Strategic repositioning within academia

arguing for the statement that Cultural Anthropology belongs to the humanities and not to the social sciences

December 20, 2004
History of Anthropological Ideas
Yongho Kim

This paper defends the position that Cultural Anthropology, as a field of study, belongs (and should belong) to the humanities division. In so doing, I argue along two main points: 1) that anthropological work, as well as any others, engages with the humanities at a more fundamental level than the social sciences, and 2) that the field of anthropology would benefit from positioning itself within the humanities division rather than in the social sciences.

In general, Cultural Anthropology is defined as one of the four fields of anthropology that engages in a holistic study of humanity with culture, the symbolic representation of human worldviews that shape their relationships with the world, as its main object of attention. (Macalester College, 2004:59-60; Wikipedia, 2004a)

Humanities is a term applied to those “branches of knowledge” that study the human condition from a qualitative approach. Within the western university tradition, it traces its roots back to the greco-roman tradition (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004b) and is often represented through a “great books” style of teaching, (St. John’s College, 2004) and encompasses such disciplines as classics, philosophy and languages and literature. In more recent branches of the humanities, such as critical literary theory and cultural studies, humanities is defined as the analysis and interpretation of human-produced texts, where these texts are some representation of reality. (Wikipedia, 2004a)

Social Science is defined as “any discipline or branch of science” that studies “human behaviour in its social and cultural aspects”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004) and is grounded on the two projects of a quantitative modeling of society and a positivist outlook to the work of academia where knowledge increases through investigation. Thomas Hobbes and August Comte set the theoretical framework that enable each of these premises, empiricism being the former and positivism on the later. (Wikipedia, 2004c) On the onset of industrial revolution in Western Europe, sociologists Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber study the transformations occurring in society that come along with various political and economic revolutions in France, Germany and England, which is later expanded into a comprehensive study of humans interaction and structure in society. Currently social sciences are understood to encompass sociology, political science, geography, psychology, economics, communications studies and anthropology.

In academia, the humanities and social sciences, along with the natural sciences are generally considered to be the “three major components of the liberal arts and sciences” (Wikipedia, 2004c) and it is often adopted as administrative divisions at academic institutions; at Macalester College, the place where this debate occurs, this structure is also in place. Therefore this discussion is at the same time about a perspective on cultural anthropology from within, as well as external administrative considerations in academia as an industry. I use the term “humanities” when referring to the humanities as an academic tradition that follows a certain pattern of core epistemic and historic traits, and “humanities division” when referring to the administrative apparatus.

Before starting the discussion, it is useful to recognize that the administrative divisions, as well as the scholarly gap, between “humanities” and “social sciences” are necessarily artificial, and that any argument that exclusively defends one side will have its argumentative flaws. It is also of note that the field of cultural anthropology, along with history and geography, are ambiguously positioned between these already existing “humanities” and “social sciences”, with history leaning towards the former and the rest leaning towards the later.

Ethnographic fieldwork belongs to the humanities by nature

My chief contention is that ethnographic fieldwork belongs to the humanities. The reasoning behind this is that any ethnography is, to a certain extent, a representation of peoples’ narratives about themselves.

The contrasting view that regards anthropology as social science argues that ethnographic fieldwork is a representation of the peoples themselves and not their narratives; it recognizes that narratives are a step in the process of getting to the social and cultural facts in which informants are immersed.

Vincent Crapanzano puts forward the argument in favor of reading ethnographies as “texts”, that is, narratives open to deconstructive analysis. McGee and Warms summarize him as follows:

The hermeneutic premise behind Crapanzano´s work is that while data of themselves are mute, anthropologists construct meaning by writing ethnographies. Because one must write according to certain literay conventions, the act of writing is a literary construction of the writer. .. In other words, the writings and reading of ethnographic texts involves the piling of layer upon layer of interpretation. (McGee and Warms, 2004b:577)

If the above position is taken, anthropology can be effectively classified as “a subfield of literature”, and literature belongs to humanities division. Thus, recognition of ethnographic work in their categories as texts places anthropology as a discipline within the humanities.

Anthropologists find it insulting to be lowered to the level of the occasional paparazzo or newswriter (Mintz, 2000:169; Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992:45) and claim that postmodernist critics do a disservice to anthropology by rendering it weak of argumentative power (which in the past was gained through ethnographic authority) and in the process allowing room for an even more distorted version of reality to surface in public discourse via untrained and lighthearted nonexperts. (Weinsmantel, 2000:185)
My argument is that regarding ethnographic fieldwork as texts open to deconstruction does not equal to making them untruthful pieces of fiction, but rather allows for greater flexibility in working with the ethnographic data obtained. Comaroff and Comaroff argue that while the postmodern criticism should be implemented with a modernist agenda to properly place social facts in their place (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:40). Having taken this point, I would argue that the question of ethnographic authority can be detached from the issue of whether or not anthropologists have expert knowledge that allows them to better portray other peoples’ realities.

