Intimate Strangers: The Dynamics of (Non) Relationship between the Natural and Human Sciences in the Contemporary U.S. University

By Marcus, George E. | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Intimate Strangers: The Dynamics of (Non) Relationship between the Natural and Human Sciences in the Contemporary U.S. University


Marcus, George E., Anthropological Quarterly


One of the most interesting things I have learned from overseeing an anthropology department and participating in the rise and transfiguration (some would say, decline) of an interdisciplinary cultural studies center from the early 1980s to the present is that the ecology of opportunity and ambition, so to speak, for such endeavors at my university, and I believe at many American universities as well, has been as much derived from what was and is happening in the parallel worlds of the sciences and professions as with the internal debates and perturbations within the cosmologies, cultures, and traditions of the humanities and social sciences themselves. That is, our institutional fates as anthropologists and interdisciplinary scholars in the human sciences are very much tied up with the pulse and expansion of the sciences, but blindly so. This must be understood through the intimate non-relation that most of us-- perhaps knowingly, but mostly out of our awareness-have to the worlds of schools of science and the professions on our campuses.

To evoke a series of analogies: if I were a classic anthropologist, I would say that what is at stake here is a functionalist relation in a regime of organic solidarity that is mainly latent to scholarly actors in the various schools and departments of teaching and research, but quite manifest to administrators at the level of deans and above. If I were a classicist scholar of Greek tragedy, I would think of the humanist/human scientist as the human figure whose hubris is fated to conflict with the work of the largely unseen institutional Gods. If I were an ethnographer of indigenous peoples, I would think of the very interesting work of the 1960s discussing the internal cultural lives of hill tribes, mostly in southeast Asia, but elsewhere as well, as being shaped by their long-term management of relations to more powerful and settled neighbors to whom they are mostly invisible.

Rather than to develop any of these amusing analogies further, I will just argue baldly here that the research establishments and the management of resources committed to them in most universities are defined by the model of funding and growth in the natural sciences, and more specifically, by the most successful among these in their various projects at any university. (At the moment, parallel computing and nanotechnology define the prestige "big science" projects at my university; earlier it was space physics and astronomy and more recently biomedical engineering). Further, the formal terms of this same basic model, and the rhetorics of evaluation and expectation surrounding it, are the same for all research endeavors, including those of the humanities and social sciences. The power and priority of this model becomes more apparent as one moves up the pyramid of university administration where the politics of funding, finance, reputation, and the associated material demands on the overall operation of the university, become paramount. As such, simply by categorically participating in the terms of this regime of what research is, the humanities and the social sciences are tied to a structural inequality which is largely invisible to the practicing scholars. The humanities and social sciences are permanently disadvantaged no matter how well they think they are doing institutionally at any point at time.

Given the importance of research (and the reputation and wealth that it brings a university) over other activities, such as teaching, advising or committee work, in defining the prestige of various programs and departments, and given that research follows a natural science model (where, as noted, in the most successful cases such research brings large grants, equipment, and the possibility of lucrative intellectual property ownership as a wealth accelerator for the university), then any needs or differences of the humanities and social sciences must be exceptions, allowances, and frankly, cases of charity. …

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