist, or former anthropologist: a Ph.D. from Harvard. He is, in a sense, a refugee from anthropology. There are others.

In 2008, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote, “Anthropology is, by many measures, the academy’s most left-leaning discipline.” (A fact of which he apparently approves wholeheartedly.) In 2004, a study was conducted on the political affiliations of American professors. Of all the disciplines, anthropology came out the most Democratic at 30 to 1. This is shocking to me: I would be surprised to find one Republican in a hundred anthropologists.

When I was in college — the mid 1980s — all of my anthro professors were Marxists, I believe. It would have been hard to be anything else. If you were an astronomer, you were a Copernican, if you were an anthropologist, you were a Marxist. But they were serious people, my professors. They were not flakes. Since that time, however, postmodernism and other such strains have flooded in. So has political activism (which, of course, has its place, though probably not in classrooms).

Anthropology is, simply, the “science of man,” as we used to say in the bad old days, when you could use “man” in that sense. In the 1950s, the superb Mischa Titiev published a textbook called “The Science of Man.” One dictionary defines anthropology as “the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind.” Anthropology belongs to the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, all at once. It is a wonderful field for a generalist (like journalism, as it happens).

There are four main branches of anthropology: cultural (or social) anthropology; physical (or biological) anthropology; archeology; and linguistic anthropology. The cultural branch is the most populated, by far, and it is also the one most vulnerable to politics and fads. I will concentrate on this branch. Perhaps the Republicans, whatever their numbers, are to be found in the other branches?

I should not romanticize the past — a conservative vulnerability — but there were once giants: Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard. They wrote famous books such as Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski) and The Nuer (Evans-Pritchard). I was assigned those two classics, and many others. As Peter Wood, an anthropologist who heads the National Association of Scholars, points out, I got in “just under the wire.” I was exposed to serious work. I was also assigned a primatology textbook that was explicitly “feminist.” Yes, there was feminist science, as distinct from scientific science, I suppose.

There came a time, says Wood, when “anthropology went off a cliff.” Napoleon Chagnon uses similar language: “Anthropologists went nuts over new fads, and a lot of cultural anthropology went down the drain.” Chagnon is possibly the most famous anthropologist in the world, as well as the most “controversial,” as everyone says. He has made many enemies by insisting on a role for biological evolution in human behavior. His 1968 monograph, The Yanomamö: The Fierce People, is probably the most famous such book in the literature. It would be only natural for other anthropologists to resent this a bit.

In the 1970s and ’80s, anthropologists began to regard their field’s past as shameful. (I am taking the liberty of generalization, as throughout this piece.) Often heard was the bromide “Anthropology is the handmaiden of colonialism.” The earlier heroes of the field were now painted as villains — as racists and exploiters. This was a gross defamation. These anthropologists cared enough about primitive peoples to study them, understand them, and in some cases make them famous. (A word of advice to the current anthro student: Better not say “primitive.”)

Peter Wood cites two key dates in the downfall of anthropology: 1973 and 1984. In the first of those years, Clifford Geertz published his Interpretation of Cultures, hugely influential. According to Geertz, an anthropologist could interpret a culture the way a literary critic interprets a poem. Nothing was quite true; everything was subjective. In 1984, David M. Schneider came out with his Critique of the Study of Kinship. It essentially threw cold water on the very idea of kinship, saying it was just another instance of Western bias. Before, kinship had been fundamental to anthropology: a hard, exacting study. In a much-quoted remark, Robin Fox said, “Kinship is to anthropology what logic is to philosophy or the nude is to art.” No more, however. Anthropologists were excused from this particular task, as from others.

Stanley Kurtz says, in effect, “Don’t forget Edward Said.” Said’s book Orientalism, published in 1978, influenced anthropology the way it did many other fields. Said threw cold water on the very idea of culture, to say nothing of kinship. Napoleon Chagnon says, in effect, “Don’t forget Derrida and Foucault.” The postmodernism of these philosophers covered anthropology like a fog. Anthropologists began competing with one another, says Chagnon, to see who could find “the most arcane ways” of expressing simple things. “A lot of battles in anthropology were intellectually faddish battles between gurus and ayatollahs and rabbis and high priests.” Respect for the scientific method went down, down.

The field proliferated into little anthropologies, such as “reflexive anthropology”: You behold a culture and ponder your own relationship to it. Do you feel guilty to be a Westerner? (You ought to.) There is also “transpersonal anthropology” — something about altered states of consciousness. Then you have “public anthropology,” which aims for political and social activism — as if anthropology didn’t have enough of that already.

Anthropology came to resemble victim studies, or victimology, in which the central question is “Who is oppressing whom?” as Peter Wood puts it. Worse, it got to be so that you could call anything and everything “anthropology.” Andy Warhol said, “Art is what you can get away with.” Sadly, something like that maxim applies to anthropology.

Over the years, plenty of serious people have majored in anthropology. Saul Bellow did (and in sociology too). Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio, did. Michael Crichton, the late writer, did. Today, however, anthro has a reputation as a major for basket-weavers, potheads, and slackers. The field seems not to attract the most talented or go-getting students. Practical considerations come into play, of course. In 2012, Forbes ranked anthropology the very worst major for post-graduation employment and earnings. A writer on the blog Living Anthropologically wore this ranking as a badge of honor. “We’re #1!” he said. He also gloated, or sneered, “Anthropology is the worst major for being a corporate tool.” He added, “Anthropology is the major most likely to change your life” (for the better, presumably).

The field was unhappy when Governor Rick Scott of Florida spoke in 2011 about his spending priorities for education. “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education,” said Scott, “then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” The president and the executive director of the American Anthropological Association wrote him a rebukeful but polite letter. It transpired that one of Scott’s daughters had majored in anthropology — and gone on to business school.

