Anthropology, Science, and Relativism

Anthropology violates the common assumption that science and humanities are two different beasts, best kept in separate cages. Bring them together, and you’re going to get a cage fight, the 800 pound accumulated knowledge gorilla against the artistic dancing butterfly/stinging bee metaphor.

Anthropology has had its share of cage fights in recent decades. The latest is the controversy over the American Anthropological Association removing the word “science” from its long-range plan. As Peter Peregrine wrote, this “issue has touched a raw nerve” in the discipline. Given the amount of media coverage, blog posts, comments, and email the controversy has generated, I’d say he’s right.

But I believe anthropologists should take heart. The controversy has not been the replaying of the biological determinism/post-modernism debates that started in the 1970s and lasted through the 1990s. It has not been a repeat of the disputes over Napoleon Chagnon, The Darkness in El Dorado book, and the subsequent AAA investigations and retractions.

Two things stand out from the debate online: (1) continued reaffirmation of science as part of anthropology, coupled with other forms of scholarship, and (2) the sense of moving forward, of not repeating the mistakes of the past while building on our unique strengths. Anthropology has shown itself to be a different discipline than the one characterized in the popular media. A better discipline.

So, why the disparaging remarks about anthropology that have appeared online? One answer is that the controversy has played into deep tensions in American society over science, political advocacy, and truth. Another answer is how the media spins things today, creating oppositions and inflammatory headlines, in conjunction with that part of online culture that delights in flame wars and divisive opinions.

But I also believe it is hard for others to grasp why it is so important for anthropologists to bring together science and humanities, to couple systematic evidence and relativism as we study the human condition. Cage fights might make good spectator sport. But they don’t make good research.

The View from Outside

Fluff-heads, pseudoscience, disgust, vomit. The terms used to characterize the controversy from the outside have been harsh. They have been dismissive of anthropology, particularly of cultural anthropology. In those posts and subsequent comments, science is privileged and important, and the implicit or explicit contrast is often some version of the “other” – primitives with superstitious beliefs, individuals advocating for indigenous knowledge as a valid way of knowing, and in a prominent example, “members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.”

One obvious issue is people’s own difficulties in dealing with difference – we reject it, we stigmatize it, we discriminate against it. Science and civilization on one side, the barbarians and natives on the other. And as happens, people of color, women, local minorities, and less developed countries often get thrown into that other side.

Here is one example, a comment on an early post that defended the validity of indigenous ways of knowing:

Do you really believe that the local belief that Krakatoa was the home of a fire-breathing god who showed his wrath by destroying much of the locality with thousands of its inhabitants is as valid as modern scientific understanding of the origins of volcanoes?

The first thing to say is no, the anthropologist in question doesn’t believe in promoting superstition over science. As Dooglas Carl wrote in his own comment, “I consider myself an applied medical anthropologist, and I utilize a theoretically-informed scientific approach to my anthropological research.”

He then goes to indicate how his research has changed his own views on knowledge:

My work with indigenous populations has allowed me to witness different ways of approaching and knowing about the world around us, ways that have not arisen out of the Western scientific worldview, yet have also been successful in maintaining human populations.

In contrast to this position, there has been a wave of titles like“Anthropology without Science” and “Hold the Science, Says Anthropology Society.” The authors then go onto assert that the American Anthropological Association is rejecting science and thus falling back on subjective knowledge, opinion, and superstition. It is not true, as the AAAs recent statement on What Is Anthropology? shows.

But the fight over different ways of knowing, particularly the validity of forms of understanding besides science, has been a clear line of demarcation. How dare anthropologists assert such a thing?

Let us return to the post by Dooglas Carl, and the quote that really made some people angry:

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.

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change.

Here is a recent reaction to that quote:

I assume you’re back now that you’ve cleaned up after vomiting? This is fundamentally Another Way of “Knowing.” There’s really not much that can be said here.

Why do people get so upset here? Is it because cultural anthropologists consistently deliver a “gale-force blast of obscurantism”? To outsiders, words like “colonizing, privileging, superior positionality” can do that. Communicating clearly how we understand indigenous knowledge to be valid and showing how science has been part of the colonial enterprise should be front-and-center when we make these types of arguments

But the basic points raised in this section – of us vs. them and science vs. superstition – illustrate how people interpret and react to our work. As anthropologists, we have not done a good enough job reacting to these dynamics, even though we’re well positioned to do so. We’re too busy focusing on the internal debates, the turmoil in the field. We need to do better at promoting public understanding. We need to explain why anthropologists focus on “us and them” and on “science and other ways of knowing.”

Us and Them

I will try to do so by explaining why Dooglas Carl’s statement on the validity of other ways of knowing is not controversial within anthropology. For our research, adopting a position of relativity – of us and them – is actually all-important in how we do good scholarship.

I work on addiction, and have done a lot of this research in Colombia. Like Dooglas and his work with indigenous populations, my work in Colombia helped me understand my core research problem better. Colombia offered me a way to think about substance use and abuse outside the prominent “disease” model in the United States. Drug abuse was characterized there as “wanting more and more,” and included in a range of vices. This cultural view is actually closer to a lot of what neuroscience is now revealing about addiction. I was able to start doing work in neuroanthropology because my time in Colombia showed me other ways to think about substance use and abuse. This ethnographic work helped me be a better scientist.

Anthropology also uses critical thinking to examine societal assumptions about people perceived as different. For example, there is a prominent ideology in the United States that races are biological, and certain races are physically superior or inferior to other races. Decades of anthropological research have shown that races are a bad scientific concept – there is no consistent set of biological differences in the “races” we identify socially. More recently, anthropological research shows how discrimination generates biological effects, like stress and hypertension, and this discrimination is based on the perception of skin color. Moreover, the effects of discrimination can vary by genetic differences within our socially defined races – some people, because of their genetic make-up, react more strongly to social discrimination than others.

Without critical thinking about the concept of race, none of this excellent research would have been done. And today, the United States medical establishment – a bastion of science – is at the forefront of pushing race-based medicine, based on the idea of distinct biological differences between races. Research alone is not enough to overturn ideas about race. Critical interrogation of biomedicine, advancing public understanding of the realities of race, and political action are all part of how we can get good science to be part of how we work as a society.


But to really understand what Dooglas Carl is saying, it is important to grasp relativism more directly. The easiest way is by analogy. Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us. Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.

Relativity has two major impacts. First, it changed the idea of “timeless laws” at the heart of the Enlightenment. “For example, it overturned the concept of motion from Newton’s day, into all motion is relative. Time was no longer uniform and absolute.” Much of social science still searches for uniform laws that apply across human societies. Franz Boas, a student of physics and founding anthropologist in the United States, introduced the study of society based on the history of that society. It was a relative approach to the study of humankind.

Second, relativity radically challenged the notion of the impartial, outside observer. First, the frame of reference of the observer mattered in being able to compare results. If two observers are moving relative to each other, their different motions shape how they observe the same event. Moreover, in quantum mechanisms, the actions of the observer are seen to shape the outcome of observations. The observation itself helps determine what actually happens.

Anthropology embraced this view earlier than any other social science discipline. Around the same time as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski was creating the core research technique of participant observation. Unlike previous “armchair” anthropology, where researchers got data from afar and assembled it to fit their own theories, participant observation required spending time with the people one was studying, and placed emphasis on getting their perspective on their lives. No longer was it just the outsider’s perspective.

To understand human society, it is imperative to recognize that we are already located within society. Just like in modern physics, our observations are relative, and help shape what is actually observed. Moreover, our frame of reference is based on our own movement, our own individual motion. Anthropologists’ main solution to this problem is to encourage reflexivity, an examination of our frame of reference in relation to what we are studying and our own personal and professional histories.

But there is one stark difference between modern physics and modern anthropology. In physics, observations are still done in only one universe. In anthropology, we study multiple societies, both past and present. We have to take relativity one step further.

Anthropology does this by encouraging the researcher to grasp the viewpoint of the other, and to assume that that viewpoint is as valid as the observer’s viewpoint. We are not observing events, like physicists do. We are observing other people. And per relativity, their perspectives help shape what is observed. They see us as much as we see them.

If we dismiss their viewpoint, if we say indigenous knowledge is not as valid as science, then we have undercut our own ability as good researchers.

This is a basic point in anthropology. If we want to do good science, we have to be relative. A core part of relativity is accepting the validity of other viewpoints.

