We start our graduate core course in Physical Anthropology with a few articles on the history of the discipline, why it’s historically called “physical” anthropology, & why it’s now often termed “biological” anthropology. In the coming weeks, the students themselves will be posting their summaries of articles & discussing how the material relates to their own research interests. As we are a 4-field department, many of the students’ primary interests are in archaeology, cultural anthropology, & linguistics (well, not this year, but in theory), but they have been encouraged to relate what they read to their own work, thus integrating the material at what I hope will be a deeper level than merely what they need to know for comps, & not to simply reiterate what the articles say about Physical Anthropology as a subdiscipline.
The first day, aside from listening to me monologue for 2 hours (I would make a good villain–easy for a superhero to escape from as I pontificate while they untie themselves–see clip from The Incredibles above for that reference), the class broke into two groups to summarize one article each, pull out its key points & one take-home message, & utilize those key points to compose an integrative question, such as might be used (& indeed, it might be!) on an exam. the first was Frank Spencer’s “The Rise of Academic Physical Anthropology in the United States (1880-1980): A Historical Overview” (1981, AJPA 56:353-364).
A few things jumped out at me to which I’d also like to draw attention & elicit some opinions. On p. 354, there is discussion of the Bureau of American Ethnology being the “major breakthrough in the professinalization of American anthropology” until “the question of Indian policy was no longer a major political issue,” at which point the establishment of academic anthropology became a major focus:
…the university offered not only a means for training but also for advancing scientific research…There were, however, several factors impeding its early advancement. One was that it had no prior claim to a place in the university curriculum (see Darnell, 1970a). Another was that its content overlapped (in varying degrees) with a number of well-established academic disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, history, and geography.
My question is, has any of this changed in over 100 years? What makes anthropology as a discipline & biological/physical anthropology as a subdiscipline important, relevant, & distinctive? What, exactly, is its place within a university curriculum?
The 2nd article discussed was Sherry Washburn’s “The Strategy of Physical Anthropology” (1952, Anthropology Today), which the group who summarized it thought sufficiently covered in Table 1 (& that it was a little redundant after that):
By & large, I agree with the sentiments of the students, as many of these lessons have been internalized within our discipline with regards to NOT typologizing humans & the problems with the descriptive focus of Old Physical Anthropology reifying wrong-headed & destructive race concepts. However, I direct your attention to a spate of recent posts by bloggers in anthropology & (some scary ones by folks in) other fields via this tidy summary by Jason Antrosio that make it clear that, even within the “Ivory Tower,” Washburn’s position is far from “self-evident” to many. So, I would like to know the answer to the above question–students, answer your own question; anyone else reading this, please feel free to chime in. How have the changes from the Old to the New Physical Anthropology affected you personally, in terms of your research, lives, etc.?