Steamed Up About STEM, or What Good is Anthropology? A Gripping Tale of Academic Metamorphosis

By Paul L. Doughty
[pdoughty@bellsouth.net]
Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus
Anthropology and Latin American Studies, University of Florida

Paul Doughty

The wireless lines of communication are burning up with scorching messages and replies to Florida governor Rick Scott’s remark that the state didn’t “need any more anthropologists.” The state’s anthropology students and faculties swung into action writing some brilliant rebuttals that flew through the ether as facebookings, tweets, emails, slideshows and editorials to spread the word about the importance and usefulness of our discipline. Four days after the debate was launched I noted that there were over 3 million “hits” on material online about the issue. Most of it was against Scott’s negative assertion. All the state’s major newspapers carried stories and letters to the editor about it. Anthropology was “in the news” and one of my geographer friends exclaimed his envy at the publicity we were receiving.

Discussions center upon whether anthropology is a STEM science or not. STEM is a code term for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Specializing in these fields presumably will lead one to “grow” the economy and Governor Scott wants Florida’s state universities to emphasize programs around this concept rather than classic Liberal Arts. (Sidebar: the Governor is not in favor of conducting stem cell research, however.) The head of the state education Board of Governors (all political appointees) said we were a STEM discipline but his Board disagreed. Then the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald newspapers’ PolitiFact “Truth-O-Meter” examined the case: was Anthropology STEM or not STEM? The National Science Foundation, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Florida Board of Governors, and U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement were asked if anthropology was a STEM field. An NSF project manager (not an anthropologist) said we were a “social science” and part of STEM as did the President’s Council. The others said we were not STEM. Politifact concluded that our being a STEM science was “half true.” I quickly facebooked a reply to this, noting that the “authorities” consulted for this opinion pitted the scientists against the bureaucrats. And why didn’t “Truth-O-Meter” consult with the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science AAAS) or even the Florida Academy of Sciences? And what did Immigration Enforcement have to do with this? The plot thickens. As it turns out, foreign grad students in STEM fields may be able to stay in the U.S. to develop their skills upon graduation whereas others, in theory, cannot. And so by the bureaucratic back door do we enter into the mire of political immigration debate?

But let’s not stray from our disciplinary issue: just how useful are we in the scale of important, constructive and enduring value in the regards to the well-being of state, national and world society? Can anthropologists actually do things that uniquely and positively contribute to life, from local to global? This has often been called into question by those who feel that our contributions are not that unique or, that the changes were “going to happen anyway” without our participation.

In my long experience with the Cornell-Peru project at Vicos1 I often heard such critiques that, just because the multidisciplinary, anthropologically led project completed the first land reform effort in Peru in 1962, it was only a matter of time before that would occur, in any event, as it did in 1969. So why bother to lead the way? Or, as a very prominent anthropologist and Andean specialist said to me back then, “We don’t know enough” to do these things.

This is an old problem that has not been effectively addressed by the discipline at large whose members generally hold conservative or even negative views about “application” and applied work in discussions going back at least sixty years. Over time, applied, public and “engaged” work of anthropologists has crept into the mainstream life of the AAA (it has always been there, but under the radar). At present, by my counting, and my “impartial” judgment, about 40% of AAA meeting papers are in part or largely “applied” and “engaged” in subject matter. Note: “engaged” is a newish word that implies something like being “interested and/or concerned” about contemporary socio-cultural problems, but not at the level of application, at least as I read it.

In contrast to the SfAA, the American Anthropological Association’s NAPA (National Association for the Practice of Anthropology) has avoided the non-academic, often negatively viewed term, “applied anthropology” by substituting the concept of “practicing anthropologists” in its place. That re-conceptualization defines applied work as “professional,” that is, anthropological work outside the academy in counterpoint to “academic,” non-applied (not useful?) teaching and research. The common public view of the “Liberal Arts” including anthropology is that they are interesting, harmless and marginal to real events and issues and thus not essential, ergo, Governor Scott’s reasoning and our problem of educating the general public about what we are all about.

This task begins in the academy itself where traditional assumptions about our being preoccupied with esoteric and obscure topics are common. For example, when I again served as department chair briefly in the early 1990s, the Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences did not know that archaeology was part of anthropology, and, moreover, didn’t care to know more about us. From his perspective as a chemist, we didn’t amount to much, despite the fact that our department was one of the best in the university and highly ranked nationally. To wit, it is important to engage— that word again—their interest in us, a need that goes right up the line of authority and management.

One problem we have (and enjoy) is that anthropological approaches to research contribute to a wide variety of interests, ranging from “pure science” to matters that seek solutions for a myriad of human and social problems. We are therefore engaged in a great variety of occupations: in medicine, economic activity, international relations, peace studies and development, law and education and human rights to note a few areas. Examples of anthropological research include: forensic examinations of victims of violence or disaster (as in the case of 9/11 victims); disaster research and recovery (earthquakes, hurricanes etc.); urban and regional planning, farming systems, migration and population issues; the archeological reconstruction of past ways of life that can elucidate their relation to contemporary affairs; the evaluation of the effectiveness of organizations in international development, business and education; understanding the complexity of human communications through linguistic analysis; discovering the societal significance of the variety of economic actions of individuals and communities; uncovering the social and cultural behaviors that underlie our health conditions and patterns of disease occurrence; and, in all of these contexts, evaluating how particular cultural beliefs, practices and social structure effect such matters as wealth, power, well-being and knowledge in human life. In a word, anthropology is a complex, integrative science of broad value and use to community, state, nation and beyond.

University of Florida grad students singing a parody to the tune of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Lyrics by Allysha Winburn: "Where has anthropology gone? Long time passing... Where have anthropologists gone? Long time ago... Where have all the Liberal Arts gone? Rick Scott defunded us, every one! When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?"

The academic complexity of the discipline is hard to convey to the public and has its counter-part situation in academe when it comes to giving value to applied efforts. In Liberal Arts faculty tenure and promotion considerations, one generally needs to publish in “recognized” edited journals and books. Unless one’s applied work appears in such places, it traditionally is discounted as not being “scholarly.” The fact that one may write a 500 page, detailed research report on evaluating World Bank development projects that is vetted by a dozen or more professional experts, it is considered “gray literature” of minor importance, despite the fact that it may be very significant, affecting the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people. There have been and are faculty at many universities who are penalized by such views.

So how do we trumpet our wares as being of “use” when that has often not been considered part of the scholarly domain? Complicating the issue is the fact that many, perhaps most, practicing anthropologists work under titles that do not contain the word, anthropologist.

Although I hate to say it, our willfully ignorant and arrogant governor has done us a favor but probably doesn’t realize that he has done so. I think that we need to undertake an applied project on our own behalf, to introduce applied anthropology to the public as well as those in the power hierarchies. An example of one educational strategy is the AAA project that applied anthropologist Peggy Overbey directed for the AAA: Race, Are We So Different. Public presentations of our research outcomes are important, not just those in journal articles or small distribution books, but on a larger screen to compete with Indiana Jones and reality shows.

Our disciplinary icon, Margaret Mead accomplished that in her time, but we now face, as suggested by our very discipline, a far larger population in motion and an infinitely more complex human universe. As Governor Scott would say, “Lets get to work.”

[1] See the recent summary and chapters on the Vicos project contained in the book, edited by Tom Greaves, Ralph Bolton and Florencia Zapata, Vicos and Beyond: A Half Century of Applying Anthropology in Peru, NY: Altamira Press, 2011.

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