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Author: Eli Thorkelson
Title: Experience, Reflexive Socialization and Disciplinary Order in Anthropology
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Source: Experience, Reflexive Socialization and Disciplinary Order in Anthropology
Eli Thorkelson

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [229kb ]

Experience, Reflexive Socialization and Disciplinary Order in Anthropology

Eli Thorkelson

Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago

“The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet—here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness—everything changes.”
—Henri Lefebvre (1987:10)

“There can be little doubt that students entering the field today face unprecedented problems of self-definition. In a very real sense, they must each, in becoming anthropologists, reinvent the field for themselves.”
—George Stocking (1992:372)

I want to welcome you—the reader—to this collective project on the socialization of graduate students in anthropology. It takes its place in a discipline not altogether free of controversy. Just to take the American case that is my own, we have recently seen debates over anthropologists’ involvement in the U.S. military’s Human Terrain Project; we have seen debates over disciplinary ethical codes and institutional review boards; we have seen debates over the politically controversial firings of Janice Harper, Ward Churchill and David Graeber and over for-profit journal publishing and emerging open access publications. We have even heard broader arguments about the unequal global structure of the discipline (Restrepo and Escobar 2005, Ribeiro 2006, Krotz 2007), and dark predictions about the future of social science and universities themselves in an age of global neoliberal reforms (Greenwood 2009, Greenwood and Levin 2008). Beyond the discipline, broader conflicts have arisen over academic labor and commodified knowledge (Bousquet 2008, Rhoads and Rhoades 2005, Stehr 2005, Delanty 1998). And yet my sense is that much of daily life in the discipline continues on an even keel. As far as I can tell, many continue to cherish a certain faith in anthropology, a utopian image of the discipline as a progressive force in the world. There is a sense, hard to make concrete but somehow present in many debates, that whatever the sins of our colonial past, contemporary anthropology can, should, and does work to counteract dominating powers and false ideologies. And this ongoing optimism is coupled to a ongoing institution. In 2007, in the United States alone, 519 new anthropologists were awarded their doctorates, while 8,086 undergraduate students acquired their bachelor’s degrees apparently without controversy. [1] The social reproduction of the professional body and of educated students continues, whether disciplinary debates rage or subside.

Any critical understanding of our disciplinary present therefore must reckon with the sheer inertia of our institutional order. Here, we aim to bring new critical attention to the ordinary life of anthropological reproduction, or in other words, to the scene of the socialization of new anthropologists, which happens primarily in graduate education. This socialization is at once distinct from the intellectual objects of contemporary research and peripheral to the particular debates of our day, but since we are all deeply implicated in the reproduction of our own disciplinary institution, surely this institution demands the most careful scrutiny that we can bring to it as reflexive social scientists. As Jessica Falcone says of reflexive scrutiny in her paper on meditation here, “the stakes are high, but how can we refuse a dose of our own medicine?”

Here in this introduction, I aim to give a sketch of the project, to preview the set of essays it includes, and to suggest some of the questions at stake within it. I begin by commenting on the place of experience in this project and in the general system of our knowledge about our academic lives. This brings me to some preliminary remarks on how we might understand anthropological socialization at a theoretical level. I then turn to look more explicitly at the demographics of our disciplinary system, aiming to document some of the ongoing stratifications that distinguish races, genders, departments and even nations within anthropology. Finally, I introduce the papers themselves, making some suggestions about their implications for understanding reflexivity, socialization, disciplinary order, and disciplinary intimacy in anthropology. But now, to give some specificity to that nebulous term, “disciplinary experience,” I want to begin with a story.

The rites of scholarship and the evidence of experience

Late one October, at the end of my oral exams, I was ushered out into the hallway so that my committee could confer on the results. Fluorescence drifted from the hall lights down onto the rug, and I slumped in a chair as the door clicked shut behind me. Just a few minutes to wait. The hall was cluttered with chairs, where grad students line up for chronically scarce faculty time, but that day no one else was around. Solitude. Long lines of closed doors beneath a very high ceiling—so high that the whole floor could, with an imaginary carpentry project, be split in two, and the available office space doubled. I stare down at my shoes, the one pair that isn’t torn and frayed, the pair I bought specifically to mitigate the symbolic risks of formal situations like this one. Jehovah’s witnesses shoes, someone called them once.

The door opens all of a sudden and I’m beckoned. I come back into the room, someone’s office where the exam had taken place around a little conference table.

“Let me be the first,” says the professor who had let me in, and she shakes my hand.

Then someone else shakes my hand too.

“Wait,” I blurt out incredulously. “No one said I passed!”

“Oh,” says the first professor, “if you’d been in any danger, the whole thing would have been very different,” meaning, I believe, that the orals have a very different tone if you’re in trouble with your advisory committee.

Another professor, the kind of guy who has a taste for the ceremonial, shakes my hand.

“You’re not a student anymore,” he says as he meets my eyes, “you’re a scholar now.”

Soon afterwards, I bound out the door and down the stairs to the sidewalk below.

