Well, it’s been a long time and there are bunch of things I should really catch up on here. I spent last year on sabbatical in the very remote location, at least half a mile from my house, of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I was working on various book manuscripts that seem to grow in number the more I write. Then there’s the fact that I changed Earth Systems Science. This is a topic that clearly requires a bit of explication at some point, but now is not the time. I figured I’d break back into the blog by doing my semi–regular, highly-selective review of the American Anthropological Association meetings.
The meetings this year were in Minneapolis, which is a lovely city, but maybe not the best place for a conference that meets in mid-November. Apparently, the weather was beautiful for the first couple days. However, I had spent the beginning of the week in Atlanta at the meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (that was a very interesting meeting, but this post is about AAA). This meant that I had to fly in late Friday evening before my Saturday session. By this time, the weather had changed to something slightly more horrifying. While my flight seemed like a relatively long-haul (4.5 hours from SFO), we nonetheless flew in a regional jet. A storm had moved into the Twin Cities area by Friday afternoon and our little plane got tossed around quite a bit in our approach to MSP. In fact, we flew in a holding pattern for about an hour before the pilot came on intercom and said that we “we’re going to try to land” Try? It was a white-knuckle landing in which we experienced more yaw than I care to remember. There are many reasons that I’m grateful that our try at landing was successful, and high among those is the fact that I didn’t relish the thought of climbing back through that unsettled air if we had failed on our first pass.
Once safely on the ground, I was able to take the lovely (and cheap!) light rail straight to downtown, about three blocks from the conference venue. I don’t know what one calls the precipitation that was falling at this point (sleet? freezing rain? wintery mix?), but it was quite a shock for this adopted Californian.
The meeting was held in the Minneapolis Convention Center, a cavernous space that the 5,000 or so anthropologists didn’t come close to filling. This gave the conference a bit of a ghost-town feeling. Adventitious encounters were minimal and I definitely saw far fewer anthropologists of different stripes than I have at past meetings. The registration process was surprisingly efficient (maybe because I was registering on what I thought was the last day and there wasn’t much of a crowd). Rather than the standard canvas bag, we were given fluorescent green plastic (?) bags. I have actually wondered whether I hallucinated this, since I threw mine out immediately and have been completely unable to find a picture on one on the internets, but Rex over at Savage Minds has also commented on the bizarre bags (alas, I don’t think they were soy fiber, Rex).
Then there were the conference badges. Not so much badges as they were bibs — a bonus to the messy eaters in our midst! They were bright red (if you are lucky enough to be a AAA member) and were reminiscent of those travel wallets that are designed to fit a passport and shout “I’m a tourist, please harass me!” Too bad I left my fanny-pack at home. Once again, AAA astounds me with its tone-deaf marking of outsiders. Oh, you’re not a member of our club? Then wear this other-colored bib to display your status for all to see! I’ve been to many different societies’ conferences and AAA is the only one where I’ve experienced this practice.
If we’re being perfectly honest here, I’m not big on conference talks. I generally try to minimize the number of attend. Let’s face it, most conference talks are not great and when you have to submit your talk nine months before the conference, freshness of material tends not to be super high. I spend most of my time at conferences meeting with people: planning a paper with co-authors, strategizing with program officers, meeting with editors, catching up with former students, dining and drinking with colleagues I haven’t seen in years. This is the really productive work of an academic conference. Nonetheless, I was curious what AAA had to offer. I found the online program so difficult to use that I gave up on even trying to find talks I wanted to see (this is another topic that Rex takes up hilariously — I couldn’t agree more on his review). This tool was clearly not designed by anyone who actually attends academic conferences. The more I use it to write this piece, the more comically dysfunctional I realize it is. Who thinks it’s a good idea to hide the author names in a search result? See the screenshot below for an example of what gets returned from a search for Anthropology and Environment Society talks:
I organized a session for the Evolutionary Anthropology Society entitled, “Evolutionary Anthropological Approaches to Inequality.” It seemed to me that there is a group of human behavioral ecologists out there doing long-term ethnographic work, measuring economic and demographic variables, and thinking hard about how people adapt in a rapidly-changing world, and that these scholars might have some real insights into the mechanisms generating economic inequality. I was right.
