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“Science” versus “public understanding”? Some thoughts on the distinction…

Note: Corrected post. I have replaced “mission” with “Long-Range Plan” where necessary. This does not change the primary comments and questions of the original post; no other content has been altered.

As an anthropologist it is the shift from advancing “the science” to “public understanding” that I find both most compelling and most dangerous about the revisions to the stated Long-Range Plan of the AAA. Like many anthropologists, cultural and political debates about what counts as “science” figure prominently both in how I shape and conduct anthropological research and analysis, and the questions I ask and topics and issues that I study anthropologically—science is for many of us a subject and object of anthropological research. One concern is not just that throughout the mission statement “science” is being purged. It is, more specifically, that the primary stated mission of the organization will shift from advancing anthropology as “the science of humankind” in all its aspects to advancing “public understanding of humankind in all its aspects” as a “knowledge discipline.” Some of the questions at the heart of the current controversy over whether references to science should be excised from the AAA’s Long-Range Plan are not entirely new (history matters), as Jacob Hickman, Eugene Raikhel, and others are discussing. But the stakes in these debates are partially particular to the contemporary political economic situation, to say the least.

As the recent posting by Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology highlights (also linked in Eugene’s post, and where you can access old and new statements), a declared Long-Range Plan to advance public understanding might be more inclusive than one to advance science. The removal of “American” as a qualifier for specifically which anthropologists’ interests it is the mission of the organization to advance is also, clearly, more inclusive and a welcome change, in my opinion. But, paradoxically, what kind of bifurcations among anthropologists might deepen or result at a time when sub-disciplines are divorcing into separate departments and when many researchers in branches of archaeological, biocultural, and biological branches of anthropology are already experiencing marginalization within the AAA?
We should carefully consider what public understanding refers to, how it might be interpreted (especially as a substitution for science), and what some of the unintended effects might be. In that spirit, I have a few questions about what I think are the dangerous aspects of the revisions, specifically as someone who is passionate about doing anthropological work that speaks to and is applicable to real-world problems. And, significantly, as someone who teaches students at the University of Kentucky who, part and parcel of their professional training, are passionate about doing anthropological work that speaks to and is applicable to real-world problems. Regardless of the motivations of the changes or how each of us individually might identify as scientists or not, it seems that, paradoxically, the shift in the stated Long-Range Plan from advancing science to advancing public understanding could further delegitimize (public) understandings of what anthropology is, what anthropologists do, and why these are important. What could the effects of this change be at a time when the humanities are facing budget cuts so tremendous that at SUNY Albany, for example, students will no longer be able to study Italian, French, and Russian languages, classics, or theater? As Eugene emphasized, what might the effects be (perhaps especially for branches of anthropology that are perceived as being “less scientific”) on access to funding from federal (public) organizations such as the NSF that support the sciences? Or, what might happen in the future when our students seek research support from The Social Science Research Council? Finally, how might the revised language affect the legitimacy of anthropological contributions and insights to collaborative projects with the growing industry of global health, with public health, or with policy? The examples in that last question are just three that come immediately to my mind. Historically, public health and policy are also two professional domains in which anthropologists have to fight to legitimate our worldviews, methods, findings, and claims because their “scientific” legitimacy is called into question beyond narrow ideas about how we can help figure out some aspect of “the culture” so that a policy or intervention can be more effective from a top-down perspective. In the shift from “science” to “public understanding” how might the sometimes already tenuous status of anthropological knowledges in terms of public perceptions, policy contributions, and funding for research and university departments be further weakened?

3 Responses to “Science” versus “public understanding”? Some thoughts on the distinction…

  1. I've been one of the less upset people in this, but I do find myself really wishing they kept something, anything, indicating at least an emphasis on empricism. To me, "science" encompasses many methods, but the unifying aspect is that they're empirical. As a young undergrad, sometimes it seemed the main difference between anthropology and, say, philosophy, was that at least anthropology is empirical.

    I don't know if it would have made any difference if the word science was struck but a commitment to empiricism made clear.

  2. well they didn't just replace science with public understanding, they also took the word anthropology out of that first sentence. So it seems to me they are saying the AAA is no longer about promoting anthropology (the field), but public understanding of all-things-human (which may or may not be anthropology, since they don't actually call it that). Bugs me.

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