It is a sad, but unfortunately common tale. A group, a movement, or a field founded on improving the human condition through time loses its way in its own bureaucracy and the bureaucracies of others it is involved with.
Might I suggest that this seems to be happening with anthropology? Clearly anthropology has the potential to serve the common good. As I write in the accompanying essay, “Revitalizing Anthropology . . .,”:
- With its in-depth research techniques and broad comparative understandings, it can make a difference—a real difference—in the lives of many people around the world . . . In valuing cultural diversity for how it enriches our world, anthropology fosters tolerance of difference. In emphasizing how context shapes behavior, it encourages people to reshape the contexts needed to reshape their lives—medically, economically, socially—so as to find new meaning, opportunity, and hope (2021:1-2).
The intellectual excitement the field generated in earlier times (described by Charles King in Gods of the Upper Air) seems lacking today. During the 1950’s, my mother, a real estate agent at that time, read Benedict and Mead with considerable interest. Their writings opened up new understandings, new insights about our humanity, to her that she discussed with friends.
Within social sciences today, anthropology’s role seems diminished. It tends to have the smallest number of faculty per university department and the smallest amount of funding from the National Science Foundation. A recent review appearing in the American Anthropologist is entitled: “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn.” Hearsay evidence suggests many anthropology graduate students feel frustrated with the field.
What is intriguing about the field’s present condition is how few anthropologists seriously explore the underlying reasons for it, especially in terms of the broader hegemonic-like dynamics that shape academic behavior more generally. The skills anthropologists display in analyzing the social dynamics of others are rarely brought to bear in understanding our own discipline.
If we did, we could analyze how the academy’s infrastructure, which claims to be focused on benefiting the broader society, in practice reframes social benefits into producing publications of uncertain value. Instead of advancing knowledge and benefiting others, these publications are often oriented toward advancing academic careers. Revitalizing the discipline involves more than having thoughtful conversations with others. It means transforming the institutional structures that perpetuate the field’s problems.
The Revitalizing Anthropology Graduate Student Challenge empowers graduate students as problem solvers. It draws a new generation of students to move beyond vague affirmations to offering concrete solutions to the discipline’s problems. The Challenge does not specify what is the best solution (or solutions). That remains for graduate students to ponder, to articulate, and, by advocating for certain changes, to embrace them as their owns. Today’s graduate students can be the difference, in Bateson’s phrasing, that makes a difference.