Biocultural anthropology and interdisciplinary work

Kate Clancy has a wonderful post up on her Scientific American blog about the nature of interdisciplinary work and what it means for biocultural Anthropology/anthropologists. The whole piece is worth a read and she asks a few questions looking for responses, as well, but I wanted to highlight this point first:

Students who want to become good biocultural anthropologists must first become experts in biological or cultural anthropology. Scholars need a base from which to reach out to other disciplines. If you are not thoroughly trained as one or the other, you will have a lot of trouble bridging them, or using your critical thinking skills to help ease you into a new field. This also suggests being thoughtful about undergraduate and graduate curriculum: while initial coursework should make someone an expert in their first field, learning a mixed methods approach for research probably wouldn’t hurt. [emphasis in original]

I think this is an important point, and also gets at one of the challenges of engaging in interdisciplinary work as a junior (non-tenured) faculty member. Tenure is, at least in part, intended to establish your expertise within an area that you trained in as a graduate student. Engaging in interdisciplinary work as a junior faculty member poses risks regarding project failures because of the potentially increased likelihood of collaborative difficulties, unanticipated problems that arise as a result of reaching beyond your core area of expertise, or simply slower research progress. Unless the work you are doing as a graduate student is already well within an interdisciplinary sphere, and I think there are only a few places in the U.S. where graduate students consistently do this kind of work, initiating such work prior to tenure is hard. This is ironic, because from my experience it is my fellow junior colleagues, recent Ph.D.s and graduate students who are most eager to engage questions from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Using myself as an example, I have a long-standing interest in critically reexamining the way anthropologists — not just bioanths or cultural anthropologists, but Anthropology with a capital ‘A’ — think about questions of race and patterns of biological difference. It is an area I teach on, it is an area I have put a lot of thought into, and it is an area that I have preliminary research ongoing. Later this month I am co-organizing a faculty seminar with a colleague of mine in the American Studies Department here at Wellesley that will bring together a group of faculty from across the College to discuss their own perspectives on race. And yet my core area of expertise is Pleistocene human evolution and the fossil record. The people who will write letters for my tenure case are likely to know me from my publications in this arena, my fieldwork at Dmanisi and the talks I have given on processes of evolution within the genus Homo. So rather than spend the day reading about race from a diversity of perspectives, I will be analyzing data on mandibular development in Lower Pleistocene hominin fossils. The work on race, which I do plan on completing at some point, will have to wait a little longer.

But perhaps I am a victim of not following Kate’s final piece of advice:

Finally, be ambitious…Be ambitious in your projects, your goals, your research trajectories, and encourage ambition in those you mentor.

I hope to come back to this later and comment on Kate’s question regarding the appropriate “canon” of biocultural anthropology…

UPDATE: Greg Downey has a nice post up in the comments section of Kate Clancy’s SciAm post. Also, Douglas Hume (via twitter) links to this column by Thomas Weisner from Anthropology News that talks about the use of mixed methods in Anthropology.

To the contrary: the future of our field and the social sciences is far more likely to be characterized by interdisciplinary methodological pluralism, often including integrated mixed methods. Anthropology should be at the forefront of such research and practice, not critiquing from the margins or simply ignoring important methodological and research design innovations.

Donald Campbell long ago described this more modest, pluralist, pragmatic, skeptical, empirically based approach to methods: he argued that all methods are valuable and important, but that all methods are also weak in the sense that they are incomplete representations of the incredibly complex world that we hope to understand.

UPDATE 2: John Hawks also enters into the interdisciplinary discussion:

The state of knowledge within a field changes fairly quickly. As a result, someone who thinks he is very broadly educated may have to work very hard just to keep up with the state of knowledge presented to undergraduate students in introductory courses in a range of fields. I cannot tell you how many times I have dealt with “interdisciplinary” scholars who are pushing research based on a 1975-era knowledge of the human fossil record. Most scientists over 50 know the 1975-era version of human evolution very well — that is, the “long tail” of knowledge by nonspecialists about paleoanthropology basically contains the same information. When these people work together, the whole is not the sum of its parts, it is the sum of one part plus epsilon.

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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