This post is part of the series Anthropology in Outerspace which examines representations of anthropology in science-fiction. To read previous installments in this series, consult the related contents section at the end of this post or select the series in the ”Our Series” menu in the right sidebar.
Having examined a few examples of characters who are anthropologists and archaeologists in science-fiction, we can now pay attention to the depiction their personalities and how it may translate popular perception of our discipline.
Dr. Daniel Jackson, a Stargate SG-1 character frequently mentioned in this series and in previous TGA pieces, is depicted as a highly intelligent, highly knowledgeable person. He seems to know everything about human history, can apparently speak and read any language ever to have existed on Earth, and is the one who can figure out the way the Stargate system works in the Stargate movie. He seems empathic and willing to put himself in harm’s way to help others. He also speaks at a dangerous speed, often has his nose in a book, and suffers from intense allergies.
In other words, he’s a bit of a nerd, like most of the other very smart characters in the Stargate franchise, such as colonel Samantha Carter, Dr. Rodney MacKay and Dr. Radek Zelenka. Dr. Bill Lee, a scientist in the series, even plays World of Warcraft. The only exemption in the series I can think of is Colonel Shepard, who is apparently eligible to be a member of Mensa society, but is mocked by Daniel Jackson and Rodney MacKay who do not believe that he successfully took the I.Q. test. He is not depicted as a nerd despite his high level of intelligence.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing bad about being nerdy or geeky (or an intellectual badass). And let’s not forget that while these smart characters are depicted as ”nerdy” in Stargate, they are also frequently presented as strong, brave, and not strictly as socially inept and cerebral.
The example of Jackson, and of his other smart colleagues, however, indicates that in popular culture, intelligence and knowledge is still closely associated with characteristics that are considered negative: being unfashionable, unsociable, untactful, obsessive, etc.
This is perhaps why Jackson and his smart counterparts, just like Dr. Norm Spellman and Dr. Grace Augustine (Avatar), discussed in my response to Rayna’s piece, are presented as sorts of sidekicks for a main character who is the official hero. In the case of both Stargate and Avatar, that hero is a white male with military training.
The example of Dr. Barron, lead anthropologist in the Star Trek: The Next Generation ”Who Watchers the Watchers (S3E4)” episode, is harder to figure out. He is seen through a large part of the episode as urging Captain Picard for assistance, first with technical problems and then with finding and helping he and his colleagues. Then, he suggests to Picard that since the Mintakans already mistake him for a supernatural being, he should provide them with guidelines by which their religion might develop. This goes against the Prime Directive, which we have discussed briefly in this series and previously on TGA. In essence, he seems comfortable with the prospect of playing God. Because his colleagues are injured or killed, little can be ascertained about their personalities.
Another Star Trek character provides a clearer personality to examine: Vash, a female archaeologist, travels across the galaxy pillaging ruins and selling artifacts to the highest bidder. She is very much a female Indiana Jones–adventurous, strong-minded and even more eager to make a profit. She is also a good liar and does not have strong morals. She and Q have a relationship that is oddly similar to that of the Doctor and a companion (Doctor Who), but that is a discussion for another time. While we are on the topic of Doctor Who, however, it should be noted that River Song, archaeologist, is a very similar character.
What, then, do these examples and others examined in this series reveal about popular conceptions about anthropologists? First, I would state that in my opinion, archaeologists are perceived and presented as a distinct category of people. The examples we provided fit the Indiana Jones category: heroic, brave, adventurous (and as my colleague Emma points out, perhaps morally ambiguous). The work they accomplish, pillaging ruins for a profit or academic glory, is distinct from that of the anthropologists we mentioned. The latter are depicted as smart and knowledgeable, and as cultural experts. They are intellectuals, and in several cases empathic towards others. But they are not necessarily the main characters of the stories in which they appear, and are not heroic leaders. They have less control over their own lives than their archaeologists counterparts. Indeed, they do not travel where they wish freely, but execute their work under someone else’s authority.
Yet, perhaps this representation of anthropologists in science-fiction is not so revealing of popular conceptions of our discipline and the people who practice it as it is of intellectuals in general. Perhaps anthropologists, like other scientists, are thought of as nerds.
Except archaeologists, who are apparently considered, just like bow ties, as being cool.