BAS-word cloud dec13_FEATURE

We in the Biological Anthropology Section have nearly constant discussions about increasing our numbers and integrating our impact within AAA. We act as ambassadors for AAA and the American Anthropologist at our specialist conferences, and we are building an impressive social media presence preaching the AAA gospel. So it should have been heartening to read AA’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Chibnik’s recent assertion that he is committed to publishing work by biological anthropologists. Indeed, the September 2013 issue is notable in publishing an entire forum by biological anthropologists, including Alan Goodman’s presidential address from 2007, which itself hearkens at least thematically to Jim Calcagno’s article- “Keeping Biological Anthropology in Anthropology, and Anthropology in Biology”—that appeared in the same journal a decade ago.  However, Chibnik strikes a troublingly marginalizing tone in what was framed as an inclusive call for papers. To be a good fit for AA, Chibnik suggests a piece should be “understandable to nonspecialists and [lack] the extensive use of terms unfamiliar to most of our readers. This poses particular problems [emphasis added] for biological anthropologists, whose work often entails specialized techniques about which most sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists know little. Biological anthropologists therefore need to be particularly careful to write in a way that is comprehensible to the generalized readership of the journal” (Chibnik, 2013. American Anthropologist 115[3]: 357).

I think it’s fair to assume that the techniques used by many sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists are very specialized.  And I would further argue that the terminology and writing used by sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists are often very obscure and sometimes even incomprehensible to specialists in other subdisciplines. To put the onus only on one subfield to be intelligible may be part of the reason some of our colleagues don’t feel particularly welcome within AAA or excited about publishing their most thoughtful work in AA. (Note: I myself have been published two times in AA under the former editor, and in neither case was I charged with the special task of being “particularly careful” to be understood.)

Entangling the Biological

Word cloud for Entangling the Biological: Steps Toward an Integrative Anthropology

This is an argument beyond #aaafail or the waxing and waning of the  “science wars”,  but indeed a very serious obstacle our discipline needs to address. Singling out biological anthropologists as representing a “particular problem” reinforces the pervasive premise that sociocultural anthropology is normative anthropology, and the measure against which all other specialties are compared (and apparently fall short). To rephrase Chibnik, we all need to be sensitive to the generalized readership of AA.  But more deeply, we all need to be sensitive to and embracing of a more explicitly integrated sense of what anthropology can be. This is an inclusive view exemplified by the BAS session at last month’s AAA meeting, “Entangling the Biological: Steps Toward an Integrated Anthropology,” a standing-room-only event which was the subject of enthusiastic, real-time dissemination via Twitter, with Wenner-Gren and AAA retweeting our messages to anthropologists of all persuasions.

A second, perhaps more practical challenge to biological anthropologists who would like to include AA in their publishing plans is that of public indexing of publications. Whereas articles published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, for example, are automatically indexed in PubMed, a widely used database in the biomedical sciences, articles in AA are not. This could have a chilling effect on a paper’s impact metrics, which can trickle down to funding and tenure decisions. Like it or not, this is a very real concern for pretenure faculty in our current climate and one AA needs to consider if it truly wants to become a repository of excellent biological anthropology scholarship. No one who participated in or attended “Entangling the Biological” can doubt the relevance of biology and biological anthropology to anthropology. We want AAA’s flagship journal to be on the same page.

Please send contributions for the BAS news to Contributing Editor Julienne Rutherford at 

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  1. Hugh Jarvis
    Posted December 6, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I will confess my confusion at your difficulty appreciating an editor’s request that you write in a many that is approachable to your audience. As a geoarchaeologist, information scientist, librarian, and editor of my own journal, I agree with him 100%.

    AA is not a fringe journal, read solely by a small cadre of devotees. It is our flagship journal and needs to be accessible to all anthropologists. He’s not asking you to dumb down your work, as he clarifies in his additional comments. Instead he’s merely requesting a reasonable accomodations so that more people can benefit. He asks that you consider your readers, and not rely too heavily on jargon.

    And I eagerly look forward to the same common sense applied to all other contributors as well!

    Season’s greetings to all.

    • Julienne Rutherford
      Posted December 10, 2013 at 12:36 am | Permalink

      I have no difficulty appreciating the request for all contributors to write intelligibly. I have published twice in AA and I was and remain aware this is a general readership journal. I am confused by the difficulty that some have in appreciating that framing this as a “particular problem” for biological anthropologists and that they thus need to be “particularly careful” is not the same thing as saying all anthropologists need to be careful. As Jill Scott points out, Chibnik made a more general statement to this effect in a previous letter but the impression of problemitizing biological anthropology is reinforced by his own words. I am not alone in having this impression or being concerned by its implications. As anthropologists, we more than many have an appreciation for the importance of words and message. Regardless of intent, the fact remains that the message I received upon reading that was one of targeted caution. Judging from the response I received from my print column, my remarks at the “Entangling the Biological” session at AAA last month, and this online post, many biological anthropologists heard the same message.

      I am not advocating for biological anthropologists to publish their most arcane technical or obscure theoretical works in AA.

      • Hugh Jarvis
        Posted December 10, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Point taken.

        I agree with the general sentiment that ALL authors could do a much better job at communication. If anything, the precision and technical clarity that are the soul of physical anthropology (and archaeology) should make this task simpler.

  2. Jill Scott
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I, a biological anthropologist, have worked with Dr. Chibnik on AA (see the June 2013 “From the Editor” piece) and I have taken courses from him. I know first-hand that he endorses writing that is clear and easy to understand with limited use of discipline-specific jargon, regardless of subdiscipline. After going back and reading all of Dr. Chibnik’s “From the Editor” pieces followed by this piece by Dr. Rutherford and the comments in response to Dr. Rutherford’s piece across Facebook and the AN page, I must say that I don’t feel marginalized by Dr. Chibnik’s comments whatsoever. Perhaps this is because he clearly stated in his first “From the Editor” piece (March 2013) that, “Editors of generalist journals such as American Anthropologist must guard against the danger of filling issues with specialized articles that are incomprehensible to the great majority of their audiences,” without specifically singling out any subfields in particular.

    The truth of the matter is that not every research article, regardless of subfield, is best suited for AA. I myself would publish most of my more technical and jargon-heavy research articles in specialist journals, and view AA as a place to publish more comprehensive research articles, regardless of subfield. I take Dr. Chibnik’s September “From the Editor” piece not as “singling out,” but as reaching out and providing potentially helpful suggestions to biological anthropologists who may be interested in publishing in AA, in case they didn’t see these same suggestions geared toward all subfields in his first “From the Editor” piece in March. It would seem that he is reaching out to biological anthropologists in particular in this piece because the September issue contains a greater concentration of biological anthropology pieces than usual, and thus, speaking directly to the biological anthropologists in his “From the Editor” piece may keep the momentum going for future issues.

    This is NOT to say that other subfields wouldn’t also benefit from a specific reminder about limiting obfuscating language, but the fact remains that biological anthropologists are a minority group both within the AAA and when it comes to publishing in AA, whereas reaching out to sociocultural anthropologists or even archaeologists in particular may not be as necessary because more of them will submit to AA regardless. Thus, I fail to see how the current Editor-in-Chief views sociocultural anthropology as “normative anthropology,” but rather, see what he wrote as outreach to increase the diversity of articles published in AA beyond primarily sociocultural anthropology, thereby potentially expanding the view of what constitutes anthropological scholarship appropriate to this journal. After all, the only way to change the visibility of biological anthropology in AA is to submit more biological anthropology papers that have a good chance of being accepted.

    Am I of this opinion because I personally know Dr. Chibnik? Probably. But if I were to read a piece such as this one about a different Editor-in-Chief of whom I had no personal knowledge, I would certainly hope that someone who did know that individual would chime in to shed more light on the situation.

    • Julienne Rutherford
      Posted December 5, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I appreciate your perspective, Jill. I would still argue that words and context matter. Writing as the editor in chief of a journal is not the same thing as writing as a scholar. While it stands to reason that I would familiarize myself with a body of literature pertaining to an area of scholarship, it seems like a high burden to expect readers to research all previous letters from the editor to determine the true intention of the piece which sites biological anthropologists as having a particular problem. Not a problem similar to others, not equivalent, not the same. Particular, as in “used to single out an individual member of a specified group or class.” At the very least, an editor should choose his words very carefully so as not be surprised that people take his words at face value.

  3. Bradford Garvey
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly, Julienne. I read Michael Chibnik’s and was initially glad of its publication ( I still am, it remains an important issue), but your essay here hit the nail right on the head.

    It’s anecdotal, but both my partner (a medical anthropologist) and I try to keep abreast of biological anthropological work as much as we can. As an ethnomusicologist, I always enjoy articles in AA by biological anthropologists insofar as they deal in an intelligent way (which is nearly always) with some topic relevant to my research area. For example, I was very inspired and interested in Benjamin Reilly’s 2013:115(3) contribution.