The solemn gaze, the baptismal remark (straight out of J. L. Austin), the coordinated handshakes, the formalized entrances and exits through the office door—this is the carefully regulated medium of the socialization of graduate students in our discipline. To be sure, much of graduate education, in my department at least, takes place in an autonomous, fluid space of personal relations: one has a project, one talks it over with people, one takes classes, one writes and reads in solitude. As the essays here reveal through their very diversity, people have individual trajectories. But from time to time there are also moments of ritual structure. Michael Silverstein has observed that “ritual works in a kind of pictorial or iconic (specifically, diagrammatic) mode” (2004:626); in a moment like the exams, symbolic transformations are modeled in physical space. Here, the passage from ‘student’ to ‘scholar’ is literalized in passing through the office door at the end of the exams, and through the rare and telling exchange of physical touch with the professors, whose hands, as in the tale of Midas, transmute living matter into a more valued state of belonging in the scholarly guild.

But this sense of structure is more present in hindsight. Our rites of passage look less neat when seen from the inside, when seen as a participant. And one major axiom of this project is that academic life, whether in its moments of ritualized structure or in its moments of authorized and legitimate formlessness, is lived, is experienced by its participants. As I will argue later in more detail, this level of consciousness and experience stands in tension with what we know are structural and unconscious dimensions of our practice. But we cannot simply oppose the structural to the experiential. Rather, our analyses of structure are inevitably out of sync with the experiences that illustrate, motivate and justify them (Bourdieu 1977, Miyazaki 2004). The retrospective time of scholarly dissection never corresponds to the chaotic stream of ongoing life. Let us pause here then, before coming to more sombre structural matters, to think more closely about the significance of our disciplinary experience.

Graduate education is a group of events and situations that are lived, seen, touched, felt, thought, breathed. Our academic experience does not saturate us automatically from the outside. While sometimes experience takes form as a mute perception of things happening around us, or to us, other times we actively have to try to get through it, to get by, to manage our sensations, celebrate and amplify moments of glee, repress or laboriously process untenable events. Sometimes, as Viola Allo’s essay here makes clear, we even have to relive experiences that have already happened so that, in the end, we can forget them. Thus, as other anthropologists have pointed out, experiences are not necessarily cumulative (Desjarlais 1994, Throop 2003); rather, experiences overlap and interfere in complex patterns, echoing or replacing or disrupting each other. While some experiences are ignored even while they’re happening, others tremble with anxiety or rise up gradually as conceptual enigmas. In fact, academic experience serves a key epistemological function in this project: it is our most immediate, personal, familiar source of knowledge about the disciplinary world we inhabit.

Of course, experience can become a problematic form of knowledge, introducing theoretical illusions about unmediated forms of consciousness or about the presumed coherence of an individual’s life (Ireland 2002, Scott 1991). Our personal or even collective experience is often in tension with our other ways of knowing, with our expert and official discourses on ourselves (see Philips, and Falcone on meditation). Far from being a pristine conduit between self and world, experience leads us into a scene of epistemological conflict and debate—to a good place to begin a collective discussion. In these texts we thus examine our experience—but not as an end in itself. Rather we share experience in order to transcend our experience, to collectivize it, to critique it. In comparing experience, we can learn whether our own personal trajectories are broadly shared, deeply idiosyncratic, or somewhere in between. And experience, as you will see, offers us not only a series of sensory impressions of ongoing life but also a large set of moral and critical sentiments about that life. Our experience among other things seems to set us thinking about other possible worlds, about alternative forms of life, about critical negations of institutional reality.

Now, reflexive scrutiny of anthropology has long been attacked as “navel-gazing,” and some have even conjured the spectre of anthropologists who cease to study the “others” and only talk narcissistically about “themselves” (e.g., Sahlins 2002). Indeed, it would be a pity if all anthropologists specialized in the study of a single social group, whether our own or anyone else’s. But this has never been a serious possibility, which means that the charge of narcissism rests on a straw man and a false assumption that examining others and examining ourselves are mutually exclusive. The charge of narcissism tends, moreover, to ignore the ethical necessity of scrutinizing our own profession by burying it in a supposed duty to investigate others. [2] The essays here will have to stand as evidence of the potential fruitfulness of self-scrutiny. But these essays stand as evidence also for our very concept of our discipline, calling us to think through just how our disciplinary apparatus can produce reflexivity; and so I now want to turn to the implications of our use of experience for an understanding of socialization within anthropology.

Socialization and consciousness

Let us think again about the ritual moment of the exams that I described above. Is it a simple repetition of a predetermined cultural script? It would seem not; it clearly involved moments of hesitation and variation, of unplanned improvisation, of reflexive commentary on its own operations. It is a moment in the graduate socialization process; what then does it tell us about that process? Socialization is generally understood as “the process of creating and incorporating new members of a group from a pool of newcomers” (Long and Hadden 1985:42) — the wholesale reproduction of the larger social body by means of the piecework production of new individuals. Influential strains of socialization theory have reminded us that socialization works through ingrained bodily habits that are adapted to local social fields (Bourdieu 1977), that it involves legitimate peripheral participation in local practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; cf. Hasrati 2005), and that it is structured by and for language use (Ochs 2000; cf. Mertz 1996, 2007, and Garth’s and Graber’s papers here). But all too often, the notion of socialization has an aura of historical conservativism, as if it asserted the inescapable continuities of the status quo, the inertia of the world’s ongoingness. [3] We can wind up thinking of socialization as a fixed trajectory of individual initiation into a relatively static social order.

