Introduction

When corresponding with a colleague about the 2023 American Anthropological Association Meeting in Toronto, I caught myself referring to the association’s business meeting as a “historic event.” Before sending the email, I decided to qualify my rather grand statement with the phrase “at least I think so.” The qualification did not stem from the bureaucratic sterility of academic association business meetings that most folks have come to expect. The meeting was a matter of business, but not in any mundane sense of the term. Something of note most definitely took place. Upon reflection, I realized that my decision to qualify my initial description (i.e., a historic event) had less to do with the adjective (i.e., historic) and more to do with the noun (i.e., event). The business meeting was most certainly an event, but an event composed of references to other events. More specifically, these other events were of a particular kind. At play in the business meeting was the nature and significance of nonevents and their connection to the history of the AAA as a site for political action.

The AAA, along with its annual conference and business meeting, has long served as a forum in which members take political stances of one form or another. In the historiographic literature, the 1960s figures as a pivotal moment. During this decade, the business meeting shifted from a relatively elite space of association bureaucracy to a site of ample resolution making in which societal issues of discrimination and US foreign policy captured the association’s attention (Trencher 2000).[1]It was not until 1968 that all members were permitted to vote during the business meeting. Prior to this, voting was reserved for association “fellows” (Lewis 2014, 2010). The 1966 meeting in Pittsburgh figures as a particularly momentous event spurred by the revelatory controversy surrounding Project Camelot and membership opposition to the Vietnam War (Hancock 2008; Lewis 2014). More recent examples of political engagement via the annual meeting can be found in controversies surrounding Napoleon Chagnon’s Amazonian research, scholarly involvement in the Human Terrain System program, and, to a lesser extent, politically and ethically minded Presidential addresses. And yet, the unfolding of the 2023 business meeting suggests some difficult truths. While the AAA continues to provide a platform for political stances, the institutional history of the association and the politics that have colored this history are obscured in the discipline’s collective imagination. This is a rather ironic reality for a field that emphasizes the importance of political position-taking in the context of scholarship, but, at least for the time being, does not appear to be concerned with one of the key political sites of its own profession.  

A Partial Recap

The business meeting was sparsely attended. With approximately 4,500 registered attendees (according to the Secretary’s report), only 184 voting members were in attendance. This meant that any and all voting would be purely advisory as quorum was nowhere to be found. In some respects, this proved irrelevant as there were no resolutions on which to vote. The October submission deadline had come and passed with nothing on the docket. However, this information did not appear to be universally known as one member approached the mic and asked to delay the start of the meeting so that members from “the Gaza panel” could have more time to relocate from their session room to Hall F in the Metro Toronto Convention Center. The justification, according to the requestee, being that Palestine would be on the agenda for voting. The President informed the speaker that there was no such resolution up for vote and that members would have time to be heard during the new business portion of the meeting, which was scheduled to follow the officer reports. (The AAA membership voted online to approve a BDS resolution several months prior). Clearly, not everyone was on the same page.

Officer reports came and went. In brief, membership numbers are down but closer to pre-pandemic levels. The association is running a structural deficit, but not one that the treasurer deemed cause for alarm.[2] Approximately 4 million in revenues and approximately 6 million in expenditures with a planned headquarters move for the coming year that will require a 16 million withdrawal from reserves. And the presidential gavel would be switching hands before the end of the conference.

Then came the new business. As suspected, the first speaker read a well-prepared resolution composed of multiple points that amounted to the formal condemnation of the ongoing atrocities committed by the state of Israel against Palestinians in Gaza. A motion was made and seconded. Since no discussion was requested, the resolution moved forward for a successful but advisory affirmative vote (140 members, including myself, stood in favor). Applause followed the announcement of the vote. It was a rather quick affair.

“Is there any more new business,” the President asked. Silence permeated the room for a moment. No one appeared to approach the mic. “Really?!” the President said. Mild laughter bubbled from the audience.