Relativity and Action

Recent anthropological work has extended this basic view to encompass human action, and not just observation and research. Obviously people do much more than sit around observing each other. We do things, and we often do things to our benefit and the detriment of others. We use ideas and power to advance our own position, and to undercut others. If we dismiss indigenous ways of knowledge as superstition, then we have undercut them. If we advance ideas about race as biology, then we have reinforced social inequality. We don’t just observe. We discriminate.

The method of relative observation and the recognition of inequality and discrimination often conflict. This conflict is a core debate in anthropology today. Do we engage in activism, bringing to light this discrimination? Do we insist on advancing good science through our methods? Can we do both at once? These are questions the field is asking itself.

But anthropologists like Dooglas Carl start from the core method. They assume the validity of other ways of knowing, because that is part of what doing good anthropology is. Carl then proposes that this core method be part of the vision of anthropology, part of its long-term plan. We already do good science, as he says. But do we have to privilege it vis-à-vis the people with whom we work to actually do good science? The answer is surely no. We can value science and we can value indigenous knowledge.

For our research, we have to embrace the idea of relativity. We deal in human difference and human history, in multiple languages and in interpreting a one-time fossil record of our own evolution. Many people want to fall back on science vs. superstition and us vs. them. It might help them make sense of the world. But to really make sense of the world, anthropologists know we have to embrace relativity. Eight hundred pounds of evidence has to also float and sting.

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32 Responses to Anthropology, Science, and Relativism

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

  2. scritic says:

    I had a hard time reading Razib Khan’s post but it did get me thinking about how things got to this stage when words like “vomit” get so routinely invoked. One reason is that as anthropologists, we may be too hostile to science, too interested in “unmasking” it. But on a more quotidian level, I believe that this is about writing styles. People just don’t understand what anthropologists write sometimes; this is the only constructive thing I can find in Razib’s post. He just doesn’t understand it – and we make no effort to talk to anyone who doesn’t already agree with the post-structuralist consensus.

    Maybe this is wrong. If we question the Enlightenment legacies of fact/value, nature/culture, then perhaps we do need a different writing style. (Arguably underneath the writing style of the sciences is the assumption that they are talking about the “facts.”) But analytic philosophers were post-structuralist (Wittgenstein, Quine), so are many sociologists (Lareau), yet they don’t write in anything approaching the postmodernist style, and I don’t think Razib Khan feels like vomiting when he reads them. (See this post from Brad Delong where he practically admits that postmodernism has valuable things to day: I don’t think Razib would disagree with Delong here.)

    I don’t know. These are just thoughts. But I think if we as anthropologists stopped writing like Derrida — or at least started to form a consensus that Derrida is a terrible writer to imitate as a social science researcher — we might be able to make more headway in the public debate. (I should add that I don’t mean to imply that you write like Derrida. Far from it!)

    By the way, I am not sure about your point that there’s something in the theory of relativity itself that supports cultural relativism (which I support). But that’s a different point.

  3. razib> says:

    god. since you deign to link to me (unlike your immature co-blogger who disses me but refuses to link), i will offer some response to the first comment:

    1) it is not difficulty of reading per se. some of the most turgid prose i’ve encountered was in a quantum chemistry text i read as an undergraduate. the author was not a native speaker of english. the material was already obscure (which classic copious use of mathematicese “it therefore follows” in lieu of steps of derivation), and the prose delivery made it more so. but there was something there that i could grapple with if i blew away my whole week. on the basic level obviously some of the insights have general validity as to the constructed nature of much of truth. but i believe that the enterprise has long hit diminishing marginal returns. to go back to QM, it doesn’t make any sense at all really, but it has contingent integrity. i don’t see that in a lot of the more verbal deconstructions.

    2) a lot of the chatter is used as a political weapon, both in a literal broad sense, and in a narrow sense of within departments. i’ve known people who are/were involved in bio anthro personally, and so i see that side of the frustration. not only do many cultural anthro people not “get” their enterprise, but they attack it as positively evil. this is galling for people who often go on about subjectivism and the socially constructed creation of norms. it’s pretty clear that the ones making accusations of -ism against particular scholars or domains of scholarship have clear ideas of who is going to do the constructing within the social group (i.e., who is going to take the role of “hegemon” or whatever).

    3) a rejection of positivism has produced a flight to total normativism on part of some, where all analysis is “fiction.” this lack of balance is off-putting. even biology has normative aspects, clear in the fact that so much study is given over to one species, humans (there’s a whole domain, human genetics). why? norms. but that doesn’t deny the positive component of the discipline too.

    4) this is not a matter of intra-disciplinary faction. economists are famously and obnoxiously imperialistic, but those students trained cultural anthropology’s more post-modern strain can be inter-personally aggressive in asserting their paradigm as definitive. this naturally means that as someone interested in human cultures and general and particular dynamics i have to respond with a verbal volley of counter-arguments. the fact that most culturally anthropologically trained individuals are often taken aback and off balance which i challenge their presuppositions initially indicates to me some areas of the discipline are totally sealed off other viewpoints.

    in sum, many of the objections that people have made against me can be thrown back at you. the culture of critique can operate forever. when norms are shared consensus is achieved, but when norms are not you have chaos and incomprehension. i guess i come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword. there is no foreseeable prospect of peace so long as interaction occurs.

  4. EOC says:

    Daniel, it is pretty clear you don’t have a deep thorough understanding of Eintein’s special or general relativity. Other than in its name, it is in no way akin to Cultural Relativism. Please spend some time with physycists. Einstein did not debunk Newton’s laws, he simply derived a mathematical theory within which Newton’s theory was a special case. At the core of this is more precise and more prediction, which is not at all part of the Cultural Anthropology programme.

  5. razib> says:

    well, in daniel’s defense, i think he’s talking about the inferences that people draw from physics to social science. in the 18th and 19th century mechanistic models of society were all the range in part because of the prestige of a deterministic and mechanistic physics. this affected biology too (notice how many ‘laws’ were promulgated in biology in the 19th century).

    i actually don’t think people make useful jumps from relativity to QM to other domains (e.g., QM has long been used to justify pre-existent intuitions or models). but as a descriptive matter they do. obviously scientists of society in the 18th and 19th century were guilty of hubris in attempting to emulate newtonian physics. but i think they’re guilty of the same blindness when attempting to draw lessons from relativity or QM. e.g., just because one has to be probabilistic at the level of atoms does not mean that on has to use QM to determine the time until a ball hits the ground from a given height.

    the big question is this: does science have a direction? the assumption is that it does, relativity & QM extended physics to new heights of precision and prediction. despite the far greater difficulty of human sciences, i think we should attempt to make progress in the precision and clarity of description and prediction.

  6. razib> says:

    just because one has to be probabilistic at the level of atoms does not mean that on has to use QM to determine the time until a ball hits the ground from a given height.

    and yes, since i’m talking gravity, relativity is more appropriate 😉 (don’t want to be zinged!)

  7. razib> says:


    Decades of anthropological research have shown that races are a bad scientific concept – there is no consistent set of biological differences in the “races” we identify socially.

    well, depends on what you mean here. a 2002 article pretty much throws down the gauntlet that this is not a useful way of looking at things, Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease:
    A debate has arisen regarding the validity of racial/ethnic categories for biomedical and genetic research. Some claim ‘no biological basis for race’ while others advocate a ‘race-neutral’ approach, using genetic clustering rather than self-identified ethnicity for human genetic categorization. We provide an epidemiologic perspective on the issue of human categorization in biomedical and genetic research that strongly supports the continued use of self-identified race and ethnicity.

    most utilization of genomics for medicine is probably not worth it right now. but there is a notable serious problem with an underrepresentation of non-whites among organ donors. the reason there’s a problem is that HLA are very polymorphic, and probability of matches is much higher within races than across races. additionally, people of mixed-race often have problems because of their unique combination.

  8. daniel.lende says:

    Just to start with one irony, the Risch et al. editorial is an argument from epidemiology, which is about probability.

    The problems with articles like the Risch one is that they conveniently set aside the social history and meaning of “race.” It opens by discussing optimal ways to categorize people, without attending to what that might mean in the context of slavery and one-drop rules in the United States.

    I also just don’t get why people insist on “race” as a proxy for “population.” Population is a good term in biology, why replace it for such a loaded term as race?

    As for the biology side, I’ll just repeat what you wrote today: fine-scale population structure and human variation are realities. They just don’t match up with the dominant social categories of race in the US. To insist on their correlation is actually an obfuscation for me.

