The "science" of anthropology?

I am posting this on behalf of Jacob Hickman, a PhD student from the University of Chicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development.

Two recent pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education (available here and here) document something that happened at the past American Anthropological Association meetings that I was not aware of during the meetings. I went to the general business meeting to hear about some of these developments, but what is interesting is that this particular development occurred during the Executive Board Meeting, rather than being presented before the general AAA body for debate and a vote.

So, what am I talking about? In short, the AAA Executive Board has decided to strike all mention of “science” from the language of the AAA mission statement. One of the pieces I have attached shows all of the changes, omissions, and alterations in the new statement. The obvious thrust is to re-characterize the AAA’s work in non-scientific terms. In one of the Chronicle pieces, an apologist for the AAA Executive Board argues that the intention was not to attack “science,” per se. However, if this is the case, how does one justify substituting for ‘sciences’ the phrase “knowledge disciplines?” is that simply a stylistic move? I think not.

I am sure that amongst the HD crowd we are likely to find a diversity of opinion with regards to these issues, and I am quite interested in hearing about them. I recall one night last Spring, Abbe, Les, Teo, and I debated over dinner whether or not we (and our advisors) were “scientists,” and I must say that even with this small group I found a much wider range of opinion than I had expected (I will let you all characterize your own positions, if you care to!).

For me personally, I disagree with this move by the AAA Board, and I think it is counterproductive. Roy D’Andrade recently started a discussion on this topic on the Society for Anthropological Sciences (a AAA section) listserve (you can read the exchange here). I agree that this threatens what little legitimacy “anthropology” maintains outside of its own borders, in the public sphere. This is especially threatening at a time when funding for academic research is shrinking and we are finding ourselves harder pressed to justify funds to do research, such as carry out international fieldwork and hire research assistants.

For one, I don’t conceptualize “science” as narrowly as those who like to use “positivism” as an epithet. I regard science as disciplined, systematic inquiry that attempts some degree of transparency (i.e., NOT “objectivity) in staking claims about the world, regardless of the relative social constructedness of those worlds. In fact, I think that interpretive anthropology can be scientific. Geertz seemed to think so as well, as he states in his essay on Thick Description:

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

It seems apparent to me that from this essay Geertz allows for more-or-less defensible interpretations to be made of any given cultural happening, and that one should be able to cite evidence to back up one’s interpretation. As far as I am concerned, this interpretive ‘science’ is just as fundamentally concerned with issues of reliability and validity as much as any other discipline, such as as quantitative psychology or sociology or physics. I don’t take anthropology to be any more or less scientific than any other disciplines typically found in “social science” divisions at universities across the world. Certainly, methods tend to vary from one discipline to another (despite many of our efforts to fight against a priori methodological biases), but methods don’t make research scientific. Engaging in qualitative analysis isn’t un-scientific unto itself any more than counting anything makes it scientific just because it involves counting (or structural equation modeling, for that matter).

In sum, I lament the move to eradicate “science” from the mission statement of the AAA. I think this represents the taking over of one particular political faction in the organization, and if anything it is likely to drive the discipline into further obscurity, further drive archaeologists and biological anthropologists (and many are even saying linguistic anthropologists) from the organization, and therefore drive the final nail in the four-field coffin. I honestly think that many of the anti-scientific sentiments pervading contemporary anthropology are perhaps essentializing “science” in a way that most of these critics would never allow to be done with “culture.” I also think that this move is largely political, yet another attempt to “stick it to the man,” even though we know that “the man” (or “the woman”, if you like) could care less what the AAA thinks. The world certainly doesn’t care whether the AAA recognizes the current government of Honduras (cf. the debate during last year’s business meeting), but I worry that eradicating science from the AAA mission statement will make the organization even more irrelevant, and prove to anyone that may actually listen that, in fact, the AAA *is* completely irrelevant.


{fist raised in the air}


5 Responses to The "science" of anthropology?

  1. Holy smokes! Your description of science is amazing:

    "I regard science as disciplined, systematic inquiry that attempts some degree of transparency (i.e., NOT "objectivity) in staking claims about the world, regardless of the relative social constructedness of those worlds."

    I've always tried to argue that science ends up studying an interaction between "the world" and "social construction" (keeping in mind I'm way more versed in science than philosophy) but I love the way you've stated this.

  2. First off, I don't think it's plausible to argue the revised wording is the work of a sneaky anti-science cabal in the AAA, unless some of the members of the executive board have only been pretending to be archaeologists and biological anthropologists all this time. (George Armelagos anti-science? Really?) That said, I am not enamored of the wording of the new statement either, mainly because it is meandering and frankly boring. I would much prefer they bring the word science back in, not because all anthropologists are, or consider themselves scientists, but because it is an appropriate description of what some of us do. To call my branch of socio-cultural anthropology "science" would I think be misleading, although that in no way means I denigrate scientists in the discipline, or conversely that my (non-science) research is a frivolous exercise in "making stuff up." The AAA would be doing us all a favor if they would write a more concrete statement that (among other things) enumerates some of the methods and forms of analysis that anthropologists use. Far from diminishing science, it would instead demonstrate the incredible breadth and richness of "the last great generalizing discipline."

  3. Maybe you want to look at the thoughts of Ioannidis:

    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

    His has been looking at medical science and find its current state troublesome. I suspect that part of the trouble is that looking at a lot of details makes it very hard to get "hard" facts. And if there are forces that is driving conclusions into certain directions (as there certainly are in medical science especially since there are strong external influences) then it can get really troublesome to know what the hard facts really are. Which old research reports actually has good conclusions?

    This might be important for you since the normal view is that medical science have hard facts and therefore should be called a "science" while anthropology might be viewed differently.

    In my view this can lead to very troublesome loss of knowledge since some areas might get less respect and therefore less financial support.

    It may also lead to difficulties in cooperation. Scientist who believes they are only creating really hard facts and those who gives money might think that cooperation with a "less scientific" academic principle might just create rubbish.

    I believe that is very false. Of course you have to be careful, but the trouble with how to remember what are hard facts and what might be conclusions with really uncertain probability values are already there in what are believed to be hard science.

    Someone said that creative ideas always comes from cooperation. (The person who said this did study creativity in industry for more than 30 years before he said this.)

    When thinking about those things you might perhaps also find the thoughts from psychologists/psychotherapists in a bit similar problems fruitful:

    Transactional Analysis, TA and OKness by vann joinnes

  4. Pingback: Five years of features | Somatosphere

  5. Pingback: Anthropology, science and the challenge of subjectivity | Pastoralism, Climate Change and Policy

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