Sayre’s Law and Archaeology

by Tracy C. Brown

This has been a really annoying weekend of enlightened cynicism about anthropology and archaeology for me.  The truth of the matter is this. I have always had a love-hate relationship with anthropology and archaeology in the United States. I love the subject matter of anthropology and archaeology, but I hate the people environment.  Yes, it could be “just me,” but other people inside the discipline and outside of it have expressed the same thing to me over the years with regard to the anthropologists and archaeologists they have known. One such person, who resided outside the discipline, expressed to me the opinion that most anthropologists and archaeologists are the way they are because they are “Godless idolaters who have never seen the inside of a church.” (LOL)

I think the standard anthropological and archaeological response to my previous statement (and theirs), after the “screw you” part, would be that the people environment is like this in all academic and professional disciplines, so it is not just anthropology and archaeology.  However, based on my own personal experiences from working in other disciplines for the past 32 years, I honestly must say that this is not true. The interpersonal pettiness and drama that I (and many others) have observed in American anthropology and archaeology for the past 41 years is almost completely absent in the environmental science, industrial training development, technical editing, technical writing, and engineering fields.  Put that in your ancient elbow pipes and smoke it!

My cynical and rather depressing weekend brought to mind a famous law that is somewhat like Murphy’s Law.  It is called Sayre’s Law. The version of Sayre’s Law stated below (with a bracketed item of my own included within it) is my favorite version, which is always accompanied in my mind with a choral item to underline it:

Academic politics [in anthropology and archaeology] is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.

You may read more about Sayre’s Law and other historical versions of it at the following safe link:’s_law

The key question in my mind has always been: “Why is it this way?”  Is it because stress levels are high and the stakes really are so low? Do American anthropology and archaeology naturally attract curmudgeonly people who find it hard to get along with other people? Is there something about anthropology and archaeology that just naturally brings out the worst in people? Is it because salaries and working conditions are so bad and resources are so limited that people become overly competitive and territorial—and end up devouring each other? Do anthropology and archaeology people tend to have hypersensitive personalities? Are most anthropologists and archaeologists Godless idolaters with small hearts and little conventional moral fiber? During my years at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville), I knew only one archaeology graduate student who regularly darkened the door of a church with their shadow.  You know:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Maybe that outsider I mentioned earlier was right?

Because of the subject matter they deal with, do anthropologists and archaeologists view their fellow human beings as mere animals with whom they are locked in a deadly Darwinian struggle to survive——so anything goes and may only the strongest survive? A famous professor of anthropology once remarked to a friend of mine that:

‘ …the primary purpose of graduate school in anthropology is not to educate students.  Its primary purpose is instead to ‘weed out the weak.’

(Note to Self:  Stay as far away from that person as possible…oh wait…I already did.)

Personally, I think that sort of thinking is reprehensible, and it deserves punishment several levels of Hell below Dante’s lowest one. If I were an academic professor with students, I would make them work hard, but I would also love them, encourage them, uplift them, and interact with them as if they were members of my own family.  Weed out the weak indeed!!!  What a crock of bullshit!!!

Sure.  You may disagree.  I understand that.  Nonetheless, I know that I am right about this. I have just seen too much strange and tragic stuff over the years in anthropology and archaeology——not necessarily stuff happening to me—lest you think this has something to do with personal sour grapes——but happening to other people I have known and loved in anthropology and archaeology.

I am out of hypotheses, so I will ask you? What is the damned deal with anthropologists and archaeologists: their coldness, their social distance, their irritability, their personal conceit, their selfishness, their intense territoriality, their uncommunicativeness, their uncooperativeness, their pettiness, their temperamental natures, their viciousness, their inability to get along with others, their inability to offer apologies or accept them, their heartless behaviors, their poor treatment of women, and their tendency to hold grudges that last for decades?  And yes, being caught up in archaeology and anthropology, I too have sometimes been that way myself——but I also know that it was just plain wrong for me to be that way.

I know ahead of time that no one will respond to this blog article.  Why?  Most rank and file people in American anthropology and archaeology would be too frightened to respond with anything approaching honesty because they know that what I have said above is true. They would suffer the consequences in lost jobs, not being hired for jobs, loss of grant funding, loss of promotions, etc.  But I still have to ask the question.  If there is almost none of this sort of behavior in environmental science where I work, in engineering (I work regularly with engineers), and some other fields and professions where I have worked, why must it be like this in anthropology and archaeology?  Why do anthropologists and archaeologists choose to create, live, and work under a cloud of fear——and why do they tolerate its existence?  Any really smart person like John Adams, Samuel Adams, or John Hancock would kick it in the ass and get rid of the oppression because that is no way for any human being to live or work day-in and day-out.

Someone needs to break free and lead a revolution in American anthropology and archaeology.  I am too old and tired to do it—but I do sincerely hope some young person or a large group of young people in American anthropology and archaeology will one day say “enough is enough” and lead that revolution. The nation and the world need a kinder, gentler, and more reasonable American anthropology and archaeology in the 21st century—one that is willing and able to look honestly at its own warts and do something about them.  I am preaching to myself here too.  In American anthropology and archaeology in the 21st century—against the grain should be a way of lifefrom this moment forward.  Listen to the song:

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