Mornin’ Ralph, Mornin’ Sam in Anthropology Today

Kathleen Lowrey

I have a boring story to tell. I’m an anthropology professor. I submitted an article to a scholarly journal. It was accepted. Then the acceptance was reversed prior to publication because the article included content that criticized trans ideology. Academics will recognize that while rejection in scholarly publishing is common, abruptly reversed acceptances are not, but that’s not a killer hook.

This is also not newsworthy in the sense of being novel. “Feminist scholar gets canceled.” This story is so old that it’s happened twice now just to me. I don’t have a fresh new angle on it that NAS readers have not already encountered.

The editor hasn’t bothered to respond to my reply to his reversal, a message in which I made the sorts of objections you might expect. My article itself doesn’t even present a groundbreaking new discovery. It offers commentary on the current intellectual state of the discipline.

If I’d had a groundbreaking new discovery to offer, I’d have submitted to a different journal. Anthropology Today, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute, “aims to provide a forum for the application of anthropological analysis to public and topical issues.” I’d published in its pages once before, around the time of the 2013 Wallace Centennial, arguing that Alfred Russel Wallace was a better ancestor figure for anthropology than Charles Darwin. The current issue of the journal is devoted to the theme “Mindfulness and Culture.” This is emblematic. Anthropology Today is a sort of meta-journal in which anthropologists reflect on anthropology itself.

You can see the problem. This is a story that gets more eye-glazing the more you describe it. The title of my article is “Anthropology’s three ontological turns: It is time for a fourth, from anti-anthropology back to anthropology.” Believe it or not, reviewers had objected that the original title I came up with was even worse (at least the word hermeneutic was at no stage involved).

Those three external reviewers were otherwise enthusiastic enough that, having submitted the article on January 27, I received notice it was “accepted subject to minor revisions” on February 17. They gave me a resubmission deadline of April 3 but sent in my revisions quickly, by February 25. On April 14, the journal editor emailed me to say that one more review had “come in late” which he needed to “discuss” with me. Oddly, he anonymized this reviewer as “Reviewer #3,” although in fact it was a fourth review.

I don’t think the editor consciously miscounted. I think he was uncomfortable with the unusualness of what he was doing, and assigning this late review a number within normal bounds assuaged that discomfort. Opening by saying he needed to “discuss” the review with me was a similarly awkward gambit, because in fact the email did not open a discussion. His message closed by telling me my piece was now rejected. He has not responded to the email I sent to him in reply later that same day. A month has now gone by, so I think it’s safe for me to assume it is not because he’s just been busy.

Nobody has sent me any rape or death threats; no smoke bombs were set off outside my office building. There wasn’t even any shouting. So why do I think this is yet another canceled feminist academic story?

That fourth reviewer was careful to put his objection to what I said about sex as a kind of last fillip in the review. The reviewer opened by saying that my piece is “problematic” in two ways. The bit about sex isn’t one of those two. Sex only appears in the final paragraph of the review.

The first of the two enumerated objections is that my article is reactionary. This is fair. I wrote the article in explicit reaction to trends in anthropological scholarship to which I object, and the original three reviewers were enthusiastic about the article precisely on this basis.

The second objection pertains to my lamenting that many anthropologists signed a silly and embarrassing open letter objecting to David Reich’s popular book on human palaeogenetics. The reviewer said both that because the lead authors of the open letter were not anthropologists, I wasn’t correct that it necessarily characterized anything about anthropology, and that since many of the signatories were non-anthropologists, they thought the anthropological objections in the letter were good ones. This is incoherent, but I don’t think fairness or unfairness comes into it.

Then the reviewer gets to the (unnumbered) final point. The reviewer says I am wrong to suggest that any anthropologists deny that humans are sexually dimorphic. Instead, what it would be more correct to say is that there is an emergent understanding that human sex is “bimodal”. The reviewer closes by suggesting the journal put together a review issue on the osteological difficulties of sexing skeletons and on what bioarchaeology has gotten wrong by assuming it possible to sex human skeletons with a fair degree of confidence.

That is to say, the reviewer closes by suggesting that instead of publishing my article objecting to the new anthropological views of humans, evolution, and sex, Anthropology Today should commission a special issue devoted to those new views, particularly as they pertain to human sex.

That’s it—that’s the whole story. A bit of jiggery pokery in a scholarly journal devoted to anthropologists discussing their own discipline: who wants to be buttonholed about that? It feels a bit “Mornin’ Ralph; Mornin’ Sam” even to me. What did I expect, given what I already know about the current state of anthropological scholarship? Well, for a brief happy window of time (between February 17 and April 14, to be exact), I expected better.

To read the revised version of my accepted—then rejected—article, click below:

Click here to read


Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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