As the President moved to bring the meeting to a close, a member in the back of the room announced that they were in the process of jogging to the distant mic. What followed was a protracted series of statements expressing concern about—not Israel-Palestine as I had assumed—but the 2024 meeting, currently scheduled to be held in Tampa Bay, Florida. At issue in the many comments was the current state of Florida’s anti-LGBTQI gubernatorial regime. Trans identified members and allies expressed concern for their safety as well as the kind of message the association would be sending by continuing to hold the meeting in Florida as planned.

A complete recap of the back-and-forth between speakers and Executive Board members (primarily the current President, President elect, and the association’s legal counsel) is beyond the scope of this reflective report. What I would like to home in on is the way in which the association’s past figured into the comments. As both the members of the Executive Board on the dais and several rank-and-file members at the mic noted, this would not be the first time the AAA changed meeting locations with short notice. Such an event, or perhaps events, had occurred before. And yet, it quickly became clear that there was a fair amount of confusion about this past.

All parties seemed to agree that it involved the recent past—perhaps 2015 or 2016, some said. All agreed that it had to do with the intention to hold a previous meeting in San Francisco in the midst of a Hilton Hotel workers strike. But that appeared to be where the agreement ended. In addition to the confusion about the exact date of the meeting, the time between the decision to move and the scheduled meeting date was up for grabs. Was it a couple of months? A few weeks? The consequences of the decision also appeared murky. For some (largely those speaking from the floor), the result was that the hotel workers won their strike. For others (largely those speaking from the dais), consequences were narrated in terms of legal precarity (breaking contracts) and related financial costs (“we took the hit”).

Since I did not begin attending meetings regularly until 2017, I was awash in confusion. All that was clear, as best I could tell, is that very little was clear. I used my return trip (made a bit longer than anticipated due to a missed connection in Chicago) to do some online digging. Whether it be 2015 or 2016, surely this would not call for much effort. While the digging was indeed quite shallow, it was surprising. The first surprise was that, while all parties seemed to be speaking of a single meeting that was subjected to an 11th hour relocation, it was in fact two meetings! Additionally, both sides (again just the vocal ones) appeared to be off by a good decade. For those, like me, who are underinformed, here are some quick details.

The planned 2004 San Francisco meeting was moved to Atlanta, Georgia less than four weeks before the conference was to begin. 6,000 members were projected to attend, but only 800 made it. At the time, then President Elizabeth Brumfiel projected a financial loss of between $385,000 and $500,000 (Glenn 2004, 2005). However, this anticipated loss was not due to breaking contracts. The AAA and Hilton worked out a “swap.” The Atlanta conference still involved a Hilton contract, but it took place at a unionized hotel—one not mired in a strike. As a result, the AAA did not have to meet the fate of the Organization of American Historians, who a few months later decided to move their meeting down the freeway to San Jose. The OAH paid a reported $360,000 for breaking their contract with Hilton (Willis 2005).

While the AAA planned to return to San Francisco for the 2006 meeting, the labor situation in the city had not improved. In September of 2005 (perhaps a little earlier), the association decided to relocate again. But this time, they took a page out of the OAH book and moved the 2006 meeting to San Jose. Whether or not a financial “hit” was taken, I do not know. But I suspect someone does. 

Nonevents

The unfolding of the business meeting in 2023, the “new business” portion of the proceeding, and the discussion of previous meeting relocation(s) brought to mind Raymond Fogelson’s theoretical musings on “nonevents” (1984). In his 1984 article “Who Were the Aní-Kutáni? An Excursion into Cherokee Historical Thought,” Fogelson introduced the concept of nonevents to the world of ethnohistory. Several years later, he would expound upon this idea in another article in which he offered a “brief schematic.” Building upon the insights of the French Annalistes who contended that “most history is uneventful,” Fogelson characterized nonevents as “events not yet considered as such” (1989, 141-143). He went on to parse the term by describing varieties of nonevents including “imagined events”—that is, “[ones] that never happened but could have occurred, or, according to the ethnologic involved, should have happened” (1989, 142). Within the imagined event, Fogelson identified the “subtype” of the epitomizing event: 

“Epitomizing events are narratives that condense, encapsulate, and dramatize longer-term historical processes. Such events are inventions but have such compelling qualities and explanatory power that they spread rapidly through the group and soon take on an ethnohistorical reality of their own” (1989, 143).

