Asking yourself, “What are the current trends in anthropological research today?”
I’m sure if you weren’t before, you are by now. And that’s an excellent question…
Throughout academia, there is an increasing demand for more holistic scientific research. Indeed, current research in anthropology increasingly references other fields—i.e., economics, psychology, sociology, biology, etc.—in order to make educated ‘guess-timations’ about prehistoric populations; however, as modern research incorporates approaches from various fields, currents trends seem to show that much current anthropological research focuses on ‘exotic’ samples in the context of more culturally relevant (and specific) topics (Kroff 2006).
As one would expect, many topics addressed in anthropological research will vary based on the scientific and social issues considered important in the home country, but will include data from various fields to support respectively important anthropological hypotheses. This contrast was adequately stated by Kroff (2006), who suggests “where post-modernist anthropologists develop ideas of fragmented identities and multi-sited ethnographies on the one hand an intensified particularism can be observed on the other hand” (66). Among the four fields of anthropology, a similarity in modernist approach can be seen among current research in cultural, biological, and archaeological anthropology.
According to Hegmon (2003), major themes that “crosscut many or all… approaches” are “interest in gender, agency/practice, symbols and meaning, material culture, and native perspectives” (213). Thus is the nature of theory, which is concurrently both enabling and constraining (Hegmon 2003). There are two branches of theory in North American archaeology today that divide the theoretical landscape in the field of archaeology: The first includes evolutionary ecology, behavioral archaeology, and ‘Darwinian’ or evolutionary archaeology; the second branch, which encompasses most current archaeological inquiry, is referred to as processual-plus, characterized by the application of a variety of processes (Hegmon 2003).
The study of gender is important to much modern archaeological research. Often overlooked, the rise of feminism brought with it an increase in interest in the archaeology of prehistoric gender, which is a role based on sex and behavioral expectations as imposed on the individual by society. Today’s research shows a trending focus on “what women (and sometimes men) did in the past, how they were treated, and the implications for gender relations” (Hegmon 2003:218).
Similarly, age has been taken into reconsideration. Knudson et al. (2008) suggest that the aging techniques of modern archaeologists are increasingly sophisticated as the considerations become more complex. There are multiple factors currently taken into account when aging a prehistoric individual:
Chronological age, as measured in days or years since birth, developmental age, which bioarchaeologists identify through the physical evidence of the developmental stage during which the individual died, and social age, which is the socially and culturally constructed age or age category to which an individual belongs (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:411).
Cumulatively, these developments have resulted in an increasingly open mind and receptiveness to a variety of perspectives in archaeological research.
There also exists an emphasis on ‘agency,’ or identity as reflected by behavior in relation to cultural expectations, sometimes in opposition of the given culture’s structure. Specifically, ‘agency’ refers to “events [in which the] individual is the perpetrator, in the sense that the individual could, at any phase in a given sequence of conduct, have reacted differently” (Hegmon 2003:219). According to the literature:
Gender, age, status, ethnic affiliation, and religion all represent forms of social identities with associated behavioral expectations and roles. Identities are about self-perception and self-promotion as well as constraints imposed by others. It is the process of social interaction with a matrix of intangible social identities that makes the human social world so complex (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:398).
It’s now more commonly held that “individuals adopt and manipulate coexisting social identities over the course of their lifetimes” (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:398). This emphasis on practice, defined as “anything people do” (Ortner 1984:149), is prevalent in current anthropological research as well as theory of motivation (Ortner 1984).
Furthermore, the result of becoming an increasingly inquisitive and interpretive society is that there is a subsequent increase in the importance of symbolism in archaeological research. Behavioral archaeology grew from studies involving the correlation of prehistoric behavior and cultural remains (Hegmon 2003) and is very much involved in the interpretation of symbolic activity. Modern research in anthropology seeks to understand the implications of prehistoric behaviors as well as the cultural implications of behaviors and sees “human behavior as symbolic action” (Ortner 1984:144). Current anthropology incorporates a variety of “newer practice-oriented work with certain more established approaches, especially with symbolic interactionism in sociology and what was called transactionalism in anthropology” (Ortner 1984:146).
A study by Knudson and Stojanowski (2008) provides an example of how current studies of the biological and social sciences have given rise to the hybrid study of bioarchaeology. In keeping with a modernist approach, there’s an increasing “methodological sophistication” in the field of bioarchaeology, with “new developments in osteological age and sex estimation, paleodemography, biodistance analysis, biogeochemistry, and taphonomy” (2008:397).
There also seems to be a renewed sense of historical particularism in the increased interest in particular cases “in lieu of general laws” with emphasis on the importance of history (Hegmon 2003:224). Culture in and of itself presents a difficult topic for current anthropologists. As a result of the increase divergence over the years from unilineal evolutionary perspectives, there exists an emphasis that “cultural changes are neither unilineal nor unidirectional” (Hegmon 2003:225). This also is reflected in bioarchaeological research in that statistics made from populations, such as the average height or weight, are specific to only the given population and aren’t applicable to other populations (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008). According to the literature, the study of population history infers “pattern[s] of ancestor and descendant relationship and evolutionary history among [multiple] populations and reconstructs historical connects based on phenetic similarity” (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:403).
Modern anthropology also reflects a refocusing of ideas about ‘social organization’ as a more dynamic rather than static cultural entity (Hegmon 2003). Much previous research that opposed the ‘particularistic’ approach argued that migration and diffusion perpetuated cultural change; however, modern research takes into consideration significant migratory events when conducting archaeological research (Hegmon 2003:227). Recent studies of individual health and disease based on skeletal remains have also shown an increased awareness and social understanding of disabilities and the disabled in the archaeological record (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:408). According to researchers:
Bioarchaeologists are increasingly distinguishing between disease, which is a temporary or permanent pathological condition, impairment, the physical or mental state that may result from a disease, and disability, which is the relationship between society and individuals with impairments (Knudson and Stojanowski 2008:408-409).
Furthermore, much like research in the sixties, there is an inherent attitude toward established social systems in contemporary anthropology. Specifically, there is a “strong sense of the shaping power of culture/structure,” which is viewed as being a rather dark entity and a symbol of social domination and even repression (Ortner 1984:147).
Essentially, current archaeology in North America has returned to an almost modernist approach with “emphasis on generalizable principles and scientific reasoning” and “interest in specific cases as they apply to a larger context or in comparative perspectives” (Hegmon 2003:233). It’s quite difficult to narrow the current trends in anthropology to a universal model, but current research suggests that, due to the outsourcing of various fields of perspective in anthropology, a possible unifying model could be that contemporary anthropology is not a single-minded field, but rather anthropologists approach archaeological questions using a variety of approaches, which makes the field very comprehensive and structurally vague (Ortner 1984) but increasingly revealing of specific anthropological topics.