Anthropology’s thumb: is linguistic anthropology vestigial or opposable?

This post is version of a lecture to my department’s senior capstone course on 01/26/2010, to be read alongside William Balée’s ‘The Four-Field Model of Anthropology in the United States’ (Balée 2009). It should be read in light of that audience – but I do not think that it is its only audience. It’s more raw than I am used to in my writing, and far too personal to be publishable anywhere but here. I think I believe most of it.

To begin, I would like you to hold up a hand – either one, I won’t discriminate against my fellow lefties – and consider it for a moment. It’s obviously good for something – hopefully many things – but the particular combination of its parts could indeed be different, and in some ways it’s clearly sub-optimal. You can’t move your ring finger without also moving your pinkie – and why is your pinkie so weak and short anyway? The index finger does much of the work, almost by default, while the middle finger enjoys pride of place and length but can’t do much on its own. And then there is the thumb – you’d be at a loss without it, but it’s so weird that it gets its own special classification. Is it a finger at all?

Throughout my talk today I’m going to use the hand to metaphorical effect, and suggest that linguistic anthropology is anthropology’s thumb. You could make the case that it is vestigial – the remnant of a long-standing historical practice that is bound to disappear, because it’s outlived its usefulness. But I think you could also make the case that it is opposable: that if it is useful, it is part of anthropology because, just as you can touch your thumb to each one of your fingers, you can link linguistic anthropology to each other subfield. (I’ll leave it to the other subfields to make their own case for thumb-ness, or thumb-osity, or whichever digit they’d like to be.)

Like many anthropologists, I was trained in what has been known for a century as a four-field tradition, incorporating cultural, archaeological, biological, and linguistic anthropology. We learn this literally on Day 1 of Intro to Anthro. Usually at the same time, or maybe on Day 2, we learn that this four-field combination came into existence in North American anthropology (and not in other traditions, like British or French anthropology) because of the unique subject matter of the early anthropological tradition of the 20th century as inspired by Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and other less-well known figures. It emerged because American anthropologists were chiefly concerned with the cultural history of the indigenous peoples of North America, which, it was felt, could best be studied using four independent lines of evidence: their cultures, their artifacts, their bodies, and their languages. And, if we were at all clever, by Day 3 we had made the jump – or had it spoon-fed to us – that this was a historical union of disciplines, not one that was eternal or necessary. And if anthropology was no longer the discipline it once was, then the conjunction of the four fields might no longer be useful.

Today you’ll find plenty of anthropologists who argue that the discipline is not a four-field but in fact a five-field discipline. The trouble is that none of them agree what the fifth subfield actually is! One of my undergraduate teachers insisted that the fifth subfield was medical anthropology, while another insisted that it was applied anthropology, for instance. At the same time as anthropology was adding subfields through disciplinary osmosis, or maybe mitosis, it was shedding them. I learned this much to my bemusement upon arriving as a newly admitted PhD student in a department that, while great in many ways, didn’t actually have a physical anthropologist or a linguistic anthropologist on the faculty. We didn’t have a big four-field anthropology course like we do here at Wayne, and what material we did have in the neglected subfields was taught by people who weren’t defined as members of those subfields (either by themselves or others). In fact, there was a movement afoot at one point to turn the department into a one-field department by attrition, by just letting its archaeologists retire and be replaced by cultural anthropologists. Around the same time, major departments were fissioning along roughly subdisciplinary lines – most famously, Stanford’s decade-long experiment with separate Cultural Anthropology and Anthropological Sciences departments, now ended by budgetary considerations rather than disciplinary ones.

And over in linguistics, similar divisions and debates were going on, perhaps not quite as formal, but important to our discussion. Until around 1960, there were relatively few specific departments of linguistics, but by the 1970s there was a well-developed subfield of sociolinguistics, many of whose practitioners had originally trained as anthropologists, or jointly in linguistics and anthropology. Basically as linguistics and anthropology grew more distinct from one another, some linguistically-minded anthropologists became linguistic anthropologists, and some anthropologically-minded linguists became sociolinguists. It gets even more complicated, because some people want to use the term ‘anthropological linguistics’ as something different from ‘linguistic anthropology’. But let’s not. Suffice it to say that you could make the case that there really is no reason for anthropology to retain its linguistic component – the same sort of work could be done in other fields just as well.

