Dr. Richard Wilk

2007 Spring     Section 7601          12:20P-02:35P   F      SB 138


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

Office Hours: Tuesday 2:30-5:00 PM, or by appointment

Class schedule



Course Description


The course 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 all 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.


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 http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory.htm. 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!


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.


In the past I have asked students to divide the semester up into three sections organized around the following three themes:


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.


But this semester I want to try doing something different.


Yes, each of you will have an opportunity to contribute to the Theory in anthropology website. In particular I would like each of you to choose a particular theorist and write an intellectual biography for your first assignment, though if you want to contribute to a different section of the site, I am open to discussion.


For your second assignment, though, we are going to tackle larger questions, in response to the major challenge offered by the recent book “Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology” edited by Dan Segal and Sylvia Yanagisako. The biggest issues in the future of anthropology, I think, are whether or not we will survive as a discipline, a social group, or as a bunch of individuals who just happen to reside in the same building. We are not competing well with other social sciences, and many anthropologists no longer seem to know what we are supposed to be doing in the world, and what makes us different besides a peculiar intellectual history.


So for your main contributions to the theory website this semester I would like essays which seek to answer one or more of the following questions:


1. What, if anything, makes anthropology a special way to understand what is going on in the world?


2. Do anthropologists share a point of view which justifies our speaking as a discipline, a group rather than as individuals?


3. What obligations does the discipline have to the public which finances our research and teaching?


4. How can anthropology gain more authority to speak about important issues, and find a public voice?


These essays will be posted to a ‘controversial issues’ section of the theory website, as part of an effort to open the site up to wider debate and discussion.


Your third assignment is going to be more fun. Building on the essays presented in “Off the Edge,” you will be writing an essay exploring a particular metaphor for understanding cultural processes.

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 followed by a discussion. Sometimes I will give you specific discussion topics in advance - 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.




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:


Lofgren, O. and Wilk, R. eds. 2006 Off the Edge: Experiments in Cultural Analysis. Museum Tusculanum.  

Latour, Bruno. We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, Chapter 2. ISBN: 0674948386.

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.


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: http://ereserves.indiana.edu/eres/courseindex.aspx?error=&page=dept


The password is “brain”


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 http://www.aaanet.org/pubs/style_guide.htm

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.