One of my goals for this session was to beat the bushes for contributions from scholars other than the usual suspects. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very fond of the usual suspects in EAS, but there is a lot of great work being done that is both relevant to our section’s mission and engages different communities of scholars. I had some success recruiting different people in the initial call for papers. Unfortunately, when these new folks saw how much it costs to present a paper at AAA (the conference is very expensive, particularly when you adjust for the overall quality of the scientific program), they backed out. Fortunately, we had enough people still signed up that we were able to retain our session (apparently, you only need four speakers to stay on the program). When faced with a sparse session, the organizer has a few options: add a discussant, give speakers longer slots, open up a discussion. I decided to opt for yet another strategy. We wildcatted three late-breaking talks by junior researchers. Obviously, these talks didn’t make the program (not sure that’s much of a penalty though, given what a mess the program was), but it still gave the speakers the opportunity to present their research in front of a crowd of at least 50 (we had a great turn-out for the entire session).
The line-up for the session included a number of stars from EAS (well, and me):
- Paul Hooper (Emory), “If You Know What Feeds Hierarchy, then You Can Starve It”
- Siobhán Mattison (UNM), “Market Integration, Kinship, and Social Inequality Among the Mosuo of Southwest China”
- me (Stanford),”State-Dependence, Uncertainty, and the Economic Rationality of Poor People”
- Katie Starkweather (MPI), “Subsistence Strategies: Risk, Reward and Gender Roles for the Boat-Dwelling Shodagor of Bangladesh”
We missed Tamas David-Barrett, who had to deal with some emergent business back home. Our late-breaking talks were contributed by Elspeth Ready (Stanford), E’lana Jordan (Stanford), and Dave Nolin (Missouri). All were great. This was E’lana’s debut, as she is just back from the field, and she killed it. Elspeth was, as ever, dazzling in her analytical sophistication and the general bad-assery of her fieldwork.
The other EAS session, “Finding Insights in the Field: Ethnographic Experience and the Scientific Process,” organized by former student and current Omidyar post-doc at SFI, Elly Power, was also terrific. All the talks in this session were very good and the attendance was excellent. Naturally, I was particularly partial to the incredibly sophisticated analysis that Elly presented to close out this excellent session.
This has now happened enough times at AAA that it has tweaked that paranoid part of my brain. Our EAS session was scheduled at the same time as a great-looking session sponsored by Anthropology and the Environment Society called “Emergent Landscapes, Disturbance Ecology, and New Approaches in Ecological Anthropology.” Friends and colleagues involved in this session included Mark Moritz (Ohio State), Steve Lansing (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), Brian Codding (Utah), Sean Downey (Maryland), and Kathy Galvin (Colorado State), among others. This session would have been of great interest to many in EAS, but, unless you’re Hermione Granger, you can only be in one session at a time. It was particularly frustrating because the editor for the new journal, Nature Human Behavior, also had to choose between sessions. These are constituencies who have natural affinities and we should work on getting them to coordinate somehow, AAA scheduling be damned.
Once again, there was apparently nothing newsworthy at AAA, as a Google news search turns up no hits from the actual meeting. This is a big difference between AAA and other major professional meetings, where new discoveries or novel analyses make their way into different quarters of the news media. The usual defensive response to this critique is that anthropology is more a humanities discipline (which, of course, is itself debatable) and, as such, doesn’t lend itself to “discoveries” or press releases. I don’t buy that. A similar search for the MLA, for example, turns up quite a few stories. I think it’s something about which we should be concerned as a discipline. While I am heartened by some of the work I saw at AAA (or from which I was structurally blocked from seeing but about which I heard in conversations with speakers later that evening), I really wonder about the relevance of our discipline as a whole. In principle, I believe the world really needs anthropology — perhaps now more than ever. But, in practice, I’m not sure what anthropologists are doing is what the world needs.
Among other things, I wonder if we really need to have meetings in convention centers. The public spaces seemed particularly sparse this year and many of the sessions I walked by looked like they had more speakers than audience members. I know it’s hard, but maybe we need to conduct a bit of quality control. Of course, I should be careful what I ask for. Given the fact that EAS is not a powerful section of AAA, we would almost certainly lose, even though our sessions are very well attended. This may sound heretical, but maybe we should collect data on session attendance and factor that into which sessions get included. Surely, the number of people who actually attend a session is a better measure of interest than the number of people who belong to a given section. In my experience, both EAS, BAS, and Anthropology and the Environment would do quite well on that criterion, even if they are relatively small sections.
I will probably keep going to AAA, at least occasionally, not because I think it’s a good conference in general. I will go because there is a core of great young researchers in EAS and I want to continue to support them, even if AAA is, at best, an uneasy home for them.