  9. daniel.lende says:

    Erik, I’ll repeat your words back to you. “It is pretty clear you don’t have a deep thorough understanding” of the term analogy. My comparison between the two types of relativity was only that. I said nothing about Einstein “debunking” Newton. There were no claims about predictive power. I’d suggest a closer reading of the text, rather than your own interpretation. (Still, I’d love to hear what some physicists think of my analogy!)

    Let me talk about predictive power for a second. I think cultural anthropology is on good ground here. If I want to understand what a random person in the world is likely to do, I’d start with the relevant variables from cultural anthropology – what language do they speak, what is their cultural background, what is their gender, and so forth.

    For my points on relativism, I’ll go back to analogy and use a field close to your own area of expertise – cladistics in evolutionary biology. I’ll start off by saying that cultural anthropology could use more of the type of systematic, comparative thinking at the core of cladistics.

    But as an analogy, cladistics overturned the hierarchical, or fixed, type of classification initiated by Linnaeus. Instead, good cladistics insists that groupings reflect actual evolutionary history. In other words, the history matters, and our classifications are relative to the actual course that evolution took – not determinations from an outside observer. For cultural anthropology, history too matters – not observations from armchair researchers.

    Moreover, cladistics is often used to determine the relative recency of common ancestry, and that type of analysis relies a great deal on the groups used in the comparison. Choosing the appropriate “outgroup” is crucial. It provides the reference point, and the determination of evolutionary relationships depends on that reference point.

    For cultural anthropology, the relationships we are often trying to determine are different sociocultural processes and factors. Our “outgroup” is the people with whom we work. They are our reference point, and understanding things from their reference point is essential to doing good ethnographic research.

    As an analogy, this one might be a bit stretched. But remember, it’s just an analogy.

    And just one add-on, with history, most cultural anthropologists insist on local history. I think one reason for this is that the sheer complexity on the ground is enormous, and understanding enough local history to interpret that complexity is seen as a necessary first step. This is definitely not the same as cladistics. I do think parts of anthropology are embracing a more comparative approach, which includes comparisons across places, across types of data, across theoretical approaches, and so forth.

  10. Matz Falconi says:

    Two of the respondents above (Scritic and EOC) question the author’s positioning of the theory of relativity with cultural relativism. The author then points out that this is intended as mere analogy and heaps on further analogies by stating that (evolutionary) history and careful selection of an outgroup critically impinge upon analysis of organismal relatedness. Why engage in analogy? What purpose does it serve? If the way in which concepts of relativity are helpful in other disciplines is truly disconnected from the potential utility of relativity in anthropology, as the author seems to admit, then the analogy is either a poetic device, a tool of persuasion, or assumes that the reader isn’t smart enough to understand what relativity means and seeks to clarify by invoking sophisticated scientific theory.

    My point is that Anthropology’s identity crisis is embodied by this style of communication. If the idea of relativity is something that should be embraced by anthropologists, and Anthropology embraces science, then effort will be meaningfully spent providing the evidence for equivalency of different knowledge systems. Words like “racist” “elitist” “colonial” and “hegemonic” and lavish portraits of human diversity form a powerful rhetoric, but they impede progress in Anthropology by eclipsing the need to supply evidence. Knowledge by revelation while immersed in a different culture is less scholastic than testable theories conjured by armchair researches, like Einstein.

  11. Erik Otárola-Castillo (EOC) says:

    I agree with you in the need of history to understand cultures and societies. This should be a no-brainer. Culture does not occur in a vacuum, and having a reference point gives you a point from which to measure.

    I do have a problem with your argument of equality between approaches to knowledge, and your analogy from physics. The flaw with your physics analogy, as you admit regarding your analogy with cladistics, is that it is also a stretch, and a long one at that. Moreover, although the analogy might highlight the need for relativity, it defeats the argument that ‘other’ ways of producing knowledge are equal to or should be considered as valid as science – the main point of your argument. Undeniably, it is possible that alternative approaches to the growth of knowledge might be equally productive or even contribute more to our knowledge of the world than science. However, such speculation has yet to be demonstrated and verified. Until they are confirmed, they can’t be proclaimed to be equally valid. Well, clearly they can, as you have demonstrated. However, rhetorical devices such as analogy do not make these claims true.

    To set up the argument that science and ‘other ways of knowing’ are equally valid, you quote Carl:
    “My work with indigenous populations has allowed me to witness different ways of approaching and knowing about the world around us, ways that have not arisen out of the Western scientific worldview, yet have also been successful in maintaining human populations.”

    In the current context, in light of the position taken by the American Association of Anthropologists (AAA), your argument seems to attempt to validate its recent actions. This is what they say:
    “…we [the AAA] 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.”

    In other words the AAA is also equating science to other “research domains” or what Carl calls “different ways of approaching and knowing about the world”. You then use an analogy based on the theory of relativity to provide support to cultural relativism, and to the main assertion of your posting, that “if we say indigenous knowledge is not as valid as science, then we have undercut our own ability as good researchers.”
    Although your analogy might be useful to explain why point of view, observer view, or frame of reference is important (I don’t think any scientist would argue that it isn’t) the analogy in fact serves to defeat the main point, equating scientific and “other” methods of knowledge, for two major reasons:
    1) The adoption of both special and general relativity were not related to accepting multiple views of the physical world. The change was related to predictive power, meaning new predictions and predictive accuracy;
    Einstein’s theory was preferred because it was able to predict natural phenomena more accurately, and predicts more new phenomena than Newton’s theory. It was demonstrated to be a more desirable theory not because it was tolerant of other world views, but because it explained the world better than other worldviews. Take this fact of your analogy as case in point: More progress is made if the better method to understand world phenomena is chosen from a set of candidates. In our context, no method has been demonstrated equally or more productive than science to understand the world. How is it possible to equate any other method to science? Based on your opinion?
    2) Yes, relativity implies that the relative views of observers need to be accounted. However, we don’t account them using the observer views themselves. We do not use the observer views as “different ways of approaching and knowing about the world” to understand what is being observed. Observer views are noise to be accounted in the context of science, with an underlying notion that an ultimate, objective truth exists, no matter the observer’s perspective.
    Let me give you a simple example. Using the special theory, if an observer is standing still facing north, and an object is flying passed the observer toward the east. The size of the object along the axis it is traveling (due east) is relative to its speed. So, the faster it travels, the shorter its length along the east-west axis. In order to measure the object’s true length, we’d need its speed, and the length measure by the observer (among other things). Two things are clear here, 1) there is a true measurement, 2) simply because we need the observer’s point of view to get to the truth, it does not make his/her measurement any less incorrect.
    I hope that this provides a sense that there are two scales to be considered here which should not be confused (I seem to like things in 2s this evening for some reason).

    1) the scale of the observer’s point of view, the “noise” if you will, and
    2) the scale of analysis, science.

    Much like the length of the flying object, there is a truth to be discovered from socio-cultural processes. The observer may or may not be viewing the true length of the object, or the true reason why he/she doesn’t eat a certain vegetable or animal. However there is a True answer to both those questions (notice the big T in the last one). We, as researchers may or may never find it. Regardless, it still exists. Our job is to cut through the noise to find it. Using the scale of the observer for analysis runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. This depends on the accuracy of the observation. In other words, how close is your observer’s answer (his/her truth) to the True reason they don’t eat a certain food. And how accurate are the observations of the group being studied is (how similar is the group in their versions of the truth).
    In terms of the scale of analysis. Why place on equal footing many approaches to understanding the world without knowing if indeed they are equal. Science has so far demonstrated to be productive and provide huge contributions to the human understanding of the world. Much like the replacement of Newton’s theory by one that is better and more general, why not stick to the better method? But, why not put this to the test? Gather Carl’s “other” approaches to understanding the world and have it compete against science. I believe that most scientists would jump ship right away if another approach to learning about the world proved to be better than the current. By definition however, this would continue to be science: The replacement over time of one theory (in this case about learning) by another that is more desirable.

  12. daniel.lende says:

    Erik, thanks for a good comment. I’ll start off by saying I agree with the AAA including a variety of approaches to good scholarship. I think part of the problem is that both scientists and humanists expect their favored way of knowledge production to work in the ways they like and are comfortable with. That creates tension, as the whole controversy has most definitely revealed. But that tension can be productive too, as I’ve written about elsewhere.

    The AAA is not equating science, humanism, and indigenous thought; rather, they are recognizing the validity of what these different ways of knowing offer. You are the one trying to equate science and humanism, and wanting knowledge production on your terms – where you see science as the arbiter of truth.

