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  • Anthropology, Linguistics, and the Vicissitudes of Interdisciplinary Collaboration
  • Alan Rumsey (bio)

Among all the human sciences, none is more interdisciplinary than anthropology. This has followed almost inevitably from the fact that anthropology has from the start always been concerned with the question of what it is to be human, and therefore with understanding the full range of dimensions along which human societies and cultures resemble or differ from one another.1 As an example of the kind of cross-disciplinary interaction to which this has given rise, in this article I discuss the hybrid field known as linguistic anthropology. My initial discussion is focused on the United States because that is where linguistic anthropology is most fully developed as a subdiscipline of anthropology. In a later section of the article I discuss the situation of linguistic anthropology within Australia, where I have long been based after having been trained in the United States. From the comparison between the two, in the final section of the article I draw some general conclusions about the nature of the relation between anthropology and linguistics and offer a conjecture as to its possible future development.

Linguistic Anthropology as Institutionalized Subdiscipline

Linguistic anthropology is one of several subdisciplines that have a recognized existence at least within the United States, as institutionalized in 1984 by the creation of various sections within the American Anthropological Association (aaa); it now has forty sections, most of which have their own journals. Besides linguistic anthropology, these include, for example, political and legal anthropology, psychological anthropology, and medical anthropology.2 [End Page 268]

Before turning to the intellectual issues raised by the existence of subdisciplines of this kind I first provide some more details about the current institutional status of linguistic anthropology in relation to the other subfields of anthropology as reflected by the membership of various relevant sections of aaa. All members of aaa, in addition to belonging the association itself, are required to belong to at least one of the forty sections. The largest sections are the American Ethnological Society and the Society for Cultural Anthropology. This accurately reflects the institutional status of their associated (sub)disciplinary field of sociocultural anthropology, which is by far the predominant one in that the majority of faculty positions and courses in almost all anthropology departments are in that field, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Table 1 shows the number of members in each of those two sections of aaa at five-year intervals from 1985 to 2010 and the number of members of the aaa section associated with linguistic anthropology—the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (sla).3 The fourth row shows the combined total of the American Ethnological Society and the Society for Cultural Anthropology, which can be taken as rough indicator of the interest in, or identification of aaa members with, sociocultural anthropology relative to linguistic anthropology.4 Based on the figures in table 1, table 2 shows the proportion of aaa members who belong to each of the three sections under discussion here and to aes and sca together. Figure 1 shows the trends inherent in both tables in the form of a graph.

In relation to the issues of interdisciplinarity to be discussed in the rest of this article, two points to note are as follows:

Since 1985 there has been a slow but steady rise both in sla membership and in the proportion of aaa members who belong to sla.

Since 1995 there has been a steady narrowing of the gap between the combined membership of aes and sca and that of sla.

Whereas in 1995 the ratio of members in aes + sca to sla was ca. 7.3 to 1, in 2010 it was ca. 4.7 to 1. Judging from the relative numbers of faculty positions and postgraduate students, the latter figure seems disproportional to the number of US anthropologists who would identify themselves primarily as linguistic anthropologists vs. identifying themselves primarily as sociocultural anthropologists. Why should [End Page 269]

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Table 1.

Number of members in various sections of the American Anthropological Association

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Table 2.

Proportion of AAA members who...


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