The perils of anthropology…and other scientific disciplines

I’m beginning to get geared up for the summer research season, and I have to count myself as fortunate. I’m one of those bench guys; I’ll be fussing over embryos and computers in an air-conditioned lab, and mostly sitting in front of a microscope. The field researchers will be out hiking, and facing other privations: heat, humidity, man-eating mosquitos, ticks, summer rainstorms, sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

Oh, wait, those last three…not a problem here at UMM, we’ve got a good group of faculty we can trust to respect the students. But elsewhere, in fields like anthropology where groups of men and women might be out in remote areas for long periods of time, Kate Clancy reports that they are big problems.

We heard many reports of women not being allowed to do certain kinds of field work, being driven or warned away from particular field sites, and being denied access to research materials that were freely given to men (and men who were given access were the ones telling us these things). Ultimately, not being able to go to certain field sites, having to change field sites, or not being able to access research materials means women are denied the opportunity to ask certain research questions in our field. This has the potential to limit the CVs of women and given them permanently lesser research trajectories. This can lead to not getting jobs, or getting lower-tier jobs. It also means certain research questions may get primarily asked by one gender, and reducing the diversity of people doing research has been shown to reduce the diversity and quality of the work.

Don’t be discouraged from going into anthropology if that’s the field you love, but just be prepared: women have an extra duty piled on top of all the research work, to slap down privileged offenders…who may be their superiors.

Hey, wait a minute: Clancy is focused on the field work situation, but even in my cozy climate-controlled environment, there is the possibility of harassment — I’ve even heard tales of faculty (at other universities, of course) who were dirty old men who made life hell for their women students. Is anyone doing work similar to Clancy’s in places like medical schools? Maybe we should be sending teams of anthropologists in to study the indigenous cultures of the biomedical establishment. I fear it would be scary stuff, but at least you wouldn’t have to deal with mosquitos.


  1. says

    Medical anthropology has been doing exactly what you call for for over thirty years. In particular, there’s quite a bit of research going on that looks at the training of biomedical professionals (nurses, physicians, alternative practitioners). So teams of anthropologists have been studying the biomedical establishment, but somewhat invisibly (since that’s part of our job in the field).

    That being said, it’s true that women have it tougher in anthropology, even though a lot of departments are staffed and grad-studented by a good many more women than men, and even though anthropology has incorporated a lot of feminist thought, particularly in questions of research ethics. Unfortunate, but better than it once was, I’m told.

  2. alissamanfre says

    A friend in grad school rotated in the lab of a nobel laureate. She happened to have modeled when younger and was gorgeous. She also happened to be a brilliant hardworking scientist. She thought she had gotten this rotation based on her intelligence and strong research background. While she was there, she overheard the PI and a male postdoc commenting on the physical features of the female students they were interviewing for the next round of rotations. They picked their female rotation students based entirely on physical appearance, and they weren’t even ashamed enough to close the door when discussing it. She was horrified, realizing she had been picked based on the same criteria. The male rotation students they picked based on intelligence and research background. The women? Picked entirely on their beauty. Unsurprisingly, there were not many female grad students or postdocs in the lab, as even the beautiful women found this incredibly insulting and did not want to be in the lab long-term.

  3. says

    Sexism is everywhere, of course it’s going to rear up its nasty head.

    Of course, all the anthropologists I know personally are, of course, women.

  4. Ƶ§œš¹ says

    A couple of years ago, I was part of a research project that involved a handful of graduate- and undergraduate-level students spending a couple of weeks in the field with local farmers; the IRB was concerned about “unforeseen sexual issues” and asked that the PI tweak the protocol so that only male students could have the option to make solo overnight stays in the field. Female students had to pair up for overnight stays.

    The PI rolled his eyes at this but acquiesced. It seems to me like the request came from a legitimate concern (after all, rape and sexual assault are real problems), but I can also see how the tangible effect of gender discrimination is still present, even though the people involved weren’t acting to make a hostile or sexist environment.

  5. says

    Wouldn’t it be good if tenure committees required a letter of recommendation from at least one woman and at least one minority student the professor had taught?

    I have a friend who wanted to go into archaeology, and she was told that that wasn’t a woman’s field and she should change her major to anthropology by either faculty or her counselor. She ended up dropping out.

  6. MadHatter says

    Years ago in my undergrad I got a rotation in a well-known behavioral geneticist’s lab. Most of the time I worked entirely alone. Occasionally I saw other young men in the lab. The professor rarely bothered to talk to me except to ask me to write up reviews of papers about the differences between the human male and female brains (not kidding). I did note that I rarely got to learn about what he was really doing with the work. Later I discovered that all of his male undergrad students worked very closely with him and got their names on papers.

    None of the women who rotated through the lab ever did.

    He told me not to apply to graduate school and pushed me to finish my courses much sooner than I planned to. It has taken me many years to go back for grad school as a result.

    While not sexual harassment and rape, I’ve since worked in places where the male PIs did sexually harass their female researchers or undergrad assistants. The behavior was known and ignored by his superiors and the women were all told that nothing could be done so would eventually quietly leave and he would refuse to provide a reference.

  7. samurai says

    Why is sexism bad? Wasn’t it sexism that brought us here first place?
    Humans evolved and
    1. the stronger ones survived;
    2. men have evolved to be sexual predators.
    Nothing nasty about this. Just natural, isn’t it?
    By the way, ‘nasty’ by whose standard?

  8. Portia, worn out says


    Go read a book,

    2. men have evolved to be sexual predators.

    and take that bullshit with you. This sort of idea ignores the fact that men, as human beings, are moral agents with responsibility for their actions. It’s wrong, inaccurate, offensive, harmful, and wrong.

  9. says

    If men evolved to be sexual predators, then I guess we really should just kill most of them and lock the rest of them up for selective breeding.

  10. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Just natural, isn’t it?

    Only in your mind. After all, if it was real, you would provide evidence, such a a link from here. You know, present real scholarship, not just unevidenced OPINION. That opinion is always *floosh* is dismissed as self-serving propergander.

  11. thumper1990 says


    As a bloke, I find your point #2 to be intensely insulting. As a human being, I find your idiocy insulting. I can only echo the senitments of others here and request that you fuck off.

  12. Ogvorbis, broken failure. says


    Please note the original post. What in the name of the seven levels of purple pluperfect hell does your bit of misogyny have to do with women being frozen out of research opportunities within the field of anthropology (other than to illustrate that some of us men are still locked into a damaging patriarchal paradigm)?

  13. says

    Medicine? Sexism? Nah, no sexism here.

    I didn’t get pushed out of surgery toward family medicine for being female, because I might decide to take time off and have kids. That was never said *to my face*. I wasn’t harassed by ortho residents on general surgery rotations for shits and giggles. I wasn’t told by a resident two years my senior that my job for one particular Saturday call would be pushing elevator buttons and answering his pager because he was Jewish.

    I didn’t spend a good chunk of last week in meetings wherein everytime I would say something, I was not able to finish a sentence due to a man talking over me. Nope nuh-uh. And Ontario’s government hasn’t noticed that it’s mainly women coming into medicine these days and taken the opportunity to start pushing us around. Nooo.

  14. David Marjanović says



    Humans evolved and
    1. the stronger ones survived;

    Ooh. Define “stronger”.

    2. men have evolved to be sexual predators.


    (Also, comment 10.)

  15. says

    Sayamika, read Women’s Dress for Success about clothing and colors that provide presence and authority. And perhaps stand when you start to speak so that you can glare down at them until they shut up. Or bring it up as a point of order.