    I was trying to explain a way of approaching research through an analogy, in particular, a discussion of a methodological approach to produce good evidence. Cultural anthropology needs to take into account the other’s perspective, precisely because we are people, not objects.

    Still, like I said before, I feel very good about the predictive power of cultural anthropology. If you take a person chosen at random around the world, the factors studied by cultural anthropology will tell you an incredible amount about how that person is likely to behave, understand the world, and so forth.

    Too often researchers have gone out with exactly this idea, “Our job is to cut through the noise to find it,” where the noise that gets cut away is history, is culture, and so forth in search for a science-like truth – some true measurement, as you put it. And I think that takes away terribly from the predictive power available at hand – the understanding cultural anthropology can provide.

    I also think that cutting through the noise often serves political interests. Erasing a person’s culture, denying the validity of their way of knowing, these are political acts, even if one has put on the mantle of science in doing so.

    Finally, I think equating these two is a mistake: “The observer may or may not be viewing the true length of the object, or the true reason why he/she doesn’t eat a certain vegetable or animal.” The arguments and evidence about objects are just not the same as they are about people. With people, intention and interpretation play such a large role in what people eat and how we analyze what they eat. It happens on both sides, on the people engaged in the behavior and in our analyses.

    What I have broadly grouped under “relativism” (overly reductionist, I agree, for people reading this from another angle, but I also hope as productive) aims to understand both the perspectives of people doing the research and the people involved in the research. It’s just part of how you start to try to get good evidence.

  13. daniel.lende says:

    As a follow-up, what I was just writing about really focuses on observations, and not on interpretive approaches. Here I was quite struck by James Clifford’s recent paper, The Greater Humanities.

    The name “greater humanities” is a place-holder, and it may sound like bravado, or even a quixotic imperialism… But the name is less important, now, than simply recognizing an already existing reality—an overlapping set of assumptions, epistemologies and methods that add up to a large, dynamic, and deeply rooted configuration of “knowledge practices”—linking and potentially opening up more narrowly defined “disciplinary traditions”…

    What characterizes the broad configuration of knowledge practices I’m calling The Greater Humanities? I’ll hazard a quick sketch–subject of course to debate and emendation. I’m painting with a broom here.

    The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.

    1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.

    2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…

    3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.

    4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.

    You may disagree with my shorthand characterizations, but I hope you will recognize a set of intellectual dispositions, a habitus, that link the humanities, a lot of the social sciences and the theoretically-informed arts.

  14. Erik Otárola-Castillo (EOC) says:

    You address a very serious issue here, the growth of knowledge, and how to best approach it. However, and I’ll be candid here, I am afraid that yours and the AAA’s stance on giving equal validity to all efforts of knowledge production is naïve at best, and stunting to knowledge growth at its worst. The growth of knowledge IS the business of science. This business is not about giving equal weight to all opinions on how the world works, rather it is about assessing and keeping the most accurate and most useful over time. Knowledge grows through results: by drawing conjectures about world phenomena (socio-cultural, chemical, physical, biological, etc.) and assessing their predictive accuracy and precision through observational evidence. If a conjecture repeatedly predicts what is to be observed with some degree of accuracy, then we have obtained some knowledge about a process. It is the job of scientists to constantly seek better conjectures to replace their currents, and by better, I mean conjectures which more accurately and precisely predict phenomena. By the process of constantly discarding less useful conjectures in preference of conjectures which increasingly provide better predictions of the world, science ensures that knowledge about the world accumulates and grows. You provided a good example of the knowledge growth process through your physics analogy of the competition between Newton and Einstein’s theories, and ultimately the replacement of the former by the latter.
    The growth of knowledge is not best served when one’s “favored way of knowledge production” is sought to be maintained, or by “recognizing the validity of what these different ways of knowing offer”. To continue with your analogy, this would be similar to the American Physical Society issuing a statement validating the inclusion of Aristotelian, Ptolomeic, Copernican, Newtonian, and Einsteinian physics into modern physics research. I have little doubt you would agree, it would be absurd to do so. Obviously, the solution is to use the best methodology at hand to produce the best, most accurate knowledge about the world as possible. By maintaining the validity of “these different ways of knowing”, and accepting knowledge obtained from these “ways” to be as accurate as scientific knowledge, what you are doing is in fact akin to recognizing the validity of Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy to our current knowledge of planetary motion.
    I was, and still am, open to the idea of comparing these ways of knowledge to science. However you seem to object without sensible reason, you say that I “[want] knowledge production on [my] terms – where [I] see science as the arbiter of truth.” Yes. Is there a better demonstrated arbiter of truth about the world? If there is, please enlighten me. You then make a similarly flawed argument I have observed other anthropologists make, that “[t]he arguments and evidence about objects are just not the same as they are about people. With people, intention and interpretation play such a large role in what people eat and how we analyze what they eat.” Sure, but neither are the arguments and evidence about some species’ evolutionary trajectory the same about the theory of relativity. However, there is still a Truth to the evolution of some species – it evolved following some as-yet fully unknown trajectory. What is the evolutionary trajectory of [favorite genus/species]? Scientists seek, in fact, the true answer to this question. Simply put, this is no different for people, there is a truth behind what people eat, their intentions and their interpretation. When we analyze this, we seek the true answer to questions such as “how do people interpret what they eat?” The True answer to that question absolutely exists, which is by no means dependent on the interpretation of the researcher or eater being observed. The interpretation of such a truth is perception of truth, not truth itself. This perception might be interesting in it of itself – depends on the question you ask. Perhaps one wants to know how much noise is encountered between the true answer to a question and perception.
    A scientist’s job is to cut through noise to get at truth, even in a cultural context. Your response “the noise that gets cut away is history, is culture, and so forth in search for a science-like truth”, confuses what is good science versus bad science. In the context of understanding cultural process it would not be very smart to exclude history, when necessary, this would simply be the result of bad science. Getting through to the truth, and growing in knowledge in some topic, are the business of science. Why not use the best approach to answer a question, or discover the truth in the world by demonstrating that your predictions are accurate? Why distract from this purpose by using ‘other’ methods which have not proven to provide better answers than science? Is it that you are purposely interested in not accurately answering a question? I cannot see another productive reason to not do so. I challenge you and your colleagues to compare the knowledge you generate using these ‘other’ approaches to knowledge generated using science.

    I root for you to demonstrate that such knowledge is equally valid. However until then, your claim, that knowledge obtained through your “other means” is as valid to knowledge accumulated through science, is a legitimate as an extraterrestrial UFO sighting.

  15. R says:

    I think that this discussion of privileging is nonsense. I thought that the whole point of working within a disciplinary framework was the production of knowledge based on a shared framework of shared methodological and ethical standards. naively, I assumed that sharing such practices and standards did not mean that I had to crusade against those beliefs and standards upheld by other communities, but apparently I was wrong. Since we can’t privilege these standards as a community, I begin to wonder why I have wasted so much time as an undergraduate and graduate paying these professionals to train me. Was it a waste of time? Especially when they abandoning they’re claim to even be professionals?

    • gregdowney says:

      Well, R, if you wanted shared methods and standards, then you probably picked the wrong field. (Shared ‘ethics’ I suspect are closer to similar, but I haven’t really thought about that.) It’s a diverse field, but that hardly means you need to ‘crusade.’ In the vast majority of departments, we get along just fine even though we may not use the same methods because we respect multiple approaches. We ‘privilege’ good research design, matching the methods to the research questions and opportunities. So much more interesting, to me at least, than the discipline with the methodological hammer that things every research question looks like the same nail.

      I hope you don’t feel like you’ve ‘wasted’ your time getting training; I can imagine that would be demoralizing. But I don’t think anyone’s claiming not to be a ‘professional.’ If anything, the shift in the statement was an ATTEMPT (I said, ‘attempt’) to include a lot of anthropological professionals not working in academe.

  16. daniel.lende says:

    Erik, let me give you a concrete example about how the interpretive approach works. In the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it is impossible to determine objectively what Assange really wants to accomplish – even he is likely not aware of that. As WikiLeaks became a major crisis, people jumped to all sorts of simplistic, often dichotomized views of Assange – he’s a criminal, he’s for freedom of speech, he wants to destroy the United States, and so forth.

    Enter one small blogger, zunguzungu, and his post Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”. Zunguzungu’s analysis blossomed from a blog post into a major player into understanding what Assange’s goals are. How did Zunguzungu do that? He used a close reading of Assange’s own writings, and coupled that with close analysis, raising other arguments about what Assange might want and then dismissing them, while also using Assange’s words and the author’s own insights to present a compelling case for his take on WikiLeaks and Assange.