While agreeing that ethnographic knowledge can be better gained by a trained anthropologist (Mintz, 2000:176), this conclusion can be reached without claiming that such knowledge is about social reality outside the individual. The anthropologist can still claim ethnographic authority over representing informants’ narratives about themselves and their social reality, and there is no need to despair as McGee and Warms’s student did, since anthropologists have the upper hand at interpreting other peoples’s stories as well, (McGee and Warms, 2004b:577) for if interpreting is what fieldwork is really about, anthropologists have been doing it for a hundred twenty years already.

Furthermore, only a humanistic approach can serve the needs of a critical anthropology that intends to bring out marginalized narratives into the public discourse. Often oppression, particularly that of capitalism, is expressed in such a way that no resistance is to prevail except that which rests in the codified symbols. (Hall, 1980)

Were one to ignore such possibilities, a description of subjugated populations can seem devoid of all agency. According to McGee and Warms, Philippe Bourgois, a neomarxist anthropologist, seems to regard his research subjects to be in “the iron grip of culture”, where [Puerto Rican] workers are “’inescapable’ of obeying the rules of office culture” McGee and Warms throws in the subtle postmodern critique: “Does culture really compel us to this degree?” (McGee and Warms, 2004:334) because for theoretical frameworks set forth by such material determinists as his run into the danger of overlooking creative forms of resistance that go unnoticed by the master.

Opponents of deconstructionist schools of thought, such as D’Andrade, argue that in anthropology there are “moral” and “objective” models of epistemology. He argues postmodernism in general has lost track of the differences between a “moral” and “objective” model of knowing (D’Andrade, 2004:610) And that anthropology should focus on the “objective” and “moral models of epistemology separately.

Proponents of the reflexive strand disagree precisely on D’Andrade’s premises. While not an anthropologist, south african sociologist Ari Sitas argues that academic institutions are built around systems of oppression and that doing research with the community is merely the next step, and not a forced “giving back”. (Sitas 2000)

Arguments in support of the placement of anthropology within the social sciences contend that anthropology cannot devoid itself from ethnographic fieldwork nor from its epistemic significance in the discipline. In so doing, they assume that a pro argument necessitates divorcing anthropology from fieldwork.

However, it is never the intention of a pro argument to claim anthropology should not engage in fieldwork, but rather in reconceptualizing the work that is already being done as an analysis of texts about informants’ worldviews, while maintaining ethnographic authority. Besides the theoretical reason, there is also a practical reason for which anthropology should belong to the humanities.

Cultural Anthropology should belong to the humanities division

A second contention challenges the administrative aspect of the position of cultural anthropology as belonging to the humanities division. I argue that 1) anthropology professors already engage in substantial work that is regarded as analysis of texts, and 2) moving to the humanities divisions offers new opportunities to anthropology as a discipline.

In arguing that professor already engage in textual analysis, I take Macalester College as a case study. Seven faculty members currently work at Macalester’s Anthropology department, including two professors on sabbatical. A comprehensive profile of the current professors plus a now retired professor is exhibited in the hallway of the basement of the social science building in which the anthropology department is located, for all potential and current anthropology majors, including those students who are advanced in their non-anthropological major.

From these, I collected the following information: year in which doctorate was awarded, years of teaching in college (important information for the single retired professor), and years during which fieldwork was conducted. I excluded all profiles that didn’t list all three informations, obtaining four usable profiles, and then simply obtained the years spent not doing fieldwork.

From this data, I calculated a rough estimate that four Macalester anthropology professors spent 36% of their time in the field since obtaining a doctor’s degree. This means that they spent roughly two thirds of their research time analyzing the ethnographic data they produced. Conceding that while in the field anthropologists obtain social facts and engage in analysis modes that fit research models in the social sciences, it cannot be dismissed that all they can do back home is to analyze the data therein produced, and that such work is an analysis of texts in the literal sense. It could be argued that all anthropological work is social science regardless of whether or not the anthropologist is in the field, because the researcher is always thinking of social subjects. But it can’t be refuted that physically there is a difference between running away from the police after watching a cockfight and processing and condensing hundreds of pages of ethnographic data on the computer (or typing machine).

Therefore, if analysis of the social science kind in anthropology is restricted solely to direct fieldwork, the argument can be made that anthropologists engage in text analysis 67% of their time and the department should belong to the humanities in merit of their current work.

