The Four-Field Approach: American Anthropologist Wants Science Back

Adam Van Arsdale and Mary Shenk, two very good anthropological scientists, have published a new Comment in American Anthropologist titled, “Biological and Evolutionary Perspectives in American Anthropologist: An Editorial Provocation,” arguing that it’s time for biological and evolutionary anthropology to come back to the journal.1

I think a lot of people have been reading it and probably have opinions of their own, but I imagine there are some scarred folks looking at it and scoffing. Part of the concerns of Dr. Shenk and Dr. Van Arsdale is that anthropology has ruptured at the seams.

In America, anthropology as a discipline is split into four fields: cultural, archaeology, biological, and linguistic anthropology (which arguably does not exist anymore). Over the past few years we have watched a couple of major departments completely split in half over the controversy that’s emerged in the last two decades: Duke (with the formation of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology) and Harvard (with the formation of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology). Although this is worrying, this has been a long time coming.

In 2010, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) removed science from their mission statement signalling the end of what had been a long and arduous battle between the scientific and non-scientific factions in cultural anthropology resulting from the Science Wars and the impact of postmodernism on anthropology. For anyone who doesn’t know what the Science Wars were, it was a period during the late 1980s and 1990s when postmodernism began to finally come to a head in academic discourse. By the time the AAA removed science from their mission statement in 2010, most of the scientific scholars had already been going to meetings like the Human Behavior and Evolution Society while biological anthropologists had already been going to their own meetings hosted by the American Association of Physical Anthropology, but before this, there had certainly been at least some attempt at having an interdisciplinary meeting at the AAAs.

Marvin Harris, who famously stated, “I shall show that even the most bizarre-seeming beliefs and practices turn out to be based on ordinary banal conditions, needs, and activities. They rest on the ground that is built up out of guts, sex, energy, wind, rain and other palpable ordinary phenomena.”2

The interesting thing is that through books you can almost read in real-time the controversy play out. Marvin Harris, the proponent of cultural materialism, had been talking about the influence of postmodern thought on anthropology since the 1970s, but his final original work, published in 1999, was titled Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times. One of the best books of the era, published in 1996 (and updated in 2008), was Lawrence Kuznar’s Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology. I would not have gone to graduate school in anthropology if it weren’t for this book and a pep-talk by a processualist mentor of mine.

I don’t think Shenk and Van Arsdale are misguided in any way for trying to get scientists back at the American Anthropological Association, but I think it’s worth highlighting one critical point about the four-field approach: Boas did not think it was going to last.

In their comment, Van Arsdale & Shenk cite a statement made by Boas in 1899 stating, “Interestingly Boas’s essay ends with a familiarly reassuring call for the simultaneity distinctness and unity of the anthropological project: ‘The three branches of anthropology must proceed each according to its own method; but all equally contribute to the solution of the problem of the early history of mankind’ (Boas 1899, 106).” This was published in the very first issue of American Anthropologist, the very journal which Van Arsdale & Shenk are writing on the behalf of.

Perhaps this is Boas calling for a unity of anthropology, but here is a statement he made in Science only five years later3:

The field of research that has been left for anthropology in the narrower sense of the term is, even as it is, almost too wide, and there are indications of its breaking up. The biological, linguistic and ethnologic-archaeological methods are so distinct that on the whole the same man will not be equally proficient in all of them. The time is rapidly drawing near when the biological branch of anthropology will be finally separated from the rest and become a part of biology. This seems necessary, since all the problems relating to the effect of geographical and social environment and those relating to heredity are primarily of a biological character. Problems may be set by the general anthropologist. They will be solved by the biologist. Almost equally cogent are the reasons that urge on to a separation of the purely linguistic work from the ethnological work. I think the time is not far distant when anthropology pure and simple will deal with the customs and beliefs of the less civilized people only, and when linguistics and biology will continue and develop the work that we are doing now because no one else cares for it.

It seems to me Boas did not see the four-field (three-field in his eyes, as archaeology and ethnography were so linked in the United States) as necessary or lasting. He thought biological anthropologists would go to biology departments and linguists would found linguistics departments. There is a very good, short book titled The Politics of Linguistics which argues that linguists were only in anthropology departments for the same reason Boas said they were: no one else was interested. In terms of the application of these approaches to anthropology, Boas’s own quotes demand that cultural anthropologists use findings from what were to become separate fields of linguistics and biology to inform their own findings, but not to necessarily remain the same field, as he later states:

“Nevertheless, we must always demand that the anthropologist who carries on field research must be familiar with the principles of these three methods, since all of them are needed for the investigation of his problems. It alone will give his work that historic perspective which constitutes its higher scientific value.”

If only Boas knew what would happen! Who would have anticipated that the discipline would critically swing the complete opposite direction with cultural anthropologists dictating to scientific anthropologists what they can and can’t look at and rejecting science entirely?

Personally (and really I have no say since I’m just a graduate student), I think someone should go for it and accept Van Arsdale & Shenk’s challenge – tentatively. My background was in primates but I have since switched to the science of human culture. If I had free-reign over how anthropology would develop, postmodern anthropologists wouldn’t worry about this because scientific anthropologists would have their own culturology departments (referring to what Leslie White tried to do in the 1950s).

Referring to encyclopedic knowledge: in his now famous Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, Franz Boas assembled over fifty different recipes for the preparation of salmon used by the tribe. Preservation of this knowledge is important work, but would this be considered science today?

But personally, I think there is a lot to gain from the four-field approach and the best anthropologists I know are experts at switching between any of the four-fields with ease. Any hesitation I have towards it is due to pragmatics: I think the encyclopedic, non-scientific data collection of many modern cultural anthropologists is important, but so long as people are being trained with different approaches in the same department, discord is bound to arise. I have never been to the AAA meetings myself, but in my view I think the scientific pendulum, as examined by Bruce Trigger in A History of Archaeological Thought, may be coming back with the dawn of cultural evolution as a serious contender in the scientific discourse and a growing sickening of postmodernist, anti-scientific methods.

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1Van Arsdale, A.P. and Shenk, M.K., Biological and Evolutionary Perspectives in American Anthropologist: An Editorial Provocation. American Anthropologist (2019).
2Harris, Marvin. “Cows, Pigs and Witches.” (1974).
3Boas, Franz. “The history of anthropology.” Science 20, no. 512 (1904): 513-524.

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