    Is it objectively true? There is no way to determine that. But is it valid? Yes. He did good scholarship, as recognized by peers, and his analysis brought us closer to understanding what Assange is after than previous interpretations of the man.

    Is this a UFO sighting? No. But it is certainly legitimate.

    I also think you are making a basic mistake in equating natural sciences and human sciences. Objectively they are different enterprises. Let me give you one small reason why. Neuroscience has established that there are no “true” memories stored in the brain – we don’t objectively record events, like we might record something on a computer disk.

    Rather, memory is re-interpreted, depending on present use and context. Thus, the process of memory recall can literally change the memory itself. Our memory itself depends on use, context, and interpretation.

    Natural science can examine the mechanisms behind memory, but if we want to know how memory plays out in human life, we then have to also include use, context, and interpretation. And that brings us back to the need for a relativist position – we have to understand how human action is relative to other people, and human interpretation (including our own as scientists) depends on a range of factors, including our views of truth, our politics, and our social position. The way to improve this side of the research is to engage in more-or-less the process I describe – understanding history, being reflexive, understanding the other’s viewpoint, and also recognizing human action (after all, action – in context, with intentions, reacting to others – can literally change our memories). It’s just part of doing good human science.

    When you insist on the idea of some “true” answer, you actually hamstring yourself in being able to provide a better answer. Better answers matter to me. Zunguzungu provided that to me about Julian Assange. My mix of epidemiological and ethnographic work with drugs provided that for me for addiction.

    I actually ended most worried about your flawed representation of the philosophy of science. You take an absolutist view dating back to Plato and then Kant. Even Popper, in the most crude sense, wasn’t after “truth” – he was after the rejection of false hypotheses. And contemporary philosophy of science, in my admittedly light reading, seems more interested in questions of replicability, reliability, and validity.

    These questions of valid measures, replicable knowledge, and reliable – or consistent – results are heightened in anthropology, precisely for the reasons outlined in the post. These ideas cannot be established solely from the position of an outside observer, someone aiming to see the truth. Since both the researchers and the people studied are moving through history, relative to each other, and have different interpretations of the same events and actions, building valid, replicable, and reliable knowledge has to go through something like the process I described. You cannot maintain the fiction, the idea, that there is some outside observer after the truth – it flaws the whole process of actually trying to produce good knowledge.

  17. Erik Otárola-Castillo (EOC) says:

    Let me post this quickly.

    You say that “[e]ven Popper, in the most crude sense, wasn’t after “truth” – he was after the rejection of false hypotheses.”

    Popper was indeed after falsifiability because the logical-positivist criterion of verification was flawed, as he demonstrated that a theory cannot be proven. “Proving” that a theory is true requires ALL the facts, and that is impossible.

    However, he’d agree that simply because a theory cannot be proven to be true, does not preclude it from being true. In fact, Popper would say that,

    “…in the search for knowledge, we are out to find true theories, or at least theories which are nearer than others to the truth–which correspond better to facts…” (1969,p. 306, 2nd paragraph).

    1969 Conjectures and Refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge. 3rd ed. Routledge & K. Paul, London.

    I’ll get back to the rest in a few hours, I am currently doing science in search for truth.

  18. Matz Falconi says:

    Daniel, if you really invoke Einsteinian relativity as an analogy to cultural relativity, then why would you also write “Recent anthropological work has extended this basic view [Einsteinian relativity] to encompass human action…” in the first sentence of a section titled “Relativity in Action”? To this Anglophone, you draw a line that does not venture into analogy, thereby forfeiting your credential to subsequently proclaim that someone else (EOC) doesn’t have an understanding of the term ‘analogy.’

    You also write that, “Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us. Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.” I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish when you drop “linear” and “deterministic”. Newton’s world is as NONlinear as Einstein’s. Both are deterministic. So what are you saying? Are you hijacking technical terminology? Why doesn’t your penchant for relativism enable you to see that this looks suspiciously like the charlatanism exposed in the Sokal Hoax (

    Additionally, what do you mean when you state that Einsteinian relativity “changed the idea of ‘timeless laws’ at the heart of the Enlightenment.”? Timeless laws? I think you once again reveal a sophomoric understanding of the very scientific concepts that you irresponsibly marshal.

    Allow me to use your own writing (with my parenthetical entries) to make an analogy: “Zunguzungu’s (me) analysis blossomed from a blog post into a major player into understanding what Assange’s (your) goals are. How did Zunguzungu (me) do that? He used a close reading of Assange’s (your) own writings, and coupled that with close analysis, raising other arguments about what Assange (you) might want and then dismissing them, while also using Assange’s (your) words and the author’s (my) own insights to present a compelling case for his take on WikiLeaks (relativism) and Assange (you).”

    Of course, I wouldn’t really embellish my writing as “… a major player into understanding.” My point, once again, is that evidence, rather than “close reading” or any other form of subjective revelation, should arbitrate academic claims. It’s the only honest way forward.

  19. Erik Otárola-Castillo (EOC) says:

    I can’t but keep thinking about your statement: “[e]ven Popper, in the most crude sense, wasn’t after “truth” – he was after the rejection of false hypotheses.” From your words, it is clear that you do not understand why Popper devised the falsification criterion for scientific endeavor (to inch closer to the “truth” by getting rid of “false” theories). In all fairness, this is most troubling because you claim to be a scientist, yet this statement raises suspicion regarding your understanding of fundamental scientific principles. I have already questioned your understanding of the analogies you make using physics (and biology), but a proverbial eyebrow is also further raised when thinking about your assertions regarding the comparable validity between scientific inference and inference from “other” approaches, such as Zunguzungu’s “reading”.

    In regards to the latter, the Zunguzungu analysis, the point remains: one cannot claim that knowledge obtained from analyses akin to Zunguzungu’s, and analyses of Asange’s writing using scientific methodology(1) have similar validity, or are “as valid”, without knowledge of the accuracy of both analyses in their representation of the real world. And, yes, in the absence of such knowledge, your assertion that inferences derived from both paradigms are “as valid” is as legitimate as assertions that Unidentified Flying Objects are evidence of extraterrestrial life!

    This is a good place to insert a point regarding Asange’s intentions. He had intentions, whatever they might have been, whether he had 2, 2,000, or 2 million, or whether they changed from day to day, he indeed had some “true” intentions. So, the fact is, when one asks “what were Assange’s intentions?” a true answer exists. However, you go on to say “[w]hen you insist on the idea of some ‘true’ answer, you actually hamstring yourself in being able to provide a better answer.” This statement is nonsensical. We know he had true intentions, we might not know what they were, and we might never find out, but, what is a better answer than the true answer?

    Returning to your argument about relativism, suffice it to say that your claims of better inference of cultural phenomena using a relativistic, reflexive approach over a scientific approach should also be empirically demonstrated (and yes, on real-world empirical terms, there is no other world, nor reality). The neurobiological argument you raise using memory recall error is nothing new and can be modeled. However, analogy and rhetoric should simply not be considered enough to legitimize your claims of validity between science and your “other” approaches to knowledge. I urge you to refrain from making such claims without proper evidence.

    1 – e.g., Information theory, graph theory, quantitative linguistics, mathematical/computational linguistics, etc.

  20. daniel.lende says:


    I think we’d be a lot closer to agreement if you dropped your philosophical claim to the truth. Then it would be a question of evidence, methods, predictability, validity, and all the rest. But you are the one who keeps returning to the Truth with a capital T, and claiming it as the sole province of science.

    My point has been that starting from an assumption of relativity is better for the practice of anthropology, for actually doing good research. Relativism in anthropology leads to better observations and measurements, and thus greater predictive power, when operating in a more scientific framework and better analysis and scholarship when operating in a more humanistic framework. Thus, it provides a better starting point for producing good evidence.

    But you want to hold onto your particular notion of Truth provided only by science. You actually sound like a missionary, insisting that the scripture of evidence is the only way to reveal the Truth.

    Here are some relevant statements:

    “There is a True answer to both those questions (notice the big T in the last one). We, as researchers may or may never find it. Regardless, it still exists.”

    “Most scientists would jump ship right away if another approach to learning about the world proved to be better than the current. By definition however, this would continue to be science.”

    “There is still a Truth to the evolution of some species – it evolved following some as-yet fully unknown trajectory.”