Now, one preliminary problem with this is that the social order we inhabit is not static. On the contrary, our social order rattles with the din of temporal and spatial patterns that it keeps in motion. Anthropological socialization sends us into cycles of spatial dislocation, as in the well-known voyage from “home” to “field” and back again (Kuklick 1997, Hovland 2004), or the traditional career patterns of downward mobility. (That is, it is structurally likely that American anthropologists will get jobs at places more peripheral than their graduate alma mater; see Geertz 1976, Hurlbert 1976.) Moreover, socialization brings together a mix of linear and cyclical temporalities, from the long arcs of a disciplinary “education” (coursework, fieldwork, writeup) and an initially phantasmatic “career,” to the more local rhythms of days and deadlines, work and sleep. As Kathleen Millar, Rebecca Prahl, Christine Reiser and Christy DeLair note in their paper here, the temporal structure of graduate education is marked by routinized “milestones” and “requirements,” which themselves facilitate pressures to temporally compress and speed up graduate education. And as Hanna Garth shows in her paper on graduate school admissions, anthropologists—and prospective anthropologists—work to distinguish themselves from other disciplines (sociology, psychology, biology) and to enroll themselves in long-standing “genealogical networks” and “educational lineages” (cf. Darnell 2006:213ff). Our social order thus reproduces itself by running in familiar circles, redrawing familiar cleavages, retracing familiar paths.

But the real paradox in our disciplinary order is not simply that it is in motion internally, but rather that it is self-modifying, containing within itself the potential for change. Once we recognize that our disciplinary order produces not only the heavy chains of convention but also the critical consciousness to examine and alter, we are able to recognize that anthropological socialization can work as a historical vector in its own right, changing the discipline by gradually changing the discipline’s social body. Susan Philips’ paper here makes this especially clear, showing that, as women increasingly entered anthropology, graduate education became a scene of conflict over sexuality and collegiality, one which eventually changed gender relations in the discipline. Anneeth Kaur Hundle’s paper on the other hand offers a less conclusive case, a tale of a project of building an anti-racist anthropology whose long-term results are not yet clear. But on a more abstract level, it should perhaps not surprise us that anthropological socialization seldom blindly reiterates the status quo, precisely because our socialization depends on individualization, such that even as we are taught the disciplinary lifeways, we are carefully differentiated from each other and from our professors. To be legitimate, our projects must differ from other research projects; sheer repetition is unfundable, unacceptable. This structural imperative to differ from others introduces an important potential for historical transformation into the disciplinary order, since this obligatory originality may reshape our social relations as well as our ideas. Disciplinary order, in spite of our desires for autonomy and individuality, is within us, not only outside us—though it is certainly outside us, too.

Here we get to the lesson I would draw from the story of my orals, and the moral of my earlier discussion of experience: that anthropological socialization is among other things a full-fledged process of coming to consciousness. Socialization is too easily taken to be a primarily unconscious implantation of disciplined habits and automatisms, of culturally imposed scripts and vocabularies, of social norms become unquestioned assumptions. In fact, even in its most ritualized and disciplined moments, socialization is a process through which we come to perceive and comprehend and mentally inhabit the discipline, a process of increasing awareness of our disciplinary surroundings. Take my exams: just at the moment when there might have been an uncommented set of handshakes, there was a discussion about whether handshakes were, in fact, in order. (“No one said I passed!”) And yet, of course, handshakes continued and things went in the end largely according to script and custom, suggesting that moments of reflexive discussion are contingent on the continued functioning of the institutional system.

Disciplinary structure and hierarchy

If the discipline can thus be viewed as an institution whose reproduction requires self-modification, requires a moment of coming to consciousness, then all the same we cannot be completely sanguine about our institutional system. For every moment of anthropological coming-to-consciousness, there seems to be a counter-moment of collective blindness and forgetting. Or as Eduardo Restrepo and Arturo Escobar put it, in their recent sweeping overview of Western national dominance in global anthropology, “every round of critique seems to have been followed by a new round of institutionalization and professionalization” (2005:102). And U.S. intellectual hegemony, they claim, is not unrelated to “the very size of the US anthropological establishment” (105). I find it helpful here to sketch in more detail the demographic structure of anthropology, both in the United States and worldwide. My suspicion is that this demographic structure, which contains internal hierarchies and stratifications of a quite systematic nature, is less well known to readers than it should be. Perhaps it even constitutes part of that institutional unconscious which our personal experience seldom manages to entirely reveal to us, which we sometimes even manage to quietly repress.

As this project deals with disciplinary socialization, here I will examine anthropology mainly as a system for the production of scholars and credentialed students. Let us look for the time being at some figures from the United States. (No doubt I am overprivileging the American case, but luckily I can refer the interested reader to an excellent body of literature on other anthropologies and their structural situations; see for instance Ribeiro and Escobar 2006, Dracklé et al. 2003, Dracklé and Edgar 2004, Whitecross and Mills 2003, Mills 2003a, 2003b, Abèles 1999, Rogers 2001.) In the United States, the size of the professional body has increased fairly steadily since the 1960s, now producing, as I said above, around 500 new anthropology doctorates yearly. Production of newly credentialed bachelor’s students is somewhat more than an order of magnitude above graduate production, currently around 8,000 yearly. The long-term growth of the discipline should be visible from a glance at a graph of disciplinary degree production over the decades (Figure 1); the overall increase is seriously interrupted only by a dip in undergraduate degrees in the 1980s, which corresponded to the end of the baby boom.