But I don’t want to make it seem like just a political issue, an argument among scholars over how to divide up scant resources. Because while it was (and is) that, it’s also a serious debate about the methodological, historical, and conceptual foundations of anthropology. It continues – most notably through the publication a few years ago of an edited book called Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle – ironically, a four-field effort to ‘unwrap’ the four-field ‘bundle’ and critique the disciplinary unity to which others of us strive (Segal and Yanagisako 2005). The points are worth taking to heart. Disciplines have merged and separated before – we ought not to romanticize what we do on the basis of tradition. This is particularly true when, as in anthropology, some of those underpinning traditions – such as 19th century unilinear evolutionism from savagery to civilization, or the assumption that biological races are real and immutable – have been thoroughly refuted. Add to this the complexity of the task of unifying several disparate bodies of knowledge – none but the most extraordinary could possibly learn to sequence DNA, analyze a soil profile, use cognates to reconstruct a root word, and undertake multi-year, multi-site ethnography. It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But is it worthwhile?

Here at Wayne, where we have a small department where archaeologists co-author papers with medical anthropologists (Bray and Sankar 2001), and where cultural anthropologists teach Lost Cities and Ancient Civilizations, these concerns maybe seem far removed from the debate. To tell you the truth, that’s one of the reasons I like working here, that I don’t feel the eternal need to justify my subfield’s place in the disciplinary milieu. It is not like this elsewhere, and one of my messages to you today is to be aware of that fact. I also want to link this fact to my particular experiences and thoughts about the place of linguistic anthropology within a four-field (or five-field) tradition.

Now, some of you may already be aware that I am not a typical linguistic anthropologist. I came to the subfield through the back door – partly because, as I mentioned, my grad department didn’t offer a specific concentration in the area, and partly just because I’m an ornery crank who doesn’t like to be defined by other people. I trained primarily with archaeologists and cultural anthropologists, and did a doctoral project that doesn’t fit in easily with either subfield. While I did obtain a substantial linguistic training as an undergraduate, and then a more courses here and there as a grad student, if you had asked me directly, say, five years ago, “What kind of anthropologist are you?” I probably would have answered that I was a historical anthropologist, or a cognitive anthropologist. Either label could be adopted by a linguistic anthropologist, but equally by cultural anthropologists or archaeologists. If things had been only ever so slightly different, I might have been an archaeologist. My mentor Bruce Trigger was an archaeologist, among many other things. And to tell you the truth, I just don’t care so much about labels. I do, however, care about the work, and over the past decade most of my work has related centrally to questions about language, culture, and cognition.

Which leads me to the key question I have for you today: Does linguistic anthropology really belong anymore in anthropology? Is linguistic knowledge of any use to the holistic comparative study of human behavior? If it is, then what is the place of linguistics within a general anthropology? If it isn’t, then why are we still hanging on? I have answers, but I don’t expect they would be the answers that your other professors might have, and they might not be the answers that work for you. I do think, however, that as you are sitting in your capstone class, which is supposed to synthesize all the different work you have done throughout your studies here at Wayne, you ought to be aware that there is a question. And it is a serious one. The question of whether anthropology’s thumb is vestigial or opposable not easy to answer, because it really depends on – and please forgive me for extending the metaphor beyond any reasonable bounds – the deeper question, “What is a hand for?”

Balée on the subfields

In his article that you read for today, William Balée, an ecological anthropologist who has done a lot of linguistic, historical, ethnographic, and archaeological work in South America, makes three points with which I am in full agreement (Balée 2009). First, that the origin of the four-field division is older and more complicated than we sometimes give it credit for – that the linkage of these four aspects of humanity is not simply a product of late 19th century America. Second, that there is a longstanding division of labour in the subfields, with cultural anthropology occupying the pinnacle both numerically in terms of degrees and conceptually in terms of the perceived importance of its theories. Third, that despite the critique of four-field holistic anthropology from many fronts, it remains intact, in large part because interesting and worthwhile scholarship is practiced that crosses the subfields. Let’s take them one at a time.

