The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

What kind of anthropologist am I? Boundary crossings and the new one-drop rule


Department of Anthropology, University of Florida

Thursday 3:15-3:30, Ballroom A Add to calendar

Washburn’s (1951) vision for a new physical anthropology required active collaboration between subdisciplines to elucidate the biocultural processes shaping human evolution and variation. Sixty years later, the need for such collaboration remains, but new barriers have emerged. Here I consider one neglected barrier—a new one-drop rule in anthropology—and argue for the continuing promise of a biocultural synthesis.

The one-drop rule usually refers to an aspect of racial classification in the United States: the automatic assignment of people with any detectable trace of African ancestry to the category black. Anthropologists are justifiably critical of this rule, yet an analogous principle operates within the discipline. To wit, cultural anthropologists who exhibit any trace of another subfield are automatically reclassified to that subfield. One consequence is that biocultural approaches are generally defined as outside the scope of cultural anthropology, and interactions between human biology and culture become the purview of biological anthropology alone. This pattern impoverishes anthropology as a whole but constitutes the unique contribution of biological anthropology to science.

I illustrate this argument using examples from research on race, racism, and health. Racial inequalities in health are a major focus of interdisciplinary debate, but the debate often founders on the lack of a biocultural perspective. My work with colleagues in Puerto Rico and the mainland United States shows that integrating methods and theory from cultural and biological anthropology reframes the research questions and results in more specific tests of competing hypotheses for the causes of human variation.

This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (BCS-0820687, BCS-0724032).

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