This graph reminds us, above all, that American anthropology is a mass phenomenon, producing each year more new graduates than there were—for instance—inhabitants of Malinowski’s famous Trobriand Islands. In 2007, 10,096 new anthropology degrees were issued; the Trobriands of Malinowski’s time had only about 9,000 inhabitants (Hogbin 1946). Or to take another marker of the demographic increase in the field, in 2007 alone, four times as many new doctorate-holding anthropologists were produced as in the forty years from 1891–1930 (519 vs 124; see Bernstein 2002). And yet, of course, if we look at the broader context, our perspective shifts and the apparent size of anthropology shrinks into insignificance. For anthropology is still a relatively tiny discipline. Of 197,595 U.S. social science degrees awarded in 2007, a mere 5.1% went to anthropology students; and social science at large is only 5.6% of the 3,519,259 total university degrees awarded nationwide that year. Paradoxically then, while anthropology has grown enormously over the decades, it still represents less than one third of one percent of the total field of American university degree production.

Figure 1. U.S. anthropology degree production by gender, all levels, 1966-2007.

Data from IPEDS Completions Survey, National Center from Education Statistics (no data for 1999). [4]

And even within the field of disciplinary production, all is not equal, whether during graduate school or afterwards in the professional realm. Funding is unequally distributed; as of 2007, some 25% of anthropology graduate students are funded by fellowships, 10% are paid research assistants, 31% get paid as teachers or TAs, and 35% have no institutional funding at all. [5] After graduate school, most American anthropologists remain in academia; but there too, our professional successes vary. A recent study indicates that 6–10 years after getting their PhDs, a slight majority of anthropologists surveyed (53%) had tenured or tenure-track jobs, while a still significant 13% had non-tenure-track and likely precarious teaching jobs (cf. DiGiacomo 1997), 12% were university staff, and 22% worked outside academia (Rudd et al 2008:4–5). The study also reports that “gender and class background (as indicated by parents’ educational attainment) were not associated with career outcomes” (12), but I want to demonstrate that the social body of our discipline does still remain creased by internal differences.

Take gender, for example. On Figure 1, I have marked separate curves for men and women at each level, so to show the changing gender balance in the discipline. As you will notice, women have been a majority at the undergraduate level at least since 1966. While initially a small minority at the master’s and doctoral levels, women reached parity with men in 1978 for master’s degrees and 1984 for doctorates, and have since risen into a definite majority at all levels. This is the demographic picture corresponding to what Susan Philips here calls the “feminization of anthropology,” though we can also see here that this feminization incorporates a certain masculine bias lingering in the demographic picture. Although women are a majority in the discipline, the proportion of men increases the higher up one looks in the degree system, which means that women are still, one way or another, being disproportionately screened out at higher levels. That is, if we compute average gender ratios for the production of new degree recipients this decade (2000–07), we find that women comprise 68.8% of BAs, 64.7% of MAs, and 58.0% of PhDs—a noticeable decrease at each step (figures computed from source cited in Figure 1). There may, of course, be any number of explanations for this changing gender balance as one rises up the ranks, and many of these would refer to social forces and inequalities far broader than our discipline. But the fact is clear that we are still enacting gendered principles of professional selection.

Race and ethnicity equally play a noteworthy role in organizing our social structure. Let us look just at the most recent figures for degrees awarded, which are from 2007 (Table 1). The first and most obvious fact here is that white Americans constitute a substantial majority of U.S. anthropology’s student production at all levels, receiving roughly two thirds of all new anthropology degrees. While this is seemingly proportional to whites’ 66.3% share of the overall U.S. population, it nonetheless amounts to a dramatic white demographic dominance within the discipline. And while it turns out that the white majority in American anthropological production has been shrinking, now being noticeably less than the 73-80% of new anthropology degrees that it was in 1995 (see sources listed in Table 1), racial equity in the discipline is far from fully attained. When we look at minority racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., we see that historically oppressed groups are comparatively badly off within anthropology, even when viewed in proportion to their share of the U.S. population at large. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are relatively well represented in the discipline, receiving 6.6% of BAs and 4.4% of PhDs while constituting 4.5% of the national population. But American Hispanics, constituting a much greater 14.7% of the national population, receive only 7.9% of BAs and an even more minute 3.5% of PhDs. Similarly, black Americans, at 12.6% of the national population, receive only 4.4% of BAs and 3.7% of PhDs. Moreover, we can see here a disturbing internal stratification similar to the one that we observed in gender terms. In short, black and Hispanic anthropology students, already disproportionately minorities at the BA level, are increasingly underrepresented at higher levels of degree production. [6] Here we must infer the ongoing existence of processes of racially oriented selection and self-selection, ones which, as Anneeth Kaur Hundle argues here, demand far more collective attention. Moreover, there are likely other principles of social division at work in our discipline: class, nationality, and native language come to mind, among others. Though I have yet to encounter relevant national data for these domains, I would be surprised to find that social class, for example, plays no role in determining who can afford to aspire to an anthropological career (see Garth). [7]

Table 1. U.S. anthropology degree production by race/ethnicity/immigration status, all levels, for 2007.

