Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Segal, Daniel Alan, Sylvia Junko Yanagisako
2005 Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Notes: 173 p.; 24 cm. ISBN: 0822334747 (pbk)
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 24 Oct 2005 by:
Robert Lawless <>
Department of Anthropology, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita State University, Wichita KS 67260-0052
Medium: Written Literature
Anthropologists - Training of
Anthropologists - Education
Physical anthropology
Anthropological linguistics

ABSTRACT:    These six essayists critique the common definition of anthropology as organized around a four-field core.

A rant against four-field anthropology, this book is difficult to review with any objectivity by someone who is committed to the holistic approach in anthropology. I found myself arguing with just about every sentence in the introduction. Putting such a reaction into print would make for a very long review indeed. Maybe we are just different anthropologists. My anthropological upbringing was in the revolutionary milieu of the University of the Philippines, the rough-and-tumble “taxicab” environment of the New School for Social Research, and, perhaps most importantly in this case, the University of Florida, whose campus contains the agricultural, medical, and law components, as well as the Center for Latin American Studies, Center for African Studies, Center for Wetland Studies, Biobehavioral Research Center, Institute for Early Contact Period Studies, Center for Tropical Agriculture, Center for Tourism Research and Development, Center for Subtropical Agroforestry, etc., etc., etc. -- in other words, a mix that demanded an interdisciplinary, four-field, and holistic commitment from the 45 or so anthropologists on the campus.

The editors write, “None of the contributions in this volume participate in the project of promoting four-field orthodoxy” (p. 14), and they ask, “When was the last time that research on hominid evolution or primates was helpful to you in thinking about your ethnographic data?” (p. 11). Well, for me it was today, yesterday, the day before yesterday, and every day before that. My thinking has been informed by the advances made in biochemistry since World War II, especially in the field of molecular biology applied to the measurement of the evolutionary “distance” between related species, showing, for example, that we are genetically much closer to our ape like cousins than was previously thought. Alloprimate studies have shown unmistakable evidence of social life in monkeys and apes -- for example, the year round association of the two sexes, food exchanged and shared along kinship lines, the prolonged infant dependency on adults, the natural inclination among some species to communicate, and the natural use of tools. In other words, nonhuman primates have culture. And in understanding that culture is not exclusively human, that it is shared with other species, four-field anthropology is extending our knowledge even further through helping us discover our true roots in the natural world. That understanding informs my ethnography.

Among the many advances that are being made in biological anthropology are investigations into the nature and structure of breeding populations such as the relationship between marriage patterns and gene distribution; into the genetic, environmental, and social factors affecting diseases and their prevention; and into the treatment of harmful genetic abnormalities. These interdisciplinary approaches are possible because we have a four-field approach that includes learning about hominid evolution and primates in our training.

A felicitous collaboration between archaeologists and sociocultural anthropologists working with human foragers has provided a relatively clear picture of how our human ancestors lived before the advent of agriculture. For example, there was a controversy about whether early hominids ate meat or were vegetarians. Henry Bunn, from the University of California at Berkeley, combined archaeology with the study of contemporary human foragers in Botswana in a 15 year study. He compared the cracked bones left by the foragers with the type of remains at archaeological sites, and now he has solid evidence that meat eating hominids lived in the area at least two million years ago.

Archaeologists at the University of Florida have, for another example, been studying the slave quarters on southern plantations, enhancing our understanding of the ethnography of the South. And there is, of course, as only one more example, the University of Arizona's Garbage Project, which, by a carefully controlled archaeological study of household waste, is providing insights into contemporary social issues. The archaeologists have clearly shown a significant difference between what people say they do and what garbage analysis shows they actually do. And knowing about that difference is of great importance to sociocultural anthropologists.

Linguistic anthropologists have been learning about language origins and acquisition from the study of alloprimates, with considerable collaboration between linguistic anthropologists and biological anthropologists. Since languages change slowly and systematically, the study of their history offers many important clues for sociocultural anthropologists about the migrations and contacts of early peoples. Because all peoples typically talk about matters of immediate concern to them, language vocabularies serve as excellent guides to the social and conceptual universe. Also, finally, and very importantly, linguistic theories and methods have repeatedly served as models for the study of human behavior. Indeed, the way language is organized and the ways it is studied are often highly suggestive for those doing ethnography.

Many other specialties similarly integrate several subfields. As only one example, medical anthropology not only has a relationship with medical science but incorporates methods and theories from archaeology and biological anthropology.

The editors write, “Does marketing anthropology as a ‘biocultural synthesis’ really increase the material support for, or the authority of, say, studies of the myriad ways particular regimes of power and domination are naturalized? Rather, in our view, such work would be better served by making the strongest case possible, in the academy and beyond, for the importance of the distinctive analytic strengths of cultural-social anthropology as it is widely practiced today -- that is, as an interpretive social science grounded, at once, in fine-grained ethnographic reporting and the foregrounding of contingency by means of wide-ranging comparison across cultures” (p. 5).

To my ear they are arguing for an anthropology that sounds quite like the “comparative sociology” of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, combining the ahistorical fieldwork of Bronislaw Malinowski with the societal perspective of Émile Durkheim. Social facts, however, do not explain social facts -- despite Durkheim’s declaration (which was echoed in anthropology by A. L. Kroeber, who declared, “The causes of cultural phenomena are other cultural phenomena”). All behavior systems have some kind of grounding in extra cultural facts; everything ultimately exists within the context of a natural environment. I do not see much ecological sophistication in the writings of these contributors. Am I expecting too much holism?

Okay. Now I have completed my counter-rant, and I suppose I should say a few words about what is in the book. In an essay titled “Rearticulating Anthropology” James Clifford approvingly sees a “wide-spread rapprochement of sociocultural and historical approaches [with] sectors of American anthropology realign[ing] themselves with historically oriented European versions of the discipline” (p. 46). As examples of this “wide-spread rapprochement,” he cites work at Stanford, Berkeley, Chicago, Princeton, and Duke.

Of all the contributors Rena Lederman is the most sympathetic to the four-field approach. In her essay “Unchosen Grounds: Cultivating Cross-Subfield Accents for a Public Voice” she suggests, “Cultivating cross-subfield accents – identifying affinities and openings that make strategic cooperation possible among the subfields – has been, and may continue to be anthropology’s distinctive disciplinary resource for addressing important scholarly and public issues” (p. 50). Unwrapping the sacred bundle, that is, the four subfields, then means to her exploring the connections rather than fragmenting the discipline.

Perhaps the contributor most unsympathetic to four-field anthropology is Sylvia Yanagisako, who, in her essay, “Flexible Disciplinarity: Beyond the Americanist Tradition” argues that four-field anthropology grew out of an uneasy alliance between Boasian historicalists and W. J. McGee’s evolutionists in an effort to forge an identity for the European settler-colonialists. She states, “Collaboration among the four fields has become increasingly recognized as a foundational myth of the discipline rather than fact” (p. 94), and “competition among the four fields in anthropology . . . appears to have been more productive of tensions and conflicts over resource distribution than of innovative theories and methods” (p. 95).

I am not clear why the editors included Michael Silverstein’s essay on “Languages/Cultures Are Dead: Long Live the Linguistic-Cultural!” As the editors point out, his “contribution to this volume is distinctive in focusing on the history and effects of convergence, rather than divergence, between subfields” (p. 16). He seems to be saying that linguists and sociocultural anthropologists discovered at about the same time that neither languages nor cultures are discrete, bounded entities. I’m not convinced that any sophisticated anthropologist ever thought otherwise, and it is not clear what Silverstein wants anthropologists to do with that “discovery.”

In “An Archaeology of the Four-Field Approach in Anthropology in the United States” the British-trained archaeologist Ian Hodder draws a number of parallels between postprocessual archaeology and sociocultural anthropology but concludes that both archaeology and sociocultural anthropology would be better off making alliances with disciplines outside anthropology.

It does seem to me, however, that learning from other disciplines is axiomatic for all the anthropological subfields. When I was involved in a crop protection project in the Philippines, for example, I had to become rather well read in entomology, plant pathology, soil science, toxicology, and weed science. It did not occur to me that any of this meant that I should give up my training and interest in archaeological, biological, or linguistic anthropology. In fact, I used the training in these subfields to better understand the nature of crop protection as it is understood from the folk models of the Philippine farmers and the analytic models of the agricultural scientists.

One could also make the point that biology, chemistry, and physics each have many disparate subfields yet these sciences maintain a profitable unity. Like general anthropologists, scientists in these fields beg, borrow, and steal whatever they need from whatever other fields in order to bring the best data, methods, and theories to bear on whatever issues they are studying. And none suggests that such an endeavor requires that they abandon their home discipline.

I suspect that this book would be very confusing for undergraduates and probably should not be read by them. It might prove to be a source of discussion in a graduate course, but I imagine any competent anthropologist could think up better arguments on the way to class.

To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the following style:
Lawless, Robert
2005 Review of Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. Anthropology Review Database October 24, 2005., accessed April 19, 2014.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

© Anthropology Review Database
(available online:

Return to ARD Home Page