In Memory of Sidney Mintz

Clifford Geertz, in his autobiographical volume After the Fact,1 Geertz, Clifford. 1995. After the Fact: Two Countries Four Decades One Anthropologist. Harvard University Press. Pgs. 96, 98 suggests that the idea of discipline does not fit anthropology very well, finally labeling the field an “indisciplined discipline.” Geertz points to the “big tent” character of a scholarly field that Eric Wolf (supposedly drawing from Alfred Kroeber) once characterized as the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. Even Margaret Mead, in her presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science argued that an understanding of what it means to be human derives from both a humanistic ability to engage with others with introspection and empathy, as well as a more scientific stance of objectivity in the face of the physical and animate world.

“The most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.”

That these three heavyweights of anthropology have reflected on the complexity of their discipline should come as no surprise. Margaret Mead, as we know, frequently turned to other disciplines—to engineering, to art, and particularly to psychology and psychiatry—to open herself to ideas that might help her develop her understandings of other people and other cultures. Early in his career, Geertz was involved in an ambitious interdisciplinary project on the transformation of “old societies” into “new states.” Writing about this project forty years later, Geertz described the exuberance of the period after World War II when anthropologists were drawn into government service. He observed that “what had been an obscure, isolate, even reclusive, lone-wolf sort of discipline, concerned mainly with trial ethnography, racial, and linguistic classifications, cultural evolution and prehistory, changed in the course of a decade into the very model of a modern, policy-conscious, corporate social science.”2 Geertz, Clifford. 2002. An Inconstant Profession: The Anthropological Life in Interesting Times. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 1-19. The result was multi-, inter-, or cross-disciplinary research projects carried out by teams of social scientists. Geertz notes in his reflection that, while he was at Harvard pursuing his doctorate, there were any number of collaborative and interdisciplinary teams of researchers and it was as part of such a team that he went to Java to conduct ”first fieldwork.” While the exuberance of this period faded away in the context of postcolonialism and postmodernism, it is nevertheless important to remember it as a time when anthropologists were part of multidisciplinary research projects.

Eric Wolf was also part of a collaborative and comparative research project as a young field researcher—a project that involved several other young anthropologists, including Sidney Mintz in whose memory I offer this reflection, who were working under the mentorship of Julian Steward. The result was the book The People of Puerto Rico,3Steward, Julian H., Robert A. Manners, Eric R. Wolf, Elena Padilla Seda, Sidney W. Mintz, and Raymond L. Scheele. 1956 The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. a volume that still merits reading today. However, of more interest is Wolf’s consideration of the rise of the social sciences in the opening pages of his masterful Europe and the People Without History.4Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pg. 7 He describes what he considers to have been a “false and fateful turn” in the middle of the nineteenth century “when inquiry into the nature and varieties of humankind split into separate and unequal specialties and disciplines.” This split, he argued, “led not only forward into the intensive and specialized study of particular aspects of human existence, but turned the ideological reason for that split into intellectual justification for the specialties themselves.” Thus, he points out, the social, studied by sociologists, was set apart from the political, ideological, and economic context. And anthropology, at least as cultural anthropology, got the rest of the world which they studied with a microscopic lens rooted in field research.

In its broadest terms (as a four subfield discipline composed of archaeology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistic anthropology), anthropology brings together those interested in the past with those interested in the present, as well as those interested in the cultural dimensions of being human with those interested in the biological dimensions. However, today the discipline, like many other “disciplines” has become increasingly specialized, something reflected in the multitude of subsections that now exist under the umbrella of the American Anthropological Association and in the labels that anthropologists use to describe themselves—medical anthropologist, environmental anthropologist, urban anthropologist, psychological anthropologist, political anthropologist, etc.

“Gone are the days of the generalists.”

Gone, some argue, are the days of the generalists (people like Alfred Kroeber and Franz Boas) who drew on data derived from across the four subfields. But in their place is perhaps less an “indisciplined” discipline than a scholarly project that is inherently interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, importing from other fields and conversely exporting to them as well. Those who affiliate with the subspecializations mentioned above may be talking less to linguistic anthropologists, or physical anthropologists, or archaeologists, but they are often engaged with psychologists, neuroscientists, geographers, ecologists, urban planners, and architects.

Talal Asad, in his critique of anthropology’s historical relationship with colonialism, “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter,”5Asad, Talal. 1979. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. In The Politics of Anthropology: From Colonialism and Sexism Toward a View from Below, edited by Gerrit Huizer and Bruce Mannheim, pp. 85-93. The Hague: Mouton Press. captured this shift, one that paralleled the move away from the functionalist paradigm that had dominated the field (and other social sciences for that matter) until the 1960s. He described a move away from a method rooted in the preeminence of participant observation among simpler societies that the ethnographer studies holistically and where all the parts fit together into a coherent social system. “Today,” he wrote, “the anthropologist […]is someone who studies societies both ’simple‘ and ‘complex’; resorts to participant observation, statistical techniques, historical archives, and other literary sources; finds himself intellectually closer to economists or political scientist or psychoanalysts or structural linguists or animal behaviorists than he does to other anthropologists.”6Ibid, pg 87.

