Anthropology after the “Science” Controversy: We’re Moving Ahead

My post yesterday, Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened provided a critical reaction to Nicholas Wade’s NY Times article, “Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift.” Near the end I wrote:

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.

Well, today I do! Given references to vomit, fluff-heads, and people who study rocks, I’m going to take it as given that reactions from outside the discipline have been largely negative, particularly in reference to cultural anthropologists. (See my original post, Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding if you really want to follow the controversy – it provides a comprehensive set of links of reactions.)

What I want to show is that anthropologists online have taken this controversy as a way to reaffirm science, the interdisciplinary dynamics of anthropology, and the importance of cultural approaches to understanding our own humanity.

One of my favorite statements on the controversy comes from Kate Clancy, a biological anthropologist who blogs at Context and Variation (and is a definite win on Twitter). In her post, What is a generous interpretation of the AAA mission statement change?, Kate writes about overcoming her initial surprise and dismay to then engage in an in-depth discussion of why science is important but not sufficient for her work as an anthropologist.

I am a scientist, and yet my work is informed by feminist theory, and by an acknowledgement of the ways in which sexism has biased medical research on the female body. So I am often very critical of the performance and process of science. But I am not critical of the scientific method, and in fact believe that a thorough education in it, and truly internalizing its principles, lead to better scholarly research across all disciplines. At the same time, there are many instances where other ways of knowing are equally, or more important. Understanding the cultural and historical context of a population, analyzing literature and works of art, these are just a few of the ways in which science is potentially less useful, or at least only one of many frameworks through which one can test questions…

I think removing “science” from the mission of the American Anthropological Association leaves open the possibility of not discussing, creating and enforcing standards of evidence in our discipline. I think all anthropologists — from those who are more humanistic to those who are social and life scientists — have a lot to offer here. For instance, in my field I think there are two big theoretical conversations that need to happen, regarding the meaning of a biocultural perspective of anthropology, and anthropology’s contribution to evolutionary medicine. Both of these issues are interdisciplinary, and I sometimes feel they lack theoretical depth because we are using these terms without thinking about them.

On Monkey’s Uncle, Stanford anthropologist James Holland Jones provides the artful title On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits, and gives us a representation of a biological anthropologist aware of how past controversies have helped marginalize science in the American Anthropological Association but who embraces what anthropology offers. Reactionary statements are not sufficient. Anthropology is too important for that.

The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge. As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist. Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences”…

However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements. We need to be proactive and positive… In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.

Krystal D’Costa, the prolific blogger who writes on Anthropology in Practice, takes up the cultural anthropology side in Anthropology Just Says No to Science? As someone who communicates publicly, she values anthropology greatly and is tune with how the change might be perceived.

As a cultural anthropologist, I have always practiced the “science of anthropology”: I regularly use quantitative data and tested theories to investigate the nuances of common relationships. Without this information, there is no analysis. There is no sharing “anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation,” which the Association lists as a purpose. While research by various departments is included as a means of advancing the public understanding, it is not clear how this research is to be leveraged—it seems to be merely cataloged for others to use. In this context, anthropology does not appear to be positioned to make contributions of its own to scientific discussions. And that troubles me.

While Dozer insists that the Association is not “turning its back on science,” the explicit excising of the word from descriptions of the discipline and its mission creates a public perception of anthropologists as professionals who cannot analytically contribute to the debate and discussion about current events that are shaping our society. We are reduced to advocates who do not understand larger processes and can speak only from a specific position. In a world facing major political and social conflicts, anthropology has never been more important.

Over at Ethnografix, we find Anthropology MINUS Science? The answer to that question is definitely no, as Ryan has found inspiration in science and embraces the multiple perspectives anthropology offers.

Sure, I am a cultural anthropologist–you know, the type that is usually blamed for this sort of thing because of an overly opaque interest in postmodernist intellectual ping pong (or something like that). But while I read my fair share of Foucault and James Clifford and Donna Haraway and Latour and all of that good stuff, I am also a devout fan of science. I mean, I credit Stephen Jay Gould for my current intellectual path just as much as anyone else.

I understand the clashes and disagreements between the so-called hard sciences and the so-called soft sciences. But overall I think these divisions are pretty silly, if not outright stupid. There is a reason why anthropology is, at least in some places, a four field approach. The basic idea being that each perspective can inform the other. This means that more biologically inclined anthropologists can gain something from the “cultural” folks, and vice versa. Archaeologists can get something from linguists. It’s all about cross-fertilization. And to me, it’s a good way of going about things, instead of constantly closing ourselves off into little disciplinary corners.

Rex at Savage Minds proposes Ethnography as a Solution to #AAAFail. He wants data to help us understand what is going on. Good scientist!

One of the things #AAAfail has revealed is not just wide divisions within the anthropological community about what anthropology is — I think we all knew those were there — but also wide division about what the terms to evaluate those divisions mean. Especially the term ‘science’: does this mean a general belief ’in reality’ and ‘a broad commitment to empiricism’ or something more specific like ‘deductive research methodologies, an attempt to minimize the subjectivity of the researcher, extremely specific genre choices about conveying research results’ and so forth. One of the biggest problems, in other words, is that we have no ethnography of what anthropologists believe about their discipline.

What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’. As a scientist (in the general sense of the term) my training tells me the first step in resolving the issues raised by #AAAfail is to get some data on the phenomena we want to study.

And in one of the more telling remarks in the controversy, Rex had a comment late in the thread of his first post, Why Anthropology Is ‘True’ Even If It Is Not ‘Science’:

Finally, I have a question: if the armies of darkness have massed to make the overwhelmingly popular decision to expunge the rump of True Science from the AAA statement, then where is the outpouring of support from them on the AAA decision? Shouldn’t there be dozens of anti-Science types loudly applauding the decision? I think universal condemnation of the AAA strengthens interpretations of the event which hold that it was a bureaucratic farce, not a conscious plan to make make ‘scientists’ feel bad.

So, why does cultural anthropology matter, especially in conjunction with science? Eugene Raikhel, writing at Somatosphere, posted They Blinded Me with Science: Further Thoughts on the AAA Controversy. He writes:

Rather than pitting cultural and social anthropology as somehow against the biological sciences, [these approaches] see the social study of scientific knowledge as a necessary platform for conversation between the social and biological sciences. In other words, the conceptual tools of cultural anthropology and science studies are not just means of critiquing “scientific” knowledge claims, but also the basis for meaningful engagement.

Also at Somatosphere, Erin Koch discusses “Science” versus “Public Understanding”: Some Thoughts on the Distinction. Like science and cultural anthropology, engagement is also a positive force for the field.

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 mission from advancing science to advancing public understanding could further delegitimize (public) understandings of what anthropology is, what anthropologists do, and why these are important.

Finally, on the blog Anthrocharya comes the post Science, the AAA, and Mutual Disrespect. It returns to Kate Clancy’s theme, that science is not enough, particularly in anthropology which can often deal with historical (one-time) data and small samples. Moreover, since we study people, we need new ways to understands others. Cultural anthropology, including post-modernism, has made fundamental contributions there.

We all do things differently. It’s the nature of what we do. We are joined by our love for investigating the nature of our humanity. And if some of us lack “objectivity”, why, others among us who “do science” often take large leaps of faith. What would biological anthro and archaeology be without the (sometimes shocking) kinds of conjecture that are necessary to disciplines who function based on limited evidence? You can measure, and scan, and run stats, but at some point you’re going to have to take a pretty good guess, because we just don’t know.

That’s science. And we all do it. So yes, it belongs in the AAA mission statement and needs to go back into our long-range plan. But we also need to acknowledge that we all do different kinds of science, because we study different things. That there are different kinds of science. Some are simply more philosophical than others.

Postmodernism, political correctness, postcolonialism…these are labels I choose to wear with pride, because they are important markers in the methodology of cultural and linguistic anthropology. Without these paradigm shifts, to put it in a Kuhnian way, we would never have understood what we were doing wrong, as anthropologists. To mock them makes no more sense than to mock the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. They are what they are–new ways to view the world and the people in it.

One last tweet. From Lance Gravlee: “Times are different than when we were grad students. Many more data-driven sessions at AAA. That’s the sad irony of #AAAfail.”

With the new AAA statement on What Is Anthropology? reaffirming both science and humanities as part and parcel of anthropology, I am hopeful we have a more balanced platform for moving forward. The anthropologists writing online give testament to that. I am proud to be able to highlight their work, and look forward to what anthropologists do next.

Update: John Hawks has a nice piece, Anthropology in Transition, which provides some historical insight into divisions within anthropology. He ends too by reaffirming anthropology:

I don’t think it’s surprising that many anthropologists don’t see their activity as scientific, and I’m used to inhabiting a field with strains that may be substantially hostile to science or — worse — actively pursue a pseudoscientific agenda.

Still, I argue that anthropology is a science, even while I acknowledge that many anthropologists are not scientists. How can we have a coherent, rational study of humankind without much of its subject matter being ultimately humanistic in content? I don’t think our situation is very different from most of the social sciences. Psychology, political science and sociology all encompass some body of normative and descriptive theory that is not especially subject to empirical testing. In each field, quantitative data may actually settle some questions, but not others. Nevertheless, our understanding of many empirically tractable issues is enhanced by considering historical, narrative, or normative information.

And here is Kerim at Savage Minds in his post, Anthropology Is…

Instead of trying to define the discipline as a whole, we are better off thinking of ourselves as social scientists, writ large. To the extent that we function within anthropology departments, publish in anthropology journals, and hang out with 6,000 anthropologists at the annual meetings, we are anthropologists. But within that there are multiple “anthropologies” which function more-or-less independently of the whole. We can (and often do) choose to wear multiple hats, defined by our training (“Temple Anthropologist”), specialty (“Linguistic Anthropologist”), politics (“Marxist Anthropologist”) etc. Sometimes all three (or more!) at the same time – including all the contradictions which come with that.

The real problem, I think, is the way institutions are increasingly forcing us to narrowly define our area of expertise. This is particularly bad in Taiwan where academic evaluations can be down-graded for lacking focus, even when the scholar in question has only two or three areas of interest. I recently read a talk by James Clifford [link will be updated once post is up on Aaron Bady's blog] which addressed this issue. He called for “creating a multiplex, adaptive, hyphenating/connecting knowledge space that is…fundamentally interpretive, realist, historical, and ethico-political.” I think this is what anthropology needs to be as well. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

The American Anthropological Association has just released the statement, AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology. That statement, along with the What Is Anthropology? declaration, should hopefully mute some of the public controversy over the place of “science” in anthropology. But I want to add what Julienne Rutherford, writing on her BANDIT blog, has said about this statement, online interaction, and the renaissance of anthropology. Here is a relevant piece from her post, Was it just the outsiders who got it wrong?

Examples of what I’ve repeatedly called tone-deafness [by the AAA] play out in the official statements; by parameterizing the public discussion as only taking place in the media and amongst “outsider” bloggers, the EB continues to promote the public impression that there has been no internal dissent or dialogue, which if you’ve been visiting this and other anthro blogs (um, EB? Familiar with the interwebs? It’s a series of tubes…) you know there has been a vibrant internal dialogue expressing a panoply of views regarding not only the LRP wording, but the deeper questions of anthropological identity. It’s been exciting and I think very valuable to the discipline, but completely overlooked, at least publicly, by the AAA leadership.

So, enough of the negative. There are enormous and numerous lessons to be learned, and as I’ve discussed with fellow anthro bloggers Daniel Lende and Kate Clancy, I’m hopeful that this debacle could lead to a renaissance for our broader discipline. Nothing like controversy to get people interested in anthropology, even cynical anthropologists.

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12 Responses to Anthropology after the “Science” Controversy: We’re Moving Ahead

  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened | Neuroanthropology

  2. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

  3. Alice Kehoe says:

    Interesting coincidence that in this week’s New Yorker (Dec. 13), there is a very anthropological article “The Truth Wears Off.” Looks to me like another demonstration of Sapir-Whorf, as I said in this Letter to the Editor:
    TO THE NEW YORKER 12/10/10
    “Verbal overshadowing” (“The Truth Wears Off,” December 13) is an aspect of the power of language over cognition, described in the 1930s by anthropological linguists Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).  Socialized into a language, we are socialized into what Blackfoot language reviver Darrel Kipp terms “realities”–”I won’t use the word ‘culture’ any more,” he declared at a symposium on the Blackfeet Reservation last August, “we are talking about a people’s reality.”  Words channel what we think we perceive.
    Socialization into defined “reality” is well exhibited in the power of the Columbus myth to continue rejection of abundant and common-sense data that Columbus did not discover a totally isolated virgin continent.  First demonstrated to science by the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in 1814, then by the twentieth century’s great scientist-historian Joseph Needham and geographer Carl Sauer, among others, empirical evidence of ocean-crossing contacts between the Americas and Eurasia-Oceania before 1492 is irrefutable but consistently rejected by all but a handful of archaeologists and historians.  Those of us who argue for the evidence are accused of being racist, tagging us as believers in white gods who taught Indians everything.  Archaeological data for Polynesian landing on the coast of Chile a century before 1492 was published in the eminent peer-reviewed scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2007, yet the majority of archaeologists refuse to accept its evidence.  Curiously, evidence for Norse in northeastern America, at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, has been accepted after the National Geographic Society funded excavation and put all its publicity machinery into claiming authenticity.  It seems we’ve been socialized into believing the National Geographic is the arbiter of scientific validity.
    Alice B. Kehoe
    Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
    Marquette University
    Milwaukee, Wis.

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  4. daniel.lende says:

    A key question that has emerged in the past days is, What is at stake? If we view this debate as part of a battle over resources and academic positions, of whether there are more science-oriented or more interpretivist-oriented jobs tenure-track positions and who gets internal support from university administration and outside support from funding agencies, then what is really happening?

    It’s a good question. But it’s not the only route forward. If enrollments in anthropology grow, we get more positions. If anthropology becomes more prominent in the public eye, and demonstrates advances in basic knowledge and in application, more funding from public and private sources will come. In other words, rather than an internal debate over who gets what share of the pie, we can try to increase the overall size of the pie. Then we all get more. In my mind, this is the better strategy.

    I’ve asked myself, why have I put so much energy into this controversy over the past couple weeks? What’s at stake for me?

    As someone who does biological anthropology, who believes testing ideas is important, and who believes science helps us communicate and compete better, I have been worried – like many others – with all loss of reference to the word “science” in the long-range plan. As the issue has gone public in a wide way, I believe it is crucial to demonstrate that anthropology is science.

    However, as I’ve also said, anthropology is science and more – and that more is what makes anthropology anthropology for me. Theories of evolution, culture, and political economy; the importance of ethnography; the engagement with other cultures and societies; the emphasis on human variation; our ability to give voice to others who at times wouldn’t have a voice themselves – all these help form what anthropology is for me.

    I also want anthropology to more forward as an applied field. Like many anthropologists, I believe anthropology can play a core role in helping to address global and local problems. We have to advocate for our role there. More importantly, we have to continue to build ourselves as an applied discipline, alongside what we do as academics.

    Those were the two things most at stake for me in the opening days of the debate. But I don’t think that really explains why I’ve spent the time on this, and why the NY Times article by Nicholas Wade disturbed me so yesterday. The threat to me is bigger than just loss of the word “science” and greater emphasis on public understanding over application of knowledge.

    The NY Times article, along with a lot of other commentary, paints anthropology as a divided discipline. Warring tribes, the cat out of the bag and running around clawing up the furniture, scientists versus post-modernists – not a pretty picture, though not bad for some soap opera, I suppose.

    Still, if anthropology does split, I lose that integrative, interdisciplinary home that has made it possible for me to do science and more, to focus on research and on doing something for others, and to bring together colleagues and ideas and help generate this exciting new area of neuroanthropology. That is what is at stake for me.

    But in a larger sense, what is at stake is the vision of the field of anthropology and how it moves forward. That is why so many anthropologists have chimed in on this issue. Anthropologists today and before have opined that it wouldn’t be so bad if anthropology split apart. Someone like me would surely find an interdisciplinary home; a humanities-oriented person, a humanities home. And after all, wasn’t the discipline created out of some odd construct way back when?

    Thankfully, most people writing about the present controversy have insisted on anthropology as a discipline, complete with science and humanities and all the other good things. We like our unique field!

    But why? Well, I think anthropology is positioned to make unique contributions precisely because of its history. That history, particularly in the United States, encompasses both science and relativism. Both are so central to today’s world. In anthropology, of all the disciplines that study ourselves as a species, science and relativism are uniquely joined. Both are needed to understand ourselves, and both are needed to understand and address the problems we create in the world. And that is what anthropology does.

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  5. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Relativism | Neuroanthropology

  6. KBHC says:

    Daniel, thanks for being an important, coherent voice in all of this, and in putting together the thinking of many cool people. I also loved your comment here, and think you describe exactly why so many of us have put so much energy into this issue in the last week. There are so many reasons we should have more majors, more attention paid to our discipline, and when the four field approach is respected and really used, wonderful things happen. This is why it felt like so much was at stake when science was removed — those of us who love being called anthropologists as much as we love being scientists felt as though our claim to the former title was delegitimized. I could test a lot of the physiological questions I have by just working with rodents and being in an EEB or physiology department, but I choose to be an anthropologist and work with humans, and be grounded in a broader perspective.

    Anyway, thanks again!

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  7. KBHC says:

    On a slightly related note: wouldn’t it be neat to put together a selection of these posts into a book (or website, or something) about the meaning of anthropology?

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    • daniel.lende says:

      That’s a great idea. I know people do that with online collections. But I have no idea how! Who could we contact about that? Bora?

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  8. Pingback: The Detritus of the AAA/Science Debate « anthrocharya

  9. Pingback: L’anthropologie, une science? » Article » OwniSciences, Société, découvertes et culture scientifique

  10. Pingback: A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow | Neuroanthropology

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