E500 Proseminar Course Description

Dr. Richard Wilk  

Professor's Office: 242 Student Building, phone 855-3901, email: WILKR

Office Hours: W, 2-5 PM, or by appointment


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Course Description

Course Structure

Class Requirements



Disclaimers, stylistic guidelines, legal advisories, etc.




Course Description

 The University catalog defines this course with a laundry-list of topics: "economics, ecology, kinship, life cycle, education, social stratification, political organization, religion, values, culture change, evolution, methodology, etc..." By the end of the semester, you should be able to figure out when that catalog copy was written, and make a good guess about who wrote it.


This is a required course for all incoming graduate students in sociocultural anthropology, and it is not at all harmful for bioanthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists who want familiarity with current concepts and issues in the study of culture. It serves as an introduction to the field for graduate students in other social sciences, who are thinking about including anthropological method and/or theory in their own work. Many of the students in this course have taken H500, the history of anthropological theory, but I will not expect much prior knowledge about sociocultural anthropology from anyone.

The course will cover the major writers and theories in sociocultural anthropology starting in 1970 and working up to the present. Our goal is the classically impossible one of a survey course; to cover all the intellectual currents of a discipline. This means major frustration at every turn, since you could spend much of your time reading theoretical works in anthropology, and you would still find yourself falling further and further behind! Anthropologists are compulsive theoreticians, and most academics want to make their marks by adding to (or deleting…or slandering, besmirching, paying obeisance to, worshipping…) anthropological theory at some time in their careers. Why do we write so much theory? Well, the profound questions about human nature and the meaning of culture are still open and unsettled, and we are still waiting for the kind of grand synthesis which will really explain some fundamental issues. And then there is the need to get tenure and promotion. For some reason, theory always has a high status within the discipline. “Big” anthropologists did not acquire their status by careful fieldwork or finely detailed ethnography.


I don’t mean to denigrate theory or be too cynical about it. I actually love anthropological theory, and have tried my own hand at it. But I am also very impatient with many aspects of theory - its timeless repetitive nature, the self-important puffed-up language, the intellectual macho one-upmanship, the hermetic lack of interest in important work being done in other social sciences…you get the picture.


Because theory is always expanding in many directions, and because it is so hard to see which current works are going to stand the test of time, we will focus on the 80s and 90s. We will also take as many short cuts as possible – for example reading about someone’s work instead of reading all the work in the original. I see my role as trying to show you how the arguments link up to each other, how they are genealogically connected, and the ‘back story’ of the sociology of the discipline which helps make sense out of passionate arguments and personalities.


Course Structure

How are we supposed to gain a comprehensive understanding of 35 years of developments in a rich and complex social science during 16 weeks?  Especially when those years are a turbulent period when the discipline has changed almost out of recognition, to the point where some people think it has exploded into fragments? Obviously we have to be selective, and divide up the work so we can cover as large a territory as possible in a short space of time.


We will use some basic anthropological tools, developed for the study of cultures, and apply them reflexively to anthropology this semester, treating anthropologists as members of an interesting but not exotic or unusual tribe. The expedition's strategy of investigation is organized around the concept of three dimensions of social life. These are space, time, and processes of change (here my approach is shaped by my training in archaeology).


Space. All disciplines, like any social groups, organize themselves spatially into social and intellectual groups. Mapping the discipline means identifying the relevant groups. These include departments, traditions, and sub-disciplines. There are many formal social groups among anthropologists, including professional associations, journal editorial boards, University departments, and foundation grant review panels. There are also informal groups of many kinds, including the students trained in a particular department, those defined by kinship connections (yes, anthropologists do marry one another and raise little anthropologists!), and those affiliated by common theoretical or political position. For the purposes of the course I will pre-define a number of these formal and informal groups, using standard taxonomic categories like "ecological anthropology," but we will also be investigating other kinds of spatial order through our own research.


Time. Once we have a basic map of the relevant groups, we can think about when they started, when they flourished, and when they began to shrink or disappear. This will help us to figure out the directions in which the discipline is moving, and identify the crucial times of transition. I will focus attention on some of the largest shifts - the emergence of applied anthropology, the rise and decline of ecological anthropology and evolutionism in the 1970s, the rise of reflexivity and postmodernism in the 80s, and the questioning of history and representation in the 90s. We can also try a more microscopic year-by-year history of the discipline, based on close reading of journal articles and annual review summaries.


