Get to Know a Steward: Ryan Campbell

RyanCampbell thumbnailFor the seventh installment in our Get to Know a Steward series, the GAU Communications Committee asked Ryan Campbell, co-steward for the Department of Anthropology, several questions about his life, biological anthropology, David Graeber, academic hierarchy, democracy, Dr. Susan Ford and humorously bad movies.  

GAU Communications Committee: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to SIUC?

Ryan Campbell: I was born in Wichita, Kansas and spent most of my formative years living near there in a small town called Clearwater, Kansas.  To give you an idea of the size of that community, there were 86 people in my graduating class!  It was the kind of town where everyone knows each other and social norms were strongly enforced.  As a result, the community lacked diversity.  When I entered college, I was exposed to a more diverse group of people.  I think that experience ignited my curiosity about the lives of other people, which I ultimately focused into a career as an anthropologist.

I came to SIUC specifically to obtain my Ph.D. in anthropology.  The anthropology faculty at this institution are world renowned.  I was excited to be taught by and collaborate with some of the most respected names in the field.  Overall, I haven’t been disappointed.

GAU: You’re pursuing a doctoral degree in anthropology. Why should anyone care about anthropology?

Campbell: In the broadest sense, anthropology is the study of variation among humans and our primate relatives.  Anthropologists study all of those things that unify humans as a single species and the things that distinguish us as members of groups.  We examine how our evolutionary history has created great biological and cultural diversity and what that diversity tells us about the nature of our own existence.

As our social world broadens due to our ability to interact as a global community, anthropological insight is more important than ever.  We must understand that cultural differences arise as a response to varied historical circumstances.  Anthropological research provides a foundation for understanding and respecting human difference.

GAU: You noted on your Academia.edu profile page that your focus is biological anthropology. What is biological anthropology all about?

Campbell: We traditionally divide anthropology into four subfields: socio-cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology.  There tends to be considerable overlap between these subfields due to some of the unifying principles of anthropological research, primarily our holistic approach to understanding humanity.

Biological anthropology, the subfield where I situate my own research, is primarily concerned with human biological variation, the evolutionary history that gave rise to that variation, and variation within the primate lineage as a whole.  As you might imagine, based on that description, biological anthropologists find themselves researching a wide variety of topics.  You might find a biological anthropologist examining human skeletal remains from an archaeological site to understand the health of a past population, or you may find a biological anthropologist in the forests of Borneo studying the social behavior of orangutans, or you could even find a biological anthropologist studying the seasonal birth patterns of modern pastoralists in Kenya.  It is a broad field of study.

GAU: On the same profile page, you also wrote that your proposed dissertation, with the working title of “Biological Affinity and Activity Induced Long Bone Growth during the Coalescent Period on the American Great Plains,” will assay likeness among folks with “long bone morphology,” and consider whether it “can be attributed to similar culturally determined behavioral patterns, or whether similarities are more accurately explained by biological relationships between individuals.” Have you made any progress yet in discovering whether culture or biology is the bigger determining factor in these cases?

Campbell: We have recognized for some time that humans are biocultural organisms.  Who we are, both physically and mentally, is the result of complex interactions between genes and environment (and I would lump culture in with environment here).  I’m examining just a small aspect of a much bigger question with my research, but what I’m specifically interested in are the effects that changes in activities have on the bones of our arms and legs.  Without going into too much detail, the Plains Indians experienced dramatic shifts in their lifeways at the time of Euro-American contact.  Reduced mobility, for example, coincides with changes in their leg bones, but did reduced mobility cause this change or was there a change in the gene pool?  Answering this question has important implications for using the skeleton to interpret activity.  In general, the activities we engage in throughout the day have a major effect on the bones of our arms and legs, but the effect is limited by our genes.

GAU: As a graduate student studying in your particular area of anthropology, and as GAU co-steward for the Department of Anthropology, do you think union solidarity is more a factor of cultural or biological predispositions?