But the article also contains another bit of wisdom that can help us better understand the 2023 business meeting and the contested specifics and significances of the 2004 and 2006 meetings. As Fogelson noted, quoting Daniel Boorstin, as part of the “variable valorization of events” there are also “pseudo-events.” With pseudo-events, “there is agreement that an event had transpired, that something happened, but there is disagreement as to the significance of and consequences following from that event” (1989, 142). Unlike the imagined event and its epitomizing subtype, the pseudo-event carries with it a more contested nature. We agree that something happened, just not on the meaning or ramifications.

We might think of the 2004 and 2006 meetings as pseudo-events—at least in terms of how they were discussed during the business meeting. We can do this, but with slight modification. There was agreement that something happened, but the disagreement was not just about significance or consequences. The disagreement was about the very nature of the something. When was the meeting? Was it one or two meetings? Was there a “hit”? How much time transpired between the difficult decision and the meeting?

Pseudo to Epitomizing

Upon reflection, I realize that what was fascinating about the business meeting, for me, was that I was able to witness a pseudo-event become an epitomizing event. More accurately, I witnessed a group of people attempt to convert pseudo-events into competing epitomizing events, all in real time. But what kind of condensed, encapsulated, and dramatized narratives were being constituted in Hall F?

For some (namely the President and legal counsel) the past meetings in question appeared as a circumscribed and cautionary tale, one in which the decision to relocate the meeting at the last-minute was tied directly to an easily identifiable political conflict (i.e., the hotel workers’ strike), which though important, constituted a financial “hit.” While the President made a point of reiterating that “money isn’t everything,” each of those reiterations came with a “but.” For others (namely speakers from the floor), these same meetings appeared to reflect the association’s enduring commitment to prioritizing social justice over financial commitments. A hit might have been taken, but the AAA bounced back and the hotel workers prevailed. The underlying implication being that AAA played an important role in resolving the strike. In other words, while the significance and consequences of the events remained up for debate, this did not stop the various parties from trying to render their narratives epitomizing. But what they epitomized reflected very different versions of the AAA. From the front of the room, a cautious institution intent on preserving its existence to serve its members; from the floor, an active and potentially activist body whose actions and inactions have political consequences, whose public stands can improve the condition of workers and other allies of its members.

Some Unsettling Truths

At least in the US-Canadian context, this process of converting the pseudo into the epitomizing suggests some unsettling truths about the discipline today—the most apparent one being that many anthropologists don’t know their own institutional history. And I include myself! To be sure, the fragmented collective memory of the 2004 meeting is somewhat excusable as it saw record low turnout. That being said, it did involve the rescinding of the infamous 1919 censure of Franz Boas (Glenn 2005). Given Boas’s continued prominence in introductory level courses and textbooks, one might suspect that this alone would have given the meeting some memorial staying power, even for those such as myself who were not there. Additionally, recent and hotly debated presidential addresses have made overtures to the discipline’s colonial and neo-imperial roots.[3]Akhil Gupta’s 2021 address lamented the discipline’s failure to reconstitute itself in a decolonial guise in the second half of the 20th century despite its anti-racist foundations in the first half of the same century. Building upon Gupta’s address, Ramona Perez’s 2023 address emphasized the “neo-imperial” conditions in which the contemporary form of the discipline finds itself.  And yet, the history of the association itself—including recent history— appears to be of minor interest.

