Call for Papers: Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Call for Papers, 2015 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado (Nov. 18-22, 2015)

Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe

Anthropology has a long history of interactions with non-mainstream or pseudoscientific ideas. In our scholarship, classrooms, and public outreach, we are frequently confronted by advocates of ideas far beyond mainstream scientific understandings. Some of these ideas are directly challenged by anthropological data, such as ‘scientific’ racism, intelligent design, hyperdiffusionism, ancient aliens, 2012 millenarianism, pyramidology, and cryptozoology. Other pseudoscientific ideas are non-anthropological, but encountered in interaction with publics interested in medicine, the environment, or religion: homeopathy, climate change denial, biorhythms, dowsing, etc. What can – and what should – we do about them? What is our obligation to address (or not) these ‘strange’ sciences? And what tools does anthropology – as a ‘strange science’ itself, confronting challenges to its scientific status both from within and without – bring to bear that other disciplines lack?

Archaeologists have long been interested in addressing their publics about the value of scientific reasoning and in particular in countering mythical and often pernicious ideas about the past (Feder 2014). Similarly, biological anthropologists have done much to address the myth of biological race and to confront creationist ideas (Marks 2012). But our encounters with fringe ideas are more numerous and more complex than these, and cross all the subfields. We are also faced with different sorts of challenges: when these ideas come from our students or consultants, how do we maintain respectful social relationships while still making knowledge claims? How do we justify our knowledge claims in an environment ever more given to epistemological skepticism about the authority of science?

The goal of this panel is to address anthropological encounters with ‘strange science’ in the field, in the classroom, and in encounters with colleagues, from the perspective of scientifically-oriented anthropology across all subfields. Within a framework that posits that anthropology can, indeed, make verifiable truth-claims, abstracts are welcome that discuss any anthropological dialogue or engagement with non-mainstream scientific ideas, past or present, including but not limited to those mentioned above.

Please respond to this call by April 3, 2015 by emailing an abstract of no more than 250 words to Stephen Chrisomalis (Wayne State University) at chrisomalis [at] A discussant slot would also be extremely welcome. Please feel free to distribute to any colleagues or students who may be interested. As with any AAA panel, all panelists must be registered AAA members and additionally register for the conference.

How and why (not) to go to grad school (Happy National Anthropology Day!)

Today, Feb. 19, is National Anthropology Day.  Now, you may not have previously heard of this hallowed waypoint in the seasonal cycle, and the likelihood that you’ll see Hallmark picking up on this is close to zero, but nevertheless, here it is.

In honor of this most glorious occasion, I will be presenting a talk I’ve given many times before, in various forms, entitled ‘How and why (not) to go to grad school’, in this case, at a seminar sponsored by the Wayne State Anthropology Learning Community.  (By the way, in case you were wondering, learning communities, when well done, are more or less the best.  And ours is the best.)   Stop by if you’re around.


I posted about this topic more than five years ago, when Glossographia was just a baby-blog, in ‘To grad or not to grad‘.  In reading over the old post, I still agree wholeheartedly with the general point.  To simply offer a blanket ‘just don’t go to grad school’, which many faculty do, is wrongheaded.  It’s insulting, and will likely convince the wrong students to avoid grad training, while failing to sway many who shouldn’t apply.  In place of unambiguous injunctions, we need fact-sharing and clear thinking. We should indeed be interrogating our students as to why they want to go to grad school.  We ought to be ensuring that they are aware of (and have clear paths laid for) other career options.  And we certainly shouldn’t be encouraging otherwise ambivalent students to pursue this path.  But advice, not platitudes, is called for.

In several less central respects, however, my position needs to be clarified from the one I advocated in 2009:

– I wasn’t clear enough that an unfunded MA may indeed make sense, if it’s the only graduate degree you want, and if you are pursuing it for clear professional reasons that do not include the PhD.  My original post  may read as assuming that if you are doing an MA, it is because you are eventually planning to do a PhD.  But the vast majority of MA students in anthropology never apply to doctoral programs, and they end up (largely) professionally successful.  Funding is still great, where available, but a targeted two-year masters without funding will likely be worth it in the long run, if you know what you want out of the degree.

