A Forced Anthropology Merger

9 years after much-discussed split of Stanford department in two, separate programs are ordered to combine.
February 6, 2007

In 1998, after years of strife, anthropologists at Stanford split their highly respected department in two, with one department more oriented around science and another around culture. Many anthropologists elsewhere were distressed by the split, fearing it signaled an inability of scholars from different parts of the discipline to work together. People wondered if other departments would also divide.

While there are a few similarly split anthropology programs (Duke University being among the more prominent examples), there was no groundswell to divide. And now Stanford's two anthropology departments are getting back together again.

But those who lamented the split nine years ago may want to hold off before toasting the reconciliation. What's happening at Stanford may be more like an arranged remarriage. The decision was made by administrators, apparently with little involvement of (and not necessarily support from) the two departments.

"This was entirely top-down," said John W. Rick, chair of the anthropological sciences. "No members of either department, to my knowledge, were consulted or had any advance notice this was happening."

Leaving aside the issue of consultation, Rick said he has doubts about joining forces with cultural anthropology. "I personally see few advantages to the move, and I see major costs and strong limitations, if not reversals placed on the trends that both departments were pioneering."

Rick's counterpart in cultural and social anthropology, Jim Ferguson, said he did not want to comment except to say that he "only recently learned of the changes" and that much "is not yet clear."

To Stanford administrators -- and some outside observers -- the merger may lead to some good things, however.

Sharon Long, dean of humanities and sciences at Stanford, said via e-mail that both departments recently prepared reports on their plans for the future and their undergraduate programs, as part of routine periodic reviews of programs. "One theme that struck us, in terms of research and education, is how much stronger the overall program would be if the strengths of both programs were combined and integrated," Long said. She noted that archaeology and medical anthropology play roles in both departments. The strengths in these areas would be more impressive combined, she said.

Long acknowledged "distinct and different areas of research" in parts of the two departments, but she said that anthropology is not at all alone in having within a discipline "a wide range of research and very distinct and different disciplinary and scholarly approaches and assumptions." Such diversity can help departments and students, she said.

Undergraduates will particularly benefit from the merger, Long said. Students currently must pick among the two departments without ever having taken an introductory course covering anthropology with breadth, she said.

As for timing, Long said that departures of professors in both departments made this an ideal time for them to join forces. "The more we looked at this issue, the more we felt that new faculty should be chosen from the broad field of anthropology, rather than by assigning some faculty slots to one department versus the other," she wrote. An initial hire Long said Stanford officials were particularly proud of is Tanya Luhrmann, who is moving from the University of Chicago.

Alan H. Goodman, president of the American Anthropological Association and a professor at Hampshire College, said that even though the Stanford decision "was from on high," it was "the right thing to do." Stanford has a long history of having outstanding scholars, so its program matters, he said. Of the split nine years ago, he said, "that was an important moment, and in my perspective somewhat of a sad moment, because it was a sign of the inability to keep the whole together."

Goodman said that he hoped the merger could prompt reflection on just how imprecise some of the discipline's divisions are.

Anthropology has historically talked about itself as having four fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and linguistic anthropology. Archaeology and biological anthropology are seen more as "hard science" and the other fields are seen as closer to sociology and the humanities. Or at least that's the historic (and to Goodman, in some ways a stereotypical) division.

"I think the four fields should serve more as a shorthand for perspectives," Goodman said. The reality is that the fields are more intertwined and approaches much less rigid than the four fields construct implies, he said. "I know plenty of cultural anthropologists who are real scientists and plenty of humanistically oriented archaeologists."

"Most of the issues we study today don't require more specialized expertise, but people can talk across boundaries," said Goodman. (He said that he was trained as a biological anthropologist "in the four fields tradition," but that he doesn't consider himself limited to that field when he teaches or does research.)

While pleased with the forced unity at Stanford, Goodman said he realized it might take work. "Integration is often not easy, but having conflicting cultures and world views together is important."


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