First, the origins and history of the four-field distinction. Balée takes things earlier and farther away from us, to the European Enlightenment. He is certainly right that you can’t understand what happened at the genesis of academic anthropology without looking at what came before it. In the 17th century, antiquarians like John Aubrey would spend half their time looking at ancient ruins and the other half of the time chatting up the locals about what they thought about the ruins – perhaps the very first ethnoarchaeology (Hunter 1975). The historian of science Stephen Alter has shown that Darwin and his supporters used the idea of linguistic branching and descent to demonstrate how small changes could lead over time to the formation of distinct entities, providing a conceptual linkage between biology and linguistics (Alter 1999). In an era when linguistic descent was well-accepted but biological evolution was not, this was a tremendously powerful analogy, and this linkage continues to be productive over 150 years later. All of this is well before academic anthropology came to exist. It’s not a four-field approach to anything, but it is a way of showing that the linkages between what we now see as four subfields of anthropology have a very long history. This suggests that, far from being just a historical coincidence or a social construction, the union of different perspectives on humanity will remain an ongoing concern.

Second, the hierarchy of subfields. Balée notes that the majority of PhDs in anthropology are in cultural, with linguistic anthropologists forming only a tiny minority. To be fair, I suspect that quite a few people whom one might call linguistic anthropologists were classified in that data as cultural anthropologists, or even over in linguistics departments, as sociolinguists. But there’s no denying that for decades, cultural anthropologists have been numerically dominant in the discipline. Today, ‘anthropological theory’ is virtually synonymous with ‘cultural anthropological theory’. The vast majority of papers given at the AAA meetings are presented by cultural anthropologists, and the vast majority of material published in American Anthropologist is as well. What this means, in effect, is that non-cultural anthropologists must either learn enough cultural anthropology to get by, or else be isolated to a significant degree. The same is not true of cultural anthropologists – many of those even ostensibly trained in four-field departments do not read any archaeology or biological anthropology and are none the worse for it. It is regularly the case that linguistic anthropologists are asked to be able to teach cultural anthropology courses, while cultural anthropologists are rarely require familiarity with contemporary theory in biological anthropology. None of this should be taken as a complaint from me! It’s not hard to find bitterness out there, though, if you look for it (Lyman 2007). And it raises some tricky issues when it comes to thinking about linguistics’ place in four-field anthropology. If one subfield, linguistic anthropology, is extraordinarily small, does it really have a place at the disciplinary table?

Third, and most important. It is possible, talking to people trained outside a four-field tradition, to be faced with real bemusement as to why anyone would even bother cross-training in multiple subfields. It’s like asking a biologist why she hasn’t studied French literature. But in my opinion, the answer is clear. Even if there are historical factors underpinning the four (or five) fields that, if they had been otherwise, would have resulted in something else, four-field anthropology persists because it works – because every generation produces really interesting insights using approaches that cross the subfields. This is a case that needs to be made, and whether you’ll be convinced really depends on your definition of ‘interesting’. There have efforts to evaluate the degree to which anthropology has been a four-field discipline in the past and the present (Borofsky 2002; Calcagno 2003). Balée’s article is yet another salvo in a longstanding discussion of the matter. If the subfields really are mutually interdependent, then they must be functionally holistic – they work together. And the only way to know this would be to see examples of research where this happens.

Numerical notation: an integrated linguistic anthropology

In the spirit of ‘put up or shut up’ , let me give you a couple of examples, starting with my own work on number systems. You see, there are a whole lot of archaeologists, both in anthropology and out, who have done work on written numbers of ancient civilizations, like Roman numerals. There are also a bunch of linguists (mostly not anthropologists) who work on the number words of living languages, and a bunch of social anthropologists who work in an area called ‘ethnomathematics’, and a bunch of paleoanthropologists who work on the earliest material evidence for number concepts. You would think that these traditions would be linked, and that these scholars would use each others’ work. Mostly, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. You’d actually find that the most widely-cited authors were non-anthropologists who were heavily indebted to old-school nineteenth-century evolutionism, the sort of thing that gets taken apart maybe in Day 4 of Intro to Anthro. The assumption that our numbers are the best numbers that have ever existed and could ever exist – that we are literally at the end of history of numeration – is held seriously by several prominent contemporary scholars in my field (Ifrah 1998, Dehaene 1997). No, really.

I discovered this maybe in 1999, when I was just figuring out what the heck I wanted to do with my life, and I admit to thinking, Wow, why hasn’t anyone pointed this out yet? As it turns out, it had been mentioned a couple of times – it wasn’t like I was the first person to think this thought – but it really hadn’t been investigated. No one had actually asked the question, “What does it possibly mean to say that the digits 0 through 9, combined in a decimal place-value system, is the best possible way of writing numbers?” I’d like to think I’ve answered it successfully in my dissertation, which is now my book, called Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (Chrisomalis 2010), but I couldn’t do it within the confines of any one subfield. I needed to use all those sources of data, and more.

Along the way I discovered something quite remarkable. If you looked only at the testimony of ancient writing systems, you got one picture of numerals, mostly because what survives is material from numbering systems that were used for long periods of time – centuries or even millennia. Because 90% or more of what was ever written is now lost, what survives tends to be things that were used widely and over a long time. But when you looked at the past couple of centuries, to the historical and ethnographic data, you saw a more complicated picture. You saw very interesting written number systems developed in smaller-scale societies – systems with unexpected features, systems that might only survive for a couple of decades, or be used by only one writer. And this led me to conclude that one of two things must be true:

Hypothesis 1: The present is really dissimilar to the past. The present system of globalization, industrialization, mass media, etc. is radically different from anything that has existed previously. In so many ways, this hypothesis is so obvious, that it’s taken for granted in many circles. It can’t be limitless difference (we’re all human, after all), but it sure could be big enough to warrant treating the past couple of centuries as incomparable to earlier times. Now, if you’re an ethnographer, depending on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, you can interpret that in two ways. You might say, “Well, as an ethnographer, that means I don’t need to worry about anything that happened in the past – basically, archaeology is such a radically different subject matter because it deals mainly with periods that are completely unlike how anyone lives today.” On the other hand, you might say, “Uh-oh … if the past is really that different, then I need to be aware of the fact that I’m just describing a small sliver of humanity, not just in space but in time.” While the first answer goes against the idea of the four-field approach, the second embraces it, but they rely on the same insight.

But the idea that the past and present are dissimilar is not the only interpretation:

Hypothesis 2: The past and the present are not so different after all, but the nature of the data and methodologies used to learn about them are. It occurred to me that maybe things like what I was seeing in the ethnographic record would have existed in the past, but simply hadn’t survived. Ethnographic data are collected at particular moments, and record data at a micro scale compared to what archaeology records. You get different sorts of things than you get if you’re an archaeologist, where even a span of 50 or 100 years – whole generations – is considered brief. This is related to the problem that Martin Wobst called the ‘tyranny of the ethnographic record’ over thirty years ago (Wobst 1978). In particular, Wobst was challenging the notion that we should primarily use models based on ethnographic data to explain archaeological evidence for hunter-forager behavior. It wasn’t that he thought the past and present were different – it’s that he thought that archaeology and ethnology were different. But again, there are two possible approaches. Our hypothetical ethnographer could say, “Method largely determines the questions we ask and the answers we get. As an ethnographer, what I get is really going to be incommensurable with what my archaeologist buddy gets, even if we’re working in the same region. The archaeology of hunter-foragers is thus irrelevant to what I do.” On the other hand, another ethnographer might say, “Uh-oh … if I’m honestly interested in getting past my extremely partial perspective, I’d better find some other complementary perspectives to work alongside mine.” Again, two answers to the same observation.

Is the past like the present?

Linguists face this challenge all the time. Today, there are between 6000 and 7000 languages spoken worldwide, and probably another couple hundred for which we have good evidence in the form of historical documents, going back about 5000 years. But anatomically modern humans have been around for a really long time – at least 100,000 years. So for 95% of that time, we have no direct evidence what languages anyone spoke, and for most of the rest of the 5%, we have only written texts. And while writing is useful, it isn’t the same as spoken language – just think about how differently English words are spelled and pronounced. Sure, we have reconstructions – historical linguists spend a lot of time reconstructing proto-languages – that is, hypothetical reconstructions of past languages based on similarities and regular patterns of change in their modern descendants. So we have a thing that we call “Proto-Indo-European” which is ancestral to languages as distinct as Portuguese and Punjabi, Norwegian and Nepali. But we don’t know for sure how accurate our reconstruction is – and we certainly don’t know things like how the language was actually used on a daily basis. We can’t even decide where it was spoken to within 1000 miles!

