Archaeology divorces Anthropology!!! But what about the kids?

Posted on August 20, 2015


Over the last few days I’ve seen this article ‘Why archaeology needs a divorce from anthropology’ pop up all over social media. The cliff notes version of the article is that the author believes it is time that Archaeology in North America stops being part of Anthropology*. I like this article and you should read it if you have not had a chance to yet. It is well written and accessible. It uses another article/infographic that discusses divorce and then ties the symptoms of when you should get a divorce to the relationship between anthropology and archaeology, a good writing tactic. It is clear, concise, and has very little jargon; basically it a really well written article that is accessible to all audiences. The exact sort of writing we should all be emulating………. except for the minor fact that it is wrong.

What Are We Really Fighting About?

My senior year of high school my teammate’s sister, let’s call her Sarah, got into a fight, bare with me this is related to the article. We were at lunch and heard commotion so naturally anyone who could hear the two girls yelling at each other formed a circle around them. Within seconds the yelling had escalated to a melee. Sarah started punching the other girl, who I shall refer to from this point on as Victim A. Sarah punched her full force then uncurled her fingers, dug her nails in and pulled down on Victim A’s face and body. Four to five punches/claw pulls later and the other girl was on the ground where Sarah then proceeded to grab Victim A by the hair and dragged her over to the elevator. She then started slamming Victim A’s face into the elevator doors. Until our principle walked out of the nearest door, investigating why he was hearing a loud CLANG!, CLANG!, CLANG! sound, and broke it up.

In those 12-17 seconds I witnessed a fight more brutal than any I had ever seen in any mixed martial arts match, or as my friend calls it– human dog fighting. They were still mopping the blood off the walls hours later when we got out of class. Yet, that fight might not break the top 10 of most brutal fights I have witnessed in person. Nope, my top 10 is pretty much entirely filled with what I have witnessed serving on school/department committees. They weren’t physical fights but the brutally was worse.

A fatal flaw with ‘We should get a divorce piece’ is that it conflates office/academic politics with disciplines. Almost every reason the author gives for a divorce can be chalked up to office politics. Reason 10- “We had money problems.” I once sat through a 30 minute argument about £50 ($75). Literally if we combined everyone’s salaries who was in the room for those 30 minutes we wasted more than £50 in salaries arguing about how to spend £50. This was between History, Archaeology, and Classics departments. When there is no money, like in academia, Sayre’s law kicks in- “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

“Reason 2, “We were unhappy,” seems all too applicable to anthropology. As an adjunct assistant professor, and part of that large percentage of the academic community who has had difficulty landing a tenured position, I can say from my own experience in several anthropology departments in both research universities and liberal arts colleges, in the United States and Canada, that I have yet to find a “happy” department.  For the most part, all departments I have taught in have been at best fractured into small groups of individuals who socialized based on their sub-field.”

Check! Sounds like lots of offices.

I could go on but I have witnessed most of theses ‘reasons’ at the four Universities I have attended or work for. But only one of those was a traditional four field department- my undergraduate degree.I have worked in a Physics and Astronomy department, several Archaeology, Classics and History departments/schools and positions that cover all the University.  In the UK you are more likely to see Archaeology with History and Classics than with anyone else. Only a handful of Archaeology departments have ever been associated with Anthropology in the UK. Yet, I have seen all of those symptoms between archaeologists and non-anthropologists. My current ‘department’ (non-archaeological) is in the process of getting divorced from Physics and Astronomy. Office politics are everywhere. Academia probably makes it worse in that it pits employees against each other and fires those who can not perform. If you read the article on working for Amazon you probably thought it sounded way too familiar if you are an academic, except there is less money in academia than Amazon. 


Annoyed that both Archaeology and Anthropology are discussed as though it only occurs at Universities in the article. Commercial Archaeology and Anthropology apparently are not real and so no need to get a divorce. But I digress.

A Marriage of Convenience

Most Archaeology university departments/sections are not thrown in with History and Anthropology because we all look the same. There are financial and logistical reasons for having fields mixed together and serious consequences for ignoring them. The article describes who would get the children in a divorce-

“Linguistic anthropology would choose to stay with cultural anthropology, since it already shares much with the established field of sociolinguistics (in sociology). I suspect that biological anthropology would opt for the home of archaeology, since we share both the scientific method and the study of early hominid evolution.”

