Alumni WebsiteTalkSearchAdvertisingBack IssuesCurrent IssueHomeTop Banner

 

Divided They Stand


A messy academic scuffle tore Stanford's anthropology department in two. The unusual breakup reflects a widening schism in the field -- and provides a case that itself is worthy of anthropological study.

by Mitchell Leslie

Illustration

Dan Vaccarino

ROBERT WEISBERG
had nimbly shifted fields before. A literary scholar who teaches law, he calls himself an "intellectual vagabond." But in the fall of 1996, Provost Condoleezza Rice asked him to make his biggest leap. Could he step in for a few months to help a troubled department? Could he -- and here was the shocker -- become chair of anthropology?

As vice provost for faculty relations, Weisberg, JD '79, was familiar with the department's troubles. Yet he was no more an anthropologist than a heart surgeon, and the notion of picking an outsider to run a department -- in effect, putting it into a state of limited receivership -- was practically unheard of at Stanford. That Rice had chosen this extraordinary step reflected her concern over a department that was ripping itself apart.

Weisberg agreed to take charge temporarily -- and walked into the middle of what one professor calls a "poisoned conflict" over the direction of anthropology at Stanford. Faculty in the small department, ranked No. 7 in its field by the National Research Council, had been sparring for nearly a decade. In one corner was a group of cultural and social anthropologists, interested mainly in interpreting living cultures through a humanistic perspective. In the other was a group who put their faith in traditional scientific methods and were interested in the interplay between culture and human evolution. They had coexisted in relative peace until the mid-1980s, when a plan to expand the department made their philosophical differences too large and disruptive to ignore. Weisberg came in when chairman Renato Rosaldo decided to step aside after suffering a stroke -- which people on both sides blamed at least partly on stress from the feud.

Despite bridge-building efforts by administrators and teams of outside anthropologists, the chasm eventually grew so wide that the University agreed to a formal split. In 1998, Stanford disbanded its department of anthropology and created two new entities -- one called anthropological sciences, the other cultural and social anthropology. Each department has its own students, its own chair and its own degree programs, though some crossover coursework is allowed.

Academic scraps are hardly unusual, but departmental divorces are. The story behind the split could make an anthropological study in itself. At one level, it's a tale of infighting driven by the particular personalities and events at Stanford. Yet the breakup also reflects turmoil within the field of anthropology, and its impact could ripple beyond the Farm.

ANTHROPOLOGY has always been a contentious field. You can trace much of its divisiveness -- and its remarkable intellectual diversity -- back a century to its origin as "a glued-together conglomerate of a lot of different areas of research," says William Durham, '71, chair of Stanford's new anthropological sciences department. Franz Boas, considered the founder of American anthropology, believed that no single perspective could encompass multifarious man. He envisioned the discipline as an ensemble of four subfields: cultural and social anthropology, physical and biological anthropology, archeology, and linguistics.

The field thus began as a holistic social science that attempted to blend the humanities and the natural sciences. Many of the earliest anthropology departments, including those at Harvard and Michigan, started out with Boas's four-field approach as their organizing principle.

The benefit of uniting scholars with such diverse methods, interests and ideologies is evident to anyone who's ever taken an anthro course or leafed through National Geographic. "Nothing human is foreign to anthropology," proclaims the American Anthropological Association's website, and it's true -- the field serves up an intellectual smorgasbord. Gather four random anthropologists over coffee, and you could end up conversing with experts on, say, Mayan hieroglyphics, African languages, chimpanzee tool use and patterns of kinship in Australian Aborigines.

But the real question, say many of Stanford's anthropologists, is whether such specialists actually collaborate in their academic departments. In recent decades, discord among the subfields has intensified, partly because the cultural wing has gravitated toward research approaches drawn from literary criticism and philosophy. Cultural anthropologists now seek not just to document an aspect of a culture, such as a ritual or tradition, but to interpret its meaning. They try to "read" the culture much as you would read a work of literature. And, like literature, cultures can be interpreted in different ways by different individuals, depending in part on biases involving ethnicity, gender and other personal or cultural factors. To understand such skews, many cultural researchers have adopted a self-conscious, self-critical style of analysis, spending a great deal of time scrutinizing their own potential biases.

This touches a nerve among more traditional anthropologists, who believe they can minimize bias with scientific safeguards such as rigorous hypothesis-testing and insistence on repeatable observations. "If you look at it across the country, there are those who continue to work with scientific methods, and there are those who are actively aggressive toward those with scientific methods," says Stanford archeologist John Rick. "It's not just 'We'll do it this way, and you do it that way.' It's 'We're studying the way you do it, and we think you're part of the problem.'" He emphasizes that he's describing the field as a whole and not referring to anyone at Stanford.

Stanford cultural anthropologist Akhil Gupta, PhD '88, who earned a doctorate in engineering-economic systems before switching fields, bristles at the suggestion that the conflict boils down to scientists versus anti-scientists. To believe that, he says, you'd have to subscribe to "a seventh-grade view of science" in which scientists are perfectly objective fact-gatherers. "Interpretation is part of any scientific enterprise," Gupta says.

TENSIONS MAY BE RISING NATIONWIDE, but only one big-name program besides Stanford's has officially split -- and the impetus for that breakup (at Duke, in 1989) was not intractable conflict but a reorganization of the medical school. Other major universities still keep their anthropologists under one roof, albeit through some unusual arrangements.

Illustration


There's one very pragmatic deterrent to divorce: smaller departments are harder to maintain.
At one extreme are departments, like Harvard's, that have accepted friction as inevitable and try to manage it through segregation, dividing into semi-autonomous wings. At the other end are those that go to great lengths to forge unity and stimulate conversation. At Emory University, for instance, biological and cultural anthropologists work in alternating offices so that factions can't "hive off," says former chair Bradd Shore, who joined Emory's fledgling department in 1982. Emory also launched mandatory cross-disciplinary seminars, created a core curriculum emphasizing both approaches, maintained parity in hiring and sought "open-minded" recruits, he says. "From its founding, the department was set up to try to counter the separatist trend in anthropology, where the holism we proclaim in Anthro 101 classes doesn't hold up," explains Shore, a cultural professor who still teaches at Emory.

For better or worse, other anthropologists have managed to stay together despite ideological differences. Why, the breakup at Stanford?

AS WITH MOST TROUBLED MARRIAGES, it took years of slowly building tension before divorce seemed sensible. By all accounts, Stanford's department was fairly tranquil for most of its 42-year history. Scarce funding initially limited it to a single subfield: cultural and social anthropology. Faculty in linguistics and archeology were eventually hired, and in 1976 the department brought in Durham as its first biological anthropologist. Although Durham's arrival rankled some, cultural and social researchers still predominated.

Faculty started choosing sides in 1985 in reaction to a proposal by biologist Norman Wessells, then dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, where anthropology resides. Wessells was inspired by the work of Donald Johanson, the paleontologist who discovered the famous hominid skeleton "Lucy." In 1981, Johanson founded the Institute of Human Origins at UC-Berkeley and began teaching occasional classes at Stanford. Wessells proposed launching a similar program in human origins within Stanford's anthropology department. His plan was to hire two faculty members for the program. The new faculty could beef up the anthropology department, Wessells reasoned, and could also teach in human biology, a popular major that draws its instructors from all over campus.

"I said, 'Great,'" recalls then-chairman Clifford Barnett. "My approach is that if you do something with great visibility, more money follows and you can develop other areas." Although his own interest, medical anthropology, is a cultural subspecialty, Barnett embraced the plan as a way to balance the department and bolster an important area of study. Several other faculty members, including Rick and Durham, also backed the plan.

But some on the cultural side feared that an influx of evolutionists would weaken the department's emphasis on "here-and-now" issues. "The questions today are about how you understand the sociocultural transformations that all societies around the world are undergoing," says Sylvia Yanagisako, now chair of cultural and social anthropology. Evolutionary studies contribute nothing to these pursuits, she says. In her view, the proposed program in human origins "was a clear attempt to change the character of the department and the subdisciplinary balance."

"There was also concern [among some cultural faculty] that such additions might threaten the progressive, activist dimension of the department's ethos," wrote Stanford emeritus professor James Gibbs, a cultural anthropologist, in the October 1998 Anthropology Newsletter. Yanagisako, however, vehemently denies that such concerns played a role in her side's opposition.

Twice, committees of eminent anthropologists visited campus to help guide the transition. But their recommendations to hire bridge-building faculty only fueled more friction. Two faculty searches failed because of dissent over the nature of the new positions. "When you have a department that can't reproduce itself, then you know you're having pretty serious problems," says Rick.

Rosaldo, a widely respected cultural anthropologist who had taught at Stanford for almost 30 years, suffered his stroke in late 1996. A few months later, a bomb exploded: cultural anthropologist Gupta came up for tenure and, after the senior faculty formally voted to endorse him, was turned down by then-Dean John Shoven. Humanities and Sciences rejects about half of its tenure applicants, but Gupta's supporters protested what they saw as administrative bias against the cultural side and unfair treatment for a rising star in their field. Complaints poured in from cultural anthropologists across the nation.

Shoven, who stepped down as dean the following year to resume teaching economics, says confidentiality rules prohibit him from commenting on the specifics of tenure decisions. He says standard procedures were followed, and he denies any bias against one subfield or the other. "My own view, which I'm sure some of them don't share, is that I was interested in having a high-quality department and in making very high-quality appointments," Shoven says. As he sees it, both sides "wanted a unified department in which their side dominated."

According to Gupta, the department's junior faculty -- all of whom were on the cultural side -- began to feel threatened as the tenure controversy intensified. Some dreaded coming to their offices, fearing hallway confrontations, he says. The mood, recalls Weisberg, was "tense and conflicted." Two senior professors on the cultural side grew so exasperated that they chose early retirement. Reporters caught wind of the conflict and aired Stanford's troubles for the readers of the San Jose Mercury News, Science magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gupta appealed to the court of last resort, the faculty advisory board, and was granted tenure in August 1997 in a decision approved by President Gerhard Casper. The program in human evolution, ensnared in dispute, never got off the ground. A few months after Gupta gained tenure, Shoven allowed the department to vote on splitting up. A majority voted yes; the tally remains undisclosed.

Reluctantly approved by Provost Rice and the Faculty Senate, the divorce became final in May 1998. What Boas joined together, Stanford had put asunder.

"AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ANTIETAM," the Chronicle of Higher Education called it. But when the smoke cleared, there was one huge difference: everyone was still alive. Both new departments today have full-fledged graduate and undergraduate programs of their own, with resources equitably split. And, though faculty on both sides say they're sad it had to end so bitterly, they are eager to pursue their separate goals unfettered by the opposing group.

In fact, individuals from both sides say the breakup -- minus the ruinous tension -- offers a role model for other anthropology departments. "Stanford could be at the forefront of a trend that has good reason for happening," says Rosaldo. Rick is also sanguine, saying the repercussions might spread to other social sciences, such as sociology, where similar tensions are simmering.

Many leading anthropologists elsewhere, however, aren't ready to write off their field's treasured holism. Linguist Jane Hill of the University of Arizona, outgoing president of the 10,000-member American Anthropological Association, found the Stanford split disappointing and admits it gave her a jolt. Says Hill, one of four anthropologists on the second visiting committee, "I was concerned that people at other universities would get funny ideas." Stanford's solution is not the beginning of a trend, Hill insists. While "we certainly enjoy a good fight," she wrote in a letter to the Chronicle, anthropologists still share a common vision -- "an appreciation for the complexity and richness of human diversity . . . that cuts across the modern/postmodern, science/humanities, academic/practitioner boundaries and permeates every project." Students need exposure to multiple perspectives, says Emory's Bradd Shore, in order to grasp that "human beings are both biological and cultural creatures."

Visions and principles aside, there's one very pragmatic deterrent to divorce: smaller departments are more difficult to fund and maintain. Just keeping a curriculum together becomes a challenge, for instance, and administrative responsibilities must be shared among fewer people. So, while anthropology departments around the country are undoubtedly watching Stanford's new programs closely, they may not rush to follow suit. To become a role model, the two mini-departments must first prove that they can continue to draw top students and faculty and can hold their own in political battles within the University. Both programs are, in Shoven's words, "critically small" and are trying very hard to grow.

ONE OF THE IRONIES of this saga is that the Stanford anthropologists didn't split up neatly by disciplines. Anthropological sciences is a four-field department that includes an evolutionist, an archeologist, a geneticist, two cultural anthropologists, a paleoanthropologist and a linguist. Cultural and social anthropology houses seven cultural anthropologists and a linguist, plus two recent hires -- an archeologist and a medical anthropologist. The rather hodgepodge nature of these final lineups suggests that the events at Stanford, while influenced by philosophical differences, had as much to do with personality conflicts, intradepartmental politics and festering disappointments.

Another irony: nearly two years after agreeing to part, the two groups still haven't physically separated. Half of the anthropological sciences crew, awaiting renovations to their eventual home in Buildings 360 and 80, still have offices alongside their former colleagues in Building 110. Interactions are minimal, says Gupta. "There's no question of good relations or bad relations, because there are no relations."

Communication, of course, would be essential for any reconciliation. Nonetheless, a few Stanford anthropologists, including Durham, Rick and Gibbs, say they don't rule out the possibility of the departments coming together in the distant future, after tempers have cooled and wounds have healed. Undergraduate students can still design mix-and-match degrees that draw from both departments, and frequent crossovers of this sort might be the first sign that the ideal of holism deserves reconsideration. If ever there's a rapprochement at Stanford, says Rick, it would likely start with these students: "Chances are that the bridges will be built there first."


Mitchell Leslie writes for the Medical Center's news bureau.