– I didn’t emphasize as clearly as I should have the importance of planning, as much as two to three years before you apply to graduate school, to become the sort of applicant whose chances of success are greatest.  You can have a fancy GPA in the upper 3s, but if you don’t have a record of undergraduate research and multiple full-time faculty to support your application, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  Identifying faculty to work with/study under, and projects to undertake, means that you can’t just decide six months before that you’re ready to apply, no matter how bright you (think you) are.

– Like many social scientists and humanists, I probably have some ‘science envy’, and put too much emphasis on the bad market in these fields.  In fact, I probably underemphasized (or was unaware of) just how bad things are in the natural sciences as well.    The programs are larger, there’s the expectation of one or more postdocs before a tenure-track job, and it’s just as terrifying.   Honestly maybe moreso: I do not look at my colleagues on the tenure track in the sciences with envy.

– I really didn’t talk enough (or at all) about the role of class and gender in ‘just don’t go’ advice.  I am  concerned that female students, given the pressures of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat, are more likely to take ‘just don’t go’ to heart, where less or equally capable male students may press on.  That doesn’t help anyone. The role of class, too, in dissuading working-class students from pursuing graduate work, seems to me deleterious to the profession.  Grad school is economically risky, but so too is post-degree unemployment, and I guarantee you that scarce post-BA internships and professional jobs get snapped up with people with social networks and cultural capital to back them up.  For academically-strong students whose family and community ties offer no meaningful employment support for someone with a BA, graduate school may be the least risky option.

Wayne State folks, hope to see you there.  Happy National Anthropology Day!

P.S. Finally, and this is just a minor complaint, but I object strenuously that no one seems to have noticed or commented on the fact that I used the verb ‘decimate’ in its etymologically-correct but practically-useless sense in my original post, to refer to the reduction of something by 1/10 (in this case, endowments).  Hmph!  Do you know how hard you have to work to find a context where you can use ‘decimate’ to mean what pedants think it always ought to mean? What fun is it being an anti-pedant when pedants don’t even notice your playful anti-pedantry?

Language, Culture, and History: a reading list

Having appropriately propitiated the curricular deities, it appears that this coming fall, I’m going to be teaching a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology on the topic of Language, Culture, and History.   The readings will be drawn from linguistically-oriented historical anthropology and ethnohistory, anthropologically-oriented historical sociolinguistics, and linguistically-oriented archaeology, if that makes any sense.  Maybe not?

Anyway, last night I put together my ‘long list’ of 40-odd books that we might potentially read. Some of these will come off the list due to price or availability.  Others I haven’t looked at thoroughly yet, and when I do will come off because they aren’t suitable.  That might get me down to 25, but then I’ll need to get it down to 13 or 14, one a week. The rest can go on a list from which individual students can pick to do individual book reviews and presentations.

Here’s the list, below.  Additional ideas of books that fit these general themes would be welcome. Any thoughts?

Continue reading “Language, Culture, and History: a reading list”

Five great 2014 articles on number systems

The scholarship on numbers is, as always, disciplinarily broad and intellectually diverse, which is why it’s so much fun to read even after fifteen years of poking at it.  This past year saw loads of great new material published on number systems, ranging from anthropology, linguistics, psychology, history of science, archaeology, among others.  Here are my favourite five from 2014, with abstracts:

Barany, Michael J. 2014. “Savage numbers and the evolution of civilization in Victorian prehistory.The British Journal for the History of Science 47 (2):239-255.

This paper identifies ‘savage numbers’ – number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior – as a crucial and hitherto unrecognized body of evidence in the first two decades of the Victorian science of prehistory. It traces the changing and often ambivalent status of savage numbers in the period after the 1858–1859 ‘time revolution’ in the human sciences by following successive reappropriations of an iconic 1853 story from Francis Galton’s African travels. In response to a fundamental lack of physical evidence concerning prehistoric men, savage numbers offered a readily available body of data that helped scholars envisage great extremes of civilizational lowliness in a way that was at once analysable and comparable, and anecdotes like Galton’s made those data vivid and compelling. Moreover, they provided a simple and direct means of conceiving of the progressive scale of civilizational development, uniting societies and races past and present, at the heart of Victorian scientific racism.

