Elizabeth Brumfiel is a professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Northwestern University. Her teaching career also includes 25 years as a faculty member of Albion College, where she chaired the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. In addition to her professorial duties, Brumfiel is the current President of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the world’s largest organization of anthropologists.
Brumfiel received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, where her work focused on “the dynamics of gender, class, and factional politics in ancient Mexico and the changes in resource exploitation that accompanied Aztec expansion.” She has edited four books and has written a number of scientific papers, but has authored no books on her own.
Brumfiel also has been a featured speaker at the annual conference of the Radical Archaeology Theory Seminar (RATS), which stresses the archaeologist’s role in challenging “existing, received and constructed assumptions about the past and the present.” The promotional literature for one such conference included the following agenda:
“As radical archaeologists we should be committed to political action against class and gender oppression, racism and discrimination. Yet how does the pursuit of social justice and solidarity play out in our work? Within our critiques and actions against colonialist/imperialist policies and practices, how does the archaeological endeavor fit in? This RATS session will discuss the nature of social activism in archaeology, the goals we should pursue, and how to connect our research interests with our political struggle.”
In short, Radical Archaeology Theory views “science” primarily as a means of advancing social and political agendas.
Brumfiel and the AAA refuse to hold any of their organizational meetings in Louisiana, because of that state’s laws against sodomy. Brumfiel pledges that the AAA boycott will remain in effect as long as those laws are on the books.
The AAA also has opposed proposals for a Constitutional Amendment formally defining marriage as a union solely between partners of opposite sexes. According to Brumfiel, states that support the Amendment should be disqualified from consideration as possible venues for future AAA meetings: “I think it may come to that. We will be taking our business to places that we feel recognize human rights more widely.”
In 2004 Brumfiel led an AAA campaign in support of same-sex marriage, stating: “The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.”
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the AAA’s Human Rights Division issued a statement saying that “if we cannot promote better listening by ‘the West’ to the grievances of oppressed peoples,” new terrorist leaders will arise. Implicit was the suggestion that the alleged injustices of American foreign policies had created the climate in which terrorism could thrive. Added the AAA:
“We urge our government to increase its commitment to human rights, both at home and abroad. A human rights-based foreign policy means supporting oppressed peoples rather than oppressive governments. It means respecting the human rights of the poor, politically weak, dominated, and suppressed as well as those of the powerful and rich. It means adhering to international human rights and humanitarian law, including ensuring the well-being of refugees and other protected peoples. And, it means taking action and seeking solutions that respect the rule of law.”
Professor Brumfiel exhorts anthropologists to use their professional status as a bully pulpit from which to preach anti-war advocacy:
“In what contexts will scientists be willing to develop weapons of mass destruction and to test them on human subjects without their knowledge or consent, as they did during the Cold War? And how do economic pressures, political pressures and a climate of patriotism discourage scientists from engaging in anti-war and anti-weapons advocacy? The contextual nature of human action and the impact of politics and economics on science are important messages for anthropologists to communicate to scientists and to the public. With increased participation by anthropologists . . . these messages can reach a wider audience, which would benefit science, public policy, and anthropology.”
Brumfiel has long been outspoken on political matters. While working as a professor at Albion College in 1982, she published, in collaboration with two colleagues, a condemnation not only of the South African apartheid government, but of Albion as well because of its investments in that country.