Appreciation of capitalism is not a hallmark of the anthropological community. That same blogger at Living Anthropologically wrote, “A spectre is stalking Capitalism — the spectre of Anthropology. All the Powers of Capitalism have bound themselves in a crusade against this spectre,” which powers include Governor Scott, Forbes, and Napoleon Chagnon (bizarrely). “Anthropology knows that what currently exists does not have to be. Anthropology knows more about capitalism than any other academic discipline.” So, you see, anthropology is what will at last bring capitalism and the money-power down.

On its website, Princeton has a section on choosing majors. There are questions and answers, written by students. These are charming, and also helpful. One question on the page relevant to us is, “What are common misperceptions about anthropology majors?” The answer begins, “Some consider us ‘fluffy humanities people.’” Another question is, “Why would anyone want to date an anthropology major?” Because “you can expect an anthropology student to have original and quirky opinions on everyday social phenomena.” Frankly, given their “broad perspectives and experiences,” you can think of anthro students as no less than “the most interesting people in the world.”

I have no doubt that students of anthropology at Princeton are brilliant, fascinating, and datable. More generally, however, Peter Wood is surely right when he notes, with sorrow, that his field has become “flypaper for dimmer undergraduates,” who need only have the approved attitudes, opinions, and commitments to win A’s from their profs.

The American Anthropological Association has many task forces, and these tell us a fair amount. There is the Global Climate Change Task Force. The Race and Racism Task Force. The Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine. (This last one must bend over backward to be fair to Israel.) The AAA also has sub-associations, an alphabet soup of such associations, an array that would make the Balkans blush. You have the Association of Black Anthropologists, the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists, the Association for Queer Anthropology — “formerly the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.” (You can imagine the debate over that name change.)

A perusal of Anthropology News, the “official news source” of the AAA, is not much different from a perusal of Mother Jones or any other left-wing publication, except that there are extra helpings of self-importance and academic gobbledygook. A typical headline reads, “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” There is, in fact, an “AAA Statement on Humanity and Climate Change.” It contains such lines as “Anthropologists recognize that humanity’s actions and cultures are now the most important causes of the dramatic environmental changes seen in the last 100 years. We consider this period the Anthropocene” (a geological epoch in which man wrecks the Earth).

There is a piece called “When Conversation Is Not Enough: Reflections on the Makings of the #AAA2014 Die-In.” At the recent annual meeting of the AAA, hundreds of members lay down on the floor of the hotel lobby, pretending to be dead, in protest of what they regard as a police and broader national war on black Americans. A statement of the Association of Black Anthropologists begins, “The [ABA] condemns, in no uncertain terms, the ongoing terrorism waged against Black U.S. communities by the state, police, and White vigilantes.” It goes on to say, “These are state-sponsored massacres of our people, massacres enabled by a long history of national and global anti-Blackness.” In short, “we charge genocide.”

The charge of genocide — the wholesale murder of a people — is one I heard on my campus in the 1980s. Protesters were incensed by the attempts of the Reagan administration to slow the rate of growth of social-welfare spending. They chanted, “Reagan, Bush, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

In one issue of Anthropology News, the editors published four pieces on the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of a police officer. One anthropologist wrote of “a violence that is critical in maintaining the privilege that accompanies whiteness.” There was a lot more where that came from. The four pieces prompted Peter Wood to write an essay for Minding the Campus: “Ferguson and the Decline in Anthropology.” He said that the quartet of pieces published in AN showed what his field “has sunk to.” He lamented “a profound misappropriation of an intellectual discipline.” To its great credit, AN republished this piece — an act that kicked up a storm among the AN and AAA faithful.

IT should go without saying — though I will say it — that there are anthropologists at our universities who do good and serious work, including good and serious teaching. They are scholars before they are political actors and indoctrinators. Napoleon Chagnon cites a number of departments where “researchers are not just cultural anthropologists but a new breed of people who have additional skills and training in evolutionary biology.” Among these departments are those at Missouri, Arizona State, Michigan, Harvard, and Utah. Peter Wood has a tip for telling a real anthropologist from a fake one: If the guy talks about social structure, kinship, and other such concerns, rather than the political preoccupation du jour, he’s apt to be the real McCoy.

I’m reminded of a fellow who said that the congregation in which he took part was mad at the rabbi. They suspected he was a conservative — because he never talked about politics. Instead, he talked about things like God, the Bible, and Judaism.

Academia is a minefield in which it is increasingly difficult to say anything without causing an explosion. Recently, a professor unburdened himself of his fears in a piece online, published anonymously, of course. “Personally, liberal students scare the sh** out of me.” If a conservative student complained about him to administration or on social media, he could swat that student away like a fly. “The same cannot be said of liberal students. All it takes is one slip,” and “that’s it,” you’re finished. Anthropology is about human and cultural differences, as well as similarities. It is absolutely studded with mines. How the subject can still be taught at all is semi-miraculous. The pressures of political correctness are intense.

In that piece about Ferguson and decline, Wood writes,

Anthropology, rightly understood, is an effort to understand human nature through systematic study of those qualities in us that vary in time and place — and those that don’t. Anthropology looks at how we emerged as a species and how we have diversified into thousands of languages, tribes, and civilizations. The field became a “discipline” by sternly demanding of itself rigor in how it went about this inquiry. Mostly that rigor required a steadfast determination to stand outside the myths people tell themselves and, by standing outside, to see things as they really are.

That field sounds like very heaven to me — one I’d like to major in.

This article originally appeared in National Review Online on April 20, 2015. 

Image: American Museum of Natural History

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