Beginning in 2000, I served a term as chair of the anthropology department at Indiana University, at a time when our state legislature was progressively squeezing the university budget. One of our Dean’s many austerity measures was a policy that we could no longer replace people who retired or departed. There would be no more “lines,” and we would have to justify each position from scratch, as if we had no history of focus or strength and continuity meant nothing. Departments would compete with each other for each new position, so presumably the “best” programs would get more resources and the worst would wither away. This is of course the same unsparing neoliberal logic that justifies punishing the weak in the name of efficiency, instead of recognizing that the poor need more help than the rich. Of course the “crisis” normalized over time, and this entirely selective hiring freeze means that deans and higher administrators have taken over the power to define most faculty positions, and interfere with every search.
At the time Anthropology was successful by almost every objective measure—good enrollments and popular classes, strong records of research funding and publication, and many well-recognized faculty and affiliated labs, collections and centers. But we were not a “top ten” department according to an outdated NRC survey, and this had an outsized influence in a university obsessed with rankings already struggling with its poor position among other Big Ten schools, all of them desperate to rise in the US News hierarchy. We could point to our many accomplishments, but the dean could always find some measure that made us look worse than other departments. I might brag about how many of our grad students had prestigious dissertation grants from NSF or Fulbright, but then the dean would ask why those students took so many years to finish their PhDs.
In that environment, the only new positions we could possibly compete for were joint hires with other departments, programs and campus initiatives. Through the 1980s and 90s some hiring was possible using money set aside for “senior woman” and “diversity” positions. By the early 2000s most of this money had dried up—as if we already had enough minority and senior female faculty. Instead of competing with other departments, I pushed the department to follow a collaborative strategy, and we were indeed successful in joint hires with departments as diverse as Molecular Biology, Asian Studies, Gender Studies and a nascent program in Native American Studies. Another obvious potential partner was our Sociology department, which was highly ranked nationally and was building an outstanding medical sociology program. I saw a lot of potential for us to collaborate and build up expertise in medical and nutritional anthropology to complement our strengths in bioanthropology.
When I contacted the chair of the sociology department to ask him out to lunch, just as I had done with many others, the immediate response was “no.” It turned out that in living memory, nobody from anthropology had met formally with anyone from sociology to discuss teaching, research, or administration. We had at one point overlapped in our collaborations with a campus center on demography, and like other anthropology, I had discussed mutual interests with some sociology faculty, but I ran into a brick wall when I proposed lunch.
Some of the resistance might have been the condescension of a highly-rated department to one they considered beneath their august standards, a not uncommon sentiment on any campus. Why imperil their social capital by consorting with the lame? Perhaps this highly quantitatively-oriented group of sociologists still stereotyped anthropology as hopelessly unscientific and innumerate? They certainly had an abysmal record of tenuring the cultural sociologists they hired.
I suspected, that what was really going on was the growing indistinction between our fields, the danger of impure transgression, and the fear that they had less to gain from collaboration than what they stood to lose by acknowledging our common interests. I don’t think there really are intractable substantive differences between most sociologists and anthropologists. I spent three years in a combined department where the sociologists were a majority, and we got along well—except for discrepancies in procedures for hiring and criteria for tenure and promotion. I will never forget the chair sitting on my office desk and casually telling me that books and book chapters would not count towards my tenure: Only a paper in American Anthropologist would be relevant.
Most recently, I have collaborated with a number of sociologists whose innovative work could easily fit into cultural geography or anthropology. But, we tend to have very different bibliographies. I get frustrated when I see sociology literature touting new insights that have been well published and discussed in anthropology, and I am sure this sentiment goes both ways. It feels unfair that I make such an effort to read their literature and subscribe to various food sociology blogs and lists, when it’s rarely reciprocated. But, I know how hard it is to keep up with the literature in your own discipline, much less all those that may overlap.
I still find it almost impossible to honestly answer when students ask me about the difference between cultural anthropology and sociology—my responses sound either defensive or silly. Both are fuzzy sets with substantial overlap, and the two categories can only be distinguished by reference to what Lakoff calls a prototype, the statistician survey researcher in one case, and the lone ethnographer in a tribal location in the other. Today these are no more than parodic stereotypes.
I do not recall any frank or systematic discussion of the relationships between the disciplines at any time in my own education, or indeed in my own teaching about anthropological theory. My point is not about fingers and blame, or a plea for friendlier relations. But, in a time when all social sciences face the same declining support, I still think we have more to gain from cooperation than from competition. More importantly, we need to puncture the silence between us.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2017. “Estranged Siblings.” Anthropology News website, October 17, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.461