Will there be another Boas? What will be the next big turn in anthropology?

Generalists and Specialists

During my History of Anthropological Thought course (with Dr. Thomas Wilson & Dr. Mike Little) last Thursday, a student asked, “Will there be another Boas?” We had been discussing Boas, Kroeber and some of their contemporaries and how holistic they were during their careers. These holistic scholars shaped the path of anthropology in a way that transected every sub-field (cultural, physical, archaeology and linguistics). Through the discussion we attributed this to their brilliance and charisma, but also because they were generalists with a hand in every pot in the kitchen. We discussed the possibility of a new generalist who could shape the future of the discipline and we agreed that being a generalist in the Boasian sense today was neither possible nor particularly desirable.

The field of anthropology has grown to such breadth and depth due to the growth of its practitioner population, that to be a generalist would mean having only the most superficial understanding of one’s subjects. Boas, Kroeber and their contemporaries had the luxury of a smaller field of knowledge and in many areas only a burgeoning level of expertise among other anthropologists and social scientists to master. Today’s anthropologist only touches other subjects of study during their education and after that only as it interests them and supports their careers. Today, specialization with a simple general knowledge of anthropology is the ideal supported by educational curricula and professional paths (e.g. tenure track).

While this limits the ability of any one individual to have the reach of Boas across the discipline through one’s research, it does push the depths of anthropology’s potential knowledge faster and more accurately than a collection of generalists could.

So, if we assume that an anthropologist in the 21st century is incapable of producing the next “turn” of anthropology through a generalist reach across the discipline, then where will the next turn come from?

The Next Big Turn

I hypothesize that the next big turn in anthropology will not come from a radical shift in theory or subject of study. Rather, I suggest that the next big turn in the discipline of anthropology will be in presentation.

As academia and publishing continue to experience crisis from budget cuts, the reliance on adjuncts, the high cost of publishing, the morals of open access, and similar road blocks, anthropologists must find ways to push anthropology into the public eye favorably and pull together academics and applied anthropologists into common ways of communicating. Could this need push anthropologists into new forms of presentation?

The most obvious, but perhaps not necessarily actual, change is a move toward digital publishing. Moving to digital publishing could drastically change communication and presentation of anthropological knowledge. Simple things like links can quickly and easily connect texts and images, video and audio can provide context. However, there is also the potential to altogether throw out the linear text and reimagine anthropological presentations of ideas.

Imagine if texts could be presented with segments that expand and contrast as the reader desires. If the complexities of contested concepts could be stored in layers below the main arguments of the text? The term culture, which is often discussed at length in anthropological literature, breaks away the attention of the reader from the overall argument in order to deal with the minutia of anthropological theory and politics. Imagine a paper in which a reader who requires or desires a deeper understanding of a term could zoom in and explore it, while the reader who simply wants the larger understanding need only to read a single paragraph or page. A change in presentation methods may also have the potential for altering the discipline by opening new perspectives and providing methods for deeper connectivity.

Playing with Presentation (Prezi)

1 Comment

  • Joshua Smith says:

    A great post! I agree that it was a much smaller field in Boas’ time. If I might add a another perspective- Boas might be considered someone who didnt so much generalize as he did specialize in lots of subjects. His range of knowledge and talents are quite unparalleled. He was quite a polymath in many respects and mixed it up with the greatest minds of his generation in psychology, philosophy (especially the American pragmatists), linguists and he had a superb grasp on physics, math, geography. I wonder if we are running a risk of over-specializing? Im quite excited about the possibilities of a digital anthropology and can only wonder what someone like Boas would have done with it already!

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