What Makes for Good Anthropological Writing?

For this week’s blog post I have been challenged to discuss what makes an academic anthropological article both succeed and fail through a critical analysis of two articles: one strong and one weak. This is a fairly open-ended and subjective question which I do not believe can be justified with a simple response. Thinking back to what I have learned in Dr. Roddick’s class thus far, I would expect a successful academic journal article to be strong in a number of aspects such as content, voice/style, and structure. These categories are deliberately general in order to acknowledge that there is considerable variation regarding what may be considered ‘successful’ in each.

Content

I would expect that the referenced material is up to date and does not limit itself to classic ‘influential’ work but additionally incorporates, or at a minimum acknowledges, alternative, contemporary material. I would not, however, expect the content to include an argument or an opinion as, for example, annual review papers do not necessarily make an argument (although perhaps implicitly by controlling what research they reference as important) but are arguably successful papers nonetheless. In addition, I have read some of my colleagues’ blog posts this week and noticed some discussion regarding theory selection as important to a successful article which I would like to address further here. With regards to my first point regarding content, I would expect that whatever theoretical perspective the author chooses, they use up to date material and at a minimum acknowledge other relevant competing arguments and models. I would not, however, label an article a failure because they are simply choose a different theoretical perspective than my own. If there is anything we have learned thus far, it is that it is okay to challenge the dominant way of ‘doing’ anthropology.

Voice/Style 

I would expect that a successful article to be written both clearly and concisely with an intended audience in mind. Considering this, I think the use of ‘in-the-know’ language is neither a strength nor weakness as long as it is used appropriately considering the reader. As this assignment asks us to specifically discuss academically oriented articles I am assuming that the intended audience is academic. In this case, I would expect the correct use of meaningful anthropological jargon, used clearly and concisely, to be a feature of a successful article. I would also expect that there is considerable flexibility regarding what is considered ‘good’ anthropological style. I think there is value to both imitating, to a certain degree, the writing style of influential authors, such as Levi-Strauss or Louis Binford, and challenging the canonical with experimental style such as Kristen Luker.

Structure

I would expect similarly as with voice that a successful article moves clearly and smoothly through their points while keeping the audience in mind. Once again, considering the subjectivity of this criteria I acknowledge that there exists considerable successful variation regarding how to go about this. One might stick the traditional, canonical, narrative which, considering archaeology for example, tends to be structured chronologically over time, or innovate with alternative narrative structures that, for example, may be more free-flowing, introspective, or novel-esque in structure. 

Additional Criteria 

In addition to my own criteria, I include here a number of article review questions proposed by Rex, a SavageMinds.org user and author, in the blog post Questioning Collapse that I think will be useful for highlighting a successful paper. These, modified by the author, include: How does the article address the social effects of their research and its accuracy? How is the article influenced by the cultural background of the author? How well does the article stand up to scholarly scrutiny? How well does the article reach the intended audience? These are general, yet strong questions because they are flexible, allowing for a multitude of responses.

THE SEARCH

Once I developed these measures for identifying successful anthropological articles, I headed to the academic database: Google.Scholar to actually find some articles to review. I used keywords relevant to my research such as ‘hunter-gatherer’, ‘paleoethnobotany’, and ‘New World’ to initiate the search and made particular use of the ‘cited by’ function to access a list of all known publications, with links, citing the particular source. My rationale for this is deceptively simple. Articles that have been cited many times are more likely to be considered successful articles than those that have not. However, it is more complicated because there are a number of factors one must be aware of such as date of publication, publishing medium, publishing body, and nature of the article (i.e. annual review, case study, etc.). For example, if you were to compare an article published in 1970 to one published in 2015, it would not be unusual for the 1970 article to have garnered more references. This does not necessarily indicate that it is more successful, but may rather reflect that it has simply accumulated more references by virtue of time. In addition, the nature of the publishing journal itself will affect an articles dissemination to broader audiences. For example, a small anthropological journal, such as Vegetation, History, and Archaeobotany, would likely reach a smaller audience than, for example American Antiquity. Furthermore, the content of the publication is also important for accumulating references. For example, publications that address broad, over-arching subjects are more likely to be cited than those that focus on specific case studies because they are more likely to fit many frames of research. Finally a reference does not always equal appraisal. In other words, an article may have been cited many times but the content of such citations is not always positive, but sometimes scathing and critical.