    Lastly, I want to point out that I think and hope there will be much more anthropological work that is based on a combination of perspectives from the four sub-fields in the future, because I know many cultural anthropologists who feel the same way I do, i.e., that more integrated work means better evidence for our hypotheses. So I hope that the very real feeling of marginalization will not push biological anthropologists to ditch cultural anthropologists, since we have a lot of the same questions, or share questions that we can help each other answer with even more accuracy and detail. This means space needs to be made at both ends of the table, no one field can be considered the “base”, and meaningful interaction needs to be recognized and applauded as much as possible (and in this way, publishing multiply-authored articles including sociocultural and biological anthropologists would be a great way for AA to be the trendsetter here).

    I want to add here at the end that I agree and empathize with Michael’s comment on this piece, and I understand that the article was written in good faith. The issues brought up in both articles should be answered as robustly as we can by dusting off the long-standing contacts between our sub-fields.

    TL;DR: Great article! As an ethnomusicologist I agree completely!

  4. Jason Hodgson
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Rutherford requested that I post my comments from a FB discussion about this topic. Here is a summary:

    It isn’t clear to me why we should want to publish in AA. People addressing questions relative to biological anthropology now exist in biology, genetics, ecology, and other departments, in addition to anthropology departments. There are already journals with established readerships across these disciplines. I would worry that by publishing in AA you stand a chance of losing much of your intended readership (which might be outside anthropology), while being entirely ignored by the general readership of the journal. Perhaps eventually this will shift, but do you want your paper to get lost during the transition phase? While it is true that a paper in AA is more likely to be found be social anthropologists who aren’t actively seeking out the research, given a choice of audiences discovering my work without actively seeking it out, I would prefer it be biologists and ecologists, etc, rather than social anthropologists, since they are more likely to cite it and hopefully see the value of it. Also, Dr. Rutherford’s point about the marginalization is excellent. To me that is just more reason to stay away.

  5. Posted December 4, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m disappointed that Dr. Chibnik seems to think we just misunderstood him. I also disagree that social anthropologists only have a problem with the clarity of their writing. I do not understand social anthro jargon at all. That said, my point is not to speak ill of other sub-disciplines, but point out that we do all in fact use jargon that limits the understanding of those outside our sub-discipline. Bio anthro honestly isn’t any more guilty of this than the other sub-fields. And Dr. Chibnik’s point about bio anthro’s “particular problem” cannot really be misread. We know what he meant, and we are disappointed to receive this “particular” welcome.

  6. eguevara
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    The following is a comment from Michael Chibnik, editor of American Anthropologist.

    I regret that my comments seem to have been misunderstood. In my very first “from the editor” piece, I emphasized the need for all authors to avoid using specialized jargon understandable to only a minority of AA readers. These comments were primarily intended for sociocultural anthropologists. I spend considerable time working with sociocultural anthropologists in my decisions letters asking them to revise pieces to make them more comprehensible.

    There is a significant difference in the problems posed in this respect by sociocultural anthropologists and biological anthropologists. Sociocultural anthropologists too often write in a complicated way when their ideas could be expressed more simply and clearly. Biological anthropologists, in contrast, often use technical terms that most AA readers will not understand. The problem here is not clarity, but instead the nature of our readership.

    What I meant do is to emphasize that the technical terms in articles by biological anthropologists can be difficult for a general readership. There was certainly no intent on my part to imply that vocabulary is not a problem for sociocultural anthropologists. On the contrary — the use of obscure language by sociocultural anthropologists is a much greater concern for me as an editor than the use of technical vocabulary by biological anthropologists.

    With respect to indexing, I (as editor-in-chief of AA) have no control over where articles are indexed. Obviously, I would like AA articles to be indexed in Pub Med and have contacted Wiley-Blackwell (our publisher) about how this might be done. But there does not appear to be a straightforward way to do this.

    Michael Chibnik, editor of American Anthropologist.

    • jrutherford
      Posted December 4, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Many thanks to Michael Chibnik for commenting here. I appreciate your commitment to general readability; it is unfortunate that that wasn’t clearly stated in the September issue. Words matter: suggesting that biological anthropologists have a “particular problem” or need to be “particularly careful” in this regard relative to sociocultural anthropologists does indeed give the impression of being singled out, regardless of intent. Regarding indexing, it is curious that Wiley-Blackwell is not able to do this for AA given that it also publishes the American Journal of Physical Anthropology which is indexed by PubMed.

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