Tag Archives: Anthropology

On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

There has been quite a brouhaha percolating through some Anthropology circles following the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Associate in New Orleans last month.  It seems that the AAA executive board, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to excise the term “science” from the Association’s long-range planning document. You can sample some of the reaction to this re-write in blog posts from anthropologi.info, Neuroanthropology, Evolution on the Beach,  AAPA BANDITInside HigherEd, and Fetishes I Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on the first paragraph of this document.  Here is that paragraph as it stood before the November meeting:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.

The new wording is as follows:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.  The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

So, anthropology is no longer a science, though there are lots of rather particularistic approaches through which one can pursue anthropology that may or may not be scientific.  Apparently, the executive board has a newfound passion for public communication as well.  I guess we don’t really need an organization that promotes scholarly understanding or the production of new knowledge.  Just look where that’s gotten us!

The new wording has greatly concerned a number of parties, including the Society for Anthropological Sciences.  I am a member of this section and have never seen so much traffic on the society’s listserv.

I will admit to being somewhat dismayed by the Society’s response.  While I am not quite as tweaked by this as many, I nonetheless wrote a longish call for specific action — one that involved good old-fashioned political organizing and attempting to forge alliances both with other sections within AAA and across other scholarly societies with an interest in anthropology (e.g., AAPA, HBA, SAA, HBES).  My call was greeted with a deafening (virtual) silence and I am left to guess why.  Perhaps the membership is suspicious of the imperialist ambitions of a biological anthropologist with the taint of evolution on him?  Perhaps they’ve heard and tried it all before and were simply convinced it would not work?  Perhaps they actually like being an embattled minority and don’t really want to take action to jeopardize that status?

To what extent is the scandal a tempest in a teapot?  I honestly don’t know.  The word “science” has been taken out of the first paragraph but there is nothing inherently anti-scientific about the statement.  After all, “advancing public understanding” can be done through “archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” Any number of these can be done through a scientific approach to understanding.

The thing that I find completely bizarre about the new wording is the exclusive focus on public understanding.  Public understanding? Really? Judging from my recent search committee and scientific review panel experience, I can only be left with the conclusion that the public must have an insatiable hunger for phenomenology.  This explains why I can never find any Husserl at Barnes and Noble — he must just be flying off the shelves!  You’d think if the goal of our flagship professional organization is really promoting public understanding, that more anthropologists would write in a manner that was generally understandable to, you know, the public.  In his distinguished lecture, the eminent archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff chastised anthropologists for their unwillingness to engage with the general public.  I could not agree with this perspective more, especially if “engaging with the public” entails engaging with colleagues from cognate disciplines, another thing that I think we do a miserable job of, in general.

I was a bit disappointed to read Alex Golub’s write-up of this issue on the Savage Minds blog.  I’m usually a big fan of both this blog and Alex’s posts more generally. However, in this case I think that Alex engages in the kind of ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists that normally gives anthropologists the willies.  Advocates of science are characterized as close-minded automata, utterly lacking any appreciation for ambiguity, historicity, politics, or contested meaning.  For example, he writes

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on.

Très nuanced, eh?

The statements made by many scientific anthropologists, particularly those of the generation to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s, need to be understood in the historical and political context of the speakers.  I think that it is simply disingenuous to claim that scientific approaches to anthropological knowledge have not become increasingly marginalized within the mainstream of anthropology over the last several decades.  One need only look at what has become to the departments that were home to the vaunted physical anthropology programs of the past to find evidence of this trend. Consider, for example, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley or Columbia University.  And this is just biological anthropology; it does not account for the loss of scientific social and cultural anthropologists (think Gene Hammel or Roy D’Andrade) in elite, Ph.D.-granting programs. The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge.  As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist.  Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences.”

The key is that the declining importance of science in the elite anthropology departments has led to a feeling of embattlement — that is almost certainly counter-productive most of the time — among the remaining scientific anthropologists. Another consequence is that the decline of the place of science within anthropological discourse selects for personalities who thrive on embattlement, so that the reproduction of the field is relatively enriched with young scholars who see no point to professional or intellectual engagement. And so it gets more and more difficult to integrate.  This is the lens through which I view much of the public complaining about the recent actions of the AAA executive board. However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements.  We need to be proactive and positive.

The academy is changing. This can be seen in the increasing number of cross-cutting requests-for-proposals from funding agencies such as NSF (e.g., HSD, EID, CHNS) or NIH and the wholesale re-organization of many research universities (ASU is only the most extreme case; the ascendency of interdisciplinary centers such as the Woods Institute for the Environment or the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford is a more common manifestation of this trend; the Columbia Earth Institute also comes to mind).  In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.  As I wrote in my 2009 Anthropology News piece:

Four-field anthropology is a biosocial discipline that integrates information from all levels of biological and social organization. To understand human behavior, the four-field anthropologist considers genetics and physiology; the history of the human lineage; historical, cultural and social processes; the dynamics of face-to-face interactions; and global political economy. Each of these individual areas is studied by other disciplines, but no other field provides the grounding in all, along with the specific mandate to understand the scope of human diversity. The anthropologist stands in a unique position to serve as the fulcrum upon which the quality of an interdisciplinary research team balances. Revitalizing the four-subfield approach to anthropological training could move anthropology from the margins of the interdisciplinary, research-based academy of the near future to the core.

I have no interest in disparaging forms of knowledge or excluding particular types of scholars from any social movement, but I think that scientific anthropologists have a particularly important role to play in such a revitalization, if for no other reason than they (presumably) care about more of these levels of organization.  Maybe such scholars could even communicate the subtlety and richness of ethnographic experience that our more humanistic colleagues so value if we could just get beyond the name-calling.

I may be dismissed as being naively optimistic by the old guard of scientific anthropologists (hypothesis 2, above), but I think that I have good reasons to be optimistic about the future of anthropology, despite the many challenges. This optimism stems from the work of individual anthropologists.  I’ll do a quick shout-out to a number of people who I think are doing particularly good work, integrating different anthropological perspectives, and communicating with a broader audience.  This is a very personal and idiosyncratic list — these scholars are people I’ve encountered recently or whose work has been brought to my attention of late. They tend to be focused on questions of health and human-environment interactions, naturally, since these are the issues that organize my research.

If you want to feel good about the future of a scientific anthropology that is simultaneously integrated into contemporary anthropology and communicates with a broader scientific and policy audience (and is generally great and transformative — that key NSF buzz word), check out the work of:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

This list could go on. I won’t even mention the amazing anthropology post-docs, Siobhan MattisonSean Downey, and Brian Wood, with whom I have been so lucky to interact this academic year.

I have plenty more to say on this — particularly how the portrayal of politics and political agendas enters the discourse — but I have final exams to grade!

An Alternate Course Load for the Game of Life

In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw provides some answers to the question “what kind of foundation is needed to understand and be prepared for the modern economy?”  Presumably, what he means by “modern economy” is life after college.  Professor Mankiw suggests that students of all ages learn something about the following subjects: economics, statistics, finance, and psychology.  I read this with interest and doing so made me think of my own list, which is rather different than the one offered by Mankiw. I will take up the instrumental challenge, making a list of subjects that I think will be useful in an instrumental sense — i.e., in helping graduates become successful in the world of the twenty-first century. In no way do I mean to suggest that students can not be successful if they don’t follow this plan for, like Mankiw, I agree that students should ignore advice as they see fit. Education is about discovery as much as anything and there is much to one’s education that transcends instrumentality — going to college is not simply about preparing people to enter “the modern economy,” even if it is a necessary predicate for success in it.

People should probably know something about economics.  However, I’m not convinced that what most undergraduate students are taught in their introductory economics classes is the most useful thing to learn. Contemporary economics is taught as an axiomatic discipline.  That is, a few foundational axioms (i.e., a set of primitive assumptions that are not proved but considered self-evident and necessary) are presented and from these, theorems can be derived.  Theorems can then be logically proven by recourse to axioms or other already-proven theorems. Note that this is not about explaining the world around us.  It is really an exercise in rigorously defining normative rules for how people should behave and what the consequences of such behavior would be, even if actual people don’t follow such prescriptions. Professor Mankiw has written a widely used textbook in Introductory Economics. In the first chapter of this book, we see this axiomatic approach on full display.  We are told not unreasonable things like “People Face Trade-Offs” or “The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It” or “Rational People Think at the Margin.” I couldn’t agree more with the idea that people face trade-offs, but I nonetheless think there are an awful lot of problematic aspects to these axioms.  Consider the following paragraph (p. 5)

Another trade-off society faces is between efficiency and equality. Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.

Terms like “efficiency” and “maximum benefits” are presented as unproblematic, as is the idea that there is a necessary trade-off between efficiency and equality.  Because it is an axiom, apparently contemporary economic theory allows no possibility for equality in efficient systems. Inequality is naturalized and thereby legitimized. It seems to me that this should be an empirical question, not an axiom. In his recent book, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences, Herb Gintis provides a very interesting discussion of the differences between two highly formalized (i.e., mathematical) disciplines, physics and economics.  Gintis notes, “By contrast [to the graduate text in quantum mechanics], the microeconomics text, despite its beauty, did not contain a single fact in the whole thousand page volume. Rather, the authors build economic theory in axiomatic fashion, making assumptions on the basis of their intuitive plausibility, their incorporation of the ‘stylized facts’ of everyday life, or their appeal to the principles of rational thought.”

If one is going to learn economics, “the study of how society manages its scarce resources” — and I do believe people should — I think one should (1) learn about how  resources are actually managed by real people and real institutions and (2) learn some theory that focuses on strategic interaction.  A strategic interaction occurs when the best choice a person can make depends upon what others are doing (and vice-versa). The formal analysis of strategic interactions is done with game theory, a field typically taught in economics classes but also found in political science, biology, and, yes, even anthropology. Alas, this is generally considered an advanced topic, so you’ll have to go through all the axiomatic nonsense to get to the really interesting stuff.

OK, that was a bit longer than I anticipated. Whew.  On to the other things to learn…

Learn something about sociology. Everyone could benefit by understanding how social structures, power relations, and human stocks and flows shape the socially possible. Understanding that social structure and power asymmetries constrain (or enable) what we can do and even what we think is powerful and lets us ask important questions not only about our society but of those of the people with whom we sign international treaties, or engage in trade, or wage war. Some of the critical questions that sociology helps us ask include: who benefits by making inequality axiomatic? Does the best qualified person always get the job? Is teen pregnancy necessarily irrational? Do your economic prospects depend on how many people were born the same year as you were? How does taste reflect on one’s position in society?

People should definitely learn some statistics. Here, Professor Mankiw and I are in complete agreement.

Learn about people other than those just like you. The fact that we live in an increasingly global world is rapidly becoming the trite fodder of welcome-to-college speeches by presidents, deans, and other dignitaries. Of course, just because it’s trite doesn’t make it any less true, and despite the best efforts of homogenizing American popular and consumer culture, not everyone thinks or speaks like us or has the same customs or same religion or system of laws or healing or politics. I know; it’s strange. One might learn about other people in an anthropology class, say, but there are certainly other options. If anthropology is the chosen route, I would recommend that one choose carefully, making certain that the readings for any candidate anthropology class be made up of ethnographies and not books on continental philosophy. Come to grips with some of the spectacular diversity that characterizes our species. You will be better prepared to live in the world of the twenty-first century.

Take a biology class. If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century is going to be the century of biology.  We have already witnessed a revolution in molecular biology that began around the middle of the twentieth century and continued to accelerate throughout its last decades and into the twenty-first. Genetics is creeping into lots of things our parents would not have even imagined: criminology, law, ethics. Our decisions about our own health and that of our loved ones’ will increasingly be informed by molecular genetic information. People should probably know a thing or two about DNA. I shudder at popular representations of forensic science and worry about a society that believes what it sees on CSI somehow represents reality. I happen to think that when one takes biology, one should also learn something about organisms, but this isn’t always an option if one is going to also learn about DNA.

Finally, learn to write.  Talk about comparative advantage! I am continually blown away by poor preparation that even elite students receive in written English. If you can express ideas in writing clearly and engagingly, you have a skill that will carry you far. Write as much as you possibly can.  Learn to edit. I think editing is half the problem with elite students — they write things at the last minute and expect them to be brilliant.  Doesn’t work that way. Writing is hard work and well written texts are always well edited.

Most Cited Papers in Current Anthropology

A friend sent me a link the other day to the top 20 most cited articles in the journal, Current Anthropology. Much to my delight, I found that a paper that I co-authored is the #7 all-time citation leader and a paper co-authored by my Stanford colleague Rebecca Bird is the #19. As I walked over to Coupa café this morning to get coffee, I realized that I also made a small contribution to the #1 on this list, Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler’s paper on the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis.  At the time the manuscript was first circulated, I was a graduate student obsessed with brains, energetics, and scaling in human evolution. My advisor, Richard Wrangham, was asked to comment on the manuscript and he asked me if, given my obsessions, I might have something to say. Needless to say, I did. Having just read our comment, I think it stands pretty well (if I do say so): (1) basal metabolic rate (BMR) is not really a constraint and (2) what are the implications for allometric scaling of different organs with respect to body mass?  Most of the expensive organs scale isometrically (that is, with a scaling exponent of one) but the brain, of course, is a big exception. It scales with an exponent closer to 3/4. Because guts and brains scale differently with increasing body mass, perhaps larger brains could be maintained by dietary compensation?

My colleague Herman Pontzer has some very interesting things to say about energetics and constraints and I’m really looking forward to some forthcoming work of his on this topic.  In a paper in PNAS, he recently showed that, contrary to the expectations of a naïve trade-off model, mammals with larger home ranges actually have greater lifetime fertility and greater total offspring mass.  We have a lot to learn about trade-offs, both physiological and economic, and their role in shaping human behavior and life histories.

More on Diamond

I’ve been thinking some more about the issues that are raised by the debacle over Jared Diamond’s 21 April 2008 New Yorker piece and the recent announcement of a lawsuit against him.  There are many things to think about here.  Probably foremost amongst these are the ethical concerns relating to preserving research subjects’ privacy and informed consent.  There are secondary concerns regarding scholarship, standards of research, and obligations to adequately describe research methodology.

I am troubled by a point raised by Alex Golub in the Savage Minds blog. Golub writes, “There is also a more serious problem with [Diamond’s New Yorker] article which is also the most obvious thing about it: it contrasts ‘tribal societies’ with ‘modern state societies’. ”  This is something that bothers me too though I think that my response may be somewhat different than that of many contemporary cultural anthropologists. In general, I have sensibilities very much akin to Diamond’s. I see tremendous value in comparative studies, and I think that there is something that we can call, for lack of a better term, a robust and fairly general Human Nature.  Human beings are biological entities with material needs and (many) material motivations and we ignore these at our explanatory (and possibly literal) peril.

The Myth-of-Isolation criticism, which also arises in the Diamond debacle, is not new in Anthropology.  I am reminded of the Kalahari Debate of Lee, Wilmsen and others. Globalization as a phenomenon of anthropological inquiry has certainly increased in currency of late and I think that this scholarship tends to make many of my colleagues skeptical of any research on, say, foraging decisions by hunting and gathering people.  The answer to this criticism is that foraging people in a globalized world, like all people, still make decisions about what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat, etc.  Their choices may be constrained by a hegemonic state or by extra-state organizations, but choices are still being made.  Understanding how such choices are made in a globalized world strikes me as being at least as important as it was 50 or 100 years ago.   This goes for hunter-gatherers as well as urban elites, agrarian peasants or just about anyone else.

Rather than taking labels such as “tribal” or “state” as sufficient descriptions of the differences between groups, I think that the science requires us to describe (and hopefully quantify) the dimensions of their difference.  I have been thinking a lot about social networks lately.  One dimension on which two societies might differ is the composition of ego networks.  How many people does a given person know?  What fraction of those are kin?  What is the gender composition of the ego network? How socially similar are the member’s of ego’s network to him/herself? How many would provide emotional/economic/agonistic support to you in a crisis?  Does an individual’s ego network include socially important figures like government functionaries, doctors, lawyers or the equivalent? How much does ego’s network overlap with his/her spouse’s? Brother’s? Neighbor’s? Member of the next village/town? Gathering such data is clearly a major undertaking, but that’s what science is about, no?

The fraught question of how to do ethical, meaningful anthropology in a globalized world that struggles with the legacy of colonial depredations has, in my view, driven too many anthropologists from science. Protecting human subjects and doing unto others what we would have done to us are important guiding principles for anthropological research, indeed, any research in the human sciences.  Describing — and, ultimately, understanding — how societies differ and what the implications of these differences are for human behavior should, in my opinion, be another principle.  Facile labels relating to social or economic complexity, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc. do not help us understand the diversity of human behavior.

Jared Diamond and Anthropological Ethics

Brian McKenna sent around to the EANTH Listserv a couple of blog posts today detailing the trouble that Jared Diamond has gotten in about a New Yorker story he wrote a year ago on the power of vengeance.  This seems like a rather sordid affair but I think that Alex Golub should be commended for his very fair treatment of it in his most recent post on the Savage Minds blog.  It certainly sounds like there were some major ethical lapses in the production of Diamond’s New Yorker piece, though I wonder about the motivations of Shearer, the muck-raker who has brought these issues to light.

Jeanine Pfeiffer, the director for social science at the Earthwatch Institute, posted a list of ethical guidelines from the International Society for Ethnobiology which I think are very relevant for understanding the apparent ethical lapses in Diamond’s work. Honestly, I can’t imagine publishing an article like Diamond’s and using the informants’ real names!  Then there’s the issue of informed consent.  People need to know that they are “on the record” — whatever that means in this (kind of) grey area of anthropology-meets-journalism. Seems to me that minimal twin standards that should guide anyone’s writing about the lives of people “in the field” include: (1) would you write this way about people in your own immediate community? and (2) would your article’s evidentiary and rhetorical standards pass muster if it was a paper submitted by an undergraduate for a class you were teaching?

As Golub notes, Jared Diamond is an easy target for academic anthropologists (or historians or geographers) because he writes well and clearly about complex topics and reaches a large audience.  There are always people grumbling about Diamond’s originality, authenticity, and willingness to attribute ideas to others (in that vein, a highly recommended book). Diamond’s ecological work on community assembly of pigeons in New Guinea is top-notch and I still assign his chapter from the Ecology and Evolution of Communities volume he edited with Martin Cody in 1975. Regarding books like Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, I take them for what they are: synthetic popularizations that maybe could have stood a little more attribution.  It would certainly be nice if the popular spokesperson for Anthropology were actually an anthropologist. Alas, anthropologists, for the most part, have given up on the goal of writing prose that can be broadly read, appreciated, and understood.

This is a story I will be keeping my eye on.

New York Times Discovers R

A recent article in the New York Times extolls the virtues of the R statistical programming language.  Better late than never, I suppose.  I first discovered R in 1999, just as I began writing my dissertation. At the time, I used Matlab for all my computational needs.  I still occasionally use Matlab when doing hardcore matrix algebra or numerically solving differential equations.  I also sometimes use Mathematica to check my algebra or to solve equations when I’m feeling lazy (I think there are actually lots more possibilities but exploring these hasn’t been a priority), but mostly I now use R. When looking for a post-doc, one of my training goals was learning R. I certainly scored in that department by landing in the Center for Statistics in the Social Sciences at the University of Washington working with Mark Handcock, sharing an office with Steve Goodreau, and interacting with people life Adrian Raftery, Peter Hoff, and Kevin Quinn, I learned a lot about R. I’d like to think that I saw the writing on the wall.  Mostly though, I think I liked the idea of free, open-source, state-of-the-art numerical software.

I use R in many of the classes I teach, including Demography and Life History Theory, Applied Bayesian Methods in the Social Sciences, Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences, and our NICHD-funded Workshop in Formal Demography. While I don’t expect the students to learn it, I also use R to make most of the figures I show in slides in other classes like Evolutionary Theory, Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease, and even The Evolution of Human Diet. My colleague Ian Robertson also teaches his quantitative classes in R.  Anthropology is also very lucky to have an academic technology specialist, Claudia Engel, with a strong interest in supporting both faculty and student use of R. The Human Spatial Dynamics Laboratory has a growing list of R resources for student (and other’s) use.  My lab site will soon host all of our R material for the summer workshops as well as my R package demogR.

I sometimes wonder if other anthropologists are learning R.  I’m sure Steve’s students get some R up at UW.  But is there anyone else out there?  Perhaps this is one of the great comparative advantages we can give our students here at Stanford.  Since the New York Times says it’s cool, it must be true.