Degree data from IPEDS Completions Survey by Race, National Center for Educational Statistics. US Population figures are from the US Census Bureau’s 2005-7 Community Survey 3-year Estimates. [8]

And if we continue our exploration of our demographic unconscious, by looking at the system of U.S. university departments where anthropologists are produced, we find here again that there are objective departmental hierarchies within the discipline. At an ideological level, the ‘elite’ American departments, as I explore in my own paper in this collection, are shrouded in mists of distinction, one frequently decried. Restrepo and Escobar critique the “reification, without scrutiny, of the so-called ‘elite’ or ‘top’ anthropology departments” (2005:105), while Regna Darnell describes a “purported, often self-proclaimed, elitism of the core departments” and informs us that “many colleagues want to deny or at least rethink the hegemonic control” of these departments (2006:217). But however one wants to think about the symbolic and intellectual dimensions of departmental hierarchy, one should take into account the blunt institutional reality that sheer size matters a great deal in the construction of this symbolic order. We can see this if we consider a graph of the total production of new anthropology doctorates over the past twenty years, broken down by department (Figure 2). It shows, in essence, a picture where a small number of very large departments stand apart as the largest producers of doctorate-holding anthropologists. Following this small tip, a much larger number of middle-sized departments have yielded a smaller but substantial stream of new anthropologists, while a number of small departments are clearly peripheral.

Figure 2. Total production of US anthropology doctorates by department, 1987-2007. [9]

Let me translate some of these totals into more familiar terms. A medium-sized school like the University of Connecticut, which has produced a hundred anthropologists over twenty years, has on average only awarded five new degrees per year, which amounts to only a fairly small stream of new anthropologists over the years. On the other hand, the largest departments, UCLA and UC-Berkeley, have each produced 322 anthropologists over a twenty-year period, which averages to more than fifteen per year—a far larger annual cohort and, over time, a far larger body of alumni with proportionally more potential for professional networking opportunities. After Berkeley and UCLA, you can see that the next largest departments are Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, University of Texas–Austin, Florida, Arizona and Columbia, all of which have produced more than 200 new anthropologists over two decades. On the other end of the scale, a number of departments have produced one or two doctorates per year or less. To be sure, it is difficult to say exactly how sheer demographic unevenness affects our intellectual production, but one certainly must suppose that departments with overwhelming demographic advantages are likely to exert a corresponding influence on our research agendas.

Table 2. Comparison of Demographic Rank in PhD Production with NRC Department Rank.

Source: Figure 2 and 1995 NRC report (reported in Newton 1997). I have opted to count ties (of which there are several in both lists) as single entities, so that, for instance, Chicago is listed as #2 in terms of demographic rank even though there are two departments ahead of it (Berkeley and UCLA) that are tied for first.

And there is, it turns out, some evidence for the supposition that demographic dominance correlates with intellectual dominance. In particular, we can compare the demographic rankings with the 1995 National Research Council rankings of anthropology departments (Table 2). The NRC rankings are controversial and now almost 15 years old, but since they were largely based on faculty evaluations of departmental quality, we may take them as representative of some degree of disciplinary consensus. And it turns out that most of the top ten demographically dominant universities are also in the top ten NRC-ranked departments. While the exact order of the lists diverges substantially, only Columbia, from the top ten demographically dominant departments, fails to make the NRC’s top ten, and even it remains in the top 20 NRC-ranked schools. Departmental size is not everything, of course, but it has to be reckoned one important social determinant of our disciplinary world.

A similarly top-heavy system of demographic dominance, wherein a small number of sites controls a disproportionate share of anthropological production and reproduction, is visible on the global level as well. I do not have global figures for student enrollments or degrees awarded, but to judge by the proportional sizes of various national and regional anthropology associations (Table 3), there is continuing, substantial Euro-American dominance of our global discipline. The American Anthropological Association is by far the largest of its kind, with nearly 11,000 members; the next largest, in Japan, has 2,100 members, followed by the British RAI at 1,550 members, the European EASA with 1,260, and the Brazilian Association of Anthropology with 1,200. An interesting new case, the European Moving Anthropology Network, claims 1,650 members but appears to be an essentially online, web-based student group, rather different from the more traditional national associations led by senior faculty. As we look down the list, we see, however, quite substantial diversity in the list, with a large number of countries having anthropology associations, sometimes several ones, with some hundreds of members each. It seems, to put it bluntly, that massive American demographic dominance coexists with a plurality of smaller, broadly distributed anthropology associations worldwide.

Table 3. Membership Size of Anthropology Professional Associations, Worldwide Sample.

Data from the World Council of Anthropology Associations website, from various society websites, and in certain cases from email correspondence. Figures are believed to date from 2005 or later; most recent available figures have been used. Not all known anthropology associations are included here, or were successfully contacted for membership figures; this table must be taken as a non-exhaustive, non-random sample of global anthropology associations.