    For someone who claims to be about evidence, I actually find it startling that you just assume the truth. No matter what, it still exists. And then you go further and say, the truth exists and scientists own it – by definition. That’s incredibly dogmatic. I hope you can recognize that, no matter our other disagreements.

    The last statement is the most telling one for me. In the last line, you equate Truth with us not knowing the trajectory of some species. I’m all for people discovering more knowledge. If it were only an argument about ways for people to generate better knowledge, then we could get into the details. But you insist on equating science and Truth with a big T, and belittle me and any other way for trying to produce knowledge if we make claims on producing substantive knowledge about the human condition.

    What I find at once amusing and disturbing is how your own quotes demonstrate that Dooglas Carl was right when he characterized science as “colonizing, privileging, [and] superior.”

    Colonizing: “The growth of knowledge IS the business of science.”

    Privileging: “Your claim, that knowledge obtained through your “other means” is as valid to knowledge accumulated through science, is a legitimate as an extraterrestrial UFO sighting.”

    Superior: “By maintaining the validity of “these different ways of knowing”, and accepting knowledge obtained from these “ways” to be as accurate as scientific knowledge, what you are doing is in fact akin to recognizing the validity of Ptolemy’s geocentric astronomy to our current knowledge of planetary motion.”

    A business that automatically grows, taking over all other forms of knowledge, which are dismissed as either illegitimate (UFOs) or invalid (the sun revolves around the earth) – yes, that sounds to me very much like a colonizing, privileging, superior enterprise.

    Like I said, I’d find it almost amusing – you showing that Dooglas Carl was right in the first place – if it weren’t so dangerous to the health of the academy as a whole (to say nothing of other people’s forms of knowing). I think it also overlooks the political aspects of claiming the Truth through science. When science comes up as fallible (as it inevitably does), then major parts of our society find it very easy to dismiss the whole endeavor. And I think that is an incredible disservice to science itself.

    Just one final note. I’m quite happy to let my words and arguments, as well as the difference in our tones, stand for themselves. But when you Matz write, “what do you mean when you state that Einsteinian relativity “changed the idea of ‘timeless laws’ at the heart of the Enlightenment.”? Timeless laws? I think you once again reveal a sophomoric understanding of the very scientific concepts that you irresponsibly marshal,” I do take exception.

    Isaiah Berlin was an excellent philosopher, and my points about the Enlightenment and science come from him (though not the discussion of relativity). I’d recommend you [and Matz] read his essay on The Divorce between the Science and the Humanities.

  21. EOC says:

    The comment you attribute to me: “what do you mean when you state that Einsteinian relativity “changed the idea of ‘timeless laws’ at the heart of the Enlightenment.”? Timeless laws? I think you once again reveal a sophomoric understanding of the very scientific concepts that you irresponsibly marshal,”

    Is not mine. This is in fact Mattz Falconi, another commentator on this post. Incidentally, I do believe he raises several good points which you have neglected to to address. Not surprisingly, his comments question your fundamental understanding of the scientific processes you purport to know in enough depth to transfer their principles as analogy to another field. I think that these are fair questions given your objective. “Amuzingly”, as Falconi points out, your “hijacking of technical terminology”, would support Sokal, Bricmont, and Dawkins’ representation of “Intellectual Impostors” (see Falconi’s link above). I am curious to read your responses to Falconi’s insightful comments.

    • daniel.lende says:

      I changed my comment to update that very last point of mine, with the quote that came from Mattz. In many senses, I think we are largely talking by one another, and arguing about different things. But I’ll take my informed relativity over your absolutist Truth any day of the week, both as a person and as a researcher. I am arguing about research processes, you’re arguing about truth claims. You’ve hijacked the language of truth to advance the business of science. Who’s the one with the colonial design on the world?

      I made an argument about a style of thinking about research problems, and not about taking principles of research in physics and transferring them to anthropology. If anything, I argued for an interesting parallel in development of scientific thought. I tried to use the analogy to help interested readers understand how anthropologists think about their research problems. You’re the one who rejected it as valid, without a grounding in how cultural anthropologists really do their research. Anything in the service of capital T Truth, I suppose…

  22. Erik Otárola-Castillo (EOC) says:

    Although I agree with some of your points. I also believe that Falconi’s direct and simple questions deserve answers, yet you refrain from answering. This commentator raises serious questions fundamental to the parallels you attempt to draw. So, why no simply answer Falconi’s questions?

    I also have a question for you which I ask time and time again, yet, you have failed to answer directly:

    Do you have evidence demonstrating that knowledge drawn from Carl’s “other” approaches are as accurate in describing real world phenomena, as knowledge drawn from science?

    If you do, then your claim, that “other” approaches to knowledge are as valid as science is correct. If you do not, then well, you have no basis from which to make such a claim. Though it remains an interesting question.

  23. daniel.lende says:


    In this comment I’ll take up Matz’s point about the Sokal hoax, hijacking technical terminology and charlatanism. I have two major problems with the comparison of what I wrote to the Sokal hoax, and to the post-modern approach of the mid-1990s in general.

    My first point is one about intellectual fairness, rather than claims of intellectual impostors. At this point, fifteen years after Sokal, I think it’s a weak intellectual move to raise this one recent but major controversy as a way to dismiss an entire line of thought. My approach to relativism was historical, dating back to the founding of professional anthropology in the United States. It’s as if I took the excesses of the selfish gene approach to dismiss all of evolutionary biology back to Darwin. That does not strike me as fair at all.

    I think both the selfish gene determinists and the post-modern relativists had their excesses in the 1980s and 1990s. I’m more interested in the productive knowledge that can be brought from the traditions of both evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology, not two extreme camps from fifteen years ago.

    As Tom Boellstorff recently wrote in the NYT in responding to the present controversy, “Calibrating a telescope is crucial to valid knowledge; equally crucial is the conceptual calibration offered by understanding the impact of colonialism in science (not just in anthropology), and how claims to authority shape knowledge. This conceptual calibration makes science more scientific.” That is a definite strength of approaches that fall broadly within post-modernist thought.

    On the evolutionary biology side, I think evolution provides a great balance to what I find the most problematic claim within most postmodern approaches, that there is infinite variation and possibility. Empirically it is not true, even in the realm of interpretation – there are patterns, some things are more prominent than others, and so forth. Just to be clear, I think starting from a viewpoint of infinite variation, of an extreme relativism, is as unproductive in anthropology as starting from a viewpoint of absolute Truth. The truth, or at least the good research, will be somewhere in the middle.

    The second reason that I think the comparison of what I wrote to the Sokal affair, at least as presented by Richard Dawkins, is off is because I do not do what Dawkins lays out in his essay. I have tried hard to keep my jargon to a minimum, to adopt a style that at least aims for being lucid. I don’t even invoke technical terms on either side of the science/anti-science debate like “fitness” or “assemblage.” So I think it’s fair to say I don’t write in a post-modern style. Certainly there is nothing in what I wrote that resembles Dawkins’ first postmodern quote: “this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion.”

    I also don’t do what I see as the more serious accusation in the piece, of arguing that E=mc2 is a “sexed” equation or using some sort of algebraic method to talk about signification. I don’t talk about the social construction of relativity in physics. I don’t use relativity in physics to try to improve relativity in anthropology. Both of those might be interesting ideas, but they are not what I aimed for in the text. Indeed, I tried to be clear about the differences I see between relativity in physics and relativity in anthropology, along with talking about parallels between similar styles of thought. I do not see that as “hijacking technical terminology” or engaging in charlatanism.

    In Dawkins’ piece, he writes that “In similar manner, Sokal and Bricmont expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism.” That is the only mention that I can find of relativity. So if I am going to be accused of something, it is too easily conflating ideas about relativity in the two fields. I’m happy to take that criticism if it contributes to what Boellstorff discussed, the push for conceptual calibration.

    Just to be clear, I think relativity in both physics and anthropology are extremely hard problems, and the specific aspects of these problems in each field have to be taken into account to do good empirical research. Conflating the two is not a way to push forward with research. But that wasn’t the purpose of my piece, which was to try to explain how anthropologists think about research problems – what we mean by relativity in terms of history, participant observation, reflexivity, and other core components of cultural anthropology methods.

    And before throwing stones about my confusions about relativity, the 1998 letter to Nature by Gabriel Stolzenberg shows Dawkins engaged in the same with relation to Bruno Latour:

    In his review of the book Intellectual Impostures, Richard Dawkins makes the astonishing claim that the authors, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, “expose Bruno Latour’s confusion of relativity with relativism” (Nature 394, 141– 143; 1998).

