What is Anthropology?

March 16, 2009

Over the past few years there has been one question I have despised answering: So, you’re an anthropologist?

My cut and paste answer has become: I’m an archaeologist but I study out of an Anthropology department.

This answer did not randomly develop, I chose to identify myself as an archaeologist rather than an anthropologist. Not because I don’t consider myself an anthropologist, I do, I just don’t want to explain the intricacies of the difference to the uninitiated…you know, the whole Archaeology as discipline or sub-discipline debate. So, this got me thinking, particularly about how the issue is only pertinent (dare I say important) to those that are part of the initiate. Catalyzed by two recent posts at The Blogaeological Record and Glossographia I decided to add my two cents on the issue.

Over at The Blogaeological Record Lars has started a series of posts that he calls Archaeodigms. He is trying to instigate a discussion about where we archaeologists currently stand theoretically. This series, in combination with Glossographia’s great response and thorough discussion from a non-archaeology perspective, has lead me back to a question I asked myself near the end of my undergraduate degree: What is Anthropology?

To me this is the fundamental question for sorting out the often times ridiculous disputes and cold-shouldering that happens in departments across North America. If you ask anybody in one of the four sub-disciplines (Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Physical Anthropology…wait a minute, that’s more than four…hmmm) they will most likely define Anthropology in terms of their own sub-discipline. Can a definition encompass all of these fields and, if yes, what should it be based on? The second part of this (“what should it be based on?”) is where the “What is anthropology? question comes into play. At what level of generality can all the sub-disciplines be encompassed by one definition? Is our obsession with the unification of the four sub-disciplines a historical hang-up?

Clearly more than four sub-disciplines are currently being recognized. There are more than I listed above too (Environmental, Political, Legal….and the list goes on). Where these fall in the four field divide is often disputed. Some will drop all of these under the umbrella of cultural anthropology but I have many friends and colleagues that argue for considerable differences between them all. A complicating factor, often overlooked from the North American side of the pond, is the Cultural versus Social Anthropology divide. When discussing this with a colleague trained in Belgium he thought it odd that we often refer to a Socio-cultural anthropology. For him the two are clearly different, with Social focusing on the relationship between people and their environment and Cultural focusing on the material and immaterial manifestations of the social. Yet another sub-division within the discipline.

I think there is a serious problem with the four field divide. Not because I disagree with broad training in each, the complete opposite actually. The critical flaw is it assumes there are only four perspectives from which to study anthropology. How can such a framework accommodate the numerous approaches to studying anthropology? Even more worrisome for those of us outside of the Cultural Anthropology sub-discipline is, why is the term Anthropology automatically associated with Cultural Anthropology? I will write on this topic more in the coming weeks but for now I ask you all to consider, from a discipline-wide perspective: What is Anthropology?

Megalith and Microlith Soundscapes

March 13, 2009

In my last post I mentioned that the local McGill Archaeology Lab band – Megalith – played a show to end the Anthrograd conference we had last weekend. I thought I should share some of this with you so we arranged to have one of our “groupies” record the whole show. We have extracted two songs from his recording so far and they are up on YouTube. I apologize for the shaky hand, awkward zoom shots, and the rapid blurry panning of the stage.

We call the electric group Megalith and the acoustic group Microlith…I wonder what this means from a phenomenological perspective? Enjoy.

Megalith covering Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers

Microlith covering Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Triangular Confusion

March 8, 2009

What a week! I am fully enjoying a very slow Sunday after an insanely frantic week. Thankfully the payoff was well worth every minute of stress.

Yesterday was the final day of the first (and hopefully annual) McGill Anthrograd Conference. Myself and two other friends put together a two day event at McGill that brought together the wide range of research that the grad students are conducting. It was a phenomenal success thanks to the many hours of hard work from all of the volunteers. We even had the local archaeology lab band Megalith end the evening last night with an hour and a half show. With so many wonderful volunteers the conference organization was only minimally responsible for the ferocity of this week on my nervous system. Most of the suffering was induced by me also presenting my MA thesis in the first session on Friday evening. But I managed to get my primary analysis done and the results proved to be much more thought provoking than I expected. The project is examining the transition from predominantly chipped stone tool technology to ground and polished antler, bone, and stone tool technology on southwest coast of British Columbia over roughly the past 9000 years. Now the end points of this transition are well established and my initial question was why did this transition happen. But before I could as why did things change I needed to understand the nature of this change through time and space. What I stumbled upon is that very little detailed work had been done on the broader temporal and spatial patterns of the transition and most people conclude/assume that there was a gradual or incremental increase in ground stone technology at the expense of chipped stone technology through time. The result of this observation is my thesis: Is the temporal and spatial distribution of the observed technological change on the southwest coast of British Columbia over the past 9000 years gradual and spatially uniform? Here’s my answer to the temporal component:

Ternary Plot

What you see here is a ternary  plot on which each point is an assemblage and its position represents the proportions of chipped, ground, and faunal tools. If the change through time is gradual or incremental we would expect the gray-scale (which represents the age of an assemblage) to get gradually lighter as it extends out from the bottom left corner. Clearly this is not the case. Once you get more than 10% ground stone there is no discernible pattern through time or by phase. I think we need to reconsider the dynamics between the two endpoints of this transition.

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