But the neglect of institutional history is in some respects an indirect marker of an even more difficult truth. Contemporary anthropology, at least in its US-based sociocultural variant, sees itself as something of disciplinary maverick. This is most succinctly captured by Akhil Gupta and Jesse Stoolman:

“Even today, anthropology is an outlier among the social sciences (economic, political science, sociology, psychology) because its political project is to challenge the culturally dominant commonsense of capitalist consumerism, and that is one reason among many for why it struggles to gain traction in the public sphere. From cultural critique to opposing neoliberalism, many of the positions taken for granted within the discipline find little or no resonance in the hegemonic social order in the United States” (2022, 781).

Gupta and Stoolman’s characterization is far from disciplinary propaganda. The 20th century history of anthropology is replete with cases of counter-hegemonic thought and praxis that saw anthropologists actively challenge the status quo of their respective times and places—of course, not without complications and paradoxes (e.g., Anderson 2019; Arndt 2023; Baker 1998, 2010; Dinwoodie 2023; King 2019; Smith 2015a, 2015b). Thus, seemingly disparate present-day calls for things such as BDS and even the decision of the AAA Executive Board to remove a panel on biological sex in the lead up to the Toronto meeting are most certainly of a piece with anthropology’s always already politicized past.

However, I cannot help but notice the contrast between this outlier status that hinges on a kind of scholastic political stance and the lack of engagement with one of the most politically consequential sites of the profession—the business meeting. To be fair, there are always legitimate reasons to skip such gatherings. I suspect that there were countless graduate students and earlier career scholars who reserved the Saturday 6:15pm time slot for informal networking opportunities. Additionally, it might very well be that the lack of turnout at the business meeting was an instance of members voting with their feet. In that case, the lack of attendance would be an indication of a lack of faith in the association and its governing body. But considering the passage of the BDS resolution earlier in the year and the seemingly widespread support for the removal of the biological sex panel (at least within the association), this seems unlikely. For the time being, it would appear that the politics of the vast majority of AAA members do not extend to the workaday doings of their own association.

A Need for Institutional Histories

I have often bristled at the notion that the justification for anthropologists to research and write the history of anthropology can or should be reduced to a tired adage: we study the past in order to avoid repeating it. Though not without merit, such a perspective amounts to an instrumentalist view of history, one that can foreclose the hermeneutical affordance of historical research itself (i.e., understanding), rendering anthropologists-turned-historians-of-anthropology something of a paternalistic crossing guard-in-residence in their respective departments: in such a view, we are here to guide the current generation, which is imagined to be infantile, to do more principled research based on the actions of prior generations, which are assumed to be bad. I suspect that my colleagues in the history of science who take anthropology as their object of study have more expansive, not to mention more creative, conceptions of the what the history of anthropology might look like.

And yet, I cannot think of a better example of the utility of and need for the history of anthropology than this particular incident. If anthropology departments in the US continue to deem it important to teach something called “history of anthropology” to undergraduates and graduate students, perhaps it should have an institutional dimension to it. Mere histories of theoretical paradigms will not do—whether in the undergraduate or graduate curricula. I suspect that nearly everyone in Hall F could distinguish between Malinowskian and Radcliffe-Brownian functionalism or recall the significances of Geertz’s distinction between a “wink” and a “twitch.” And yet, it would appear that all the collective wisdom in the room could not recall the specifics—much less the significance—of what were (or should have been) two momentous events that took place less than two decades ago.

To be sure, I now run the risk of being a contradiction as I lean into the crossing-guard-in-residence impulse. But in an effort to avoid the paternalism of this guise, let us take a page out of Gupta and Stoolman’s book and engage in a bit of counterfactual history (2022). I suggest we turn our counterfactual lens not to the post-WWII period (as Gupta and Stoolman suggest), but to the last couple of decades. The lessons of the 2004 and 2006 meetings, if they had been taught and valued, might have enabled the association—leadership and rank and file—to think differently about the decisions to hold the next conference in Florida. Without a doubt, I do not think this would have led to any neat or simple resolutions during the business meeting. The selection of a conference site, as the President reminded the room repeatedly, is a decision made five to six years in advance. And while it is not as if Florida became a politically compromised spot on the map only with the rise of the DeSantis gubernatorial regime (in 2019), I am hard pressed to think of a state in the union free of compromise. If California cannot be trusted, what state can? (I say this as someone born and raised in the Golden State).

