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

Update July 2013: The Virginia Dominguez lecture discussed below was published as Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui Sommes-Nous? Interestingly, to my knowledge it 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 the report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, projecting well-above average job growth for anthropologists in the coming decade. I believe Dominguez was reading from an earlier version than the one I tweeted from Lance Gravlee during the Rick Scott episodes. In any case, Dominguez said she was surprised by these numbers (I was too), but those are the projections.[See endnote #2]

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 7 November 2017.

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  • I really appreciate this entry, Jason. This is a great recap, and a frank admission of what challenges anthropology continues to face. I’d hesitate to use the word crossroads, if only because the discipline seems to perpetually arrive at crossroads. There remains much fertile ground to til in the ever-present ethnographic present though. 🙂

    I couldn’t find U. Hannerz’ reference to cultural imperialism either, but it strikes a familiar cord. The thing is, as some anthropologists (myself included) stumble along in wide-eyed glee, it’s sometimes difficult not to sound novate to the public at large. And yet, as I discuss in my (very first published (sort of (OK, self-published on an open website, but really I’m trying to get leave it open to some peer review and feedback!)))paper, sometimes it’s precisely that excitement that engenders a more sincere and impassioned examination of whatever subject is at hand.

    That being said, I, too advocate for a greater and more intense focus on the undergraduate masses, who even now can still glaze over when discussing their intended major (or for alternate majors, just the word anthropology causes zombification). There are excited batches of us out here ~ I’m one of them, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting others. But we want support, guidance, and to know that we’re neither retreading well-trodden ground needlessly, nor committing the sins of our (ahem) fathers, nor expected to mire ourselves in anthropological academic linguistics that, seem at times to wear on the soul.

    I appreciate the need for constructive discourse to maintain a certain level intellectual verbosity, but it puts an unnecessary barrier between the lay audience and the authoritative speaker. Indeed, many times it puts a barrier between the student and the potential teacher.

    Likewise, the oscillation between self-congratulation for our apparent collective progressivism and self-shame for our apparent collective insensitivity and imperialism is somewhat weary. If we were to fuse both into our recruiting efforts, we would quickly find the field populated with rising stars who can help the continued (and necessary) transformation of anthropology.

    I have other thoughts on the matter, but for now I’ll leave it here, and thank you again for a wonderful update. I’m sorry I missed the conference, but I’m excited that these conversations are taking place.


    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Mike,

      Many thanks for this great commentary, and the links to your paper and website. Wonderful point about the need to advocate and reach out to the undergraduates. I just had a brief comment on your well-put point about how anthropology seems perpetually at a crossroads, because it reminded me of a reference I could have included in the above, to Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology’s Present and Its Transnational Potential by Andre Gingrich. Gingrich has a great analysis of the present “crossroads” as well as some pointed commentary on how scholars need to consider “research proposals that include funding for partners in postcolonial or other marginalized contexts” (2010:557).

      Thank you again–much to consider in your reply,

  • To put together two ideas you raised… I met and heard a few undergraduates at the meetings and was very impressed, and they can join the AAA at a special rate of $35. It seems to me that the most obvious way to boost membership and interest in the association is to exploit the very strength you mentioned, our undergraduate majors.

    • I should like to see more inventive ideas than a special student rate. Things like linkback referral credits (e.g., get X # of students to join, your fee is waived); in-kind fee waivers (blog post, papers, get twitter followers, etc.); or scholarships (merit/fieldwork based, income based). Even a lottery might attract some otherwise shy candidate student members.

      Other ideas might include a marketing push (the sort of branding Hannerz speaks of) to 2-year and 4-year colleges; an AAA student members campus tour (3-5 student AAA members touring campuses with other AAA members, giving talks); production and distribution of a short film highlighting what makes AAA membership worthwhile; discounts offered to members of alternate anthropological organizations (e.g., OAC).

      Some thoughts. And if they need a some folks to pilot some of these, I would love to be part of the volunteer pool.


      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Mike,

        These are great ideas! Certainly worth a special pitch to the AAA. It seems one benefit of expanding membership could be more jobs for anthropologists. We should be able to expand the profession and organization via such inventive ideas coming from people with anthropological training.

        Thanks again,

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Jon,

      Thank you for stopping by to comment, and please let me first say that your distinguished lecture was a true highlight of the meetings. If I am not mistaken, the lecture combined and elaborated on material you published in the AA forum On nature and the human together with the article Why were the first anthropologists creationists?

      Thank you for highlighting the undergraduate student rate, which does lead to lots of interesting possibilities for expanding membership. Having more undergraduates at the meetings might even help sharpen some of the presentations and panels!

  • Huzzah, huzzah on bringing more undergraduates into the fold. Jason, I believe 12 students from your anthropology club, along with 12 students from my anthropology club, raised funds during the fall, then drove themselves in vans to the meetings. (My students paid $50 each from their own pockets for Student Day!) That is a lot of anthropology students from one not-so-big ville in upstate New York who went home feeling inspired and oh-so-lucky to be able to count themselves as anthropologists. I like MA’s thoughts above about building better, stronger, and bigger connections for our majors to anthropology.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Sallie,

      Thank you for the comment, and I did want to highlight the efforts of both the Hartwick and SUNY-Oneonta Anthropology Clubs to organize and attend the meetings. It was great to see students in sessions like “Scars of Human Evolution,” even if they thought I was tweeting instead of listening (actually one of my tweets from the session got “cited” by John Hawks as he began his paper).

      One thing I will say after conversations with you and some other faculty colleagues is that as much as we want to bring undergraduates into the fold through organizations like anthropology clubs, this work tends to fall to female faculty, and is often even unacknowledged as “service.” I said a bit about service in the Everybody’s working through the weekend post, but did not pay enough attention to gendered dimensions and how certain work does not even get to appear on the already-undervalued service column.

  • Jason Antrosio

    Please read the post Better Anthropology over at How to be an Anthropologist. Important points about race, gender, and an ethnography of bias.

  • anonymous

    Although I was trained in the Boasian lineage myself, I have to note that Boas also worked with Freyre who helped create the myth of racial democracy in Brazil and who appeared to have overlooked forced labor practices other assaults on Africans during his travels. If racism has to be “routed,” I don’t think that anyone can say it’s not pervasive in many areas, even when subtle, even in academia in the humanities side of social sciences.

    The technology-focused aspect of anthropology in recent years mirrors the same tweet, Facebook, blog embrace from the US media, which obviously has its own motives – aside from the inherent “marketing” aspects of US-based media. At what point does the deception of the very “American” “open” ideology finally surface?

    • Hello and thank you for this important comment. This post is a bit old, but I’ve more recently been trying to read through similar themes–the Boasian lineage and what it examined and overlooked–in a more recent set of posts beginning with Purpose of Anthropology through to Globalization Stories. Would love to hear your perspective there!