Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened

Nicholas Wade in the NY Times article Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift has brought the controversy over the American Anthropological Association dropping “science” from its long-range plan back into the public eye.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

I already covered the controversy in my post Anthropology, Science and Public Understanding, where I also provide an up-to-date list of reactions to the controversy – including reactions to Wade’s NYT article. So look there for my points about the changes in the AAA long-range plan and the different takes anthropologists have had. Because today I want to provide a more accurate recounting of the controversy than Wade presents, and also defend anthropology.

Why Did the Controversy Explode? An Internal Process Gone Public

Nicholas Wade paints the explosion in light of the “bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist.”

This is not an apt reading of what actually happened. The issues that prompted this debate are both more mundane and more central to the present state of anthropology than some “tribal warfare” trope. Indeed, in the more than 50 reactions to the AAA decision, the el Dorado controversy has been a minor sidenote, when mentioned at all.

The blow-up over the dropping of “science” began as a two-step process: (1) a new document created through an internal process became public, and (2) initial reactions on the Internet fueled a broader controversy through polarizing takes on the meaning of that document.

As I understand it, the leadership of the American Anthropological Association made the decision to update the association’s long-term plan, which was last revised in 1983. As the AAA officers wrote in the subsequent public release of the plan (after the controversy had erupted):

Our AAA long-range plan needed updating in order to address the changing composition of the profession and the needs of the AAA membership. At its November 20 meeting in New Orleans, the Executive Board specified, concretized, and enlarged its operational roadmap for investing the Association’s resources towards a sustainable future. Section leadership was consulted prior to the New Orleans Annual Meeting, and the Executive Board acted.

To summarize: A long-range planning committee worked on revisions to the overall plan. The revised plan was then sent to section heads – the different sub-organizations within the AAA – as an internal document. Here information is not clear. I have seen claims that not all section heads received the new document. I have also not heard that there was any feedback by section heads on the long-range document prior to the AAAs. [Update: See this comment for a thorough accounting on what happened.] In any case, the section heads were consulted, and the long-range planning committee then presented the revised document to the Executive Board during the AAAs. Accepting that the proper internal processes had been followed, the Executive Board voted to accept the plan.

The changes in the AAA long-range plan would likely have remained largely internal. The only “news” about it was an email sent by the president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences to its members as well as to the AAA protesting the removal of all mention of science and potential loss of support from AAA members. The email was sent on Tuesday, November 23rd, two days after the AAA meetings ended in New Orleans

On November 30th, Inside Higher Ed published an article entitled “Anthropology without Science.” Though Peter Wood’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education came the day before, and another article on Anthropologists Debate Whether ‘Science’ Is a Part of Their Mission also appeared in the Chronicle on the 30th, this Inside Higher Ed piece is really what kicked off the controversy in a public fashion. Barbara King tweeted about it, and the article was then projected widely by others, and the label of #aaafail appeared. It was also the piece the AAA leadership reacted to, as it is the first of two pieces mentioned by the AAA officers in their public statement about the controversy.

Why did this Inside Higher Ed piece kick off such a controversy? Largely because it framed the changes as reflecting a polarizing debate within the field of anthropology, and then used two blog posts to generate this perception of enormous opposition within the field.

Some [anthropologists] also say privately that this conflict marks the latest in a running cycle of perceived exclusions among the heterodox discipline… More fundamentally, the dispute has brought to light how little common ground is shared by anthropologists who span a wide array of sub-specialties.

The journalist Dan Berrett then used a November 25th blog post on the Psychology Today network, Alice Dreger’s “No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists.”, to highlight the science side: her post “distinguished between ‘fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing’ and those who pay closer attention to hard data — and follow that data wherever they lead.”

Berrett then used Recycled Mind’s November 26th Views from the ANThill: Anthropology as Science post to emphasize the opposition that Dreger advanced. This post “argued that continuing to use the term ‘science’ in the association’s mission statement had become a concern because it maintained ‘the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline’.”

Opposition? No. A Field Moving Forward

Wade’s NY Times article largely repeats this trope of opposition.

Dr. Peregrine… said in an interview that the dropping of the references to science “just blows the top off” the tensions between the two factions… He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought.”

Is this true? No. Examining anthropology as part of colonialism is simply good history – that is how the field came to be, and that history has had a negative legacy that anthropologists have fought hard to overcome. And post-modern critiques have permitted us to understand the limits of science and also to understand better how science plays out in public discourse and ideologies – like equating post-modernism as a scholarly movement with creationism.

As Lance Gravlee just tweeted, “Leave it to Nicholas Wade to pit ‘science-based anthropological disciplines’ in opposition to study of race.” It is precisely the mix of science and critical thought about race that has been at the center of anthropological work since the days of Franz Boas. As testament to this synthetic mixture, the American Anthropological Association recently developed the important public project on “RACE: Are We So Different?

Since that Inside Higher Ed piece, I see the controversy as playing out in this way. Anthropologists who are part of the AAA organization have led an online discussion on science and our vision for anthropology that has been inclusive and productive. People outside the organization and the discipline continue to hype the “tribal warfare” trope of a divided and embattled discipline, while also playing up the headline grabbing but wrong notion that “anthropologists are rejecting science.”

I don’t have time to demonstrate this in-depth today. So the briefest of evidence, the latest comment on the Inside Higher Ed piece is by Catherine Lutz, who is most definitely a critical anthropologist. She wrote on December 8th:

Most departments of anthropology happily work together each day with a diversity of members, some of whom take more humanistic approaches and some of whom take more scientific ones. All of them aspire to rigor and rarely disparage either their colleagues in biochemistry or their colleagues in French literature for not understanding the worlds that they choose to study…

And hopefully anyone perusing these comments looking for a representation of “how most anthropologists think” about these issues will not confuse the often quite polemical and angry sentiments posted here with the cooperative and collegial field of anthropology as a whole.

Update: I go on to demonstrate the inclusiveness of anthropologists writing about the controversy, with an emphasis on both science and culture, in the post Anthropology after the “Science” Controversy: We’re Moving Ahead

Update: The American Anthropological Association has just released a new statement, What Is Anthropology? It includes the specific lines:

To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences.

Update: The AAA has also released AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology:

Some recent media coverage, including an article in the New York Times, has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology. On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research. To clarify its position the Executive Board is publicly releasing the document “What Is Anthropology?” that was, together with the new Long-Range Plan, approved at the AAA’s annual meeting last month.

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