But in practise departments that small would be shut down by the University. I have seen Archaeology departments raft together with other fields to stay afloat- University of Edinburgh- and seen independent ones get cut – University of Birmingham – or attempted – University of Glasgow. These are not marriages of love, there are marriages of convenience or in some cases arranged marriages. It is alot easier to ask the dean for money, resources, staff, etc. when you have 200 staff members and 500 students than 2 and 15. While the article has the nice idea that a divorce could actually happen, in most places it cannot.

Who is your enemy now

Even if a department is big enough to survive on its own you see the same politics, only it would be archaeologists against archaeologists. It would look something like this:

I really do like Osteologists.

I really do like Osteologists.

You do not need to have a doctorate and do 20 years of research to know that having people compete over limited resources leads to at best a bitter environment but usually it just ends up being an unsafe environment where you could be attacked at any moment.

Academic Polygamy

The author gives a reason that is not related to office politics:

“Reason 7, “They changed,” is a claim that both cultural anthropologists and archaeologists can make of each other: most cultural anthropologists (with apologies to applied anthropologists, who still seem to embrace ethnography) have become sociologists while archaeologists have become more firmly committed to using scientific data collection and analysis to underpin discussion and interpretation of the human past….

Moreover, while cultural anthropology had been flirting with History as long ago as the 1970s and ’80s, and is now clearly enamoured of sociology, some of this interest appears to be returned by the roving eyes of other disciplines. Scholars in sociology, international development and even human geography are all anxious to get their hands on cultural anthropology’s signature method: participant-observation fieldwork, usually without appropriate credit (but isn’t that always the way with secret affairs?) Meanwhile archaeologists are increasingly in bed (hopefully not literally) with experts from scientific disciplines on their excavations. How far we have drifted from the loving years of the 1960s when processual archaeology and cultural ecology were so cozy together!”

Funny enough when Michael Smith, an ARCHAEOLOGIST, quit the American Anthropology Association he gave this as one of the reasons:

‘Why is it that I find more inspiration these days — both intellectual and professional — from the field of sociology than from anthropology?’

If I can only be an archaeologist if I dig in the dirt in some Middle Eastern Country or a cultural anthropologists if I do ethnographies on Amazonian tribes than it is a sad world we live in. Why do all our ideas have to come from ourselves or other archaeologists/anthropologists? Why can’t we change? Why can’t we draw inspiration from other fields of study?

Its funny but I don’t remember ever telling Anthropology ‘to death do us part’. Or History and Classics for the matter. I feel like such a commitment should be something that is discussed because well …. how do I say this. Uh, there er, is no good way to….I want to see other disciplines. I still love you Anthropology/History/Classics and want to see you too but I would like to have a polygamous relationship.’

Just because we work together, or more accurately work in offices across from each other, because of an arranged marriage does not mean we cannot make friends with other people in other fields. A divorce seems pretty extreme especially if the only rules about not talking to others is self imposed.

Divorce is probably not the Answer

While the article was fun to read I don’t think divorce is the answer. It won’t solve the office politics, just changes who we fight with, probably to ourselves. I guess if we all wanted a monogamous relationship then yes, a change in who we are might be enough to ask for a divorce. Though it seems like we should seek some counseling first to determine that we really want monogamy.

I think the article that needs to be written is not ‘Why archaeology needs a divorce from anthropology’ but ‘How Archaeology should spice up its marriage to Anthropology/History/Classics with a key party’.

Edit- there is a another critique of the article, this one by Andy White, and you can read here- Four Field Anthropology and the “Divorce” Metaphor

Edit 2– I do not want to paint an overly pessimistic portrait of university departments or organisations in general. There are many departments in which everyone gets along just fine. My focus on the negative was to show it is not specific to archaeologists and cultural anthropologists; not that it was the norm everywhere.

*If you’re British or not from the Americas and a few other select countries you might be wondering how you missed that Archaeology was part of Anthropology. One sentence catch up- in North America, Archaeology is usually lumped in with Anthropology and is not considered its own separate discipline- if you want to know more read this. But this has as much to do with archaeology around the world as it does with the particular American slant of that article.

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