In 1985, the linguistic anthropologist Charles Hockett raised what I think is one of the most remarkable theories ever developed at the intersection of biology and language (Hockett 1985). Balée discusses Hockett’s article, which published as a distinguished lecture in the American Anthropologist, our flagship journal, and which was just entitled ‘F’. And it was, in fact, a study of the sound /f/ throughout history and prehistory. Hockett noted that F is actually quite uncommon in the world’s languages, but that it was uncommon in a patterned way. It tends to be found in areas of the world where cereal agriculture was practiced early (say, 8 or 10,000 years ago) and tends not to be found in areas where agriculture developed late, or not at all. He pointed out that hunter-forager populations, particularly prehistoric ones, tend to have an edge bite – that is, when resting normally the top incisors rest on the bottom ones. But if you’re like me, you have a scissors bite or overbite, and this in fact tends to be true of agricultural populations or populations in long contact with them. These are microevolutionary tendencies, explainable by dietary patterns, but if Hockett is right, farmers’ languages tend to have /f/ because their top incisors stick out ever so slightly. That also means that maybe if we were able to look at languages 30,000 years ago, we would find that languages with F were vanishingly rare. F might be a particularly modern phoneme.

Now, back to numbers. Until a few years ago, it was accepted more or less by everyone in linguistics and anthropology that all human languages had number words. Maybe not a lot of number words – we knew of some languages with just words for ‘one’ and ‘two’, with everything else being ‘many’ or ‘a lot’ – but we accepted pretty much that there had to be some. Then along came Dan Everett to spoil our certainty. Everett is a linguist who has spent good chunks of the past quarter-century working with the Pirahã of Brazil, and reported much to everyone’s amazement that there were no numerals in the language (Everett 2005). There were a couple of words that he said possessed a ‘quantificational smell’, but really, he never heard anyone count or enumerate anything in all the time he was there. That’s really weird.

Now, the Pirahã are a modern people – we can’t just discount them as ‘primitive’ or as some sort of representative of what things were like in the distant past. This isn’t my argument at all. What I would insist, though, is that if there are some languages that lack numerals, then we have to treat them as sociocultural and even technological phenomena, that emerge in particular contexts. The cultural anthropologist William Divale has noted that larger-scale societies with great amounts of food storage tend to have more numeral words (Divale 1999). Even where societies are fairly small, today, they are all integrated with larger societies to a significant degree. There are practically speaking no people today who are somehow untouched by state societies. This raises the interesting possibility that like F, numerals were rarer before agriculture was developed. This has very little to do with biology, and nothing to do with people getting smarter over time. It has everything to do with the fact that 10,000 years ago, no one had ever lived in a large, strongly hierarchical society.

So at this point, you might be justifiably skeptical if you heard that “All languages have X” or “There are no languages that have Y”, because we really only know reliably about a tiny tip of the iceberg of all languages that have ever been spoken. How do we know that what we’ve got is a good sample? For instance, today over 95% of languages have the subject before the object of the verb: “The dog chewed the bone”. The idea is, or so the story goes, that the thing doing the action (the agent) is cognitively more important than the one receiving it (the patient). But there are languages – not many, but more than a couple – that have the opposite order – where ‘The bone chewed the dog” is normal. What if in the past, there were a lot more? We know it can happen, so why not?

So: to give up or not to give up? We might at this point just resign ourselves that since the direct observation of language (and indeed, most cultural behavior) is only possible in the present, anthropology should be the study of the present. After all, there is a lot of important work to be done on the present, more certainly than can be done in all the lifetimes of all the cultural anthropologists in the world. So maybe it’s best to just forget about the other subfields and for cultural anthropology to become the anthropology. But I think this attitude would be overly negative, not to mention presumptuous. To say that we can’t know everything, so we shouldn’t try, is a form of dangerous know-nothing-ism. It also insulates practitioners of any one subfield from criticism from ‘outside’.

Archaeology in the contemporary linguistic landscape

Now, I don’t want you to come away from my talk today with the impression that four-field anthropology is only relevant if you are interested in gigantic theoretical questions about the nature of humanity, past, present, and future. Let’s face it – most anthropologists, including me, 95% of the time, are doing research on a local or regional scale, and while they are inevitably thinking about bigger issues, the work itself is focused on the particulars they’re investigating. This doesn’t exclude crossing the subfields at all. Let me give you another example from my own work, one that integrates linguistic anthropology with archaeology, but that otherwise couldn’t be further removed from the stuff on numerals.

It all started in 2006, when I moved back to Montreal to teach at McGill, and we moved into a neighbourhood I hadn’t really visited much before, a highly bilingual and mixed ethnic area of the city. Just walking around the neighbourhood, I noticed something really weird … about stop signs. Yeah, you heard me, stop signs. You see, unlike virtually everywhere else in the Western world, most of the stop signs in the Canadian province of Quebec read ARRET (French for ‘stop’). But around my new home, there were a bunch of old, worn, beaten-up signs that read ARRET/STOP – they had both words, and so they were bilingual texts. Granted, they’re not massive Maya hieroglyphic temple inscriptions, but they are something. What’s more, they occur at relatively predictable locations on the landscape, and there are lots and lots of them. And to top it all off, every single bilingual stop sign is illegal in the province of Quebec. This is because, by law, all government signs must be in French only.

In 2008 and 2009, I and a bunch of my students decided – well, okay, I’ll be honest, it was in a class and I decided to assign a project – to collect data on stop signs. Lots of them. Over 4000 stop signs over nine separate municipalities in roughly 30 square miles of Montreal. Every single stop sign in that whole area was visited, documented, and photographed – treated as a piece of text-bearing material culture. We evaluated not only the official text, but also the graffiti on them, and also evaluated how worn or damaged they were to get a sense of their age. We were able to confirm that there are indeed bilingual, illegal stop signs in various parts of the city – and not just old ones that no one had thought to replace, either. We were able to show that these texts are used to express concerns about linguistic identities and linguistic boundaries within multilingual, multi-ethnic Montreal, both in their official languages and in their unofficial languages. This became the Stop: Toutes Directions project.

But here’s the thing. If you talk to Montrealers about stop signs, as I have done many times, you find that most of them are generally aware that there are some in English-speaking neighbourhoods that read STOP, and if you talk to older people they remember when all the stop signs read ARRET/STOP, and that they now mostly either say ARRET or STOP, but not both. But you could do a hundred ethnographic interviews and you wouldn’t find much – the level of awareness is less than you might think. And this really surprised me, because in Quebec, public discourse about the language of commercial signs is enormous, and stop signs are far more ubiquitous. But other than a very few politicians and pundits with strong political commitments, I didn’t find anything explicit to suggest that stop sign language was important to anyone. And that’s troubling for a purely ethnographic linguistic anthropology, because the ethnography only gives you a piece of a much larger puzzle – what people know explicitly, or what they are willing and able to discuss. To get beyond that requires a careful, attentive, and frankly quantitative approach to these thousands of texts, treating them as objects of material culture on the ‘linguistic landscape’ (Landry and Bourhis 1997). Without my own training in archaeology (and that of my students) we wouldn’t have been able to find out what we did.


To return to our basic metaphor for today, my feeling is that linguistic anthropology is currently treated as anthropology’s pinkie: the smallest and weakest of the fields, also less capable of independent movement than the index or middle fingers. In other words, it is seen as an adjunct to cultural anthropology, as the ‘cultural anthropology of language’, much as political or economic anthropology are not conceptualized as distinct subfields, but as part of cultural anthropology. And if it is the case that linguistic anthropology is really just the ethnography of communication and language, then it might well be that it isn’t a real subfield. I hope I’ve made my case today that I don’t think that can be true. There are real and important linkages between linguistic anthropology and archaeology, and with biological anthropology, and that make it something more. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that the linkages between them are stronger than the links with cultural anthropology … but that is a discussion for another day.

It may well be that I’m tilting at windmills here – that in 50 years, there will be anthropologists who study language, but not linguistic anthropologists in the sense of a distinct body of scholarship. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world – it’s not like it implies that everyone will have forgotten that language is part of culture. But I also think that it carries dangers. It says something about the value that anthropologists in general place on the particular techniques and concepts of linguistics as a discipline, and that does concern me – that what was once a truly multidisciplinary enterprise becomes increasingly insular. But the same could be said of economic anthropologists who never study economics. You could argue that the anthropological study of a subject doesn’t mean you have to actually study the subject. No anthropologist would say that publicly, any less than they would say that you don’t need to learn a field language to do ethnography. But as a matter of practice, the various “X-ic anthropologies” are “anthropologies of X” that do not entail that their practitioners have made a serious study of X, much less that they are X-ists. Linguistic anthropology was, and to some degree still is an exception, because its disciplinary origins lie partly in anthropology. But it’s not inevitable that it should be so.