Processes of Change. I don't think we understand very much about how disciplines change direction, and what causes intellectual currents to run in particular directions. The spatial and temporal perspectives are largely descriptive, but may provide some clues. The conventions of intellectual history, however, point towards the pivotal role of crucial individuals in moving a discipline. Many anthropologists also believe that the field is moved along by the intellectual efforts of particularly important thinkers (I have my doubts about this thesis, which I will discuss in class). So throughout the class we will read the works of anthropologists who are widely perceived as movers and shakers.


Class Requirements

One thing you can expect from this course is a LOT of reading. Class lectures and discussions have the goal of helping you digest and assimilate those readings. There is simply no other way to get into recent anthropology, since the discipline is expressed most clearly and directly through the printed word. You have to keep up with the reading to make this class work.


Each week we will have a lecture or focused presentation on Tuesday and a reading-based discussion on Thursday. Sometimes I will give you specific discussion topics in advance for the Thursday meeting - other times we will have an open discussion. You are always welcome to make suggestions about topics or issues for the discussion period. You can call me, talk to me after class, or send me email. You must expect to participate regularly in these discussions, and demonstrate that you are keeping up with the reading. Don't be intimidated by other students! Other people will always seem to understand the material better than you, but believe me, it is rarely true.


You should expect to join a reading group to meet informally out of class time each week. I strongly discourage forming groups on the basis of your experience or academic background - you will get more from a diverse group.


This class has a history. Since the first time I taught it in 1996 the students have been adding their cumulative work to a web publication called “Theory in Anthropology” which portrays the three dimensions of sociocultural anthropology in recent times. If you have not already seen it, the website on theory in anthropology is at It gets several thousand hits a month, sometimes more than ten thousand, and has been linked on many anthropological websites and has won several awards.  It is usually close to the top when you google “anthropology theory.” Some past students tell me that their contribution to the site is cited more widely than anything else they have published! This is an opportunity to have your work read widely!


In past years I have chosen the projects for the class. The first time I taught the class we had three separate assignments which each student completed – these were the instructions I gave then:


1.      You will choose a subdiscipline, an association, or some other formal or informal group of sociocultural anthropologists during the first two weeks of class. Then you will prepare an oral report on the group for presentation during a Thursday discussion session. This will be developed into a concise 5 page written report, which will become part of the class website. You will also be required to produce at least two graphics related to the group you study, in electronic format suitable for web-based publishing.

2.      You will be assigned a year. You will explore journals and books published during that year and report back to the class on what was "hot" that year. You will work closely with the people who have been assigned the years before and after your own, to compare trends. We will bring all the year summaries together in a series of discussions, where we try to piece together time lines of theoretical development. These will also go on the website.

3.       You will choose an anthropologist whom you will get to impersonate in class discussions and debates. You will be expected to know the person well enough to tell the class where he/she would stand on major issues. You should be familiar with their major works, their goals, and their place in the discipline. You are encouraged to contact them personally through email if they are available, to interview them about the way they see their own position in the development of the discipline. Otherwise you will be expected to track down obituaries, tributes, and other writings about the person, or to interview one of their students or collaborators. Your written work on this person will go on the website too.


This year I would like the class as a whole to decide which projects to do. The old site could certainly use some new entries – particularly biographies and subfields, but the associations list could certainly use updates. I have also been thinking up some possible new topics:


  • *      Why haven’t textbooks kept up with advances in theory?
  • *      How are sub-disciplines changing and reforming?
  • *      Keyword project – what are the most popular terms at AAA meetings?
  • *      Labor migration and mobility between departments. Are there hiring paths (eg. Reed Chicago-Reed)? Trends in hiring at different levels?
  • *      Flows of undergraduates and graduates
  • *      Meetings as social events – how are social networks made and maintained?
  • *      Network analysis of the discipline’s relationships to other disciplines
  • *      Overlapping memberships of different groups from CVS
  • *      Career paths after the PhD
  • *      Metaphor search – what kinds of metaphors dominate for culture?
  • *      Foreign theorists in fashion through citation analysis
  • *      How does editorship affect publication in major journals?
  • *      Most-cited theorists over time?
  • *      How many searches successful?
  • *      Trends in job descriptions over time – more or less specific?
  • *      Tracking number of four-field programs over time.


