I got back late Saturday from the SaSci/SCCR conference in Las Vegas, to be greeted in Detroit by several inches of new-fallen snow … oh joy! Although I hardly had the time or inclination to do any serious gambling while away, I did win modestly at the airport slots due to my flight being delayed for half an hour. My talk was sparsely attended but nonetheless well-received, and it looks like as a result of these discussions, I’ll be presenting next year at the same conference as part of a session on anthropology and numerical cognition (in other words, exactly my field). In general, discussions about methodology in cognitive anthropology have led me to think quite a bit about my upcoming work this summer working with Detroit middle school students and learning about mathematical concept formation. A real challenge in the anthropology of mathematics is that there aren’t very many anthropologists working on mathematics, and because mathematics is a weird sort of domain where referents are often abstract, our methodologies aren’t extremely well developed, as opposed to, say, the study of kinship terms or ethnobotanical knowledge. So I have been spending the past few days thinking a lot more seriously about elicitation tasks and what exactly a mathematics-oriented ethnographic interview ought to look like and how on earth I can/should apply any of the highly theoretical knowledge I have acquired to this very grounded situation. Of course, I won’t really have the slightest clue what I’m doing until I actually start doing it, and possibly not even then.
But more generally, and despite receiving other, unrelated good news while away, it’s hard to be back from this particular conference feeling unmitigatedly positive about my discipline and my particular orientation within it. I’ve always been an oddball (and usually proud of it) in that I refuse to define myself within the usual four-field subdisciplinary taxonomy (physical, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology) common for the past century. I just don’t see any point, insofar as most of what ought to distinguish archaeologists from cultural anthropologists (e.g.) is methodological rather than conceptual. But then inevitably we get caught up in what is versus what ought to be, and the ways in which methodologies affect all other aspects of our work, and then we end up yellling at one another instead of being productive.
On top of that, you add the division between anthropology-as-humanism and anthropology-as-science, where I lean rather heavily towards the latter perspective even though as a ‘labelled’ linguistic anthropologist most of my attributed subfield leans the other way. The Science Wars had enormous fissioning effects on anthropology, such that some departments actually split administratively between humanistic and scientific wings, but some of that fissioning exists at a subdisciplinary level as well: you would be hard-pressed to find a physical anthropologist who rejects the label ‘scientist’, for instance. The Society for Anthropological Sciences is both a symptom of and a potential solution to these issues: it reflects a profound dissatisfaction with the humanistic bent of most cultural and linguistic anthropology, but at the same time by organizing itself in opposition to those trends, does little to convince any non-scientific anthropologists of the merits of the perspective.
For my part, I’m quite happy to use humanistic approaches when relevant, which is often. A lot of the empirical work underlying my forthcoming book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, examines the social, cultural, and political contexts under which particular numerical systems arose, spread, and declined. Lots of the work is essentially epigraphy as applied to numbers, and the scholars I relate to are linguists, historians, classicists, etc. In terms of much of my analysis, historians would surely recognize it as akin to what they do, even if, by the nature of the subject, it tends to underemphasize the individual personalities involved.
But I can’t escape the feeling that all this humanistic analysis acquires greater relevance when embedded in the broader search for patterns, and within anthropology the analysis of social processes and the comparison of social systems. I am thrilled that the structure of the book retains the basic structure of my dissertation, which has two separate analytical chapters, one cognitive, the other social, neither of which stands alone. But ultimately it is a comparative history, one which seeks to transcend the particular and get at something pan-human underlying it all. For an anthropologist today to admit to being a comparativist, outside of a very small number of venues, is like admitting you’re a cannibal, it seems sometimes. I do think I see some glimmers of hope that the field is becoming methodologically and theoretically more inclusive than when I was a grad student. I guess we’ll see, when the book is out, whether the reviewers agree.