    Here is what Sokal and Bricmont say about this matter in their book: “Finally, Latour draws an eminently sensible distinction between ‘relativism’ and ‘relativity': in the former, points of view are subjective and irreconcilable; in the latter, space-time coordinates can be transformed unambiguously between reference frames.”

    What I would add here is that how to do transformations between reference frames in cultural anthropology is not a simple process of unambiguous transformations. I think those transformations are possible, but believe that they have to go through something like the process I outlined in the post – understanding history, us and them, one’s own frame as a person with biases, and so forth. I do not see that transformation process as an entirely subjective process, irreconcilable with others’ relative takes. I think it requires some rigorous work. Hence history, taking the other’s perspective, questioning one’s assumptions, and so forth.

    So that’s my take on Matz. I’ll try to answer your questions about evidence and the accuracy and validity of what anthropologists do in producing knowledge about ourselves in a latter comment.

  24. daniel.lende says:

    I just want to add a side note, mostly for my own recall. Canadian GirlPostdoc in America has a good post, The Slipperiness of Empiral Truth. In it, she writes:

    Any ecologist knows that many ecological systems are difficult to replicate and are rarely exact. And it’s impossible to control all and every variable. Thus, we expect that uncertainty or noise will be present in the data, either in the form of observation uncertainty and/or process uncertainty (Hilborn and Mangel 1997 – The Ecological Detective). We hope that our design has been good enough to reduce observation uncertainty, and thus allow us to say something about the processes that may be acting, but that is not always the case. We can, however, perform preliminary experiments to estimate what the variance in the observations might be and then use a power analysis to determine what sample size might be needed to see a certain effect size, given that observational variance. And if the observational uncertainty is too high, then this in itself is useful information.

    So just because there is noise swamping out the effect sizes in some experiments doesn’t mean that “a lot of scientific data are nothing but noise.”

    I had said before that issues of replicability and validity were some of the main concerns in philosophy of science, and thus also in many aspects of anthropology. I’d like to add the idea of “controls”. Is there an analogue in cultural anthropology research?

    Reflexivity doesn’t quite do it, and a comparative approach is important, but not quite the same. And the fundamental goal is often different – it’s generally not about isolating one variable and controlling others in cultural anthropology. Getting at the major axes of variance in research helps, but again doesn’t quite resonate with the idea I have of controls. No new information, inter-observer reliability… Can’t really settle on something exactly comparable.

    So, a question to self, and anyone else out there.

  25. daniel.lende says:


    Today I can start to answer your questions about the predictive value of knowledge outside science, or more broadly, the validity and accuracy of approaches that don’t fall neatly into the science framework.

    I say start, because I think the framing issues are crucial, as well as the types of questions being asked by different types of scholarship. So I am going to talk about that today.

    You have focused on prediction, accuracy and quantification/modeling in your arguments about science and the validity of knowledge. By framing the question – are other types of knowledge valid? – in the terms of this view of science, you automatically limit what is meant by “valid.” I think our notions of evidence and validity of knowledge need to broader than that to encompass the range of scholarship people do. I’d actually change even the question itself, since it automatically privileges science in saying “other types.” So a broader question would be, how can we understand evidence and validity in a range of disciplines?

    I won’t actually aim for that question, and will hew closer to what we’ve been debating in my comment here. But framing matters. It lets people set the terms of debate. I could just as easily come back, Show me that science is not an ideology. That’s impossible to do, as any human endeavor – including science – has ideological elements. Post-modernists have focused on those ideologies. What I think has been frustrating for scientists is that some post-modernists then say that science is only an ideology. And I don’t think that it is fair – methods do matter, evidence is important, and so forth.

    Similarly, I could have responded to your equation of science and Truth by pointing out the fallibility of science. I didn’t go that route, though it would have been easy when both respected scientists and science journalists are riding that wave right now in the media. For example, David Freedman featured Dr. John Ioannidis’ work in The Atlantic article, Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. Jonah Lehrer just published The Truth Wears Off in The New Yorker, with a follow-up in his post The Mysterious Decline Effect.

    So congrats are in order for both of us, I suppose, for staying focused on the question of validity of knowledge. And to give you the really short answer, I think determining the validity of an approach, what counts as good research and evidence and analysis, has to come largely from the history of that approach and from input and review by peers.

    But that’s also something of a non-answer, particularly if you’re interested, like me, in doing interdisciplinary work and bringing together different types of knowledge to better understand particular phenomena. In other words, if you want to claim the broad mantle of doing social science, then writing poetry alone doesn’t count as social science, even if anthropologists do value poetry as a way to express and try to explain other cultural traditions. In other words, I have no problem with anthropologists who practice poetry as part of their anthropology, because they are aiming to do certain things with that practice that are important to the discipline as a whole. But I wouldn’t count poetry as science. Still, I love it when it’s a scientist who stands up and defends the value of humanities!

    I want to return to the question of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Zunguzungu’s analysis for a moment (my comment here, your comment here). And here I think we asked different questions. My basic question, as an educated outsider, is: Why is Assange doing this? That’s a very broad question, and I think there are multiple ways to answer it.

    One way would be to focus on what Assange’s intentions are – to take an approach grounded in individual psychology and then attempt to model it. Sounds like an interesting research project to me, though given our understanding of modeling and of psychology, I think it would be a very long scientific process, and certainly not very accurate at the beginning. So one could make the argument for Zunguzungu’s approach just in terms of a combination of time and accuracy – it gives us a better answer right now, when there is an urgent need to understand what this man aims to do.

    But that’s not really what is at stake in the WikiLeaks affair. Zunguzungu’s analysis does not focus on his individual intentions, his psychological motives. Rather, he focuses on Assange’s political motives, and his approach to trying to drive political change in today’s world, and Assange’s understanding of how governments and control of information work. And those are the types of answers I wanted, not whether he is a megalomaniac or a martyr or both.

    The interpretive approach excels here, because it’s not trying to get at his individual intentions, but at how Assange works as a political actor. Do his intentions relate to his political actions? Surely so, but again, not the question being asked. The interpretive approach does begin with certain assumptions – in this case, that Assange is an actor (not just a predictable set of intentions), we can read texts and interpret them in ways not intended by the author but by analytical concepts, and analyses focused on power and ideology help reveal fields of social action (such as the one where Assange is acting). Questioning those assumptions – Boellstorff’s conceptual calibration – is important.

    But that’s different from judging the validity of Zunguzungu’s analysis. He did a good job using primary evidence, and a good job taking on other arguments about Assange’s political actions. He also brought in analytical ideas about authoritarian regimes, government action, and the like that illuminated what is going on. For me, that makes it a valid approach. But I’m no expert here, so I’d encourage you, and others, to dig deeper into this type of approach so you can decide for yourselves on its validity as social analysis.

    I want to turn now to questions about culture. I think it’s important to grasp that research on culture is addressing a different sort of phenomena than most considered in the natural and social sciences. Most research uses an approach of identifying and then isolating a set of variables to try to establish some sort of cause-effect relationship or correlation, or to identify substantive processes that shape some overall phenomena. But culture, as generally conceived, is not an individual variable. It’s a systemic property. Reducing it to a set of individual beliefs misses the actual concept, and thus is not a valid approach to understanding culture.

    This is not my analysis. I am drawing here from Robert Levine’s chapter, Properties of Culture: An Ethnographic View, in the book Culture Theory. Here is a relevant section:

    “It has long been known to social psychology that many behavioral and attitudinal characteristics exhibit the J-curve of conformity behavior, in which the overwhelming majority of individuals in a population respond identically and only a few deviate. Such characteristics are unsuitable for unsuitable for correlational analysis, because their distributions approximate unity too closely… Thus behaviors or attitudes believed on the basis of empirical data or an investigator’s intuition to have J-curve distributions are usually omitted from sociological and psychological research. It is also not considered worthwhile to conduct a national survey of 1,600 persons to find out what the investigator believes he knows as a member of society under study, namely, that the vast majority of other members share certain of his views or practices; ‘common sense’ suggests the futility of such research. Yet it is precisely these widely shared orientations that are the objects of study for the anthropological student of culture (70).”

    In the chapter, LeVine goes on to argue for how ethnography, using participant observation and interviewing, can get at the systemic properties of culture better than a survey approach, that would only get at surface beliefs of individuals. Later researchers, like Bill Dressler, have developed ways to get at the consensus – the widely shared orientations – using quantitative methods. But that doesn’t invalidate what LeVine argues for. Indeed, scholars like Dressler use ethnography to help develop their measures. They couldn’t do their science without it.

    I want to make one last point here. The distinction made by Bruno Latour between relativity (seen as more objective) and relativism (seen as more subjective) can help illuminate a crucial area where we differ. In discussing validity, I think you see science as having evidence, and everything else as subjective opinion. Framed in that way – objective evidence versus subjective opinion – of course no other approach would be valid in relation to producing coherent and relevant knowledge.

    My approach from the start has been premised on there being multiple types of evidence – from scientific to interpretive – and all these can differ from simple opinion. In other words, all these types of evidence, these ways of knowing, can be valid. Notice I am not saying that they automatically are valid. They can be, and the best way to understand if they are is through the historical tradition and the trained peers who work with that type of approach.

    Where is the line between evidence and opinion? Certainly it’s not an absolute one. Hence my focus on the process of research and the approach to evidence and analysis. But I will stand by my original assertion. Taking a relative approach – grasping the common sense view of the other, understanding the history of a place one is studying, questioning one’s own assumptions – helps produce better evidence, and precisely takes us away from subjective opinion. That’s why anthropologists do it.

  26. daniel.lende says:


    Early on in our exchange of comments I wrote:

    Let me talk about predictive power for a second. I think cultural anthropology is on good ground here. If I want to understand what a random person in the world is likely to do, I’d start with the relevant variables from cultural anthropology – what language do they speak, what is their cultural background, what is their gender, and so forth.

    I want to explain that today, particularly in reference to LeVine’s work that I quoted last time.

    It has long been known to social psychology that many behavioral and attitudinal characteristics exhibit the J-curve of conformity behavior, in which the overwhelming majority of individuals in a population respond identically and only a few deviate… it is precisely these widely shared orientations that are the objects of study for the anthropological student of culture.

    Most scientific approaches to human behavior only look at variation within populations, and not at variation between populations. So I picked one person at random around the world, I would want to know more about the “common sense” aspects that structure that person’s everyday life and behavior. If, at random, a Wayuu from Colombia came up, then what anthropology does would be a lot more relevant to predicting that person’s behavior than quantitative psychology. What sort of economy is that person located in? Is it foraging, pastoralist, industrial? What about social relationships? Are they kin-based, and matrilineal? And are gender roles marked by separate spheres and inequality or not? And what about beliefs? What is the idealized lifecourse for a person? What religion is practiced?

    This basic information is actually quite predictive about what people, in their enormous variety around the world, actually do at any one moment. But as LeVine shows in his chapter, the sampling and evidence-gathering approach to such research is dramatically different than most other types of science – depth rather than breadth is required. Moreover, you cannot assume that from your position as researcher or outsider that you can simply take the data at face value. Geertz, with his interpretive approach and with his characterization of culture as a system of symbols, advanced our analytical approach to understanding what these sorts of data mean, for people who are actually doing things and interacting with each other in specific sociocultural environments.

    LeVine and Geertz are not the only way to think about what cultural anthropologists do. But just because their approach does not conform to your notions of what science is, does not mean it’s not science and that the knowledge produced is not valid or predictive. Someone who has worked with the Wayuu in Colombia is going to be a lot better at predicting what they’re going to do than an outsider armed with a quantitative modeling approach.

    Indeed, most of the research in behavioral science has been deeply flawed by sampling issues (a focus on Western undergrads), assumptions of universal psychology, and a lack of focus on these systemic attributes studied in anthropology. See my colleague Greg’s comprehensive review of the recent Henrich et al. article in his post, We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

    I want to give you one example of the predictive power of anthropology, dating back to one of its foundational researcher, Franz Boas is the person who helped overturned racist views of biological determinism about immigrants to the United States. His work showed significant cranial plasticity in immigrant children. In other words, the children of immigrants came to resemble other US children – a fact that flew in the face of assumptions about superior races and determinism at the time. And his work has stood the test of time.

    More on the qualitative side of things, I think mixed methods – combining quantitative and qualitative approaches – often leads to better validity. To take one example, epidemiologists will often run their surveys, crunch the numbers, and then in the conclusions say something like, these results indicate that such and such factors may operate in local populations in such and such ways.

    Leaving aside how the epidemiologists reserve fallibility for themselves while hedging their bets (“may operate”), I think a more valid and robust result would then test those results using ethnographic research that looks at how things play out on the ground. In other words, seeing if the abstract knowledge actually relates to the real world or not. If you want predictive power, checking with the real world – and using qualitative methods that have been developed to so – is the way to go. Moreover, this ethnographic work can get at factors that are hard to operationalize – like culture, history, power, and so forth. So qualitative work can be a great boon.

    One final example. Paul Farmer, the noted doctor and medical anthropologist, uses the empirical and theoretical insights of anthropology to improve medical practice and policy around the world. His own research is largely ethnographic, relying on participant observation, case studies, interviews, and community-based approaches. He has used the knowledge from anthropology to both create and advocate for better health care for the poor in developing countries. That sounds like valid knowledge to me.

    I want to end by returning to the question of evidence versus opinion I raised at the end of the last comment. Rather than framing the debate as objective evidence versus subjective opinion, I want to frame it as how does one move from subjective opinion towards good evidence. The relativity approach I outlined in the original post is one good way to do this. To get away from outside opinion, say of the Wayuu, it is crucial to take into account their history, to use their own views on their lives, and to develop systematicity by actually being there (participant observation). This process actually takes an outside opinion and moves it into the realm of solid evidence. History, assessment from multiple viewpoints, and systematic data make the research valid.

  27. daniel.lende says:

    I want to link to this excellent post The Science Wars Redux by Michael Bérubé. The post provides an interesting view of the Sokal Hoax from the perspective today – well worth the read. I am going to quote a long section that is relevant to this post and the debate in the comments.

    Michael Bérubé:

    “As I argued in my 2006 book, Rhetorical Occasions, ever since the days of Bohr and Heisenberg, general readers have come to expect that physicists will not tell them that force equals mass times acceleration and that what goes up must come down; they expect that physicists will tell them that space-time is curved in the shape of a quantum donut whose jelly filling is composed of black holes that bend through Calabi-Yau space to produce “munchkins-branes.” So it’s curious–and telling–that Sokal’s essay goes on to cite Bohr and Heisenberg. But Sokal’s treatment of them is uneasy–and at one point, I think, Sokal gives away more of the game than he realizes.

    In “Transgressing the Boundaries,” Sokal notes that Bohr himself drew social implications from the principle of complementarity. The principle holds that two mutually exclusive definitions are in fact necessary for an adequate explanation of a phenomenon: light, for instance, is both a particle and a wave. “Bohr’s analysis of the complementarity principle also led him to a social outlook that was, for its time and place, notably progressive,” Sokal writes in an endnote, quoting from a 1938 lecture by Bohr:

    ‘I may perhaps here remind you of the extent to which in certain societies the roles of men and women are reversed, not only regarding domestic and social duties but also regarding behavior and mentality. Even if many of us, in such a situation, might perhaps at first shrink from admitting the possibility that it is entirely a caprice of fate that the people concerned here have their specific culture and not ours, and we not theirs instead of our own, it is clear that even the slightest suspicion in this respect implies a betrayal of the national complacency inherent in any human culture resting in itself.’

    “So why does Sokal single out this passage for mockery? Is it as patently ridiculous as the idea that there is no external world? In the follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, co-written with Jean Bricmont and published in 1998, Sokal argued that his target was humanists’ “fondness for the most subjectivist writings of Heisenberg and Bohr, interpreted in a radical way that goes far beyond their own views (which are in turn vigorously disputed by many physicists and philosophers of science).” Sokal ascribed that fondness to “postmodern philosophy,” which “loves the multiplicity of viewpoints, the importance of the observer, holism, and indeterminism.” Yes, very well.

    “But in dismissing Bohr’s attempt to apply the principle of complementarity to social life, Sokal ducks the question of whether a multiplicity of viewpoints might in fact be more adequate to the phenomenon at hand. What if postmodern philosophy turns out to have good reasons for its love of the multiplicity of viewpoints? Why wouldn’t it be useful to understand cultural conflicts in terms of “complementarity”? What counts as a legitimate inference from the world of the physical sciences, and what is just a sloppy analogy or a metaphor?

    “…Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was making that kind of deal impossible, deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth.

    “On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place.”

    Link to Michael Bérubé’s The Science Wars Redux

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