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: 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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.