It is this process of cross-disciplinary engagement, and of the importing and exporting of ideas, that I have recently explored in my book Anthropological Conversations: Talking Culture across Disciplines.7Brettell, Caroline. 2014. Anthropological conversations: talking culture across disciplines. Rowman & Littlefield. This book tracks six cross-disciplinary conversations that reflect interests in time and in space, in science and the humanities, and in the individual and the group as units of analysis. Many of these conversations are ones in which I have personally engaged as a scholar of migration, past and present. Here I mention three; those that have brought anthropologists into interactions with several of the other disciplines within the social sciences.

One such conversation is that which occurred between historians and anthropologists that is perhaps best epitomized by the “conversations” between Clifford Geertz and Robert Darnton at Princeton during the 1980s. This so-called historic turn led anthropologists into “fieldwork in the archives”, into an exploration of the presence of the past in the present, to an interrogation of the meaning of the past in the present, and perhaps most importantly to the study of the impact of colonialism (and hence of the inherent power dynamics between colonizers and colonized) on societies that had for decades been the object of the anthropological gaze. An additional trend was the work that anthropologists such as David Kertzer, William Douglass, and myself, all of us inspired by the emerging fields of historical demography and social science history, did tracing changes in family and household structure and patterns of marriage and fertility over time—particular among European populations for whom there were a wealth of historical records that could help to write history from the bottom up. It is worth noting that this turn occurred precisely at the time that the Social Science History Association, a venue for cross-disciplinary conversation and interdisciplinary research, was founded.

A second conversation is that between anthropologists and geographers that was at the foundation of a spatial turn. Granted, the connections between these two fields are quite deep (German geography and ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel conceived of a discipline of “anthropolo-geography”), but they took on new dimensions during the last decade of the twentieth century and into the present whereby space and place became critical to sociocultural theory. Writing about the rapprochement between anthropology and geography, Margaret Rodman argues that anthropologists can learn a good deal by exploring how geographers bring together issues of location (“the spatial distribution of socioeconomic activity”), sense of place or attachment to place, and locale (“the setting in which a particular social activity occurs, such as a church”) to develop a better understanding “of places as culturally and socially constructed in practice.”8Rodman, Margaret C. 2003. Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality. In The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture, Setha Low and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga, exds., pp. 203-223. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Pg. 207. Many anthropologists have found the geographical concept of scale helpful in conceptualizing the relationships and processes that both integrate and divide people across space and time in the context of globalization. Others have turned to feminist geographers for inspiration on how to theorize the relationships among space, power, and difference, including gendered difference.

And finally, there is the conversation between anthropologists and psychologists, a conversation that has been going on for decades, particularly within American cultural anthropology, but that has assumed different forms and directions. Indeed, one anthropologist, Philip Bock, has even been bold enough to claim that all anthropology is psychological and all psychology is cultural. In the early part of the twentieth century, anthropologists were drawn to Freudian psychology; later to gestalt and behavioral psychology; and more recently to a range of issues (trauma, schizophrenia, grief, depression, emotion, mind, and cognition) that require being informed by a broad range of research within psychology. All these psychologically-oriented anthropologists share an interest in intra- and intercultural variations in psychological processes and behavior. This conversation has not been without its pitfalls and roadblocks—some of them having to do with differences in methodology and others with a more top down approach among psychologists as compared with a bottom up approach that characterizes anthropology. Patricia Greenfield, a product of the interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, encapsulated some of the challenges: “Whereas in anthropology the struggle has been how to understand the perspective of others without assuming essentialistic differences, the struggle in psychology has been how to understand the perspective of others without assuming essentialistic similarities. These diametrically opposed problems should tell us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”9Greenfield, Patricia. 2000. What Psychology Can Do for Anthropology or, Why Anthropology Tool Postmodernism in the Chin. American Anthropologist 102(3): 564-675.  “The inter/cross/multi-disciplinarity of the perhaps ‘indisciplined’ field of anthropology is very much a work in progress. “

The inter/cross/multidisciplinarity of the perhaps “indisciplined” (but certainly still “big tent”) field of anthropology is very much a work in progress. What Talal Asad identified as a trend over thirty-five years ago has been perpetuated into the present but in distinct ways. Among those who are more scientifically-oriented, there is a decided biocultural turn (such as Alan Goodman’s “Bringing Culture into Human Biology and Biology Back into Anthropology10Goodman, Alan H. 2013. Bringing Culture into Human Biology and Biology Back into Anthropology. American Anthropologist 115 (3): 359-373.) that has generated interesting new approaches in the study of kinship, medical anthropology, human behavioral ecology, and Science, Technology, & Society (STS) studies. There is equally a literary turn (see Waterston and Vesperi’s Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing11Waterson, Alisse and Maria D. Vesperi (eds.). 2011. Anthropology Off the Shelf: Anthropologists on Writing. Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell. in particular) among the more humanistically-inclined anthropologists who engage with fields like cultural studies and with the craft of writing. And there are many anthropologists, like myself, who as scholars of migration must read the work of economists, political scientists, sociologists, geographers, and demographers. When anthropologists engage with the work of those in other fields, or collaborate within the border zones between disciplines, a wealth of exciting new ideas and perspectives are often the result.