Campbell: Ha!  Well, since the commodification of labor is a cultural construction, I think the easy way out of this question would be to call union solidarity a cultural phenomenon.   However, I will wade into this a little deeper to explore the possibility that we may have some inherent biological predisposition to form unions.

I think this notion of union solidarity gets at a larger issue.  Is it more natural for humans to work together towards a common goal, a process that may involve compromise, or does our biology demand we serve our individual interests and view everyone as a competitor?

The truth, like most things, is probably somewhere in the middle.  My view would be that we best serve our self-interest by working together, collectively focusing on what is best for the group, whatever that group may be – a labor union, for example.

Humans are gregarious animals, and anthropology has taught us that the cooperation of the group, not competition between individuals, is what has created an advantage for our species.  For those who are interested in the subject, anthropologist Agustin Fuentes recently spoke at TEDx about the important role cooperation has played in our evolution.  All humans tend to thrive when they find ways to work together toward a collective goal.  While I doubt we could ever disentangle whether it is biology or culture that drives us towards group solidarity, our evolutionary history seems to indicate that better cooperation wins out in the end.

GAU: David Graeber, author of “Debt: The First 5,000 years,” who teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and participated in many of the assemblies leading up to the initial occupation of Wall Street on Sept. 17, 2011, was essentially forced to resign from his post at Yale over activist and union related issues. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said:

While I don’t know what happened, a lot of the students felt that they did. Originally it was the students that began to protest, and the overwhelming conclusion of the graduate students was that it had something to do with my defense of one of the graduate students who was a union organizer, who they [the administration at Yale] tried to kick out of the program.

Graeber went on to describe the incident as ironic, because he said he made concerted effort not to get involved in local politics. “I figured the sensible thing to do in a situation like that was to be an activist in New York and then I would just be a scholar at Yale,” he said. “Because at Yale there’s all these union issues. There’s a lot of very bitter controversy, particularly in my department. And I just figured I would stay out of it. But somehow it became impossible. So ironically actually, I got drawn in largely by what I thought was intellectual integrity. I thought the student was a very, very good student. And she deserved to be defended.”

As a fellow anthropologist, what is your take on what happened to Graeber at Yale? In relation, do you think backlash from University administrations over graduate student union activity or activism is common, and do you consider union activity to be a contentious topic in the anthropology department here at SIUC?

Campbell: Graeber is one of the great public voices in anthropology right now, and although his anthropological work falls outside of my own area of research, I am familiar with some of his writing.  I think his perspective, especially regarding the origin of debt, is refreshing.  That being said, I don’t really know what motivated the administration at Yale to let him go.  Based on what I know of the controversy, it seems like Yale let go of a prominent young academic without clearly articulating their reasoning for doing so.  It could have been related to his defense of this graduate student or his political activism, although I don’t see Graeber as any more radical than many other professors.  I would only be guessing at the “why” in this particular case since the facts were never made clear.  I think that ultimately the decision was a big loss for Yale, since Graeber invites a great deal of media attention.  I imagine, because of his activism, that Graeber could draw in a considerable number of students.

As for how commonplace it is for administrators to retaliate against graduate students for their union activity, I would hope that it never happens, but I fear it probably has on occasion.  I have never personally experienced any negative repercussions for my union activity.  I am lucky enough to be a student in a department where this has never really been an issue.  Anthropologists tend to fall on the side of labor in most cases since we are keenly aware of the power imbalance in a stratified organization like a university.

GAU: In the same interview, Graeber also said: “In academia there’s a hierarchy. And you’re supposed to be scared. You’re supposed to be sort of cowering before people. And I was never disrespectful to people, but I didn’t cower.”

He said there are structures of hierarchy that give some “people complete impunity and power over others,” which can create “a psychological dynamic that is almost sadomasochistic.”

