Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding

During November’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the AAA executive committee made significant changes to its long-range plan statement. By choosing to drop “science” as the main qualifier of the field of anthropology, the executive committee has kicked up a firestorm among anthropologists as well as created a wider reaction in the higher education community.

Here are the old and new wordings for the first of the three sections in the American Anthropological Association’s Statement of Purpose. You can find all three sections of both the old and new Statements of Purpose over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

Old Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

New Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

Update: The AAA has released a public statement and full description of the long-range plan on its website. I include the letter from the officers at the end of this post.

Update: Virginia Dominguez, the AAA President, has posted a letter on the AAA blog, Revision to AAA Long Range Plan. She encourages members to send suggestions to strengthen and improve the long-range plan to her email, aaapresident@aaanet.org.

Alternatively, you can try your own hand at editing the AAA Long-Range Plan on this open-platform wiki.

Update: The AAA has just released (Dec 10) 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.

And subsequently, on December 13th, came 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.

Seven Points – From Science to the Future

One main purpose of this post is to provide a guide to the controversy and reactions to it, which I do below. But I also want to provide my take on the core issues brought up by the changes. I will preface these points by saying that I think it is a very difficult task to come up with one common statement for any professional organization, particularly in so few sentences, so no common vision will ever be perfect. But some more critique might have helped this document better represent a shared purpose for the members of the association as we look to the future.

-I actually don’t have a problem with the main substitution at the beginning, replacing “anthropology as the science” with advancing “public understanding of humankind.” Making anthropology into only a science, as that first line does, does not do justice to the breadth of the discipline. Lots of good anthropologists do excellent scholarship that does not fall under the rubric of science, so this change actually strikes me as more inclusive.

-I do object to dropping all mentions of anthropology as science. As the coverage below shows, plenty of anthropologists found the complete excising of the word “science” as alienating them from the AAA, and also compromising our ability as anthropologists to effectively communicate with the public. I agree.

-At first I thought “public understanding” was good. After all, I consider this blog as a way to enhance public understanding of anthropology, and also as a way to debate public issues as an anthropologist. However, the AAA executive committee took out the phrase on anthropological knowledge’s “use to solve human problems.” While I can understand how this phrase carries connotations of the “Ivory Tower acting on others,” I do not think the combination of “public understanding” and “expertise” adequately represents the applied side of anthropology. Just like the loss of all mentions of science, the loss of all mention of applied work is alienating. There is the phrase “Encourage anthropological teaching, research, and practice” in the second section, but “public understanding” is not the same as a vision of anthropology that can make a difference in the world.

-The subtle change from “anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects” to a list of prominent sub-fields in anthropology is a move away from encouraging cross-disciplinary work towards a more fragmented vision. In other words, it represents a move away from holistic and integrative work towards promoting work in specific sub-fields. The American Anthropologist is already moving in this direction, placing an emphasis on publishing the best in each area of anthropology but without requiring at least an attempt towards broader disciplinary appeal. This move by the AAA executive board is similar in its rhetoric. This compromises one of the key contributions that anthropology can make as a discipline.

-The AAAs emphasis on cultural anthropology continues, and is actually reinforced in this new document. Before there were just four sub-fields – “archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research.” Now we have a list of ten – “archeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” The new additions fall largely within the domain of cultural anthropology – social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, and visual. Equal weighting for biology would likely demand some mention of primatology and evolutionary anthropology. I am sure an archaeologist would also have relevant additions.

-The document presents a narrow view of “public understanding.” It comes across as a broader public that will come read monographs and journals, students in classrooms, and other professional organizations. There is no clear indication that “public” explicitly includes the people and primates with whom we work. They might, and often do, view the public side of our research and practice in very different ways than we do.

-For a document that is about long-range vision, the type of activities mentioned in Section 2 conveniently ignore the fact that scholarship and public understanding are increasingly happening in digital forms. This section comes across as an old view of scholarship, not in link with how quickly technology is changing scholarship. It is, however, in line with the AAAs continued emphasis on not doing open-access publishing nor more actively promoting the use of digital resources to encourage the public understanding of anthropology.

The Controversy as Played on the Internet

Those are my points. Now onto the controversy that is brewing out there. A good place to begin reading is the Inside Higher Ed piece written by Dan Berrett, Anthropology without Science. This piece captures the sense of exclusion and rejection felt by many scientists, and what this might represent for the discipline. The piece also has some of the best and most informed commentary.

In his piece Berrett talks about how this change highlights inherent and long-standing problems within the discipline.

