Virginia Dominguez, Anthropology’s Challenge: We can be better

Update: The Virginia Dominguez lecture discussed below was published as Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? Interestingly, the article is not open access, nor has it been discussed in the anthropology blogosphere, which is telling for an address that really tried to push the members of the American Anthropological Association out of their comfort zones. See Public Anthropology and Bill Gates: We Cannot Abandon Humanity.

The annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Montreal 2011 set an attendance record, on top of a previous attendance record at the AAA meetings in New Orleans 2010. Almost all anthropologists have gripes with the AAA and the AAA meetings, but let’s pause for a moment and agree there must be something positive going on in anthropology.

For the presidential address, outgoing AAA president Virginia Dominguez did celebrate these signs of growth, but she deliberately framed her address as more provocative than previous presidential talks. The address pushed anthropologists into “zones of discomfort,” challenging anthropology, and particularly the AAA membership, to step outside what can sometimes be comfortable anthropological refuges.

I interpret the three main portions of Dominguez’s address as a challenge to anthropology to be better, to be stronger, and to be bigger. I elaborate on each point below–hopefully remaining faithful to Dominguez’s intent, but drawing in other resources and connections as appropriate–and then concluding with suggestions toward those challenges.

Anthropology can be better

Dominguez began with the observation of an anthropological comfort zone around the idea that anthropology is an inherently anti-racist and politically progressive field. We celebrate the anti-racist work of Franz Boas. We get excited about David Graeber. We admire Paul Farmer. Not content with the 3-to-1 ratio of Democrats-to-Republicans in economics, anthropology apparently boasted a 30-to-1 ratio in 2004.

Dominguez spent some time questioning these accounts, noting that voting Democrat in the United States does not necessarily entail a “progressive” or “left” politics, especially in comparison with international norms (Dominguez cited the 2007 Political Opinions of Swedish Social Scientists, which noted “where ‘left’ should be interpreted relative to the own political culture,” or put more bluntly, being labelled left-socialist in the U.S. is equivalent to moderate-right in other contexts). Dominguez also specifically critiqued an article by Daniel Segal and Richard Handler, Republicans, Democrats, Anthropologists and Others, saying that although the first part of the article was correct to criticize the methodology of the bias-in-academia findings, the second part was “too hasty” and we should not assume with Segal-Handler that “anthropologists incline toward the social-justice position” (2005:5).

So what was Dominguez saying? I began to wonder if she was criticizing the progressive positions anthropologists have taken, perhaps a slap at statements like Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism.

I think not. Rather, what Dominguez was saying is that we cannot assume that by wearing a name-tag that says “anthropologist” or by having a job in an anthropology department, that this automatically entails a progressive position. That anthropology is not by default on the side of everything that is good in the world. In other words, and as I did try to make clear by following Trouillot, the “moral optimism” of anthropology is something we must actively seize–Truoillot’s point, in tandem with Dominguez, is that too often anthropology has not seized that position, even as we assume we have, just by being anthropologists.

The best evidence for this came later in the address, when Dominguez referenced the 2010 final report of the Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology (CRRA). Dominguez noted there was some irony that while there has been much debate and publication over Science in Anthropology, she had been unable to find any references in the press or on the blogs to this report. Dominguez said this report was in parts painful to read. Indeed:

What is different between the comments made in the 1973 report, The Minority Experience in Anthropology, and 2010? The answer seems to be “not much”. . . .

The academic climate in anthropology for anthropology students and faculty of color is poor.

Please read. I admit to not knowing about this report before I tweeted it during the speech. Thank you to Carole McGranahan who immediately called this a “MUST READ for #aaa2011: report on Race + Racism in Anthropology.”

For another take on how being part of the AAA didn’t automatically translate to inclusiveness, Dominguez read portions of a 2011 letter from the Society for Medical Anthropology, lamenting the lack of attention to disability issues, especially in terms of access to the annual meetings, and the “continuing failure” of the AAA to address these issues. This was something I had begun thinking about in Montreal: How difficult it would be for many with disabilities to get from the conference hotel to the convention center. Apparently the AAA is technically in compliance, but just barely.[See endnote #1]

This all relates to something Jonathan Marks said in his Biological Anthropology Section distinguished lecture, “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism, and the Roots of Anthropology.” Marks saw scientific racism as a bigger threat to science than creationism, and wonders why we have not spent as much time rooting out racism in science as we have rooting out creationists. As Marks put it, you can be a racist and have a career in science. You may (or may not!) get censured, but if you are a creationist, you’ll be excommunicated.

Similar remarks apply to misogyny and sexism in science and the AAA. As Kate Clancy writes in a powerful post, What does it mean to do the right thing?, misogynistic and sexist postings are all-too-routine: the kinds of comments Clancy and other female-science bloggers have to fend off are beyond the pale of what should be civil discourse. It isn’t too extreme to note that in some areas of science a bit of misogyny and sexism seems to be a career-booster, not the career-ender it should be.