THE ARTICLES

Considering this, I selected two articles for this week’s review. The first is “Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy”, written by Cordian et al., published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The second, which I found via the ‘cited by’ list from Cordian et al.’s article, is “Hunter-gatherer Nutrition and Its Implications for Modern Societies”, written by Brent Kious, published in Nutrition Noteworthy.

The Successful

Cordain, L., J. B. Miller, S. B. Eaton, N. Mann, S. HA Holt, and J. D. Speth
2000  Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71(3): 682–692. 

Keywords: hunter-gatherer, diet, ethnography, subsistence, nutrition, plant, animal, macronutrient energy estimation

The main purpose of this article is to discuss how nutritionists and anthropologists reconstruct hunter-gatherer diet via the archaeological record. Because hunter-gatherers do not exist uninfluenced today, reconstructions of diet rely on indirect measures such as ethnographic analogy. As such, Cordain et al. combine ethnographic data with nutritional information to estimate hunter-gatherer plant and animal macronutrient intake requirements. Their results show that hunter-gatherer consumption choices are largely dependent on protein intake. Whenever possible, hunter-gatherers prioritized the consumption of much animal-protein until they encountered the ‘maximal protein ceiling’: the point after which excess consumption of animal-protein would results in an illness known as “rabbit starvation” (688). Cordain et al.’s main conclusion regarding hunter-gatherer diet is that, although exceptions exist, animal based protein tended to be universally preferred over plant based carbs. Relevant to modern societies, the nutritional trends discussed may lead to a better understanding of modern chronic diseases in Westernized societies.

I argue that this is a successful anthropological article for a number of reasons. First, I encountered the article not only because it paralleled my research interests, but because Google.Scholar’s ‘cited by’ function showed that it had been referenced on 651 separate occasions. Upon further inspection, it would appear that this article garnered so many citations because it addresses broad issues (i.e. diet) relevant to a multidisciplinary audience. Comparatively, a specific case study would likely be pertinent to a much smaller niche audience. Regarding content, this article is successful at referencing both classic and contemporary material on the topic, thus demonstrating an awareness of both influential and modern interpretations. Although this paper is undoubtedly based on an explicit argument, it is not my intention criticize of the chosen stance but, rather, to identify that the argument was well-informed and cited with up-to-date relevant information. Regarding voice/style, I felt that article was written clearly and concisely while attempting to be translatable to their intended audience: anthropologists and nutritionists. As the intended audience is cross-disciplinary, I thought that, for the most part, the article did a good job avoiding field specific language and jargon that would have made interpretation difficult for either party. For example, I had a bit of trouble unpacking some of the nutritional language regarding hunter-gatherer macronutrient intake in the methodology section which was likely intended for clinical nutritionists. Regarding structure, Cordain et al. adhered to the typical academic/scientific structure or narrative, not surprising considering that the intended audience is academic. They made good use of accurate headings and, in my opinion, transitioned well from one section to the next. Overall, I think this is a successful anthropological article for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that it reached its intended audience well. 

The Less than Successful

Kious, B. M.
2002  Hunter-gatherer Nutrition and Its Implications for Modern Societies. Nutrition Noteworthy 5(1). 

Keywords: Hunter-gatherer, nutrition, subsistence,

The main purpose of this article is to identify factors relating diet and activity to the the onset of chronic and degenerative diseases in westernized societies, such as diabetes mellitus and hypertension, through comparison with hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Kious argues that this is a viable comparison because we, as humans, are still “genetically adapted” to this form of existence. Since little data is available from prehistoric hunter-gatherers, data from modern ethnographic “tribes” (1) was substituted because their ways of life have not changed according to the evolutionary standard. According to Kious, the results show a link between the onset of major diseases and divergences from ethnographic accounts of hunter-gatherer diets. The major contribution of this study is to suggest new ways to improve the health of patients in industrial regions through nutritional and behavioral recommendations.

This is a great example of how inter-disciplinary research can go awry. I would by no means suggest that it is a failure but would call it less than successful for a number of reasons. Regarding both content and voice/style, Kious’ use of outdated anthropological language and theory throughout the article reveals either his lack of knowledge regarding contemporary anthropological theory, or a refusal to acknowledge it. For example, his reference to hunter-gatherer “tribes” (2) shows that he is not aware that no subset of credible anthropology uses that terminology. For the most part, the term ‘tribe’ was replaced with ‘ethnic group’ in the mid-late 20th century. Additionally, his reference to “civilized behaviors” (abstract) as reflecting modern industrial societies implies that hunter-gatherers, as the antagonists in this comparison, are uncivilized. Once again, this use of language shows that Kious is not up-to-date with current anthropological conventions. Furthermore, his firm evolutionary theoretical stance reflects a similar problem. By assuming that modern ethnographic accounts of diet have remained unchanged from those of pre-historic hunter-gatherers is to ignore the influence of modern historical processes on contemporary groups. The real problem here, however, is not that Kious took an evolutionary stance, but that he did not consider the modern critiques of his perspective. None of this is terribly surprising considering the Kious’ academic background is rooted in psychiatry. Finally, regarding structure, I thought that Kious had taken enough of a beating. The typical canonical structure does its job of presenting the material for an academic audience well, but wins no awards for creativity.

CONCLUSION

I think that a real strength of this exercise, which I elaborated upon when I opened, was not so much the article reviews themselves but, rather, the process of developing a criteria for critically engaging with an article. Although somewhat crude or rudimentary in its early inception, I think it helped me engage the articles better because I had specific things to look for. In addition, I read Beatrice’s blog post Hunter-Gatherer Ritual, Mobility, Settlements – Reviews of Very Different Academic Articles, prior to writing my own and picked up a small token of insight. In her conclusion she commented that some opinions that she initially thought were strong unraveled under closer inspection and, in the process, she was able to identify the author’s conscious choices and individual style. I had a similar experience during my own review of Kious’ article. At first the argument looks strong until a picked out a few choices of language (i.e. tribe) which seemed to spark a critical nerve in my brain, allowing me to identify additional issues. I could that Kious wanted to use evolutionary theory because it provided a tangible way to address his research questions via universals.

– PaleoBaron

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2 thoughts on “What Makes for Good Anthropological Writing?”

  1. I appreciate your questioning of how publication dates may affect whether an article is perceived as “weak” or “strong”. Not only would the number of references a paper has achieved vary but paradigm shifts over the decades might skew reception of the work as well. Due to the nature of technological developments in obsidian sourcing, I was also wary of this affect so my goal was to choose two articles published within a few years of each other. I suppose in your case, with only a two-year gap between your choice of articles, comparing the number of times each article was referenced by other authors was feasible. It made me curious about my articles so I did a quick Google Scholar search as well. I won’t mention the numbers, but the article I considered “stronger” was indeed cited by others more often than the one I deemed “weaker”. Interesting…

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    1. Hi Lauren,

      You make a good point adding paradigm shifts as an important aspect to consider when using the ‘cited-by’ function. By no means did I expect to prepare an exhaustive list of factors (although I did my best), yet this addition is valuable. I actually took a nugget of information from a conversation I had with Taylor as well that contributed to my list. It is the fact that specific case studies tend to be cited less on average than studies that deal with broad topics, such as theory.

      You point out that, in your experience, there was a relation between the strength of the article and the number of citations. This is indeed why I pursued it further here, I think there is enormous value to this function. In fact, I think that it would be an interesting research project to study why articles get cited via a study of this function. Regardless, I am glad that you found some use to my post!

      Cheers,

      -PaleoBaron

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