Previously, in the 2006 Malinowski Memorial Lecture, he critiqued the theory of French philosopher Michel Foucault, suggesting:

Foucault’s ascendancy in turn was precisely within those fields of academic endeavor that both became the haven for former radicals, but that were themselves most completely divorced from any access to political power, or increasingly, even to real social movements—which gave Foucault’s emphasis on the ‘power/knowledge’ nexus, the assertion that forms of knowledge are always also forms of social power, indeed, the most important forms of social power, a particular appeal.

Graeber also argued “that situations created by violence—particularly structural violence,” meaning “forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures.” He added that bureaucratic procedures are not “inherently stupid,” nor do they just produce stupid behavior, but rather “they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.”

So, from your anthropological perspective, has academia become an enclave of ineffectual intellectuals obsequious or indifferent to the exercise of power, and/or has University become too fraught with iniquity and top-down bureaucratic decision-making – so much so it constitutes structural violence?

Campbell: I’m not sure I would fully agree with the idea that academia is full of “ineffectual intellectuals” who don’t really care about the exercise of power.  That seems a little hyperbolic and undermines the work of those who are trying to effect a change at universities across the country.  Those of us who were here during the last round of contract negotiations witnessed the SIU Faculty Association push back against the administration, which indicates to me that at least some of our intellectuals are concerned about the power imbalance on college campuses and the direction of academia in general.

That being said, the culture of the university does appear to have changed over time.  From my limited perspective, there seems to be a shift away from a model where the university was a center for creative research and teaching to a model where the university is a business selling a product.  I think to a large degree that shift is due to forces outside the university.  I will say, however, that if my training as an anthropologist has taught me anything, it is that there are other perspectives to consider.

GAU: In “The Democracy Project,” David Graeber problematized labor. He wrote,

Submitting oneself to labor discipline—supervision, control, even the self-control of the ambitious self-employed—does not make one a better person. In most really important ways it probably makes one worse. To undergo it is a misfortune that at best is sometimes necessary. Yet it’s only when we reject the idea that such labor is virtuous in itself that we can start to ask what actually is virtuous about labor. To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others.  

Could you open up Graeber’s analysis for us?

Campbell: Graeber would like to see a cultural shift regarding how we conceptualize our labor.  He is suggesting a way forward, how we might change our cultural understanding of productivity.  For Graeber, and I tend to agree here, we should conceptualize labor as productive only when it helps others.  Today, we tend to think of those who are not working, the unemployed, as lazy or somehow taking something from the rest of society.  Graeber is saying that not all labor is equal.  Some labor is honorable because it helps others, but there are also types of labor that are exploitative.  We should not reward those that would seek to exploit others and we should not vilify those who choose to opt out of the labor market.

GAU: As co-steward for the Department of Anthropology, do you see Graduate Assistants in your field of study becoming interested in any union activities?

Campbell: In general, I get the sense that most of our Graduate Assistants view the union favorably, but feel that participating in union activities could pull them away from their studies.  I would love to see more involvement from people in our department.  Hopefully, we will see more participation from anthropology GAs in the future.

GAU: At “The PHD Movie” screening GAU helped organize, Graduate School interim dean, Susan Ford, said she watched a “quite humorous” film about anthropology and graduate study many years ago. Have you seen any funny anthropology flicks? If so, have you and Dr. Ford discussed these movies at any length?

Campbell: Dr. Ford is a fantastic mentor, and I have discussed many topics with her at length, but I can’t recall specifically discussing funny anthropology flicks.  In the anthropology department, we tend to associate humorous anthropologically-themed films with one of our emeriti faculty, Dr. Robert Corruccini.  Over the years, Dr. Corruccini has introduced his students to many “bad anthropology” films including such classics as “Quest for Fire”, “Trog”, “Mistress of the Apes”, “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death”, and Ringo Starr’s masterpiece “Caveman”.  If you are planning on taking an anthropology course at any point, I would strongly recommend spending a weekend reviewing these films as a primer.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: