Interdisciplinarity Introduction

The unique value of modern American anthropology is in its ambitious multidisciplinary make-up. Because Franz Boas, its founder, was trained in the German academic tradition of combining philosophy with the natural sciences, anthropology became the most humanistic of sciences and the most scientific of humanities, specifically weaving together biological, cultural, linguistic, and historical/archeological approaches to the scientific study of humanity. These approaches are recognized as constituting the "four subfields" of anthropology, in which many programs still attempt to give some training to undergraduate students, thus preparing them for a wide range of interdisciplinary careers.

In the last quarter century, the dramatic decline in academic employment opportunities for cultural anthropologists and the increase of interest in "cultural diversity" across a variety of fields have combined to stimulate both the growth of "applied anthropology" as a new career option (see previous section) and the hiring of cultural anthropologists in a range of expanding interdisciplinary areas. Also, many American students majoring in anthropology now frequently choose to continue their postgraduate studies in disciplines requiring a shorter period of training and offering quicker--and surer--career placement. All of this can provide a great opportunity to inject anthropological perspectives in a number of areas that would really benefit from the unique insights on the human condition offered by the discipline. However, practitioners must also understand that the anthropological perspective--aimed at normalizing the exotic and exoticizing the normal--has characteristics which may cause suspicion and rejection at various levels.

This is particularly frequent in prestigious professional fields, such as those related to medicine and law, where ethnographic methods of research may be seen as uncomfortably akin to "spying" and field-specific hierarchies of expertise and authority cannot be easily circumvented. Also, these are fields which have developed technical definitions of universal human realities--such as, for example, health or pain, family or crime--that are often quite at odds with the popular ones, even within the same culture. The almost subcultural self-enclosure of particular professional fields makes any attempts at studying their practices ethnographically extremely difficult, requiring in-depth familiarity with the interdisciplinary literature on the topic to be studied, and a dedication and time commitment rarely available to undergraduate students.

The piece illustrating this chapter is the result of a fieldwork project for an Independent Study class (ANTH 499-IS) a graduating anthropology major wanted to conduct both to finally be involved in applied research, and in preparation for continuing his graduate-level studies in medical anthropology (see the IS Proposal narrative, below). As it happens, and in spite of the student's excellent ethnographic skills and very persistent efforts, the fieldwork portion of the project could never be implemented. But the exhaustive literature review paper he successfully completed demonstrates the central value of interdisciplinarity for effective anthropological practice, and the cross-disciplinary educational role anthropologists must play in injecting their perspective in a number of professional fields.

Independent Study Proposal (Anth 499-IS)

Pain: A Literature Review
by Malcolm Barrett


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