• 2016 AA Editor Search
  • Get Ready for the Annual Meeting

    From t-shirts to journals, 2014 Annual Meeting Gear Shop Now
  • Open Anthropology
  • Latest AAA Podcast

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 20,600 other followers

Indiana Jones is to Anthropology as Fred Flintstone is to Neolithic Life

Below is a copy of the Letter to the Editor of the New York Times Magazine by President Mullings in response to the recent article by Emily Eakin.

To the Editor,

While we recognize that the figure of Indiana Jones is attractive, it is about as useful for understanding anthropology as Fred Flintstone is for understanding life in the Neolithic. Your article perpetuates an outdated and narrow stereotype of our profession. The 11,000 members of the American Anthropological Association alone actually spend their time doing a vast array of things. Today’s anthropologists can be found in such diverse endeavors as leading the World Bank, designing health care for areas devastated by disaster, or researching  the causes of the 2008 recession or the deaths of 100 boys in a defunct reform school in Florida. The  representation of a field paralyzed by  debates about  ‘science, ’ vs. ‘advocacy ’ is similarly inaccurate, given the non-polarized ways most anthropologists today understand ‘science’, ‘advocacy’ and the nature of the field. The article also misses one of Napoleon Chagnon’s lasting legacies to our field: the reminder to engage in constant reflection about anthropological ethics. The American Anthropological Association recently did just that, releasing its new Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility in October 2012. Finally, we consider lively debate neither dangerous nor self-serving: it is a key to knowledge.

Leith Mullings
American Anthropological Association
Distinguished Professor
Graduate Center, City University of New York

Science, Advocacy and Anthropology

By Leith Mullings, Monica Heller, Ed Liebow and Alan Goodman

Do you remember the arcade game ‘Whack-a-Mole’? Plastic animals pop up at random from their holes in a table’s surface. The player bashes them back into their holes with a rubber mallet. As the pace picks up, initial delight is replaced by a growing sense of futility. Every time a mole is whacked back into its hole, another pops up somewhere else. The debate about whether science and advocacy are inimical is starting to feel like this.

It has popped up again in this week’s New York Times Magazine in reference to our discipline, anthropology. Contrary to some loudly voiced claims, both advocacy and science are (and long have been) at the core of our discipline. At the same time, of course, both continually raise important ethical questions requiring continued conversation, examination and debate; indeed, the American Anthropological Association recently approved a new statement on professional responsibilities. They both also require a commitment to good scholarship, and to lively but civil scholarly debate, in which arguments are considered persuasive because of a consistent body of evidence whose reliability and validity inspire confidence, not because of exceptional circumstances presented in a made-for-the-movies sensational fashion. (see also Professor Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Noble Savages).

Let us use the problem of ‘race’ to illustrate the complex relationship between what counts as good or bad science, and significance of advocacy in anthropology. Our modern discipline’s origins are derived directly from an uncritical acceptance of, as well as a critical response to overt 19th and early 20th century ‘scientific racism.’ ‘Science’ legitimated prejudice and bigotry, holding that races were genetically separate and hierarchically ranked, and thus rationalizing slavery, Jim Crow laws and even genocide. And lest we think that ‘scientific racism’ is some archaic relic that was driven out of the public conversation, one need only consult the more recent arguments of authors such as Herrnstein, Murray, Rushton, Jensen, and Lynn.

In an attempt to bring sounder evidence to the debate, our Association’s current Race Project draws from all fields of anthropology and provides a modern, and eminently scholarly, understanding of race, casting a critical eye on race and racism through the lenses of history, science, and lived experience. The project, and the book that accompanies it, RACE: Are We So Different?, is also a form of advocacy, raising public awareness about how human variation differs from the popular, and sometimes even academic, notions of race. It argues, specifically, that 1) race is a recent human invention, 2) popular ideas about race emerge from history and culture, not biology, and 3) race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.

The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises.
We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.

Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and President of the AAA.

Monica Heller is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and Vice President and President-Elect of the AAA.

Ed Liebow is the Executive Director of the AAA.

Alan Goodman is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College, and a Past President of the AAA.

Letter to the Editor of Forbes Magazine

Below is a copy of the Letter to the Editor of  Forbes by AAA President Leith Mullings:

October 31, 2012

Forbes Magazine
60 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10011-8868

To the Editor:

The American Anthropological Association read with concern Forbes’ recent article entitled “The 10 Worst College Majors.” Concluding that anthropology/archeology is “the worst choice of college major in economic terms” because other undergraduate majors earn a higher salary at graduation is less like comparing apples to oranges than comparing aardvarks to toaster ovens.

First, an undergraduate degree is sufficient to be credentialed as, say, a professional engineer, but professional anthropologists/archeologists require a graduate degree for most entry-level positions. Anthropologists/archeologists with those credentials have a much better than average job outlook, with a 50% higher than average growth in jobs between 2010-2020 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Further, many business, law and medical schools encourage applicants to obtain an undergraduate degree in anthropology as good preparation for their programs.

Assessing whether contexts for comparison are equivalent is one of the skills anthropologists teach, and the American Anthropological Association regrets that it is one Forbes has not learned.


Leith Mullings

American Anthropological Association

Calling All Anthropologists: We Need a Photo of You!

The American Anthropological Association seeks photos of anthropologists in “the field” for use in the new website, This is Anthropology. We hope to collect a wide variety of images of anthropologists in action who represent the breadth of our field and the diversity of our discipline.

K Fine-Dare interviewing Pablo Gomez Semanate at family festival, Barrio San Enrique de Velasco, 2009. Photo courtesy Byron Dare.*

Submission Details

  • We seek photos that primarily feature an anthropologist, although other additional individuals present in the photo are allowable if the submitter has permission to use the image in this way.
  • Photos should be in .JPG or .TIFF format. We recommend submitting high-resolution images, up to 5MB.
  • Photos can be submitted online at: http://www.aaanet.org/customcf/anthro_pics/index.cfm.
  • The deadline for consideration is 5pm on Friday, July 27, 2012.

About the New Site

This is Anthropology, designed primarily for a lay audience of students and parents, features information about anthropology, about anthropological careers, the skills we use and how to become an anthropologist. It also features the ability for anthropologists themselves to make profiles and use an interactive map to list projects, affiliations and the schools they attended.


Please contact Jason Miller at jemille3@mail.usf.edu.

*This select photo and a corresponding article were published in Anthropology News (52:5), official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.

AAA Interns Share Their Experiences on Living and Working in the Nation’s Capital

This summer, AAA is hosting two interns: Melissa Campbell-McIntosh and Juliana Bennington. In this blog post, Melissa shares her feelings about her first week in Washington, DC.

Hi, my name is Melissa and I am one of the two interns selected to work for the American Anthropological Association (AAA) this summer. I would like to start by briefly introducing myself. I am entering into my senior year at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, CA, located in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. My major is Anthropology with a concentration in Archaeology. I am particularly interested in Maritime Archaeology, Collections Management, and Cultural Resource Management. I have worked for the past two years as an assistant to the Archivist at my school. This has allowed me to apply my scholarly interests in a practical setting.

Once I heard of the internship being offered by the AAA in partnership with the Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) of the Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC), I knew I had to apply. I was confident that I was well qualified for this opportunity; however, I was not going to allow myself to get my hopes up until I knew for sure. I had never applied for an internship before and I figured at the very least I would walk away from this with some much needed practice in applying for future internships or research grants. Getting my congratulatory e-mail was one of the most thrilling experiences, second only to being accepted at Saint Mary’s.

Being accepted to this program brings with it a fair amount of pressure. Working for the AAA and the UAB entails representing these organizations, my school, the Anthropology Department, and my professors. I also wish to use this experience to enrich my knowledge base and gain more skills I can use in the future.

Since arriving in Washington, D.C and beginning my internship on July 6, 2011, I have been exposed to a wide variety of tasks and experiences. Working at the AAA offices has afforded me the opportunity to utilize social media outlets to promote my passion for all things Anthropology. This experience has allowed me to bring awareness to the processes of governmental funding which can greatly impact scientific research within the social sciences.

The other portion of my internship takes place at the Navy Yards where I work with Archaeologists and Conservationists at the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History & Heritage Command. This organization is responsible for acting in stewardship of all naval aircraft and vessel wreck sites that remain underwater and for preserving and housing all artifacts that have been excavated. Excavations of sites are only undertaken when intervention is required to preserve artifacts that are under threat; this can be due to environmental instability or human interference of the site.

I have been able to assist in the inventory of artifacts, conservation of artifacts, and promotion of the projects that are currently underway using social media outlets. On Monday July 18, I will be headed out to the field for the first time. The UAB is excavating the USS Scorpion, a War of 1812 ship that is located beneath the Pawtuxet River in Maryland. I will be able to aid the divers from atop a research barge and document any artifacts that are brought to the surface. Once the excavation team returns to base we will begin processing the artifacts to ensure that proper conservation methods are initiated immediately.

I would like to thank Saint Mary’s College and my professors for preparing me so well, I would not be where I am today if it were not for the remarkable educational experience I have had. I would also like to thank Damon Dozier and the entire staff at the AAA; I know that my future is much brighter now that I have been able to expand my horizon through gaining practical experience within a field which is so dear to me: Anthropology.

Elimination of “Linguistically Isolated” as Classification by the U.S. Census Bureau

AAA experts on Language and Social Justice from the Committee for Human Rights and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology have been working with the U.S. Census Bureau for several years to spur terminology change in the tabulation of household language data. As a result of our extensive communication with the U.S. Census Bureau, and with the support of the Census Advisory Committee on the Hispanic Population, the U.S. Census Bureau agreed to eliminate the phrase “linguistic isolation” from its products issued starting in 2011. In a recent letter, the Bureau writes, “We have changed the terminology to one that we feel is more descriptive and less stigmatizing. The phrase that will appear in all new products will be Households in which no one 14 and over speaks English only or speaks a language other than English at home and speaks English ‘very well.’

For the complete story, click here.

Anthropologists Speak Out in Protection of Academic Freedom

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its more than 11,000 members worldwide join the American Historical Association (AHA) and the larger social science community in deploring efforts to ask William Cronon to release his scholarly correspondence concerning recent events and debate regarding collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.

Dr. Cronon is a well-respected academic, and is not only the incoming president of the American Historical Association, but is also a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Social science, anthropology, and all of the humanities-related disciplines at large have always recognized the importance of using scholarship to explore our own times. Working within this rich tradition of academic freedom, Cronon has used his deep knowledge of American history to provide a much-needed panoramic context for the recent events in Wisconsin.  In doing this, he has enriched our understanding of present dialogues as well referencing the past to provide much needed historical, cultural and political perspective.

In demanding that the university supply copies of emails to and from Cronon that mention certain politicians and activities, some have encroached the sacred place of academic freedom and dangerously led this debate along the plane of partisan politics. As scholars and researchers, we assert that the right to intelligently criticize and critique current events, regardless of political affiliation, should remain sacrosanct and untouched by those who seek to gain political headway in the short term. A better approach would be to have his detractors challenge his historical account rather than publicly violate his civil and academic rights.

As we understand the statute, the purpose of the state’s Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Anthropologists vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, we fear the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other scholars employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We join with the AHA in calling on public-spirited individuals and organizations to denounce this assault on academic freedom. We further call on those who would challenge rightful scholarship to participate in a forthright and fair conversation about the issues Professor Cronon has raised.

As anthropologists, we welcome the opportunity to have this debate, and ask that those who would challenge Dr Cronon would meet us in a public sphere to intelligently and comprehensively discuss the issues at hand. We are ready and able to do so, and would hope those opposed to Dr Cronon’s approach would do so as well.  We look forward to a spirited dialogue.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 20,600 other followers