The move has sparked debate on blogs and among the various sub-specialties of the discipline about the proper place of science in anthropology. Some also say privately that this conflict marks the latest in a running cycle of perceived exclusions among the heterodox discipline. In the past, archaeologists and practicing and professional anthropologists have argued that the discipline as a whole has become dominated by cultural anthropologists, and has grown indifferent to their interests.

More fundamentally, the dispute has brought to light how little common ground is shared by anthropologists who span a wide array of sub-specialties, said Elizabeth Cashdan, chair of anthropology at the University of Utah. For example, some anthropologists might mine the language and analytical tools favored by such humanities as literary criticism, while others may be more likely to deploy statistical methodology as befits social science. Still others might rely on the biological metrics, hard data and scientific method used by natural scientists. “This is reflective of tensions in the whole discipline,” said Cashdan, a bio-cultural anthropologist who described herself as “very dismayed” by recent developments.

Among the comments on the Inside Higher Ed piece, I want to point to what Hugh Gusterson said, as he is a current member of the AAA executive board that discussed and approved the changes. It is the 10th comment in, as there is no way to make a direct link:

The wild talk being thrown about on this site about anthropologists rejecting science as colonial and embracing postmodernism bears no relation at all to any discussion we had on the Executive Board. Reading about this issue on this site is like reading a “journalistic” account of 9/11 structured around a debate over whether the Bush Administration secretly organized the attack on the World Trade Center…

The new wording says, “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” The document goes on to make numerous references to “anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

Fair-minded people will recognize this as a modest change and will see that science is still there in the mission statement (after all, what are biology and archeology if not sciences?) even if the wording has been slightly changed. You would think from some of the hysterical statements here that the AAA had issued a statement condemning science.

The 16th comment in is by Dean Siatta, a professor of anthropology at Denver. This comment highlights the dichotomous framing, and unlike myself, approves of the exclusion of the solving human problems language.

I don’t know any advocacy or “do-gooder” anthropologist who rejects data, evidence, or science. Moreover, to the extent that even scientific anthropologists clearly understand that human values inevitably influence one’s thinking about science and its role in human affairs (e.g., as evidenced by those who participated in an AAA roundtable I attended on evolutionary science and advocacy) it’s curious that none of them seemed to recognize that anthropology’s engagement with postmodernism has had a good bit to do with creating this sort of self-consciousness.

The cartoonish “science vs. anti-science” framing of this latest attempt to analyze tensions within the discipline is both dismaying and regrettable when epistemologies are available that can effectively bridge or integrate the values of science and humanism. It seems to me that the revised mission statement seeks to trade on these epistemologies with its re-framing of the Association’s goal as the advancing of “public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

I like the way the statement avoids an instrumentalist logic by eliminating the “…use to solve human problems” language, and I like its explicit nod to the importance of teaching and practice. If such a guiding (and, to me, perfectly reasonable) ethos can’t unite the broad array of scholars, teachers and activists who fill our tent—especially if it has been agreed to by a representative Executive Board—then I think we are truly lost.

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Wood has the post Anthropology Association Rejecting Science? Wood covers a broad set of reactions to the proposed changes, as well as some of the history behind them. In the end, he takes a negative view of the changes, writing “a self-appointed radicalizing faction has taken hold of a discipline and is un-disciplining it. It is cause for alarm among anthropologists.” His take on the discipline?

My own view of anthropology is that it is a hybrid discipline. Its main scholarly tradition is rooted in science, or at least the aspiration for science. If those roots wither or are cut off, anthropology will lose any real claim to serious intellectual attention and perhaps even its identity as a discipline. Absent its scientific basis, anthropology would be little more than colorful travel literature (travelogues) occasionally mixed up with political hucksterism and theoretical obscurantism.

But anthropology has never been only a science, and it ought to be sufficiently broad-minded to embrace the poetics of culture and some of its music as well. The best anthropologists have always been attuned to the aesthetics of their discipline as well as to the demands of science, and have managed this without letting go of the essential rational and universal basis of their inquiry.

Rex at Savage Minds largely approves of the changes in his post Why Anthropology Is ‘True’ Even If It Is Not ‘Science’. Like Wood, he too takes his shot at the other side: “At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers.” And his take on the discipline?

I am concerned that objections to the new statement 1) do a bad job of understanding what ‘science’ is and 2) fail to understand that the knowledge anthropology produces can still be ‘true’ even if it is not ‘scientific’.

The narrative at work seems basically to be this: for decades real, objective, scientific anthropology has been under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth. With the new language in the AAA mission statement, anthropologists have given up on truth altogether…

We don’t have to go that far afield to recognize forms of knowledge that are rehabilitated when anthropology jettisons its label as ‘science’: history, epigraphy, historical linguistics, and the humanities in general. The opposite of ‘science’ is not ‘nihilitic postmodernism’ it’s ‘an enormously huge range of forms of scholarship, many of which are completely and totally committed to accuracy and impartiality in the knowledge claims they make, thank you very much’.

Now, someone might argue that historical work that is committed to accuracy, submits its claims to evidence and scholarly scrutiny and so forth is not actually a form of the humanities, but is itself a kind of ‘science’. In fact one person has made such an argument: Franz Boas.

Throughout his career — for instance in his classic short piece ‘The Study of Geography’ — Boas made a distinction between not between the ‘natural sciences’ and the ‘interpretive sciences’ but rather between generalizing sciences (which study things that happen over and over again, like gravity) and the ‘historical sciences’ (which study things which happen just once in history, like the Battle of Hastings).

Recycled Minds, in the post Views from the ANThill: Anthropology as Science, covers the reaction of the Society for Anthropological Sciences to the changes (which are definitely worth the read) and then offers a differing opinion, one that highlights anthropology’s engagement with varying forms of knowledge, not just science:

There is good reason to maintain representation by “science”, primarily because of the lofty reputation that it holds not only in academia, but culturally in the US and globally.

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

BANDIT, or the Biological Anthropology Developing Investigators Troop (great name!), gives us two responses, which I think is important. The first, The Place of Science in Anthropology, laments the dropping of “science.” Julienne Rutherford writes in reaction to the changes, and specifically to Recycled Minds post:

I am not arguing that there are no other valid modes of sampling the universe besides science, but explicitly eliminating science as a way of knowing in order to highlight other ways of knowing is not a concept I can grasp. It may be because I didn’t take a lot of coursework in sociocultural anthropology.

Unfortunately, I think some of our sociocultural colleagues believe that we biological anthropologists view our study populations as Dawkinsesque genomic automatons and culture as either a precisely quantifiable logic problem or completely irrelevant, a variable to be “controlled” in regression models. It might have been eye-opening for members of the executive committee to attend the fascinating and very culturally-driven biocultural session I and other biological anthropologists (including a geneticist, human biologist, and primatologist) participated in at AAA.

For our biological colleagues who already feel the AAA and its journal, American Anthropologist, are irrelevant to them, this move and the perception of dismissal it engenders only further exacerbate those tensions.

The second BANDIT post, Cross-field Anthropology: Opportunities and Obstacles, highlights efforts across divisions within the discipline to understand and do something with anthropology as a whole.

As evidence that there are at least pockets of cross-disciplinary collaboration and apprecation within AAA, the Society for Cultural Anthropology sponsored a Multispecies Salon at the recent meeting. Five essays published in the November 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology formed the platform of the “innovent”, and several additional papers were discussed. There were also exhibits of art informed by the concept of Multispecies Ethnography held in New Orleans galleries.

I think this is a great example of what IS happening NOW within anthropology and evidence that there is mutual respect amongst various practitioners, some of whom consider themselves scientists and some of whom do not. I heard it was all fascinating. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend any of it because I couldn’t find it. The innovent wasn’t advertised by the Biological Anthropology Section. The online AAA program allows you to search by interest group (the program is a behemoth); my searches for “biology” and other related terms did not return any information on the Multispecies Salon. You’d have to know it was happening in advance to find it in the program.

Over at Psychology Today, Alice Dreger writes, No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists. This post points to anthropology’s focus on human nature while challenging the AAAs executive decision making and the social and political implications of such a decision.

Presumably, in the AAA’s tradition, the promotion of the “public understanding of humankind” will include anything that is politically unoffensive to the AAA leadership, and nothing offensive. It’s safe to assume the AAA will not be promoting the public understanding of how human behaviors evolved, especially if those human behaviors are anything that might make some or all humans look violent, greedy, harmful to the environment, or (worst of all) sexually dimorphic…

“Why go backwards,” [Sarah Hrdy] asked rhetorically, “abandoning the goal of using anthropology to try to understand human nature, especially now when it is a matter of increasingly broad interest?”

Great Lakes Ethnohistorian writes What Is the Real Concern about #AAAFail? (For those of you wondering what #aaafail is, it’s the hashtag on Twitter being used to discuss some aspects of the controversy.) Megan does something useful, comparing the AAA changes with statements by other professional organizations. She then highlights the public aspect.

This new statement shifts the focus to public outreach, while at the same time deleting the information about the reasons why anthropological research is beneficial to society (solving real-world problems). Considering how many anthropologists do applied research these days, and how many anthropologists work outside of academia now, this is particularly surprising to me.

Additionally, by removing the word anthropology from the first sentence and replacing it with humankind, the statement fundamentally shifts the outreach from teaching people about our field and how we do our research to the people we are working with and the cultures we are studying. Both are important – shouldn’t our professional organization promote both?

Update: Elizabeth Landau of CNN provides some fair coverage of the controversy in her piece, Putting ‘Science’ Back in Anthropology. I was interviewed for the piece, which was definitely fun. It also includes this important quote from AAA spokesman Damon Dozier:

“My reaction is that anthropology is a science, and that it will continue to be a science,” said Dozier. “There was never any intention overtly or covertly to take science out of our mission.”

Update: The AAA has released a public statement and full description of the long-range plan on its website. Here is the letter to the members, which is then followed by the long-range plan in its entirety. What is included there, and has been left out in the discussion, is the description of specific objectives, alongside the Vision statement people have been reacting to previously.

From the officers of the AAA to our membership:

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. Then immediately after the highly attended 2010 AAA Meetings in New Orleans, some criticisms of the plan were circulated electronically that had not been sent our way prior to the Meetings. Among them were thoughtful responses from several quarters, many queries about hearsay, and some suggestions for improvement or change. These responses, however, were amped up by blog headline editors earlier this week: “Anthropology Without Science,” and “No Science Please. We’re Anthropologists.” We believe that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings. Each one of us (the four officers of the AAA) may add or comment on the issues separately, but collectively we care about letting the entire association see the document at hand. We know that comments will continue to come our way and we welcome them from our clearly engaged membership.

Virginia R. Dominguez, President
Leith Mullings, President-Elect
Debra L. Martin, Secretary
Edward Liebow, Treasurer

Other Reactions:

I’ve compiled as many links as I could find on the whole controversy. The very early links might not be in precise order of dates, but the later links are ordered by day of posting to the best of my ability.

Anthropology in Practice: Anthropology Just Says No to Science?

Evolution Beach: Whither Anthropology as a Science?

Respectful Insolence: Removing Science from Anthropology: Parallels with Medicine

Anthropology.net: Removing Science from Anthropology, Seriously

The Great Beyond, Nature: Hold the Science, Says Anthropology Society

David Glenn, Chronicle of Higher Education: Anthropologists Debate Whether ‘Science’ Is a Part of Their Mission

David Glenn, Chronicle fo Higher Education: Anthropologists Look for Bridges Across a Divided Discipline
-Published on Nov 21st, before the controversy started, this piece provides context for Glenn’s subsequent piece on anthropology and science (just above)

John Rosenberg, Minding the Campus: Rigoberta’s Revenge: The Implosion Of Anthropology

Weird Things: Politically Correct Anthropologists Tackle Science

Matthew Nisbet, BigThink: Science Wars? Anthropologists Debate Whether Science Is Central to Their Discipline

BANDIT: Biological Anthropology Section’s statement to the AAA Executive Board

Society for Anthropological Sciences: Society for Anthropological Sciences Resolution

Another Anthro Blog: Anthropology and Science

Cognition and Culture: Anthropology Is Not a Science, Says AAA

Jacob Hickman, Somatosphere: The “Science” of Anthropology

Eugene, Raikhel, Somatosphere: They Blinded Me with Science: Further Thoughts on the AAA Controversy

Erin Koch, Somatosphere: “Science” versus “Public Understanding”? Some Thoughts on the Distinction…

Out of the Middle: Sometimes Scientists Are Really Stupid

Publishing Archaeology: “Anthropology Is Not a Science” – American Anthropological Association

Publishing Archaeology: Science and the AAA: Five Problems with the Proposed Changes

Publishing Archaeology: Anti-Science

Ethnografix: Anthropology MINUS Science?

Ethnografix: Franz Boas Quote

Rex, Savage Minds: Ethnography as a Solution to #AAAfail

Alice Dreger, Psychology Today: The Remains of the AAA

Jefferson Fish, Psychology Today: Which Is In A Bigger Mess Over Culture—Psychology or Anthropology?

Context and Variation: What Is a Generous Interpretation of the AAA Mission Statement Change?

Metafilter Discussion: The Science^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Public Understanding of Humankind

Reddit Discussion: American Anthropological Association Strikes “Science” From Its Mission Statement

The Cranky Linguist: Hurricane Anti-Science Hits New Orleans

Missives from a Misanthropologist: No Science for Social Scientists

Salty Current: Social Science, the AAA, and the Right

The Age of Intuition: Anthropologists: Lost in a Post Scientism World

The Age of Intuition: Trust and the Contradictions of Science

Margaret Mead Reads My Tea Leaves: Anthropology and Science… How Very Anglican

Martin Mills, Times Higher Education: A Grand Unified Theory of Man (not on the AAA per se, but relevant in discussing natural and social science approaches/divides)

Anthrocharya: Science, the AAA, and Mutual Disrespect

Middle Savagery: Science, AAA, and Anthropology

Polly Peterson, Education Portal: Are Anthropology and Science Parting Ways?

Gambler’s House: Anthropology Is Not A Science

Leah Smith, TheJustice.org: Anthropology Can Be Blended With Science

Ethan Watrall, ANP491: Temples, Tombs, and Spaceships: Bonus Blog! (the controversy now as an assignment!) And here’s an initial reaction, The Last Blog

Aardvarchaeology: Hope for the Humanities?

Monkey’s Uncle: On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

Nicholas Wade, NY Times: Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift
-Published on December 9th, this piece is already kicking off a new round of reactions

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

Steve Sailer’s iSteve Blog: Anthropologists Say Sayonara to Science

The H.M.S. Beagle: Where Does Anthropology Fit in with Science?

Gene Expression: “The” Unbearable “Whiteness” of “Science”

A Life of the Mind: Anthropology No Longer a Science?

Archaeological Haecceities: Anthropology and Science

The Duck of Minerva: To Science or Not to Science: Is That a Question?

Daled Amos: It’s A New World: Anthropology Is No Longer A Science And Trees Have The Right To Sue

Letter from Hardscrabble Creek: Is Anthropology a Science?

John’s Blog: Is Anthropology a Science?

Evolution Beach: Anthropology in the NY Times

Gawker: Anthropology: More a Hobby Than a ‘Science’

Digging Digitally: Anthropology Not a Science?

Atheist: Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift

Young, Hip, and Conservative: We’re Losing a Science

Simple Country Physicist: Learning Feels Good

SpockSkywalker, Richard Dawkins Foundation: American Anthropological Association Drops the Word ‘Science’

Genealogy of Religion: Big Tent Anthropology

Monkey’s Uncle: Nicholas Wade on Science and Anthropology

Mark Liberman, Language Log: “Marginalization is never a welcome experience”

Notes from Aboveground: Taking the Science Out of Anthropology

American Anthropological Association: What Is Anthropology?

Cranky Linguist: Science Is Not That Hard

Dori’s Moblog: AAA Opens Up the Kinds of Inquiry in its Long Range Plans

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Anthropology after the “Science” Controversy: We’re Moving Ahead

John Hawks: Anthropology in Transition

Gene Expression: What Is This “Western” Culture You Speak Of? and The Study of Humankind: Questions, Answers, and Good Faith

normblog: Science of Anthropology

Evolution Beach: Science and Anthropology

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

Mark Liberman, Language Log: “Rice Positivists” vs. “Contextualized Popular Epistemologies”
-Builds on previous commentary on Wade NYT article, uses language to argue that there is indeed a division

Two posts that highlight the political dynamics, in how they place anthropology in larger debates: Anti-Uni & Anthropology – the study of ???? and As It Ought to Be & Insurgent Anthropologies: Cast Away Illusions, Part One

Kerim, Savage Minds: Anthropology Is…

James Clifford, Zunguzungu: The Greater Humanities

Strong, Savage Minds: Science and the Sacred: A Comment from Mary Douglas

The Tenants of Colson Hall: An Academic Field Implodes: Anthropology

Atheism Analyzed: Anthropology Drops Its Claim to Science

Vital Concerns for the World: My Nightmare: Anthropology as Moral Indignation

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Anthropology, Science and Relativism

Procrastiblog: On Anthro and Science

Absurd Beats: Too Goddamned Irritated to Blog

Tom Boellstorff, New York Times: The Definition of Science

American Anthropological Association: AAA Responds to Public Controversy over Science in Anthropology

David Glenn, Chronicle of Higher Education: Anthropology Association Never Intended to Break With Science, Board Says (and thanks to David for mentioning this set of links!)

Bandit: Was It Just the Outsiders Who Got It Wrong? AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology

Gene Expression: To Study Humankind, AAA Responds

Robert VerBruggen, Phi Beta Cons: The Anthropologists Strike Back

Livejournal, Not an Anthropologist Any More
-Informative online discussion, including student reactions

Nicholas Wade, New York Times: Anthropology Group Tries to Soothe Tempers After Dropping the Word ‘Science’

Dan Berrett, Inside Higher Ed: Affirming Science’s Place

A Hot Cup of Joe: Why is the Word ‘Science’ Not Good Enough for the AAA?

Francis Sedgemore: Is Anthropology a Science, and Does It Matter?

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: AAA Statement on Science Controversy – Holistic Hope Saves the Day?

Brian Lehrer Show: Anthropology: Science or Humanity?
-radio show featuring Peter Peregrine and Hugh Gusterson

Links and Anthropology for Young People: Kerfuffle – What is Anthro… Science or Humanities?

Secondary Refuse: A Short Comment on Science

On Higher Education: Anthropology’s King Has No Clothes

Thudfactor: On Removing Science

ArchaeoBlog: Robert C. Dunnell, RIP

Dinosours!: More on #AAAfail

Radio Freethinker: Show Notes for Episode 93

…Like with Jetpacks: Physical Anthropology Exodus and Republican Scientists

Triple A Learning: Hanging Up the Labcoats?

The Science of Anthropology: No More Science?

Rex, Savage Minds: #AAAfail as PR Meltdown

Anthrocharya: The Detritus of the AAA/Science Debate

K. Kris Hirst, About.com: Is Anthropology a Science? #AAAFail

The H.M.S. Beagle: AAA Update: Reconsidering the Relationships of Anthropology and Science

Ethnografix: A Very Short Opinion Piece

Albert Mohler: The Briefing

Antradio, Twitpic: What is an Anthropologist? (cartoon!)

Looking in the Cultural Mirror: Is Anthropology Scientific? Beats Me

Ethnografix: Anthropology, the AAA, and PR: Some Thoughts and Ideas from the Trenches of Grad School

Jason Baird Jackson: This Post is a Reply to #AAAfail as PR Meltdown

Physics Today: Science and the Media: 11 – 17 December

Collide-a-scape: What Is Science, Anyway?

Kerim, Savage Minds: Anthro Poets

Age of Intuition: Secular Crisis and Identity Crisis—American Style

Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology: Late to the Science – Anti-science Bum Fight…

Jean-François Cliche, Cyberpresse: C’est pas de la Science, C’est de l’Anthropologie
-The controversy covered in French

David Ludwig, Telepolis: Keine Wissenschaft vom Menschen?
-The controversy covered in German

Julienne Rutherford, BANDIT: Calling Online Anthropologists!

Ronald Pies, Psychiatric Times: Psychiatry and Anthropology, In Search of “Science”

Ethnografix: It All Depends on How You Handle It

John Horgan, Scientific American: Science “Faction”: Is Theoretical Physics Becoming “Softer” than Anthropology?

Rex, Savage Minds: A Changeling Discipline

James Holland Jones, Monkey’s Uncle: Typologies of Critique

Tim Preston, Living the Life Unusual: Anthropology Is a Science

Rosemary Joyce, The Berkeley Blog: Anthropology: Engaged Social Science in a Changing World
-Rosemary posted a very similar piece on another site, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, entitled Anthropology Is Science… and More

Rationally Speaking: Double Podcast Teaser: Our first anniversary, and is anthropology still a science?
-Actual podcast to happen in first week of January

Rex, Savage Minds: I Mean, Say What You Like about the Tenets of Critical Anthropology, Dude, at least It’s an Ethos

Rosemary Joyce, Psychology Today: Anthropology, Social Science, and Science Wars

Edward Dutton, Reclaiming Anthropology for Science: A Libertarian Approach
-Not about the AAA controversy per se, this essay does paint anthropology as divided into science and post-modern camps

James Holland Jones, Monkey’s Uncle: That’s How Science Works

Kerim, Savage Minds: What I Like about Science

Michael Smith, Publishing Archaeology: American Anthropologist Implies that Archaeology Is not Part of Anthropology

Lauren Axelrod, Ancient Digger: Archaeology Not Part of Anthropology: Who Says?

Jim Belshaw, Personal Reflections: Anthropology, the Aborigines & the Need to Tell a Story

Julienne Rutherford, BANDIT: Revisiting a Controversy of Debated Etiology

Tony Stankus, SLA Biomedical & Life Sciences Division Blog: Is Organized Anthropology Losing Its Senses As It Downplays Its Sciences?

Anthrocharya: The Boundaries of Anthropology

Daniel Lende, L’anthropologie, Une science?
-My “What Really Happened” piece translated into French

Julienne Rutherford, BANDIT: Anthro Bloggers Send Letter to the AAA Executive Board

Michael Smith, Publishing Archaeology: Anthropological Bloggers Write to the AAA Board

Carl Lipo, Evolution Beach: An Open Letter to the AAA Executive Board

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Anthropologists Online – Our Letter to the American Anthropological Association Executive Board

Kate Clancy, Context and Variation: Letter to the AAA President on Online Anthropology and #aaafail

Hugh Gusterson, What if They Gave a Science War and Only One Side Came?
-Get an Executive Board insider view of how the controversy played out

Jason Baird Jackson, From So-Called #aaafail Back to Publishing

Rationally Speaking: Is Anthropology Still a Science?

John Hawks, Kerfufflists or Kerfufflers?

Reddit – Philosophy of Science: Is Anthropology a Science?

Kate Clancy & John Hawks, Bloggingheads.tv: Science Saturday: Anthropological Perspective
-Kate and John talk about the controversy for about 7 minutes starting at 49:20

Ann Althouse, Althouse: “Last fall anthropology declared itself to no longer be a science”
-A lot of comments on Kate & John’s talk, specifically the “science” parts, from people who frequent a law professor’s blog

Adam Kuper & Jonathan Marks, Nature (paywall): Anthropologists Unite!

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow

Anthroprobably: Solidarity, Open Access, and the Future of Anthropology

Ryan Anderson, The Prism: Daniel Lende: “You can read this blog for free”

John Hawks: Going Draper

Faithful News: Anthropology: A Science in Crisis
-A creationist site uses the crisis to its own ends

Archive Fire: Moving Anthropology Forward

Michael Smith, Publishing Archaeology: Anthropologists Urged to Unite Behind Archaic Policies and Technology

Rex, Savage Minds: This Valentine’s Day, A Love Letter to Anthropology
-find the collected Anthropology Love Letters here

L Moore, Age of Intuition: Anthropology: After ‘Bitter’ Comes ‘Sweet’

Pantropus, Ape: GfA Fail

Bensix, Back towards the Locus: Secrets of the Tribe…

Rita Astuti, Cognition and Culture: What Is Anthropology?

Rich Barlow, BU Today: The Science of Anthropology

Eric Alden Smith, Michael Gurven & Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Nature (paywall): Anthropology: It Can Be Interdisciplinary
-Letter in Nature in response to Kuper & Marks’ Anthropologists Unite piece

K. Anne-Isola Nekaris, Vincent Nijman & Laurie R. Godfrey, Nature (paywall): Anthropology: Follow Field Primatologists
-Another letter in response to Kuper & Marks’ Anthropologists Unite piece

Kerim, Savage Minds: Anthropological Kerfuffles

Jason Antrosio, Living Anthropologically: Anthro-Flop-ology

Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology: Anthropologists United: Two Responses to Kuper & Marks

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52 Responses to Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for this very clear overview of the discussion going on around the web. I find this to be a very useful discussion for anthropology, bringing a lot of rhetoric about the scientific nature of anthropology (or lack thereof) into public discourse.
    As an archaeologist, though, I feel the need to comment on your own take on the statement. You wrote that the AAA emphasizes socio-cultural anthropology in the selection of subjects listed. However, in my own research I use archaeological approaches to investigate cultural, political, economical, historical, and visual subjects in ancient societies. The fact that many of the theoretical structures and models that I use were developed by socio-cultural anthropologists does not make them any less useful to an archaeological anthropologist. Perhaps the AAA board was reaching for some of the subject areas that cross-cut the traditional subfields of the discipline, rather than attempting to replace them.

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    • Megan says:

      I agree Michael, about how archaeologists study many of the same topics as cultural anthropologists, but in the past. The fact that they still list ‘archaeological’, in addition to these other types of research suggests that whomever made the list may not have a good understanding of what archaeologists do. Some work done by archaeologists involves unique research questions that are not explored by cultural anthropologists, but this is much less common. Perhaps methods and topics should be considered separately? Of course, now I’m going to end up with two lists, each a mile long!

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      • MTBradley says:

        If pressed to put myself in a box I prefer ‘ethnology’ to any of the subdisciplines, sub-subdisciplines, area studies, or cross-disciplines because it seems to me to be the most methodologically ecumenical. The lexeme has been removed entirely in the revised mission statement.

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        • megan says:

          Yeah, I’m an ethnohistorian so I dabble in lots of different things and never fit into any clear categories. That’s what makes it so fun!

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  2. KBHC says:

    Daniel, thanks for a great round-up, for offering your thoughts, and for linking to my post at Context and Variation! I think the quotes you pulled show some of the interesting tensions being brought to light with this mission statement change.

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  3. tom says:

    Nice to have a level-headed commentary on the controversy. There have been so many visceral reactions on the web in recent days that I was beginning to question the value of web-based discourse on the topic.

    Like you I am of two minds here: wish they could have kept mention of science but agree old mission statement did not represent the research done by some of the membership—perhaps even a majority. Also don’t like the substitution of a laundry list of specialties for the four sub-fields. I don’t see this as an attempt to build bridges, although I too am an anthropological archaeologist. But I’m probably more troubled by the hysterical reaction of some of my archaeological colleagues; I thought we had moved past some of the polemics on this issue.