Dominguez urges anthropology not to “self-congratulate” on our liberalism. We don’t have to look very far to find how we can, should, and must be better.

Anthropology can be stronger

For this point, Dominguez challenged an assertion many anthropologists, perhaps paradoxically, find comfortable: that anthropology is insignificant. Dominguez spoke of how anthropologists enjoy doom-and-gloom, and find a refuge in being ignored and marginal.

While she did not want to be too sunny, Dominguez asked us to consider that anthropology as an undergraduate major has been on the rise nationwide. This is something I’ve been talking about since The Florida Governor’s Daughter and Undergraduate Anthropology Major: that the undergraduate major is a hidden strength for anthropology, and although many large graduate programs may be under threat, there is significant opportunity for expansion at a range of small colleges across the country. I had a brief chance to make a plug for this expansion at the AAA donor reception, and I’m hoping to make this a focus during the coming years.

2012 Update: For follow-ups, see Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major to change your life (August 2012) and Anthropology and the Liberal Arts (May 2012).

Dominguez also cited a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, projecting well-above average job growth for anthropologists in the coming decade. Dominguez said she was surprised by these numbers (I was too), but those were the projections. [See endnote #2 and also see the 2019 History and Uses of the Occupational Outlook Handbook for an account of what happened to that website]

As Dominguez said, “anthropology could brag more.” We can be stronger–let’s encourage our undergraduate majors and work to make those jobs real.

Anthropology can be bigger

Finally, Dominguez urged the AAA to consider how “American” the society often acts, yet how truly international the membership actually is. In the first part, Dominguez referenced Ulf Hannerz’s Anthropology’s World: Life in a Twenty-First Century Discipline and his argument that American anthropology has often acted in imperialist fashion (I cannot at the moment locate the exact Hannerz reference). Dominguez also cited examples of AAA membership surveys in which the categories were so entirely and almost laughably U.S.-centric that they would potentially alienate large segments of the membership. (Dominguez did not discuss the very name “American” in the AAA, which has been problematic to other people in the Americas.)

On the more positive side, Dominguez has been pushing for greater recognition of how truly international the AAA membership is, with at least 20% of the membership located and living internationally–see also her piece on International Collegiality and the AAA.

Anthropology can be bigger. As Virginia Dominguez asked, what kind of anthropology association would we be if we acknowledged our international members? (Greg Downey, in Australia and yet virtually omnipresent in Montreal, favorited this tweet.)

How do we get there?

Russell Bernard’s provocative question from the Science in Anthropology panel was “how do we get there?” How do we make anthropology better, stronger, and bigger?

Let us

  • read and act on the 2010 final report of the Commission on Race and Racism in Anthropology (CRRA). The response to this report must be more than silence. Let’s do more to support anthropology students and faculty of color.
  • get serious about sexism and misogyny in our workplaces and for the female bloggers who are bravely confronting this online.
  • make the 2012 AAA meetings in San Francisco much more accessible. This seems a perfect opportunity to go from inadequate toward taking leadership.
  • expand the appeal of academic jobs and departments focused on undergraduate majors. Support anthropological teaching.
  • ensure the projected job growth goes to anthropologists. As Bernard urged us, we should embrace those people working outside of traditional academic spheres.
  • expand our scope of thinking about the AAA, as not just a national but a truly international assembly.
  • encourage more people to join the AAA.

On the last point, I’ve been wondering if the AAA could create a small graphic ad to “Join the American Anthropological Association” which could then be placed on blogs and websites using an affiliate model–returning a percentage to the blog based on new memberships. This step could help to expand membership while encouraging a brand identity across at least some of the anthropology blogs.

Thank you to out-going president Virginia Dominguez for a provocative but inspiring address, and welcome to incoming AAA president Leith Mullings.

Endnotes (click note number to return to text)

Note #1. As Rayna Rapp and Faye Ginsburg discuss in the recent American Anthropologist forum on human nature, anthropology could be in the forefront of these issues, both theoretically and practically, but we have not been: “Why isn’t disability being taught in every introductory anthropology class? Why isn’t it part of our graduate training? Clearly, the significance of disability’s lessons is not lost on the emergent generation coming into anthropology, perhaps in part because they grew up in a world in which disability was a fact of life and no longer hidden. They recognize that disability is a fundamental anthropological concern as an essential form of ‘human nature.’ As our students have taught us, it’s time for our field to accept this challenge” (Rapp and Ginsburg 2010:517).

Note #2. Parenthetically, I was always suspicious of the BLS predictions. A sociologist colleague in 2011 reference the BLS for a similar but slightly less rosy predictions for sociology job growth. The recurring story of these numbers was that job growth would naturally occur and it would naturally benefit those with the highest levels of education. This was rather in line with the conservative mantra: no need to do anything about present unemployment because the economy will naturally improve; no need to worry about inequality because that just represents returns to education.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Virginia Dominguez, Anthropology’s Challenge: Be Better.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 22 November 2011. Revised 29 April 2020.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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