Reviewing my recent contributions to Savage Minds and OAC, I see myself writing about anthropology in an increasingly severe and critical tone. As I reflect on where that tone is coming from a phrase pops into my head: disciplinary involution. The words are a twist on Clifford Geertz's "Agricultural Involution," the title of a book in which he describes the economic plight of Javanese peasants who, as part of a growing population, cultivate smaller and smaller fields with increasing intensity. They work harder for smaller rewards. Is this not, I ask myself, the plight of anthropology today? We talk about our need for better public outreach, but spend most of our time talking to ourselves. Is there any way out of this predicament? What if we spent more time talking to our disciplinary neighbors?
At least in its classic four-field American version, anthropology was the original multi-discipline. Anthropological training included human biology, linguistics and archeology as well social/cultural anthropology. Our knowledge might be shallow compared to our professional peers. We didn't know as much biology as biologists, as much about language as linguists, as much about archeology as other archeologists, as much about quantitative methods and social theory as sociologists, as much economics as economists, as much about politics as historians and political scientists, as much about literature as our colleagues in English or comp lit. But we could talk to everybody and, like bees fertilizing flowers, carry ideas across disciplinary boundaries. As gatekeepers and bridge builders we achieved the prominence that network analysis predicts. Clifford Geertz is exemplary here. To read The Interpretation of Cultures from cover to cover is to find yourself in the presence of a scholar who talks to everybody, in philosophy, science, the arts, politics and offers such interesting conversation that his influence spilled far outside of anthropology itself. He even wound up writing for the New York Review of Books. Put aside whatever it is that you like or don't about his ideas. Look at what he accomplished.
It is far too late for me, but I say to my younger colleagues. That is what you can do, too.
[Cross-posted from Savage Minds]