    As I said before I’ll say again here in case someone who reads this knows: it would be nice to have some historical context for the proposed changes to the mission statement. when was the last version created? what was the context?

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  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the great overview. Following this debate from a European point of view is both interesting and somewhat confusing. Part of the debate seems, if I’m not mistaken, to be very strongly tied to the academic specificities of the discipline in the US, with issues of cohesion in the 4 US subfields, or at least it’s the impression I gather from references to ‘scientific anthropologists’ vs. ‘non scientific anthropologists’ in various blog posts on the issue.

    Practicing anthropology as a social science is part of a Durkheimian heritage that I still find incredibly relevant but I was fascinated (again, as a non-American…) by your point regarding inclusiveness.

    Please excuse my perhaps ignorant perspective but basically I wonder whether this change could translate into turning the social-cultural leg of US anthropological research, or at least part of it, into something more akin to cultural studies (and/or international studies, area studies, indigenous studies, development studies, disability studies, etc) which have openly questioned (often interestingly) academic disciplines and science since the 1960s?

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  5. Sarah says:

    PS : Loving the new bannerhead !

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    • gregdowney says:

      Thanks, Sarah. We thought we need to jazz it up a bit. I’ll do a post explaining it at some point because the image is less familiar outside anthropology.

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  7. Fantastic overview, Daniel! It’s become my one-stop resource for this discussion. You raise an interesting point about “public understanding,” which is a point that I also did not necessarily disagree with. However, I don’t think I’ve been interpreting “public” as the EB suggests. I have been thinking in terms of a larger audience, but as you note public in this sense means those who “read monographs and journals, students in classrooms, and other professional organizations.” So in a real sense, we are talking to ourselves. Still. What a shame. Thanks for prompting me to think of this.

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  8. Trish Clay says:

    I also find interesting the assumption by many that this is a divide between archeology/biological anthropology on the one hand and sociocultural anthropology on the other. It is true that post-modernism is largely if not wholly confined to sociocultural anthropologists. However, there are a number of sociocultural anthropologists (myself included) who consider ourselves to be scientists.

    There have been suggestions of using “sciences and humanistic approaches,” which is much more inclusive. And I have to say that the goal being purely to “advance public understanding of humankind” sounds much more like outreach than research – however conducted. I already fight that battle in my work, explaining that my role is not to explain to stakeholders how the new regulations will help them but to actually research the most likely impacts on different sub-groups of different formulations of regulations. I don’t want to fight the same battle with fellow anthropologists.

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  9. megan says:

    Having read the full LRP now that it is posted online, it seems to me that the ‘Mission’ portion doesn’t really connect that well with the rest of the statement – does anyone else feel that way? I’m also curious as to why there are so many sub-sections to the statement about the objectives of the annual meeting when other topics like “9. The AAA will support and work with anthropology departments and programs to develop resources to assist them to meet their objectives.” have no elaboration whatsoever. Supporting and working with someone to develop things to assist them with their objectives sounds like useless wording to me.

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  17. Larry Moore says:

    Hi gents, here is my two bits on the discussion, thanks.

    http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/2010/12/anthropologists-lost-in-post-scientism.html

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  18. Larry Moore says:

    Gents thanks for the running updates. Here is a follow on statement.
    http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/2010/12/trust-and-contradictions-of-science.html
    I don’t have any thing else to add.

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  25. allen turner says:

    If anthropology is no longer a science, then I am no longer an anthropologist, my anthro phd notwithstanding.

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  34. shama zaidi says:

    and we of the third world always thought that anthropology was the study of the undeveloped unwashed millions of the third world and similar studies of people in the civilized developed world was called sociology. if an indian scholar were to try and do a study of the mating customs of middle america what would that be called?

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  36. L Moore says:

    Shama, in today’s American culture I suspect it could be either one. See my
    http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/2011/01/carling-malouf-anthropologist-with.html

    BTW, sorry folks, I haven’t figured out this pingback idea yet.

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  39. L Moore says:

    And now it’s the economists turn…without all the hubbub

    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2011/03/is-economics-a-science.html

    also see..
    http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~hal/Papers/theory.pdf
    note the year and name of the conference.

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  40. L Moore says:

    Another offering on the science discussion
    http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/2011/03/anthropology-economics-practitioners.html

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  43. Joeking says:

    My only question is do they mean just general science courses or any courses related to science? I’ve been looking to get into anthropology and I am currently taking Biology course online at http://www.emagister.com/cursos-biologia-tematica-319.htm Either way I think it will help give me a good base to move into the field. I guess it’s not a requirement but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

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