At the beginning of my talk today, I suggested that linguistic anthropology was anthropology’s thumb, and later that the answer to its role depended on the deeper question, “What is a hand for?” In other words, what is anthropology’s place within the human disciplines? My opinion is that anthropology is, or should be, the integrative core of the social sciences – a phrase I borrow freely from my teacher, Bruce Trigger (2002). I see it as the discipline that unites all the different things that people who study humans do, linking them together in interesting ways that wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t conceptualized as part of the same thing. It’s not enough to have sociolinguists in linguistics, evolutionary scientists in biology, and globalization specialists in international relations. We need linguistic anthropology not only to aid other anthropologists, but to aid linguists in finding interesting places where their work integrates with that of others.

Anthropological holism has value not only, as Balée argues, because there is good holistic work done within anthropology, but also because this work is of value to other disciplines as part of a general study of humanity. Anthropology extends its hand to its sister disciplines. It points to interesting gaps where questions remain imperfectly asked and answered. It gives a big old middle finger to those who believe that there is something natural or eternal about the current political, economic, and cultural situation in this country. And if linguistic anthropology is anthropology’s thumb, it is not just a hitchhiker on a misguided trip, but a crucial tool in grasping the totality of human behavior.

Works cited

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Balée, W. 2009. The Four-Field Model of Anthropology in the United States. Amazônica-Revista de Antropologia 1, no. 1.
Borofsky, R. 2002. The four subfields: Anthropologists as mythmakers. American Anthropologist 104, no. 2: 463-480.
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Dehaene, S. 1997. The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Divale, W. 1999. Climatic instability, food storage, and the development of numerical counting: A cross-cultural study. Cross-Cultural Research 33, no. 4: 341.
Everett, D. L.. 2005. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology 46, no. 4: 621-646.
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Hunter, M. C. W. 1975. John Aubrey and the realm of learning. Watson Pub Intl.
Ifrah, G. 2000. The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer. Transl. David Bellos, EF Harding, Sophie Wood, and Ian Monk. New York: Wiley.
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Segal, D. A., and S. J. Yanagisako. 2005. Unwrapping the sacred bundle: Reflections on the disciplining of anthropology. Duke University Press.
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Anthropology’s Thumb by Stephen Chrisomalis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

3 thoughts on “Anthropology’s thumb: is linguistic anthropology vestigial or opposable?”

  1. “ornery crank” = “Scholar”, yes? There are cheerful ones and sourpusses, but we are all o.c.s

    This was very good; was it brought to us by the letter F?

  2. It seems to me that holistic anthropology is the only study that really makes anthropology worthwhile.

    Consider an analogy: In science throwing away chemistry, physics, biology, geology, mathematics, or nearly any of the other subsciences detracts from science as a whole. Any scientific phenemenon should be explicable when put under scrutiny in any of these fields. The bending of light that allows eyes to focus must be explained in physics by the wave property of light, in chemistry by the differing indices of refraction of various chemicals, and in mathematics by Snell’s Law. The sum of these is a biological conclusion: eyes refract light, causing it to focus on the retina. Converging lines of evidence all point to the same conclusion.

    Anthropology, by comparison, has had varying degrees of convergence. Often one method of anthropology has become popular over others, and you can often find cultural anthropologists peddling what are basically their own biased, although informed through training, opinions on a culture. One person can only view or experience a culture in one way, and without other evidence that points to similar conclusions those conclusions often lay on a shaky foundation. In science phenomena repeat themselves in predictable ways, whereas in anthropology similar looking cultures may vary in incredible ways. Even a simple tool like an adze may serve a hundred purposes in as many cultures. The evolution of language may be just as important in understanding a culture as a quirk of biology, and the fact is that by claiming any subfield as useless you’ve just eliminated a valuable tool from your tool box, whether it is one you use often or seldom.

    Truthfully, one of my greatest problems with anthropologist, being a scientist myself, is that lack of bias-checking. You can go in any Barnes and Noble and find a hundred books written by bona fide phD’s on Japan, China, and other cultures, and they will generally come to different conclusions, or conclusions that are more a reflection of their own stereotyping than a deep understanding of their subject. Without converging support for their conclusions most of these books are mere anecdotes, interesting but subject to interpretation. Maxwell’s Laws, by comparison, are fairly concrete and are unlikely to be misconstrued even by beginning physics students.

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