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Stanford Report, May 20, 1998

Anthro Dept likely to divide into two: 5/20/98

Anthropology Department likely to split


Stanford's 50-year-old Department of Anthropology will likely become two separate departments beginning next academic year ­ the Department of Anthropological Sciences and the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology.

A majority of the department's faculty expressed support for the division in early February under terms outlined by the dean's office, according to Hans Andersen, the cognizant dean in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The proposal has since been approved by the dean of humanities and sciences and has been considered by the Advisory Board of the Academic Council. It is now on the provost's desk. If the division is approved, new degree-granting authority will be requested from the Faculty Senate next year, beginning with reviews by the School of Humanities and Sciences Curriculum Committee and the senate's Committees on Undergraduate Studies and Graduate Studies, Andersen said.

The decision to divide the highly rated department comes on the heels of a much publicized conflict last year over the tenure case of one faculty member, but reflects longer term tensions rooted in diverging interests, methods and theory within American anthropology, sources on and off campus said.

"This is a great example of how local processes are shaped by larger global processes as well as having their own specific history," said Sylvia Yanagisako, acting chair of the Cultural and Social Anthropology Department. "American anthropology has since its beginning in the late 19th century had this uneasy configuration of four subfields," she said. "European anthropologists have always regarded the situation as an accident of American history."

Anthropology as a discipline has not resolved how to study "a living organism with culture ­ how to do both the biology and culture of the human organism," said Bill Durham, chair of the Anthropology Department and acting chair of the new Department of Anthropological Sciences. Integrating biological approaches into a department that was traditionally strong in social and cultural anthropology, he said, has been difficult at Stanford dating back at least to the late '70s when filling his own position was a two-year struggle.

Both departments will cross-list each other's courses, but graduate student admission and faculty appointment decisions now will be separated. The new Cultural and Social Anthropology Department will have 10 faculty billets. The new Anthropological Sciences Department will have seven faculty billets, Andersen said. The staff of the department will be divided between the departments with staff positions increasing from 4.75 to 5 full-time equivalents.

"There was a clear, overall sentiment [of faculty members] to split," Andersen said. "We asked the faculty who are there right now to choose which of the two departments to join." The allocation of permanent billets was proposed by the dean's office in advance of Andersen's meetings with faculty members individually, he said, "because we didn't want people competing for those who were undecided."

The intellectual issue for anthropologists involved "a basic disagreement over what constitutes science," Yanagisako said. "Physical anthropology is rooted in an evolutionary paradigm and views itself as a natural science, as does archeology in the United States.

"Social-cultural anthropologists try to understand diversity without placing it into an evolutionary scheme," she said, and believe that "interpretive and qualitative methods, including the production of fine-grained ethnographies of particular cultures, are necessary in order to do a science of culture. You can trace both back to Franz Boas but they have diverged."

Anthropology in the United States was conceived of as a four-field discipline, Durham said: physical/biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, archeology and linguistics. "In principle and when the parts function with coherence, a four-field approach has validity, it has rationale and it works. . . . But perhaps for reasons related to our [departmental] split, we have failed to produce a unifying theory of culture, a unifying philosophy of culture, a way of understanding cultural systems . . . so that has left the core of the discipline a bit hollow, and it has sent people into disparate corners looking for something."

The distinctions between the two proposed departments' approaches are obvious from the opening paragraphs of their descriptions of themselves, Anderson, a chemistry professor, said. "The word biology is missing from one, whereas it is central to the other, and I gather that reflects tendencies nationally."

The Cultural and Social Anthropology Department statement notes that its faculty are "leading contributors to our understanding of ethnic, subnational, religious and linguistic conflict and gender inequality in the world today." One of the values of their kind of work, it says, is in "analyzing why global integration of the economy has not resulted in cultural homogeneity and why those whose cultural assumptions are different from people in the U.S. may have a different understanding of international issues."

The Anthropological Sciences Department writes that it "takes as its subject matter the nature and evolution of our species." Faculty members' specialties and interests include human origins and environmental adaptations, hunters and gatherers, tools and technology, biological and cultural evolution and diversity, historic and computational linguistics, applied anthropology, gender, materialism, social and psychological anthropology, and ethics. "The department is united by a common interest in the interrelations of biology, culture and environment," its statement says.

National splintering

Anthropology departments in many U.S. universities face similar disagreements between people in the four traditional subfields, said Patrick Kirsch, an archeologist at the University of California-Berkeley who is a visiting fellow on campus this year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. "Anthropology has been a very broad field because of its attempts to have a holistic perspective" on human culture, he said.

Because of the breadth of its approaches, anthropology has been the only discipline to qualify for government funding in both the sciences and humanities, notes Jim Gibbs, professor emeritus of anthropology at Stanford.

But faculty are often pushed by diverging methods and theories to seek colleagues outside their departments more than within it.

"Archeology has gone in one direction," Durham said. "Biological anthropology, with the advent of molecular techniques, is off in another. Social and cultural anthropologists, taking a lead from hermeneutics and the study of meaning systems from European anthropology and from the humanities, have gone in a very different direction. And finally linguistics, which has always been an important part of the four-field system, has also gone in different directions."