On Human Rationality

Oh, how this bugs me.  I think behavioral economics is a great thing.  However, the language that is used to discuss behavioral economics — and specifically, the types of problems it addresses — is hugely problematic. There is this pervasive idea, largely arising from economics, that because people do not behave according to the predictions of some narrow pecuniary incentive structure, they are somehow not rational.  Rebecca Bird and I recently wrote a brief essay in which we bemoaned this perspective, noting particularly in the case of indigenous peoples, the diagnosis of irrationality is the ticket to paternalism, allowing “marginalized people to be further marginalized and fail to reap the benefits of even well-intentioned [development] projects.”  In many traditional social contexts, pecuniary rewards may trade-off with social prestige.  People could be hyper-rational in their optimization of social capital and fail utterly to meet the bar for narrow-sense economic rationality.

This is all I have time for right now, but there is more to come (both scholarly a paper and probably more blog posts).

On Productive Stupidity

This essay by UVA cell biologist, Martin Schwartz, pretty much encapsulates the way I feel about the practice of science.  If I perfectly understand everything I’m doing at any given moment, something is wrong.  I want to be uncomfortable in my understanding of any given question I am asking or method that I am employing.  Otherwise, I don’t think that I would be growing as either a scientist and humanist.

Scientific perspectives in Anthropology are increasingly rare. This past year, I sat on our department’s graduate admissions committee and I was struck by a theme that emerged in the personal statements prospective students made.  They really had it all figured out.  A typical essay would have the form “At Stanford I will expand on topic X and show Y.”  Sure, they’d learn probably some rhetorical tricks and gather some social capital along the way, but what more did they really need to know about the world around them? My perspective on this was how can you know what you will show if you haven’t even designed your study or collected data?  It would be so refreshing to read a personal statement that took the form “Isn’t it funny the way X does Y?  I wonder why that is.” The Jerry Seinfeld approach to science, I suppose. Quoting Schwartz’s essay,

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Perhaps we can foster a future generation of productively stupid anthropologists here in the Ecology and Environment program within the Anthropology department.  Fostering stupidity in a world too full or arrogant certitude may be one of the greatest challenges facing the academy of the twenty-first century.  Here’s to bumbling…

The Requirements for an Ecological Anthropology Curriculum

A question was posted today on the ecological anthropology listserv: What are the basic requirements for an ecological anthropology graduate program? I don’t claim to be qualified to say what these are for the field as a whole, but I am qualified to say what we have decided on in setting up our new ecological and environmental anthropology Ph.D. program at Stanford. Here I include an edited version of the reply I sent to the thread.

At the risk of essentializing, there are, broadly speaking, two general classes of ecological anthropologists: (1) those who use human relationships with the environment as a lens through which to study problems in cultural anthropology (e.g., agency, social structure, the construction of meaning, etc.), and (2) ecologists who study humans as their primary organism. The majority of practitioners currently falling under the latter category are probably human behavioral ecologists, though I can think of some notable exceptions to this. This is the approach our program emphasizes.

In addition to departmental requirements, EE students are required to take the following:

  • Evolutionary Theory
  • Research Methods in Ecological Anthropology
  • Data Analysis in the Anthropological Sciences

All students need to know how to integrate theory, method, and application, but the specific nature of the courses in which they learn that doesn’t matter that much. Therefore, we require three courses from a list of theory-driven graduate classes, including (but not limited to):

  • Advanced Ecological Anthropology
  • Human Behavioral Ecology
  • Conservation and Evolutionary Ecology
  • Demography and Life History Theory
  • Environmental Change and Emerging Infectious Disease

Required classes deal with what you know, but equally important is how you know. We expect our students to engage in research from the outset of their graduate studies. Students attend weekly lab meetings. These can be within the Anthropology department (e.g., Rebecca Bird and I run a joint meeting or we have a joint spatial interest meeting this quarter) or in other departments (e.g., Biology, Woods Institute).  Students also attend a colloquium (comprised of visiting speakers) one quarter out of the year.

We’re big on methods, but we don’t legislate what methods students learn (other than research design and statistics).  Most students are interested in remote sensing and GIS, but we also have students working on social network analysis, demographic methods,  and advanced statistical methodology.

So, that’s our idea for a graduate program.  We will have  a proper web page describing the program in detail some time in the future.