As we saw within American anthropology proper, here again it appears that the fact of demographic dominance is not unrelated to intellectual dominance. Several anthropologists, at least, have personally testified to the existence of global hierarchies between different national anthropologies. Restrepo and Escobar, in the essay cited above, describe a tension between “dominant” and “other” anthropologies, arguing that American, British and French anthropologies exert a continuing disciplinary power over anthropologies elsewhere. “ ‘Dominant anthropologies’ act like normalizing machines that preclude the enablement of different anthropological practices and knowledge worldwide,” they claim (2005:104, their italics). In an earlier essay, Esteban Krotz commented on the silencing of anthropologies of the South; he noted, among other asymmetries, that “for the overwhelming majority of anthropologists from the North (including students) to pass a certain time at a university in the South is seen, in the best of cases, as a sort of fieldwork, while an extraordinary number of anthropologists from the South have only been students or visiting professors in countries of the North and never of the South” (1997:242). In other words, there are asymmetrical patterns of academic travel and foreign affiliation; Krotz notes that this corresponds to material inequalities in intellectual resources like libraries and laboratories. Restrepo and Escobar go further, commenting that the large size of American anthropology can hardly be unrelated to the U.S.’s dominant position within global capitalism—though they do not specify the details of this relationship (2005:105). In any event, we can in fact see demographic signs of these asymmetrical global patterns in academic affiliation, when we consider the substantial proportion of U.S. anthropology doctorates awarded to foreign students. The striking fact is that, as shown in Table 1, foreign students currently receive a much larger share of U.S. anthropology doctorates (16.6%) than black and Hispanic Americans combined (7.1%). [10] It appears that American anthropology is exporting itself at the rate of close to a hundred new scholars yearly.

The full picture of the current relationship between our discipline’s social body, its intellectual production, and its political function remains to be shown. But our preliminary findings here deserve to be summed up. At a demographic level, American anthropology appears to be globally dominant, its primary professional association dramatically larger than that of any other nation. Within the United States, the discipline (at least to judge by its students) is predominantly white and still enacting racially biased modes of social selection, and it is predominantly female, though still possessing a detectable masculine bias. Graduate funding within the discipline is uneven, as is post-PhD professional success to a lesser extent; and there are significant demographic and intellectual hierarchies between American anthropology departments. Other fissures lurk, too, within our profession: the idea of a four-field anthropology may be sheer myth (Borofsky 2002), and tensions continue between academic and applied anthropology (Rylko-Bauer 2006; cf. NAPA Bulletin 25(1)).

In short, while anthropology has become a mass phenomenon, it also remains relatively tiny and fractured. While Restrepo and Escobar argue that it ought to self-consciously become a “multi-centered field in a polycentric world” (2005:119), others lament the disconnections already present in its current structure: for Robert Borofsky, our discipline is “a historical holding company of diverse specialties that perhaps once overlapped but now rarely do” (2002:474). And the current facts of sheer demographic unevenness in our discipline are striking, or ought to be. In cultural anthropologists’ eyes, these demographic tables and graphs may themselves stand in tension with a certain collective bias towards the cultural, the qualitative, the intangible but potent realms of symbolic process, in short towards everything that seems to escape the dusty realms of positivist statistical social science. Prior to this project, as a matter of fact, I had no interest myself in demography. But I have come to realize that, when it comes to a mass social formation like U.S. anthropology today, the social organization of participants is far from uniform and far from arbitrary. Some basic disciplinary demographics, like those presented here, are essential for understanding the inequities that remain within our social body. The discipline has grown too large to comprehend in purely personal terms, and as the discipline grows, our means of comprehending it must shift too.

Reflexive lessons on anthropological socialization

Another epistemological strategy for understanding a mass social formation, of course, is to exchange perspectives from a wide set of institutional positions. And here at last I want to introduce the papers that comprise this collection. Our initial call for papers, which I organized with Saúl Mercado and Amy Levine in 2007, produced 37 responses from authors across the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Colombia, and the Netherlands. The authors, several of whom proposed co-authored papers, included 27 women and 10 men (intriguingly, all the co-authored papers were same-sex groupings). We could not publish so many papers in one place, so about half the papers are collected in this volume of Michigan Discussions in Anthropology, while the other half are to be published by the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers in Berkeley; a selection of short papers was also published in the AAA’s Anthropology News (49(1), January 2008).

The papers in the present volume deal with applying to graduate school (Garth) and leaving graduate school (Allo), with graduate pedagogy (Thorkelson, Rutherford) and undergraduate pedagogy (Hébert), with affirmative action and anti-racist organizing (Hundle). They take up the emotional dynamics of our research and peer relations (Stephens and Fay) and the effects of the increasing feminization of the discipline (Philips), the dilemmas of our forms of authorship (Graber) and of our fieldwork relations (Falcone). They look forward to new ways we might “meditatively” understand our field (Falcone) and new forms of disciplinary community we might construct (Millar, Prahl, Reiser and DeLair). [11]

Although the set of topics collected here is diverse, a number of central themes do emerge. First of all, the urgency of reflexive disciplinary scrutiny runs through these papers. Sara Stephens and Amelia Fay argue that professional censorship of the emotional and the personal is harmful to our research and our selves. Anneeth Kaur Hundle, like analysts of academic politics elsewhere (Shore and Wright 1999:570–72), reminds us that “thinking about thinking need not devolve into postmodern paralysis—it becomes a platform for political engagement instead.” For Viola Allo, reflexivity goes farther still, becoming a condition of regaining physical well-being after the psychic and physiological wounds inflicted by graduate education. And for Jessica Falcone, a lack of reflexivity is simple hypocrisy, an unfair prejudice towards examining ‘them’ and not ‘us.’