The result, he said, is that "without something in the middle like a unifying theory of culture, a unifying science to hold things together, these developments have a great centrifugal force and things have been flying apart at high speed."

The split of the department at Stanford, Kirsch suggested, may even be a "symptom of a need to realign social sciences," just as various branches of biology have been realigned in some institutions. Changes in the world such as economic globalization and the human population's impact on the environment also play a role, he and others said.

Duke University already has two separate departments of anthropology, and at many other leading universities, single anthropology departments have semi-autonomous wings. Graduate admissions and curricula are typically separated by subfield, and faculty interaction in seminars across fields is often minimal.

Compromises and conflict

Kirsch chaired a visiting committee that reviewed the Stanford department in 1996 and considered recommending the division. The committee eventually recommended steps to help increase linkages within the department because at that time "we were swayed by a number of faculty in both camps who said that they wanted to bring themselves closer together."

Faculty members agree there has been both compromise and conflict within the department over the department's direction. "Tensions were evident with my own hiring in '77 when there was disagreement over the need for someone who does evolutionary thinking," says Durham, who is well known for his theory of cultural and biological co-evolution. "My position was regarded as very moderate and I think that was, in the end, what helped."

Questions about the appropriate role of biology in the department, he said, were "put back on the table but in the middle of the table" a few years later by former Dean Norman Wessells, a vertebrate biologist, who was impressed by developments in early human evolution research and proposed adding two billets for biological anthropology. Yanagisako and Durham both said that some in the department viewed Wessells' proposal as positive, while others viewed it as an administrative intrusion that would dilute the focus of a department that was only about half the size of others ranked in the top 10. In 1995, the department failed to agree on an appointment in paleoanthropology.

Tensions grew in the fall of 1996 after then chairman Renato Rosaldo suffered a stroke and the faculty couldn't agree on his successor. The provost appointed a faculty member from outside the department to run it. Later that year the faculty agreed unanimously to recommend cultural anthropologist Akhil Gupta for tenure, but the appointment was rejected by the dean's office, a decision that Gupta and others argued was tainted by conflict over the department's direction. He eventually received tenure and will be rejoining the faculty next fall following a sabbatical this year.

Since its beginnings in 1948, the department was "somewhat unique in being established as a department with an overwhelming focus on cultural and social anthropology, although it had some minimal but distinguished representation from linguistics and from archeology," said Gibbs. Older departments, such as those at Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, Penn, Michigan, Arizona and New Mexico, all had four subfields, he said.

Today, most older departments also are less numerically balanced than in the past, Kirsch said, because funding increased for the behavioral sciences after World War II and expanded the numbers of people doing research on the cultural side. Many departments no longer have specialists in all four subfields.

Today, about 70 percent of the members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) are socio-cultural anthropologists, and other subfields have developed their own professional organizations, Yanagisako said. "There has been a move by the AAA to bring back more of the other subdisciplines. I'm also on the AAA executive committee and these same troubles we see at Stanford go on there."

Numerous articles have documented the fractious nature of debates at national meetings and conferences of anthropologists in recent years. The extremes of the field have been represented by people who use biology to explain complex human behavior such as crime or colonialism, much to the dismay of the cultural anthropologists, while the physical anthropologists are equally disturbed by some cultural anthropologists who seem to deny there are any universal biological constraints on culture, according to a critique last year in the magazine The Nation.

"The schools of thought that reach out of anthropology reach way out," said Professor John Rick, an archeologist who has strong methodological connections to researchers in earth sciences. "We cross wide disciplinary boundaries from philosophy to biology, and to trace out those influences is a huge and controversial undertaking."

Gibbs gave a concrete example of change over time. When he started out in the '50s, he said, "cultural anthropologists were looking for generalizations, testing hypotheses and making comparisons across cultures" by looking for correlations between, for example, horticulture and certain child-rearing practices.

"It was acceptable to check a proposed hypothesis by looking up the specific practices in a massive data bank on 400 or so cultures, something known as the 'Human Relations Area Files.' You didn't read the whole file on a culture. You just looked up specific topics. Now that's a questionable approach because you are taking material out of context and assuming a certain comparative legitimacy. To the extent this is not what cultural anthropologists do any more, the discipline operates a little less in the traditional mode of science."

Both Gibbs and Rick say they would have preferred the department had stayed one but that it was probably not realistic. "It's a little bit like a divorce, and the new divorce says, 'Finally, now I have my life back. Whether it will work out as well as hoped remains to be seen," Gibbs said.

Said Rick: "I don't think overall it's a good thing, but it is probably necessary at this time. If it will allow the two departments to operate with a degree of freedom, that should enable both of them. In an ideal world maybe through growing strength and confidence we can rebuild connections."

An alternative proposal was to have two wings of the department put forward faculty appointment requests without the other wing's unanimous consent "I argued that would only exacerbate tensions and contribute to a hostile environment," Yanagisako said. Both proposed departments have been authorized to conduct faculty searches, she said.

"Although we face a split with some degree of disappointment and sadness," Durham said, "there are also great new opportunities for very different forms of inquiry to go forward and follow their own paths." SR