Must I Side With or Against My Section?

A recent post by Rex on Savage Minds connects the American Civil War with the American Anthropological Association (AAA). He reflects that…

In the years leading up to the civil war, sectionalism meant the divisive need to commit to either the South or the North hence Robert E. Lee’s reluctant decision to serve the South, despite his own dislike of slavery and secession: “I must side,” he wrote, “either with or against my section.” In the context of the economics of AAA journals, on the other hand, I’m rapidly learning that understanding sectionalism is also very important.

His article is about how important AAA section journals are, but his Civil War analogy may be more appropriate to the newest AAA Newsletter which takes up the question whether the “union” of anthropological subfields should be “torn asunder.”


For those of you who aren’t “in the know” about our angst, some practitioners believe that anthropology has grown so diverse that little holds us together–specifically there is little in common between the interests and approaches of cultural anthropology and biological anthropology.

This diverse and interesting set of brief articles come at the issue from a variety of angles. Mary Shek examines departments that have split (e.g., Duke, Stanford, Harvard) and those that work toward a holistic anthropology (e.g., Emory, University of Florida and Arizona State University’s new School of Human Evolution and Social Change), Eric Alden Smith pleds for reconciliation, while Sylvia Yanagisko and Dan Segal state that:

To date, we have seen little evidence that the so-called “biological synthesis” offers cultural-social anthropology a useful tool. To the contrary, rather than contributing to interesting work in cultural-social anthropology, the various forms “synthesis” seem most often to have been designed to control and limit cultural-social anthropology, making it less rather than more interesting….

Other articles include Fran Mascia-Lees “Can Biological and Cultural Anthropology Coexist?” and Andrea Wiley’s look at how some anthropologists (in her case nutritional anthropologists) feel that they need both approaches and their work is being hindered by the binary opposition of cultural and biological approaches.

Speaking of which……Some archaeologists, like myself, who are both grounded in some form of “science” and want to engage culturally-oriented topics (my fav-o-rites inlcude cultural memory, modernity, race construction, power relations, identity, etc.) feel a little like the state of Missouri in this anthropological civil war (although I admit I have problems sustaining a conversation with primate morphologists). Note: archaeologists ended up in both departments at Stanford depending on their theoretical approach.

Whatever your current stance on the topic, however, this issue of the Anthropology News is a good open debate.

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Categories: academia, anthropology

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4 Comments on “Must I Side With or Against My Section?”

  1. January 9, 2006 at 8:36 am #

    Dude, primate morphology rawks! I mean, it’s all about the locomotion, c’mon baby, do the locomotion.

    I’m a unionist, I guess. It was Arkansas that did it to me. OK, since my whole goal of getting the fud is to sound smart, it’s nice to be talking to some lit crit crowd and be able to start talking down to them about morphological vs. reproductive speciation.

  2. January 9, 2006 at 2:54 pm #

    well, Jamie. I think you know where I come down on this issue. All subfields NEED the privileged and unique perspective of cultural anthropologists, and thusly should learn to worship us and serve at our leisure. I don’t understand all the hubbub. **evil grin**

  3. January 17, 2006 at 1:22 pm #

    Jamie write something!

  4. January 17, 2006 at 1:42 pm #

    I am writing something…..a JOB TALK! If my “clamoring public” wants me to post to this blog, I may be forced to post the entirety of dissertation and let you guys slog through that! *grin* I know, I know…I’ll post as soon as I pull myself out of this backlog…..

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