There are some major reminders here too about what, precisely, anthropological socialization consists in. In spite of my fairly abstract comments above, socialization is not a purely abstract process of gaining membership or identity; it involves imparting a large and concrete set of competences, dispositions and values. Kathryn Graber reminds us that we are socialized to a textual culture, with its regimes of citation, disparate forms of professional recognition, and territorial rights over our texts and our research objects. Susan Philips shows us that we are socialized to professional gender roles and to gendered forms of professional exchange, while Anneeth Kaur Hundle shows that our institutional relations institute forms of racial recognition—or non-recognition—that can be highly problematic. Marc Hébert and Viola Allo both teach us about our socialization to teaching, though Hébert focuses on opportunities for reform while Allo examines her difficulty inhabiting the normative, professional forms of pedagogical self that were demanded of her. Our disciplinary production of professional selfhood and subjectivity is more explicitly examined in our two co-authored papers. Kathleen Millar, Rebecca Prahl, Christine Reiser and Christy DeLair explicitly problematize a standardized, instrumental form of professional selfhood, with its imperatives to package and commodify oneself and to compete on a job market. Sara Stephens and Amelia Fay give a more personal view of the psychic costs of fitting in professionally, suggesting that professionalism suppresses the “volatile and passionate aspects of our personal lives,” and that it only becomes livable by way of intimate friendships where the professional and personal can mix together.

A third theme here emerges comparatively: reading across these papers, we can discern some of the different mechanisms of historical change in our discipline. Hébert, who describes an action research project in the classroom, and Hundle, who analyzes an Anthropology Diversity Initiative at the University of Michigan, give us perhaps the most optimistic case. In their situations, individual action and agency, even by institutionally unprivileged actors like graduate students, can lead to institutional reform or at least to new forms of professional discourse and consciousness. Here we get the encouraging sense that our disciplinary order is malleable. On the other hand, Philips, who as a professor emerita can take a much longer view of disciplinary history, has a less agentive view of disciplinary change, at least in her chosen case. Looking at historical changes in gender relations in our discipline, she argues that these changes are driven above all by sheer demographic shifts in the field, and rather less by explicit feminist activism. We are thus reminded that disciplinary change can come about almost unconsciously, slowly, through cumulative demographic shifts, shifts in which intentional, reformist action appears to be a secondary factor. Academic agency, we are reminded, has its limits.

And the corollary to these cases of historical change in our discipline is that much remains constant and resists change, remaining within the bounds of our extant disciplinary order. These bounds are perhaps most explicitly examined in Falcone’s paper on fieldwork ethics and my own paper on social distinction in anthropological theory pedagogy. Falcone finds herself face to face with the contradictions of our own set of codified disciplinary norms, in the form of the AAA’s ethics code, with its imperative to “do no harm.” In her exploration of the unlivability of this code, she gives a glimpse of the complex nature of social norms themselves in our discipline. For Falcone, fieldwork ethics codes are not simple monolithic norms; she shows them to be all at once dominant discourse, white lie, talisman against impropriety, barrier to personal moral reflection, sign of collective ethical concern, and scene of renegotiation and uncertainty. In fact, she emphasizes that our disciplinary norms enforce tension, contradiction and ambiguity—though not always of a useful or livable sort. Similarly, my own paper argues that graduate theory education, in the case I take up, is entangled in webs of social hierarchy and distinction that are at odds with our own ostensible intellectual and ethical values. In dialogue with Danilyn Rutherford’s response to my piece, I examine the system that produces resistance to reform, as this arises within our discipline’s sociological and symbolic orders. At times resistance to change seems less a matter of any individual resistance and more almost inherent in our disciplinary system itself, as if the system in the end had more critical agency than we do as individual actors within.

Our socialization can thus inculcate acceptance, even compliance, in the face of social systems we do not control, along with activist energies to push the boundaries of our systems. But while we can never escape our political relations to our discipline—one can read several of the papers as meditations on the problems of order, legitimacy and power in our institutional system—these papers also raise the final issue of disciplinary intimacies. Susan Philips notes the theme of intimacy in her own examination of women anthropologists’ relations to each other; it is equally present in Stephens and Fay’s examination of their friendship, in Garth’s ethnography of grad school applicants anxious for professional acceptance, and in Allo’s comments on her sometimes unpredictable attachments to books, to her efficiency apartment, to Cameroon. We construct intimacies with friends, with places, with objects, even though they are not always the right intimacies, and are not always calm or stable. But they are often intense, sheerly emotionally intense, even overwhelmingly so, I find in reading over these papers. In the white lies of convention, the “shit” we have to write, the mortification of unwanted talk about sex, in the anxieties of lying in bed instead of going out to do fieldwork, the bitterness of looking stupid, the fears of being seen crying, the physical paralysis of unwanted criticism, the happiness of escape, in the anger of unwanted confrontation, the numb happiness of success, the powerlessness, the fear of pompousness, the nervousness, in the comfort of our texts and letters, in the happiness of having accomplished something, in the comfort of our ambivalences, in all this we see the lived intensity of our relationships with our discipline and with each other.

