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

Finding the place of race in anthropological discourse: a digital textual analysis


1Stanford Literary Lab, Stanford University, 2Anthropology, University of Tennessee

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The discourse of "race" has a complex history in biological anthropology. While understanding the distributional patterns of human biological variation remains a well‐recognized step towards revealing population structure, tracing human evolution, and making identifications in forensic contexts, race has come frequently under fire. At best, critics claim that race is a cultural construct, lacking biological reality; at worst, population-based classification is accused of perpetuating the dark histories of typology and human taxonomy. But our understanding of the evolution of this discourse is complicated by the interactions between perceptions and practice: the discipline of physical anthropology lacks a comprehensive and critical understanding of the patterns that the language of race has assumed throughout the recent disciplinary past. Has the discourse of race remained constant over time? Has the emergence of forensics and genetics altered how we interpret concepts such as race, ancestry or ethnicity? Are there recognizable patterns of discourse shaping our understandings of race?

The project reconstructs race's history using the novel methodologies of computational linguistics. Our work analyzes the semantic and lexical patterns in a corpus of 2000+ articles from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Current Anthropology and the Journal of Forensic Sciences using topic modeling, sentiment analysis and frequency analysis. In doing so, we investigate quantitatively the ways in which the language of race has helped shaped the evolution of anthropology and, in turn, how methodological and critical advances in the discipline have shaped the ways in which we talk about and understand the concepts of race.

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