I suspect if institutional histories were prioritized a bit more, it might have made it so that the call for a move would not have been saved for the new business section of the 2023 conference. Perhaps there would have been time to draft and revise a principled resolution, to set up online forum discussions across the membership, to mount a campaign. At the very least, it might have meant that more than 184 out of the 4,500 registered attendees would have shown up to the business meeting—either in solidarity with the Executive Board or the frustrated rank and file members who voiced their reasonable concerns. Robert’s Rules of Order (or what one speaker referred as “Robert’s Rules of Whatever”) are intended to help meetings function smoothly and democratically. But that does not mean they should be used to move mountains or, in this case, a conference. That requires strategy and planning. And planning is often uneventful, not to mention thankless.

Eventually, a motion was made to relocate (not cancel) the 2024 meeting. It passed with 109 members standing in the affirmative (including myself). For now, it is an advisory vote.

Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Arndt, Grant. 2023. “Joining the Ongoing Struggle: Vine Deloria, Nancy Lurie, and the Quest for a Decolonial Anthropology.” Journal of Anthropological Research 79 (4): 468–91.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of the Race, 1896-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2010. Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dinwoodie, David W. 2023. “Decolonization and the History of Anthropology: The Implications of New Deal Anthropology from the 1930s to the 1950s.” Journal of Anthropological Research 79 (4): 439–67.

Fogelson, Raymond D. 1984. “Who Were the Ani-Kutani? An Excursion into Cherokee Historical Thought.” Ethnohistory 31 (4): 255.

———. 1989. “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents.” Ethnohistory 36 (2): 133.

Glenn, David. 2004. “Anthropologists Move Meeting to Avoid Picket Lines.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (11).

———. 2005. “Anthropologist, Few in Number, Revisit a 1919 Debate.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (18).

Gupta, Akhil, and Jessie Stoolman. 2022. “Decolonizing US Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 124 (4).

Hancock, Robert L. A. 2008. “Afterword: Reconceptualizing Anthropology’s Historiography.” In Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA, edited by Dustin M. Wax, 166–78. London: Pluto Press.

King, Charles. 2019. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday.

Lewis, Herbert S. 2014. In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Smith, Joshua J. 2015a. “Cultural Persistence in the Age of ‘Hopelessness’: Phinney, Boas and U.S. Indian Policy.” In Franz Boas as Public Intellectual: Theory, Ethnography, Activism, edited by Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith, 263–76. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

———. 2015b. “Standing with Sol: The Spirit and Intent of Action Anthropology.” Anthropologica 57: 445–56.

Trencher, Susan R. 2000. Mirrored Images: American Anthropology and American Culture, 1960-1980. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.

Willis, Eric. 2005. “OAH Relocates Annual Meeting.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (25).

References

References
1 It was not until 1968 that all members were permitted to vote during the business meeting. Prior to this, voting was reserved for association “fellows” (Lewis 2014, 2010).
2 Approximately 4 million in revenues and approximately 6 million in expenditures with a planned headquarters move for the coming year that will require a 16 million withdrawal from reserves.
3 Akhil Gupta’s 2021 address lamented the discipline’s failure to reconstitute itself in a decolonial guise in the second half of the 20th century despite its anti-racist foundations in the first half of the same century. Building upon Gupta’s address, Ramona Perez’s 2023 address emphasized the “neo-imperial” conditions in which the contemporary form of the discipline finds itself. 
Authors
Nicholas Barron: contributions / website / nicholas.barron@unlv.edu