I have also been in contact with a publisher about the possibility of creating a set of Theory Trading Cards for anthropology. General social theory cards have already been published:

(you can see more online examples


Your grade in the course is based on four grades each of which counts for one fourth of the total. Three grades cover the quality of the written assignments, and the fourth the quality of your participation in class discussion, group decision-making, and preparation and processing of information for inclusion in the website.



TEXTS - all are required and available in the IU bookstore


The first is our general text for the semester:


Barnard, A.  2000  History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.


The others:


Eagleton, T.  2004 After Theory. Gardener.

Jenkins, R. 1992 Pierre Bourdieu. Routledge.

Fabian, J. 1983 Time and the Other. Columbia U. Press.

Wolf, E. 1984 Europe and the People Without History. California.

Obeyesekere, G. 1994  The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Princeton UP.

Marcus, G. 1999 Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago UP.


There is also an optional reader – very recent and quite comprehensive. I chose not to use it this semester because I find it unbalanced and very British.


Moore, H. and T. Sanders (eds.) 2005 Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Blackwell.


I also thought very hard about adding this book to the group, since it takes up a major new theoretical issue, but I decided the topic really requires a course on its own!


Brown, Michael 2003 Who Owns Native Culture? Harvard UP.


In addition we have a pile of articles to read. I will make these available to you through the E-reserves in the Geography library downstairs in the Student Building:

Disclaimers, stylistic guidelines, legal advisories, etc:

You are responsible for keeping up with the readings and for attending class regularly. Late assignments will be accepted, but grades will be reduced. Incompletes are only given with good reason, and if I am notified two weeks before the final exam date.


You are not allowed to copyright any of my class handouts or other materials, nor can you publish them or use them in public presentations without my permission.


You are encouraged to discuss with classmates and colleagues, and to collaborate in studying, reading, digesting, and synthesizing class materials. I encourage you to form study groups and/or reading discussion circles. BUT, all written work you turn in must be your own individual work, unless you make arrangements with me in advance for a co-authorship. Co-authored work gets one grade which is shared by all authors.


Plagiarism is a serious breach of academic ethics. Use full footnotes and references for all quoted or attributed materials. Since we will be publishing class work on the web, we need to pay careful attention to copyright restrictions on fair use. We also need to use a uniform style for text and references:


  • *      American Anthropologist reference and bibliography style is required for all class materials. This means in-line citations. The AA style guide is at
  • *      All printed materials should be in Times New Roman font, 12 point type with 1-inch margins all around.
  • *      Any files submitted must be in HTML.  I will provide the basic template for each assignment, and you will fill it in.  Make sure you turn off all hyphenation. Spell check everything.
  • *      Graphics are always encouraged. Pictures should be scanned and converted to GIF or JPG formats in standard 72dpi for web publishing. I can show you how to do this.
  • *      Send me files as MSWord attachments via email, not through Oncourse unless I specifically tell you to do so.


I am always available for consultation and discussion in my office. Please don't wait until the last minute to discuss problems, readings, or issues with me! I am always very busy, but I will always make time to talk about something important, except during the last three weeks of the semester when I have very little time available.


Email is often the best way to ask me brief questions, to check on assignments, or make short comments. If you miss class, contact me by email to find out if you have been assigned some discussion for the next week.


We will use Oncourse (old version) for most basic assignment information, and for sharing drafts of group work.


Richard Wilk's Home Page | Theory Main Webpage


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Anthropology Journals

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Theory Through Time


Richard Wilk

Anthropology Department

Indiana University Bloomington

701 E. Kirkwood Ave. SB 242

Bloomington, IN 47405


This site  is generously sponsored by the IU Department of Anthropology and IU Campus Instructional Consulting and was designed by Cierra Olivia Thomas-Williams.