The thought of that intensity, to my eye, should make us see the discipline differently, should make us uncomfortable with the depths of trouble and desire and critical unrest and pointless misery that the discipline is constantly generating in others, even in graduate students, its least safe or secure members. It should stir up more honest and wide-reaching conversations about the problems of academic life at home in our departments, and remind us that socially legitimate and especially professorial perspectives are not inherently privileged over lower-ranking student experiences. Perhaps it will even help interrupt some of the entrenched hierarchies and complacent prejudices: American anthropology is not, for instance, a post-racial discipline yet. But perhaps it might be one day. In my view there is still space in the discipline for utopian projects, even the utopian project of critique and reform of our own social order viewed from within.


This collection came into being through the collaborative contributions of Saúl Mercado and Amy Levine, my co-organizers in a broader series of reflections on grad student socialization. And it would not have seen daylight without the logistical and intellectual support of MDIA, in particular from our managing editors, Erika Alpert, Jane Lynch, and Erica Feldman. This introduction, finally, has been much improved by Joe Feinberg and Cait Thorkelson’s sympathetic readings.


1. These figures come from the NSF’s WebCASPAR data system ( I have also written about professional demographics in some detail on my blog; see

2. I have also heard people claim that anthropologists are “not interesting” as research subjects, compared to other people. Robert F. Murphy wrote, for instance, “[my book] called for a self-critical ethnography, not one that finds the ethnographer more interesting than the natives. On the basis of some forty years of observing both anthropologists and natives, I can assure you that you are not” (1990:334). Such assertions of the boringness of anthropologists, however, need to be read in the context of a routinized, even normative culture of academic boredom and self-abasement, in which mutually exchanged boredom is a kind of collectively instituted defense mechanism (an argument which is semi-seriously made by Baghdadchi 2005). Surely, in any event, reflexive scrutiny of anthropology is justified not by our subjective sense that it is interesting but by our ethical obligation to apply the same level of scrutiny to ourselves as we would to others. Our sense of a thing’s interestingness is itself subject to academic social norms that prevent certain questions from being posed (see Davis 1971).

3. Ochs puts the point like this: “we tend to think of socializing interactions as repeated and enduring encounters dedicated to the mastery of some community-defined domain” (2000:230). And she comments, in response, that socializing encounters can be fleeting as well as repetitive, inventive as well as conservative, capable not only of reproducing but also of “transforming self and society” (231).

4. All NCES data presented in this paper can be found on the NSF’s WebCASPAR data system, at

5. See the 2007 NSF-NIH Survey of Graduate Students & Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, available on WebCASPAR.

6. It is worth noting, however, the significant levels of uncertainty in these conclusions, given that the “unknown/other” category is larger than either the black or Hispanic categories at all degree levels.

7. While it is true that Rudd et al. (2008) find that class plays no role in determining job outcome, recall that they are examining only the career outcomes for those who succeed in obtaining PhDs, and it is reasonable to expect that class (not to mention race) plays a major role in determining who can go to college or graduate school in the first place. Given that 35% of graduate students have no institutional funding, family wealth obviously must make it easier to afford an anthropological education. Moreover, as Joe Feinberg pointed out to me, social class aside, not everyone “occupies a social position where it is considered appropriate for them to aspire to something like anthropology... coming from a background where there is high pressure to ‘succeed’ with the most prestigious jobs tends to filter out a lot of people; this is just one of many factors, but an interesting one because it doesn’t exactly cut across upper/lower class distinctions (upper class immigrants would be selected against; established middle class natives would be selected for” (personal communication, October 11, 2009).

8. The Census Bureau figures are drawn from the ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates: 2005–2007, available online at

9. Data from IPEDS Completions Survey, National Center for Educational Statistics. No data was available for 1999, so the 21-year span actually represents only 20 years

10. Interestingly, while 16.6% of anthropology doctorates are currently given to foreign students, the fraction is actually much higher in other social science disciplines. In 2007, again according to the IPEDS Completion Survey by Race, foreign students received an incredible 66.7% of U.S. economics doctorates, 25.8% of political science doctorates, 19.9% of sociology doctorates, 43.8% of linguistics doctorates, and 40.7% of history of science doctorates. In this light, anthropology does not seem to be the most exported American social science.

11. It is admittedly unconventional to have two papers by the same author in a single collection, but we have decided to include two papers by Jessica Falcone. The paper on meditation, her first paper submitted, is a discussion of how anthropological reflexivity could better be informed by local reflexivities in other institutional cultures — Tibetan monasteries in this case. Her second paper, on fieldwork ethics, we wanted to publish because its explicitly graduate student perspective posed difficulties for publication elsewhere.

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