“STEM prejudice”: why biological anthropology and archaeology are more popular than cultural anthropology

This article is essentially a repost of a comment I gave to a question on a Reddit forum called r/askanthropology. I thought I pretty much hit the right points. This is the original question on the forum:

“Why does this sub lean so heavily towards physical anthropology subfields, and how can cultural and linguistic anthros get in on more of the action?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. At my university, in 1964, the #1 requested new department by undergraduates was anthropology. Now, students have not idea what anthropology is, and if they do, it’s usually what I see in this thread — questions that assume primitiveness, looking into the past, etc.

I deeply value and appreciate archaeology, primatology, evolutionary, and all other biological or physical anthropologies. But cultural anthropology has, bar none, the best tools among the social sciences and humanities for understanding the world as we live in it today, and it seems that so many are missing out on this because of assumptions that cultural anthropologists only study “the primitive” — a concept that we almost entirely threw out decades ago! It’s like, in public perception, cultural anthro is still stuck in the 1970s.

It’s extra frustrating, because among most grad students and junior faculty I know across the social sciences, many are reading contemporary cultural and linguistic anthropology to make up for some of the shortfalls in their disciplines — I’ve met sociologists, education studies, geographers, political scientists, and historians who feel this way, and enjoy reading contemporary ethnography.

Some of it may also be other disciplines dumping on cultural anthro. I have heard folks from cultural studies, WGS, and sociology (of course) making very stereotyped tropes about the kinds of work we do, again reflecting that 1970s view of the discipline’s focus on the Other.

Part of this, I think, is the failure of the AAA and cult/ling anthros generally to do good outreach to the public. When our campus does a community outreach day, the cultural and ling anthros often don’t even bother to put up a table, because we don’t want to use racialized tropes to get across what we do. (And there’s understandable reluctance to have a presentation, on a fun day, that would run like “hey, this is what we understand about racisms, domination, subjectification, and social suffering and violence. Oh, and by the way, we understand in large part our complicity in the colonial endeavor, and here is how we’ve theoretically, and today, try to disassemble some of the structures and tropes we ourselves helped produce…”)

But surely there’s a better way to communicate our discipline in ways that excite or engage people. When students finally do “get” cultural anthropology, they’re often astounded and remain ‘anthropological thinkers’ for the rest of their lives.

But I wonder, how do we get out of this rut of misunderstanding and miscommuniciation? Cultural anthropology has changed my life profoundly and forever, and I wish I could better extend that to the public. Current public engagement projects are clearly failing. Apart from introducing anthropology as part of a standard high school curriculum, how do we get even those interested in anthropology — like those that come to this sub — to look beyond physical, and extend our concepts so that we can all understand the world we live in and ourselves in better and more interesting ways? I see more questions that are right in the wheelhouse of cultural and linguistic anthropology being asked over in the r/askhistorians sub than I do here…”


My response:

“I think the public has made an association of anthropology with biological anthropology and archaeology. Whenever I’m in a cab and someone asks me what I do and I say anthropology, they either want to talk about archaeology or human evolution. I think good outreach to the public might have something to do with it. As a cultural anthropologist I feel particularly strong about this and have noticed this in this subreddit.

I think its partially because, for better or worse, archaeology and biological anthropology have more “scientific prestige” and create more media-friendly stories about exciting discoveries of lost civilizations and ancient hominids. And to be fair, my interest in ancient Egypt and hominids was what led me to study anthropology in the first place, but I also had a burgeoning interest in world religions and cultures.

I think the public, for reasons that cannot be placed purely on anthropology (funding is severely lacking for cultural anthropology projects) is sometimes simply not interested in cultural anthropology. I think these reasons are largely cultural. Even interest in foreign “Others” seems to be waning next to interest in the “distant past”. In Western society, the “distant past” is a place of mysteries and semi-religious wonder- it’s interesting stuff! Learning about what fuels the conflicts in present day Myanmar or changing dynamics of tribal life in Papua New Guinea is, well, more esoteric to the average person. And I think they could be interested in these cultural anthropology matters, but I think a cultural shift has to occur. You mention other disciplines dumping on cultural anthropology- I think that plays a large part. There is a growing opinion, even among some anthropologists, that anthropology has moved too far from “science” and embraced things like postmodernism. Honestly, I have even experienced this kind of prejudice from archaeologists and biological anthropologists who simply don’t understand what we are doing.

One last note- anthropology has been moving away from study purely of the “primitive”. But non-Western societies are still one of the areas of expertise of cultural anthropologists, and it is unfortunate that more people don’t show an interest in specific cultures and societies that anthropologists specialize in. Melanesianists, Amazonianists, Africanists, etc. we all languish in obscurity now that people like Margaret Meade are no longer center stage in the minds of the American populous. Meade used to write popular news columns. Now the most famous people who write on cultural anthropology subjects, like Jared Diamond, aren’t even trained anthropologists and are actually biologists.

I think there is a larger cultural prejudice against the humanistic disciplines, “STEM prejudice”, and this translates into evaporating funding and a diminishing cultural prominence as public intellectuals. I also just think the public intellectuals of today (people like Steven Pinker, another neuroscientist who feels qualified to talk about anthropology) reflect the times we live in, when the world is no longer full of colonies and anthropology’s place as the prestigious experts on primitive societies no longer exists because we live in a more globalized world where the “Others” wear t-shirts and have cell phones. As you suggest, non-Western cultures no longer have as much of the “exoticism” that led the public to be attracted to cultural anthropology in the early 20th century. I think this has actually immensely helped anthropologists become more empathetic toward the cultures that they participate with, and the dreaded “postmodernism” can take a lot of credit in this regard. “

As an addition, I’d like to add that it also has to do with the continuing rationalization of society that Adorno described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. You could also chock it up to Western logocentrism (a la Derrida).




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