I also argue that moving to the humanities division is beneficial to anthropology in terms of anthropology being a department that seeks high levels of funding, enrollment and graduates (like any other department), Donham’s criticism that academia is overly market-driven notwithstanding. (Donham, 2000:179)

Engell and Dangerfield observe that nationally, departments at academic institutions belonging to the humanities division, such as classics, philosophy and the languages have seen a sharp decline over the past three decades, even in the face of an increasing budget assigned to higher education that was flowing to engineering and the social sciences. This is measured in terms of bachelors and advanced degrees granted, GRE scores, faculty salaries, faculty tenure rates, class enrollment, and all other indicators of departments’ healthiness. (Engell and Dangerfield, 1998) A similar phenomenon is observed at Macalester College as well. Brown reports Economics, Geography and Political Science to show a step increase in enrolled majors (Brown, 2004) – over the last ten years, Political Science has doubled its majors and Economics has tripled them. (Macalester College Institutional Research, 2004)

The disciplines of history and anthropology have claims on both the humanities and social science. Interestingly, despite being regarded in academia as a social science, historians prefer to consider themselves as humanists. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004) It is also of note that at Macalester, History is the best funded and sought after by students at within the humanities division along with English, even better than many “popular” social science departments such as political science or sociology.

My assertion is that in times of shrinking influence and power of disciplines overall at the humanities division, moving to the humanities could become an excellent chance for competing for increased resources as well as expanding cultural anthropology’s influence over other departments.

As noted by Mintz, “culture” is a term that has been watered down to the point where it equals to “somewhere where somebody does something” which results problematic because in so dis-bounding the notion of culture, anthropology loses its unique ground in academia along with its nonprofessional readers, which is an audience in which anthropologists have an interest in having an influence. (Mintz, 2004:177).

By moving to the humanities, anthropology can claim a unique position as a discipline that analyzes text produced by the anthropologists themselves, and offer empirically grounded perspectives in matters of human cognition to philosophy and systematic methods of holistic analysis to classics and literature. In so doing, it can increase its enrollment and subsequent funding, as well as exerting an influence in the ways students in the humanities look at problems, which may be a most prized outcome of the transition.


In this paper I have argued in pro of the statement the cultural anthropology belongs to the humanities and not to the social sciences from a theoretical and practical perspective.

From a theoretical standpoint, I based my argument on traditional premises for postmodernism that allow for deconstructivist criticism, which require anthropology to define its fieldwork as an analysis of texts, which is the subject matter of contemporary disciplines in the humanities, such as critical literary theory and cultural studies.

I also argued from a practical perspective that “fieldwork” as a subject matter of social science is practiced during a limited amount of time of many anthropologists, and that given the current crisis in the humanities, moving to the humanities could result in increased resources for the discipline in the context of academic institutions.

While being aware that the somewhat arbitrary administrative division between the humanities and the social sciences serves no meaningful purpose, in the end, moving to the humanities division will allow anthropology to train other humanities students in the proper notion and approach to the concept of culture, while at the same time reflecting better the anthropologist’s work.


Brown, Eliot
2004 Social sciences experience record number of majors. The Mac Weekly, October 8

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff
1992 Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. In Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Pp. 3-47. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

D’Andrade, Roy
2004 Moral Models in Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. John McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp. 609-26. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Donham, Donald
2000 Response. In Sow’s Ears and Silver Linings: A Backward Look at Ethnography. Pp. 178-80. Current Anthropology, 41(2): 169-89

Encyclopedia Britannica
2004a Humanities. In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Electronic document,, accessed December 17, 2004.
2004b Social Science. In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Electronic document,, accessed December 17, 2004.

Engell, James and Anthony Dangerfield
1998 The Market-Model University Forum: Humanities in the Age of Money. Harvard Magazine, May-June. Electronic document,, accessed December 9, 2004

Hall, Stuart
2002 Encoding / decoding. In Culture, Media, Language. Stuart Hall, ed. Pp.128-38. London: Routledge.

Macalester College
2004 College Catalog: 2004-2005

Macalester College Institutional Research
2004 Graduates by Department. In Macalester College Fact Book. Electronic document,, accessed December 19, 2004

Mc Gee, R. John and Richard L. Warms, eds.
2004a Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

McGee, R. John and Richard L. Warms
2004b Historical Particularism. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. John

McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp.128-132. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
2004c Postmodernism and Its Critics. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R.

John McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp.575-578. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Mintz, Sidney W.
2000 Sow’s Ears and Silver Linings: A Backward Look at Ethnography. Current Anthropology, 41(2): 169-189

Sitas, Ari
2000 Inqola Masondosondo! For a New Sociology of Civic Virtue. Journal of World-Systems Research: Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein, 6(3): 879-890

St. John’s Colllege
2004 About St. John’s College. Electronic document,, accessed December 19, 2004

Weismantel, Mary
2000 Response. In Sow’s Ears and Silver Linings: A Backward Look at Ethnography. Pp. 178-80. Current Anthropology, 41(2): 185-86

2004a Classics. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Electronic document,, accessed December 19, 2004.
2004b Cultural Anthropology. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Electronic document,, accessed December 9, 2004.
2004c Humanities. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Electronic document,, accessed December 9, 2004.
2004d Social Sciences. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Electronic document,, accessed December 9, 2004.



, ,




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *