Anthropology in the American disciplinary landscape

evolution of disciplines

I often feel that my discipline, anthropology, doesn’t sufficiently discuss its own structural situation in the academic world. Where do we fit in the ecology of disciplines? In the national competition for student enrollments? How many anthropologists are there, exactly? And what is the structure of our academic labor system; what fraction are tenured, tenure-track, contract, part-time? How many of us work outside the academy? Which departments are dominant or central in our profession?

This thought had been rolling about in my head when all of a sudden yesterday I discovered this tremendously neat website: WebCASPAR, the NSF’s Integrated Science and Engineering Resources Data System. Strange name, I grant you. And at first sight it’s confusing for those of us with basically no statistical background. (Which, for the record, I consider an embarrassing absence from our professional training in cultural anthropology. On which more later.) It starts out with a “Table Builder”; you pick a data source; you pick an “analysis variable” (which is what the content of your table will be full of: numbers of students enrolled, for example); you pick a “classification variable” (which forms one dimension or the other of your table); you set some details about what gets displayed where. And then magically…

…or in my case, after a few hours of experimentation, we have a series of tables: the growing US student enrollments since the 60s, the changing ethnic composition of the US student body, the fraction of US students at public vs. private schools… and guess what? I’m happy to announce that we still have a predominantly public higher education system! 74% of college students are currently in public institutions, it appears. Of course, the survey doesn’t take into account that many public universities are now only precariously supported by public money, and are increasingly selective, more like semi-public, but we’ll let that go for now. Let’s mention only in passing the striking comparative fact that in France, “public” universities are, by law, open admissions and almost free of tuition, or in other words, they’re far more open to the public than their “public” U.S. counterparts (a fact which should provoke more thought than it does).

Coming back to the structural situation of anthropology, I think we have to start by putting it in the historical context of its relation to other disciplines. There are a number of ways of measuring these interdisciplinary comparisons – by enrollment, by degrees granted, by faculty jobs, by funds allotted, by publications produced – which, though they don’t begin to exhaust what might be said qualitatively about anthropology’s place in academy or the broader world, can still teach us some things that might fail to appear from purely qualitative examination or personal experience.

Take the graph we started with above. See that little yellow line almost at the bottom? Social sciences. That’s us. We’re in there somewhere. As I’ll show later in more detail, the last few years anthropology granted about 5% of all social science degrees. And social science in general is currently about tied with humanities for the least number of graduates of any major sector of higher education. As far back as this graph goes, social sciences always been toward the bottom, though it’s interesting to see that humanities (green) used to be larger than us, but fell below in the mid-70s and has closely paralleled our graduation numbers ever since.

In addition to the relative smallness of social science in general, the other major thing to learn here is the extreme predominance of vocational subjects in American higher education. So much for people who fantasize that American higher education is (currently) about liberal arts! They should look at where the students actually are. Business has been the most popular single subject in our country since 1974, surpassed here only by a miscellaneous category of professional and vocational degrees (which includes communications, law, social services, librarians, and other unspecified fields). Education and engineering are fairly large also. Sciences appear to be large, but the sciences category actually includes all the vocationally oriented health fields (nursing, medicine, etc) as well as computer science, and so the pure research sciences are probably much smaller than they appear.

Worth noting, however, that enrollments as a whole have been growing steadily almost throughout this whole period, albeit with a pronounced dip in the mid-80s that registers in the graph above in all fields besides business, engineering and sciences. Frankly I am not completely sure of the explanation for this dip in the Reagan era — there may be institutional and political factors, but the most likely thing I think is that the baby boomers were done going to college and the birth rate fell after about 1963, so there would naturally have been lower college enrollment 18 years hence.

So what does all this tell us? The number of people becoming social scientists is still rising; anthropology is a mass phenomenon, in that it produces thousands of graduates yearly; but anthropology is still only 5% of social science degrees, and social science is only about 5.6% of total degrees granted, out of about 6% of the total U.S. population enrolled in universities… you get my drift? Anthropology granted 8,086 degrees in 2006, out of 197,595 in social science, and out of 3,519,259 in all fields, which means, in other words, that we produce about a fifth of one percent of all American university graduates. So we can see that anthropology is really not attracting a terribly high fraction of American university students, especially when compared to the vocational fields.

This probably means that anyone who tells you about how flexible an anthropology degree is, how much it prepares you for a whole range of careers, is probably indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, because surely if this were the case, all the professional school people would jump ship? And who are these people, this fraction of a percent of students, who enter our discipline? Where do they come from and what kinds of incentives, cultural contexts, social norms guide their disciplinary choice? It would be good to find some figures on the class backgrounds of people getting degrees in anthropology… I’ll keep my eyes open. In the near term, look out for more of these graphs of anthropology’s place in the world.

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