Biological anthropology has long been plagued by its exclusionary past. Today, many biological anthropologists and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) are actively seeking to address this legacy by forging positive relationships between anthropologists and marginalized communities, and by encouraging new voices to contribute to the field. For example, the AAPA created the Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropological Sciences (IDEAS) program to increase participation by first-generation college students or students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science (African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos). The recent Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study (2014) conducted by Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde also highlighted persistent issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the field.
As part of this year’s annual meeting, the AAPA held a symposium entitled “Beyond Visibility: How Academic Diversity is Transforming Scientific Knowledge.” The symposium took place on April 21, 2017 and was organized by Deborah A. Bolnick (University of Texas at Austin). It provided a forum for a diverse group of scientists to share how their backgrounds help shape their approach to science as well as their roles as professors, students, and researchers. The symposium represents another step in acknowledging the challenges facing biological anthropologists from underrepresented groups. It also highlighted the importance of the contributions made by researchers from these groups and of supporting more inclusive approaches to science. The talks featured at the symposium tackled three main topics: how identity shapes our interest and approach to science, how European cultural perspectives have biased anthropologists’ interpretations of the past, and how researchers are working on new approaches to scientific research on which they depend.
Professional roles and scientific interests are indelibly tied to the identities of researchers. In her presentation titled “Alterity and Anthropometrics: Blackness, Vulnerability, and Post-Colonial Identities in Biological Anthropology,” Robin Nelson pointed out how her identity as a black woman gives her access to communities of color in which white peers would never be accepted. However, she also noted how her identity often alienates her from professional colleagues, especially when she is the only woman of color in the room. Katie Hinde, one of the authors of the SAFE study and a prominent science blogger who studies lactation, discussed in “Land of Milk and Honey: Infiltrating Academia to Pursue Overlooked Topics” how her own working-class background and community shapes her approach to academia. For her, academia includes, among other duties, outreach and community involvement. Finally, Chris Schmitt, Claudia Astorino, and Stephanie Meredith discussed in “Queer Developments: LGBTQIA Perspectives on Ontogeny, Growth and Development, and Ranges of Variation in Human and Nonhuman Primates” how their varied experiences and identities as LGBTQIA individuals spurred their interest in biological anthropology through questions of: ‘What is normal variation?’ and ‘What is normal?’ As they showed, such diverse perspectives vitally enrich the ways in which biological anthropologists approach their scientific studies as well as their academic and social roles.
Speakers also discussed how cultural mores have shaped biological anthropology, with the hope that increasing diversity will lead us away from those biases. Agustín Fuentes argued in “Belief(s), Identity, and Experience: Navigating Multiple Influences on Knowing in Biological Anthropology” that we must move away from white male-centric, heteronormative, and Euro-centric views about society, gender, and identity in order to truly capture the processes, behaviors, and evolutionary changes we study. Shay McLean further argued in “The Coloniality of Philosophies of Biology” for a radical biological anthropology and that such radical shifts are vital to restoring trust between researchers and communities that have been historically marginalized, as well as to reimagining anthropological notions of the past. Other speakers further discussed ways in which European biases have shaped interpretations of biology, variation, and evolution.
Finally, speakers discussed how their own research programs aim to address inequity between researchers and communities, as well as with local assistants who often perform a substantial amount of scientific labor. Danielle Lee discussed in “How Social Justice Perspectives Expose Hidden Exclusions in Science” how researchers must be aware of the impact that their grant money has on individuals in the communities where they conduct research. Lee further argued that research ethics requires appropriate recognition, involvement, and compensation of these vital collaborators. Jada Benn Torres in “Marginal Perspectives Within Hegemonic Spaces: The Marronage of Genomic Technologies” emphasized that biological perspectives cannot be decoupled from their very real social repercussions, particularly as they relate to race. In the same vein, researchers have frequently exploited the sacred goods and skeletal remains of Indigenous groups, and many Indigenous people remain wary of collaborating with researchers in ways that may call their own oral histories, knowledge, or even tribal affiliations into question. As Alyssa Bader discussed in “How Subjectivity Strengthens Research: Developing New Approaches to Anthropological Genetics in the Pacific Northwest,” integrating Indigenous perspectives into research can lead to more trusting relationships between researchers and communities. Incorporating local knowledge can also result in more fruitful outcomes that benefit scientific knowledge and communities alike. Ventura Pérez discussed in “Minority Rules: Social Capital, Scientific Obligations, and the Struggle to Decolonize Biological Anthropology” the return of hundred-year-old human remains to the Yaqui of Mexico, and the vital importance of this return to the community’s sense of wholeness, trust, and closure. These interactions foster mutual respect between researchers and communities by placing community needs and concerns front and center.
This symposium marked an important step towards bringing issues of diversity and social justice to the forefront in biological anthropology. In the past, talking about such issues has helped create significant change. Public conversations about the treatment of Native American remains helped spur the creation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and revelations about unethical experiments like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study led to the creation of institutional review boards to approve ethical components of scientific studies, for example. Hopefully, biological anthropology will continue to address these issues moving forward, creating a science that is enriched, vital, and more welcoming to the individuals it once marginalized.
C. I. Villamil: contributions / firstname.lastname@example.org
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