“You Can’t Be An Anthropologist Without a PhD”

When I was working as a linguist – anthropologist for an Indian tribe, my silly boss told me that a professor told her that you can’t be a linguist or an anthropologist without a PhD. At the time, I was working on salary as a linguist – anthropologist. That was my job description, and I received a check for doing that. Working as a cultural anthropologist meant working with Indian informants, surveying literature, etc.

It’s true, I didn’t have a degree in anthropology, but I had done lots of reading in the field and taken a course. I bought a book on how to do field anthropology and all the rest was what you call on the job learning. As far as being a linguist, I was doing that too. I had an MA in Linguistics, but had never taken a course in field methods.

No problem. I just got a hold of a bunch of books, called up a bunch of professors and field linguists, and figured it out on my own. I was annoyed at the guy’s remark (he was some kind of a PhD somewhere), but it was no big deal. The world is full of idiots, and some of them even have PhD’s.

My uncle had a PhD and he was one of the most arrogant people you have ever met. One time, he got into it with the department secretary and the department chair called him and read him the riot act. “Look!” the chair said. “Around here, PhD’s are a dime a dozen, but a really good secretary is damned hard to find! Now knock it off!”

My uncle was furious that he was considered less than a lowly secretary and was constantly repeating this story to everyone who would hear, expecting them to share his outrage. Mostly I think the listeners just agreed with the department chair.

Anyway, it wasn’t until recently that I caught on to what the professor with PhD fetish was all about. There are autodidacts all over the world, and I’ve been quite impressed by some of them. The ones who do best are the ones who follow academic consensus.

Let me elaborate. In any field, consensus is more or less arrived at by the experts in the field, and most of them have degrees or even advanced degrees. An academic consensus about a variety of issues and theories related to the field develops over a period of time. In other areas, disagreement persists. And if the consensus is theoretically weak, eventually it starts getting challenged by a few renegades.

One thing you notice about a lot of autodidacts is that they have a real scattershot education. They more or less gave themselves a degree or advanced degree, and they didn’t necessarily take the required courses. Upshot is that they are great at some stuff and terrible at other stuff.  Worse, they often lack the essential basic background that those with a degree have. The field has been set for a crank.

A scattershot education means the autodidact is often going off half-cocked and saying some really stupid things that no one with a real education would ever say. Really, if you want a seat at the table of debate, you need to prove to us that you deserve one. If you’re an autodidact, no problem, but shows that you’ve got the necessary background, either through formal or informal education, to get a seat at the table. If you can’t show us that, give us a reason why we should listen to you at all.

That may sound cruel, but autodidacts do tons of damage to good theory, mostly by contaminating it in the public square. In the field of history, broad consensus has been reached about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and many other things.

Yet the world is full of amateur historians who set out to prove that proven history never even happened. Sure, they are shut out of the academy. For damned good reason. So they contaminate the public sphere with very well-crafted nonsense designed to fool the gullible. I

It’s no secret why nearly all Holocaust Deniers couldn’t get a history professorship even with millions of dollars. In academia, we don’t tolerate nuts, loons and cranks. You either back up your stuff with some sort of facts, or we don’t even let you in in the first place. Sure there are Creationists running around. Some even have Biology degrees. Do you think they can get a Biology Professorship somewhere? Not on your life. Their views are going to land them on their ass before they even have a foot in the door.

There is consensus in meteorology about global warming. Outside the academy, the world is full of meteorological autodidacts whose great calculations show us that global warming cannot possibly be occurring.

There is consensus in biology about which animals are species, subspecies and whatnot. There’s even an organization to stick names on critters. Outside the academy, there are all sorts of amateur field biologists, many receiving large paychecks, who know more than the standards bodies.

Consensus in academia is criticized, but it’s not the bugaboo it seems. If it’s theoretically weak, some maverick will show up and start knocking over the furniture. He might make some folks mad, but they will generally keep it civil.

A requirement in academia is to keep your differences with other scholars respectful and civil. If you notice the autodidacts, they don’t seem to be capable of doing that. They’re often screaming and yelling in various public forums,  leaving nasty snail trails all over that are going to follow them wherever they go. Professors are not supposed to do that. If you do, you might get investigated, if not fired.

Bottom line is that when some egghead makes an arrogant comment like the one you see in the headline above, unfortunately, there is some basis for saying that.

14 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, Linguistics

14 responses to ““You Can’t Be An Anthropologist Without a PhD”

  1. heg

    My uncle was furious that he was considered less than a lowly secretary …

    This shows how stupid he was, is? Every good CO, Commanding Officer has his secretary to thank him for his life. With out the secretary the CO would be nothing.

    Anyone that do not understand this is as stupid as one can get.

  2. Reader

    It’s no secret why nearly all Holocaust Deniers couldn’t get a history professorship even with millions of dollars. In academia, we don’t tolerate nuts, loons and cranks. You either back up your stuff with some sort of facts, or we don’t even let you in in the first place.

    You’re right – good thing we keep those awful Holocaust Deniers locked up in prison where they belong.

  3. I don’t agree with locking these guys up.

  4. heg

    WordPress dont like me. The first post in this thread did show at once, my second post also showed at once. Then some hour later the second post dont show, and the 3 post dont show. WTF?

  5. heg

    The last post show. Beats me.

  6. I have to approve all your posts. Of all you guys. Takes a while sometimes.

  7. hoff2

    There is the option that if a commenter have one approved comment, the next will be approved automatic. I have that option on my blog.

    The only reason is that I want to block the obnoxious jews.

  8. Oh I think you are on that one. I don’t know what’s happening. Your comments will show up eventually. The ones with links in them sometimes get held up.

  9. Scott

    I think the jewish holocaust occurred, but with all the evidence why the need to through people in prison who have a different view?

  10. Academic

    You may or may not need a PhD – but to prove you are a not an amateur you need to be published in the area. Publication proves that your input is accepted into the research community. Are you published?

    • I was employed as a linguist for an Indian tribe, and in the course of my work, I had to do tons of anthropological work, mostly tons of reading, but also some field work with informants. This was done as part of an anthropological project in order to write a book about the tribe’s culture. I told someone I was working as an anthropologist, and they said you can’t be an anthropologist without a PhD. But that was my job!

  11. I’m currently a graduate student (M.A. program) studying Anthropology… One of my anthro professors said once that you generally can’t be called an “anthropologist” without first getting your PhD. That said, I currently don’t have plans to go into a doctorate program, but I do have plans to work in an appropriate field (cultural resource management). That said… if I never go on to a doctorate program, I’m not sure if I can comfortably call myself an “anthropologist,” despite all my hard work and the countless hours spent on anthro research & coursework. I would *like* to use that title, but it feels more likely on-the-mark to say I have a “background in anthropology,” rather than use the term “anthropologist.” (Thoughts?)

    • If you are actually working as an anthropologist, then go ahead and call yourself an anthropologist. It was part of my job description and it was in fact what I was doing. I was getting paid to do cultural anthropology. Therefore, I was working as an anthropologist. J.P. Harrington never had a degree in anything.

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