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KPOW! Getting Blasted by Canons in Anthropology

KPOW! Getting Blasted by Canons in Anthropology

By Davina Two Bears




During one of our discussions, we graduate students in the E500 class, Proseminar in Social and Cultural Anthropology, spoke about the bias that may potentially exist in identifying the canons of anthropology. Of concern was how and from whom we were going to obtain our information for the purposes of identifying the canon in social and cultural anthropological theory. I began to realize the importance of including a diverse array of informants, and to strive to include women and minority perspectives. This entry will describe how I came to implement my chosen methodology to identify the canons in anthropology, the process I undertook, the results of the data and reflections.

Indeed minorities in anthropology have sought to challenge and/or critique the field of anthropology, its theory and methodologies. A critical view of anthropology was made famous by the late Native American historian and activist Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) in his book, Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). He criticizes anthropological theories “…produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network of theories [that have] contributed substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today (Deloria 1969:80-81). Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s, Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999), echoes Deloria’s critique as she writes, “Having been immersed in the Western academy which claims theory as thoroughly Western, which has constructed all the rules by which the indigenous world has been theorized, indigenous voices have been overwhelmingly silenced” (1999:20). As a Native American anthropologist/archaeologist and a woman, it was important that I not commit the same sins outlined by Deloria and Smith in this assignment.




I am a qualitative researcher, and I enjoy listening to people’s stories. Because of the timeline for this research project, however, I decided to employ the use of an emailed questionnaire, which asked participants to identify the canons of anthropology. An emailed questionnaire appeared to be more convenient, as individuals could complete it at their discretion. My main goal was to gather information that will prove useful to anthropology students. I defined the canon of anthropology as “the core anthropological theory that is the most important to teach graduate students about, or the anthropological theory students should read and know something about.” I reasoned that the above definition will provide the most useful information to students, who are entering the field of anthropology and its sub-disciplines. From the information that I gather, students will ideally gain an idea about what constitutes canonical anthropology early on, which will enable them to gain early insight into the “major players” in anthropology

Furthermore, I strove to ensure representation from women and minorities. To that end, I chose to send the survey to a list-serve called the “Closet Chickens” that I am a member of, which caters to Indigenous archaeologists and supporters of Indigenous archaeology. Many of the individuals on the list-serve are personal friends of mine. I also chose to email the survey to anthropology professors and students, who I know at Indiana University, Northern Arizona University, Berkeley, and Dartmouth College. I reasoned that if the survey is sent to people I know, then the quality and rate of the response increases.

The questionnaire asked the following questions:


1. What in your opinion are the canons of anthropology? Please briefly explain each canon, and why you think it is a canon of anthropology?

2. What anthropology book(s) or text(s) do you think comprise a canon of anthropology and why? Please give the author/title of book, and the canon, and explanation.

3. What anthropologist(s) do you think have had a major impact to the field of anthropology and were/are instrumental to the development of a canon(s) of anthropology and why? Please give the name of each person, the canon, and explanation.

4. Which anthropology book(s) or text(s) do you most admire and why? Please give the author/title of book, and explanation.

5. What anthropologist(s) do you most cite in your writing (books and peer reviewed journal articles)?



I sent a total of 101 questionnaires, which were emailed to an indigenous archaeology list-serve, and directly to individuals that I knew, and I received a total of 12 responses. The survey was completed by both males (6) and females (6). Ethnicities represented included: Euro-Americans/White/Anglo Celtic (5), Native Americans/First Nations (3), Black/African American (2), Asian (1), and Greek/Ukrainian (1). Countries represented were: United States (10), Canada (1), and Australia (1). The academic institutions represented were: Binghamton University (3), Indiana University (3), Northern Arizona University (3), Flinders University – Australia (1), Simon Frazier University – Canada (1), University of Massachusetts Amherst (1), and University of California Berkeley (1). Finally, both professors (9) and graduate students (3) responded.

The tables below show a sampling of my results.


Table 1. Results of Question #1: The Canons of Anthropology.

Canon Number of Times Mentioned

Post Colonial or Post Colonialism; Postmodernism 5

Diversity of the human social experience or the body, including gender, race & racism, ethnicity, identity, language 3 ( including 2 race; 2 gender; 1 ethnicity)

Environmental anthropology or ethics 2

Feminism or Feminist Anthropology 2

Marxism 2


Table 2. Results of Question #2: Table of Books/Texts Comprising the Canons of Anthropology

Author/Book/Text Canon and Explanation # of Times Mentioned

Bourdieu (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. None given 2

Clifford, J. and G. Marcus, Eds. (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press. Practice theory 2

Conkey and Gero (1991). Engendering Archaeology: Women and Preshistory. Oxford: Blackwel Publishers. None given 2

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. Symbolic anthropology (“Thick Description: Toward an interpretive Theory of Culture” ) 2

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage. Post colonialism, critique of Orientalism 2

Trigger, Bruce (1996). A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The best compendium of the intellectual & epistemological history of archaeology 2

Wolf, Eric (1982). Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press. Post colonialism, world system theory 2

L. Abu-Lughod None given 2

Clifford Geertz None given 5

M. Harris None given 2

G. Marcus None given 6

Bea Medicine None given 2

Sherry Ortner None given 2

Radcliffe-Brown None given 2

E.H. Spicer None given 2

S.Tyler None given 2


Table 3. The Top Finalists from All Questions.

Name, Discipline Canon Total

Meg Conkey and Joan Gero, Archaeology Feminist Archaeology 11

Bruce Trigger, Archaeology Intellectual & Epistemological History of Archaeology 8

Bourdieu, Anthropology None given 4

Clifford and Marcus, Anthropology Practice Theory, Post Modernism, Anthropology of Globalization 4

C. Geertz, Anthropology Symbolic Anthropology 4

Julian Thomas, Archaeology None given 4

Martin Wobst, Archaeology None given 4

Eric Wolf, Anthropology World System Theory, Post-colonialism 4

Allison Wylie, Archaeology None given 4

Larry Zimmerman, Archaeology Indigenous Archaeology 4

TJ Ferguson, Archaeology None given 3

Michael Schiffer, Archaeology Behavioral Archaeology 3


In analyzing the responses for each question, the most canonical work is a feminist archaeology book by Meg Conkey and Joan Gero (1991), Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. “This path breaking book brings gender issues to archaeology for the first time, in an explicit and theoretically informed way. In it, leading archaeologists from around the world contribute original analyses of prehistoric data to discover how gender systems operated in the past. “ (Conkey and Gero 1991).


Final Reflections

The information gained is insightful, especially for the sub-discipline of archaeology. Since, however, this research is to identify the canons of anthropology, I am not sure it totally succeeded in that regard. If this information is to be reviewed by archaeology students too, then it may prove more useful.

The questionnaire itself was too complicated, repetitive, and too intense for individuals to respond to thoroughly. I should have focused on one question instead, and followed up with phone calls or skyping to get more detailed information from interviewees.

The most disappointing outcome came from the very people I hoped to represent, Native American anthropologists. To them, my questionnaire was alienating. My survey was critiqued for asking only about “anthropology” or “anthropologists,” which left out other indigenous scholars or elders that are consulted like Derrida, the Delorias, Riding In, Champagne, Tuhiwai Smith, Vizenor, the Echohawks, Memmi, and Fanon, who are not anthropologists. Another Indigenous woman stated that the canon is a western construction celebrating western culture, which continues to fuel “racism and maintains agontology regarding Indigenous peoples past and present.” I realized that in the pursuit of identifying the “canons of anthropology,” I alienated the very people who I was most interested in gaining information from. Or in other words, I was blasted by the canons of anthropology, and it was painful! How can I collect the information on the canons of anthropology, if the word “anthropology” discourages some Native American/Indigenous individuals from responding or participating?





Conkey, Meg and Joan Gero

1991 Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Deloria, Vine

1969 Custer Died for Your Sins An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.


Smith, Linda Tuhiwai

1999 Decolonizing Methodologies Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books.