Can Anthropologists Communicate?
In 2010, when the word "science" was left out of a plan for the American Anthropological Association, many in the discipline's biological wing fumed that their work was being treated as second class by the cultural anthropologists in the field. Association leaders later affirmed that science was indeed part of their mission and the discipline's -- and various meetings have attempted to find common ground among the diverse wings of anthropology.
Now some biological anthropologists are again upset -- this time over a letter suggesting that they needed to do a better job of explaining their work. Some of these biologists charge that it's the cultural anthropologists who are hard to understand.
The controversy concerns a portion of a letter in an anthropology newsletter by Michael Chibnik, a University of Iowa professor who is editor in chief of American Anthropologist, the discipline's flagship journal, which some biological anthropologists have said does not seem interested in their work. In the letter, Chibnik said he wanted to include more biological anthropology in the journal, but suggested that those who work in that subfield need to think about their writing.
"[T}he main ideas of pieces in AA should be understandable to nonspecialists and discouraged the extensive use of terms unfamiliar to most of our readers," he wrote. "This poses particular problems for biological anthropologists, whose work often entails specialized techniques about which most sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists know little. Biological anthropologists therefore need to be particularly careful to write in a way that is comprehensible to the generalized readership of the journal. In many cases, biological anthropology articles fit best in AA if the research reported can be clearly related to topics of interest to readers in other subfields."
To many biological anthropologists, that language suggested that cultural anthropologists think they define what's commonly understood and what's not in the discipline. Julienne Rutherford, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, took to the pages of Anthropology News (an AAA publication) to express her distress over the Chibnik letter.
"I think it’s fair to assume that the techniques used by many sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists are very specialized. And I would further argue that the terminology and writing used by sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists are often very obscure and sometimes even incomprehensible to specialists in other subdisciplines. To put the onus only on one subfield to be intelligible may be part of the reason some of our colleagues don’t feel particularly welcome within AAA or excited about publishing their most thoughtful work in AA," she wrote.
Chibnik posted a response apologizing for his choice of words, and saying that he believed all anthropologists -- not just those in the biological wing -- need to work at being understood better by others.
Via email to Inside Higher Ed, he said that "I think the problem is with my choice of the word 'particular' when saying that biological anthropologists have a 'particular problem.' I was referring to the technical nature of their subject, which sometimes leads to their material being hard to understand for sociocultural anthropologists, who comprise most of the readership of the journal. But I could just as easily have said that 'sociocultural anthropologists have a particular problem' -- which is the tendency to write in complicated ways when their ideas could be expressed more simply, posing problems for all readers, no matter what their subfield (including other sociocultural anthropologists)."
Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said via email that Chibnik has been pushing the journal he leads to reach out to all subfields, including biological anthropology. And Liebow said that it was fair to say that subfield had been "underrepresented" in the past. As to the recent Rutherford-Chibnik exchange, Liebow said it was "part of the healthy ongoing exchange about how best to highlight for a broader audience the important contributions that anthropologists make."
Some of those biological anthropologists, however, see the Chibnik comments as reflecting a general attitude they feel from cultural anthropologists -- even after Chibnik has sought to clarify his intent.
Writing on the Facebook page of association's Biological Anthropology Section, one scholar wrote of her experience attending non-biology sessions at anthropology meetings: "Omg. I heard SO many terms and concepts that were completely foreign to me at all of the cultural talks I went to. This is a total double-standard."