Bender, Andrea, and Sieghard Beller. 2014. “Mangarevan invention of binary steps for easier calculation.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (4):1322-1327.

When Leibniz demonstrated the advantages of the binary system for computations as early as 1703, he laid the foundation for computing machines. However, is a binary system also suitable for human cognition? One of two number systems traditionally used on Mangareva, a small island in French Polynesia, had three binary steps superposed onto a decimal structure. Here, we show how this system functions, how it facilitated arithmetic, and why it is unique. The Mangarevan invention of binary steps, centuries before their formal description by Leibniz, attests to the advancements possible in numeracy even in the absence of notation and thereby highlights the role of culture for the evolution of and diversity in numerical cognition.

Berg, Thomas, and Marion Neubauer. 2014. “From unit-and-ten to ten-before-unit order in the history of English numerals.Language Variation and Change 26 (1):21-43.

In the course of its history, English underwent a significant structural change in its numeral system. The number words from 21 to 99 switched from the unit-and-ten to the ten-before-unit pattern. This change is traced on the basis of more than 800 number words. It is argued that this change, which took seven centuries to complete and in which the Old English pattern was highly persistent, can be broken down into two parts—the reordering of the units and tens and the loss of the conjoining element. Although the two steps logically belong to the same overall change, they display a remarkably disparate behavior. Whereas the reordering process affected the least frequent number words first, the deletion process affected the most frequent words first. This disparity lends support to the hypothesis that the involvement or otherwise of low-level aspects of speech determines the role of frequency in language change (Phillips, 2006). Finally, the order change is likely to be a contact-induced phenomenon and may have been facilitated by a reduction in mental cost.

MacGinnis, John, M Willis Monroe, Dirk Wicke, and Timothy Matney. 2014. “Artefacts of Cognition: the Use of Clay Tokens in a Neo-Assyrian Provincial Administration.Cambridge Archaeological Journal 24 (2):289-306.

The study of clay tokens in the Ancient Near East has focused, for the most part, on their role as antecedents to the cuneiform script. Starting with Pierre Amiet and Maurice Lambert in the 1960s the theory was put forward that tokens, or calculi, represent an early cognitive attempt at recording. This theory was taken up by Denise Schmandt-Besserat who studied a large diachronic corpus of Near Eastern tokens. Since then little has been written except in response to Schmandt-Besserat’s writings. Most discussions of tokens have generally focused on the time period between the eighth and fourth millennium bc with the assumption that token use drops off as writing gains ground in administrative contexts. Now excavations in southeastern Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe — the Neo-Assyrian provincial capital Tušhan — have uncovered a corpus of tokens dating to the first millennium bc. This is a significant new contribution to the documented material. These tokens are found in association with a range of other artefacts of administrative culture — tablets, dockets, sealings and weights — in a manner which indicates that they had cognitive value concurrent with the cuneiform writing system and suggests that tokens were an important tool in Neo-Assyrian imperial administration.

Sherouse, Perry. 2014. “Hazardous digits: Telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia.Language & Communication 37:1-11.

Why do many Georgian speakers in Tbilisi prefer a non-native language (Russian) for providing telephone numbers to their interlocutors? One of the most common explanations is that the addressee is at risk of miskeying a number if it is given in Georgian, a vigesimal system, rather than Russian, a decimal system. Rationales emphasizing the hazards of Georgian numbers in favor of the “ease” of Russian numbers provide an entrypoint to discuss the social construction of linguistic difference with respect to technological artifacts. This article investigates historical and sociotechnical dimensions contributing to ease of communication as the primary rationale for Russian language preference. The number keypad on the telephone has afforded a normative preference for Russian linguistic code.

Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ ( and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon ( retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ ( and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ ( Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.
%d bloggers like this: