2006, No. 1

Coming of Age in Stanford:
CASA Department Promises Great Future for Anthropology

One does not have to be an anthropologist to know Margaret Mead. An exemplary 20th century ethnographer who documented the primitive purity of isolated communities, a vocal critic of Western civilization, a prolific writer, a nascent feminist, and a romantic connoisseur of the glamor of the Pacific. Now, more than 50 years later, a remarkable anthropological community has flourished in the California foothills. Amidst brainy mathematicians, busy programmers, and aging Cold War crusaders, Stanford’s Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology remains loyal to the time-proven values of the discipline, while looking voraciously into the future.

Walking across the Main Quad or along the colonnade leading to Bldg. 110, a casual observer’s eye is struck by the idyllic pictures of full professors attending to the needs of first-year grads in the shadows of million-dollar-good palm trees, youthful assistant professors charming each other with intelligence and erudition, and hospitable staff taking a friendly standoff against energetic dissertation writers. It has been the best place for me. Professor Jim Ferguson, a Harvard Ph.D. who taught at Michigan and Irvine, does not hide his enthusiasm. A hard-core fieldworker and an adroit theoretician, he has recently brought to the Western eye the whole complexity of African development in a single monographic maneuver entitled Global Shadows. In the CASA building, he sits in the old office of an emeritus, Renato Rosaldo, who once revolutionized South-East Asian and Chicano studies by consistently emphasizing the role of emotions in the shaping of the human process.

In 1999, an earthly quake of academic theories, methods, and personalities brought about the split of an old Anthropology Department established at Stanford in 1954. Stanford will remain a legend in anthropological circles around the country, but in CASA itself there no talking about the plight of anthropology. In a subtropical climate, intellectual wounds heal fast. “We have achieved stability,” Professor Sylvia Yanagisako, one of the unswerving captains of the adventurous CASA ship, victoriously overlooks the horizons of the discipline. One of the co-editors of the recent vertiginous rethinking of the conventional structure of anthropological knowledge and training entitled Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, she has always strove for balance, equality, and diversity. One of the founders of a Stanford-propelled feminist movement in American anthropology in the 1970s, she now witnesses her dreams come true: CASA tops the diversity bill at Stanford hosting a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, both in the faculty and in the student body, and offering classes in all major areal and thematic subfields of anthropology. Its closely-knit faculty of 14 professors teaches nothing short of a fountain of anthro things, including archaeology, environmental anthropology, linguistics, medical anthropology, political economy, science and technology studies, Native American studies, and sociocultural anthropology. China, Egypt, South Africa, Italy, Japan, United States are well-covered. A Latin Americanist, an Islamist and an East Europeanist will be hired in the near future. Methodologies for the study of micro- and macro-social processes, qualitative and quantitative approaches, ethnographic methodologies, the collection and interpretation of oral histories, surveys, and archival materials, the analysis of material culture, including mapping, cataloging, and interpretation of material objects, and methodologies in the performative arts, including visual and performing studies, is only a very modest roster of skills preached and practiced by CASA anthropologists.

Theoretically CASA is a distinct academic species both at Stanford and worldwide. Like so many indigenous cultures described by anthropologists in the 19-early 20th centuries, CASA does not believe in linear causality, scientific objectivity, and the power of cold, calculating, immaculate reason. Once declared by Clifford Geertz to be a science in search of meaning, anthropology has abundantly demonstrated that human reality can be described only as a multitude of cultural contexts, whose overall integrity is achieved by agreement between social actors and toppled only by economic power and vested class, ethnic and racial interests. Intellectual labor derives its precision and persuasion from the powers of community. CASA means ‘home’ in Spanish, ‘community’ at Stanford, and ‘humanity’ in American academia. Hence, ethics is not simply a civil courtesy or political correctness but part and parcel of anthropology’s methodology: respect thy colleague, respect thy informant, respect thy fellow citizen, for they are the source of our knowledge and our power.

Time and again, this perspective has been attacked by those who believe that knowledge of humanity is given to a selected few. CASA anthropologists were accused of subverting the fundamental tenets of the discipline, of dangerous relativism, of the lack of a coherent vision, and the stubborn reluctance to comply and cooperate in the discovery of universal principles of human society. Facts have proven the opposite. At Stanford, cultural and social anthropology enjoy a fully symbiotic relationship with archaeology. Professor Ian Hodder, off to direct one of the principal digs of the last several decades in the history of archaeology, the remarkable 9,000 year-old-town of Catalhouyuk in Turkey, says CASA is my home. Part of a Cambridge trio at Stanford, the other two being Professors Ian Morris and Lynn Meskell, he believes that the way archaeology exists in contemporary world is as important as its ability to uncover the mysteries of the past. Hence, cultural heritage, intellectual property and meaningful interaction with local peoples are as much a concern for archaeologists as they are for anthropologists. While at Stanford, Meskell embraced anthropological methods for her archaeological work in South Africa and has recently authored a series of short but reflective articles on the benefits of transgressing conventional disciplinary boundaries. Cultural anthropologists, in return, take over the archaeological focus on materiality and add physical objects to their repertoire of means by which cultural meanings are exchanged and naturalized in human societies.

The culmination of a mutual romance between archaeologists and cultural anthropologists at Stanford is a joint course aptly entitled “Intersections” in which Meskell and Professor Liisa Malkki boldly tread the rugged terrain of archaeology, cultural anthropology, ethics, memory, and history. At CASA, synthesis, interdisciplinarity, and universal values acquire a whole new meaning and a whole new subject matter: professors and students simply undo narrow disciplinarity and construct intricate primary connections between raw, undomesticated, and previously unexplored phenomena. There seems to be much promise that, in the future, CASA will engage more and more disciplines both from within the conventional four-field “package” and from other areas of science and humanities. But it will be the matter of individual and team choice, rather than institutional pressure, as to what theories, techniques, and phenomena belong together.

What about the demography of our little island community? Since 1999, CASA has experienced a steady growth in the number of graduate applications and in the number of majors. Graduate students are successful in obtaining university and external field and write-up grants. They are actively involved in the annual graduate student conferences in both archaeology and cultural anthropology. But most importantly CASA alumni are highly marketable, counting coups at such prestigious universities as UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, and Michigan. CASA’s popularity is understandable: only here students are invited to face the contemporary world in the entirety of its cultural manifestations and still be secure in terms of prestige, resources, funding, intellectual and moral support.

After the tumultuous first years, Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford has reached its maturity. It has defined itself as a viable institutional organism commanding increasing attention from degree-seekers as well as job recruiters and as an innovative theoretical and methodological machine that has startled the anthropological community with a productive, ground-breaking and yet intellectually coherent research agenda. It has strong ties to the history of American cultural anthropology beginning with the pioneering efforts of Boas, Mead, Benedict and others and culminating in feminist, symbolic, and critical approaches. But a yet-more-precious diamond is hidden behind this story of success: CASA has fulfilled the age-old anthropological dream of an exotic island in which equality, diversity, prosperity, and mutual respect run free.

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