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Interdisciplinary Anthropology and Biocultural Approaches

Update August 2013: Daniel Lende has just put out his Biocultural Anthropology bibliography for Oxford Bibliographies. Lende discusses the biography in a blog-post titled Oxford Biocultural Anthropology Bibliography and links to this page and this earlier conversation. Thanks! And see also Adam Van Arsdale’s round-up of Great biological anthropology sessions at AAA 2013 (Chicago).

In May 2012, Kate Clancy initiated a great conversation about interdisciplinary anthropology, particularly with regard to biocultural anthropology. It’s well worth a read through the post and the comments, as some of the big anthropology bloggers show up (some with comments almost as long as the original post!). There were also several connected spin-off posts and thoughts on the topic of interdisciplinary anthropology. Daniel Lende provides a characteristically insightful round-up and then extends into five core problems of biocultural anthropology. I also include some older posts from conversations about how much to stress either anthropology or the interdisciplinary on the job market, as well as some thoughts about how anthropology can be part of a liberal arts framework. This dialogue is also valuable for considering What is Anthropology.

Interdisciplinary AnthropologyIt’s also great to see a fabulous interdisciplinary anthropology book out from Agustín Fuentes, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. Fuentes has begun a linked blog on Psychology Today, Busting Myths About Human Nature. I’ve added his blog and updated some others on the anthropology blogs page, including the wonderfully retitled blog from interdisciplinary anthropologist Adam Van Arsdale, The Pleistocene Scene.

I Can Out-Interdiscipline You: Anthropology and the Biocultural Approach, Kate Clancy, 1 May 2012
Anthropology is an inherently interdisciplinary field. We draw from evolutionary theory, feminist theory, critical race theory, we compare within and between primates, we even manage to work with the occasional rodent or suid species. . . . Then there’s biocultural anthropology. . . . Some work that claims to be biocultural doesn’t really appear to be biological, nor is it cultural, because it is atheoretical and happens to use biological and cultural methods. Some of it leans in some sort of theoretical direction, but then the methods are inscrutable. How is it that a field that is so good at being interdisciplinary cannot do a good job interdisciplinary-ing itself?

Interdisciplinary disciplinarians, John Hawks, 1 May 2012
This notion of a “long tail” approach to interdisciplinary research is interesting. As one considers more and more fields, the amount of knowledge an investigator knows about those fields declines exponentially. . . . Going deep into an interdisciplinary problem may mean working with other people who have thought long about the other fields you need. It also means working long enough with those people to be able to perceive the times when you’re not speaking the same language.

Biocultural anthropology and interdisciplinary work, Adam Van Arsdale, 1 May 2012
Engaging in interdisciplinary work as a junior faculty member poses risks regarding project failures because of the potentially increased likelihood of collaborative difficulties, unanticipated problems that arise as a result of reaching beyond your core area of expertise, or simply slower research progress. Unless the work you are doing as a graduate student is already well within an interdisciplinary sphere, and I think there are only a few places in the U.S. where graduate students consistently do this kind of work, initiating such work prior to tenure is hard.

On Biocultural Anthropology, Daniel Lende, 3 May 2012
Five Areas of Biocultural Research
What are those core problems? I see five basic ones, all different versions of anthropology’s core motivating question, What does it mean to be human? They overlap and can mutually inform each other, but seem distinct enough to my eyes that research groups are forming around each one.

  1. What is the nature of human variation?
  2. How do social structure, political economy, and inequality shape human life?
  3. How did we evolve as biocultural beings?
  4. How does enculturation happen?
  5. How does science, both as a form of knowledge and a form of ideology, shape our lives and the governing and marking off how we are similar and different?

Mixed Methods Should Be a Valued Practice in Anthropology, Thomas S Weisner, May 2012
We should use the widest range of methods, so that the weaknesses of one method can be complemented by the strengths of another, and so that phenomena in the world that are holistic qualities best or only to be represented by narrative, text, photos or sound are represented that way, and phenomena best or only to be represented with numbers, variables and models are represented quantitatively. As a result, we will get closer to understanding the world, and then persuading others of the truth of what we discover and believe.

Anthropology and the Liberal Arts, Jason Antrosio, 1 May 2012
Anthropology’s world-changing approach is well connected to the liberal arts.

Stop Being an Anthropologist, Adam Fish, 14 March 2012
So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least four or five large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to four or five departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)

How to get a job as an anthropologist, Angela K VandenBroek, 26 February 2012
I do not disagree that successful job candidates with degrees in anthropology are bolstered by interdisciplinary cooperation and engagement with technology. I am perturbed by the notion that this is un-anthropological or “post-anthropological.” I look around at the cohort of anthropologists to which I belong and I see a flurry of innovation that goes far beyond traditional anthropology into new areas of research, such as western culture, technology and business, and into new sectors of employment. However, this does not make them any less anthropologists or something beyond anthropology. They have simply shifted and stretched what it means to be an anthropologist.

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