AAA Statement on Science Controversy – Holistic Hope Saves the Day?

The American Anthropological Association released a public statement yesterday, AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology. It responded to the heated debate inside and outside of anthropology over dropping the word “science” from the long-term plan for the association.

Changes to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage. In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology – as the “What is Anthropology?” document approved at the same meeting demonstrates. Further, the long range plan constitutes a planning document which is pending comments from the AAA membership before it is finalized.

First off, this is an important step in the right direction. Let me say that first. But rather than continuing to be all serious, I’m going to be a bit playful today, and give you some of the choice lines that have come up already. I’ve even added some bolding!

I think my favorite already, just because it is so over the top, comes from Frank Marlowe in Nicholas Wade’s NYT article, Anthropology Group Tries to Soothe Tempers After Dropping the Word ‘Science’.

I really don’t see how or why anthropology should entail humanities,” said Frank Marlowe, president-elect of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society, another association affiliate, given that the social sciences are empirical, while the humanities are analytic, critical or speculative.

“We evolutionary anthropologists are outnumbered by the new cultural or social anthropologists, many but not all of whom are postmodern, which seems to translate into antiscience.”

Take that, you fluff heads! I’m still getting in my swings while I’ve got the media’s eye. If I swing hard enough, I might even knock you out of the AAA!

Not likely, given Katie MacKinnon’s more reasoned response in Dan Berrett’s Inside Higher Ed piece, Affirming Science’s Place (and hey, I also get quoted there!).

“The audience at large (including students) might have the impression that most anthropologists are embroiled in a vicious debate about defining our field, and also that there are rampant turf battles in every anthropology department or program in North America,” Katherine C. MacKinnon, associate professor of anthropology at Saint Louis University, wrote in an e-mail.

“In my experience this is not true, and this depiction is hardly fair to those broadly trained anthropologists who are doing cutting edge, cross-subfield work that is pushing boundaries and furthering the discipline in a positive way.”

Katie, never give the evil blogger the chance to bold the wrong thing! Vicious debates and rampant turf battles!! You can see that with your very eyes!

I also have to ask: What, Katie, no flame? You could have said, we’re so cutting edge, we’re anti-science and anti-humanities! Bam, a punch in someone’s gut instinct on the truth.

Reality is a bit more mundane. Most anthropologists actually want to move forward. But some good spectator sport is still the order of the day. Remember, it’s called “the news.”

The AAA actually had the “What Is Anthropology?” statement in hand since the annual conference in late November, before the controversy erupted. So back to Berrett’s article, and a quote from Peter Peregrine, a prominent critic of the original long-range plan and how it seemed to change the association’s vision of anthropology:

Peregrine called the [new] statement “very good” and “very clear,” while wondering why the statement defining anthropology was not released sooner.

Peter, how naive! Otherwise, how could the Holistic Hope statement come in to save the day!? We’ve united two superpowers in one – the science and the humanities. Watch out other disciplines!

Julienne Rutherford, over at the Bandit blog, also gets in some digs at the AAA statement in Was It Just the Outsiders Who Got It Wrong?

As we map out a future anthropological endeavor and community, I think it is important to critique and dissect what many of us experienced as dismissal by the organization that is nominally the national catch-all for all of us. I’m not waiting for an apology – clearly I would be waiting a loooong time – but considering we can play a role in vetting and voting for a leadership that represents our concerns, this issue and the clumsy and frankly insensitive way it was handled should be remembered.

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

So, enough of the negative. There are enormous and numerous lessons to be learned, and… I’m hopeful that this debacle could lead to a renaissance for our broader discipline. Nothing like controversy to get people interested in anthropology, even cynical anthropologists.

Julienne, pleeeeaaasse. We real anthropologists are off doing field work in remote places. The tubes don’t reach that far. And even if they did, their use would implicate us in the colonial endeavor. Your blogging obviously does just that! And it’s not even peer-reviewed, so it doesn’t count as science anyway!

All right, those are the juicy reports for right now. I’ll add more as they come flaming in…

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9 Responses to AAA Statement on Science Controversy – Holistic Hope Saves the Day?

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

  2. Strong says:

    It seems more and more clear, based on discussion on this blog and others, and based on the statements released by AAA, that this ‘controversy’ and ‘conflict’ were ginned up by folks spoiling for a fight. It’s not clear to me that Peregrine and others who rushed to condemn AAA have not behaved irresponsibly.

  3. ryan a says:

    Thanks for keeping up with this Daniel. I have been pretty bogged down this semester and haven’t been as up to speed with the interwebs as usual, so I’m glad to get these updates.

    Julienne wrote:

    “So, enough of the negative. There are enormous and numerous lessons to be learned, and… I’m hopeful that this debacle could lead to a renaissance for our broader discipline.”

    I agree that there is a lot to learn from all this. The reaction by the AAA seems, well…a little antiquated if you ask me. Writing off commentary and critique (especially from bloggers) as marginal, reactionary, and irrelevant seems pretty damn short sighted. It just comes across as some kind of elitist dismissal of particular forms of communication–never mind the fact that many of the bloggers are (or were) members of the AAA. As I see it, the AAA is going to have to reconsider how it thinks about media and communication. While the official journal may still may be the prestigious form of dissemination and communication, I’m not sure if that’s always going to be the case. At least, not in the current form.

    “And it’s not even peer-reviewed, so it doesn’t count as science anyway!”

    Indeed. If a science experiment took place in a forest, but no committee was there to do the proper peer review, was it even SCIENCE in the first place? Deep, I know.

  4. Barbara King says:


    Adding humor to the mix during this A.P.E. – Anthropologically Prolonged Event- is welcome. (See, we get the side benefit of the apt acronym APE if we eschew inflammatory language like “vicious debate’!)

    Indeed I needed a dose of your humor today as I was fairly reeling from Frank Marlowe’s remark (quoted above) about anthropology not entailing the humanities.

    At first, the very thought that a discipline devoted to the study of human meaning-making and its origins and variable expression through time and space could be seen as not touching on the humanities raised my blood pressure a little.

    But you’ve made me seen a little bit of the theatre going on here. Anthropology as performance…. with some rather dramatic lead actors.

    Thanks for this post, and for all the great work you’ve done in the last weeks on this issue.

  5. Jason Antrosio says:

    This is a great post: thank you so much for the continued coverage.

    I am hoping you (and other readers-writers) might send letters to the NYTimes to correct Wade’s coverage. I tried one today, concentrating on Wade’s misrepresentation of evidence-based as applying to skulls, interpretive subjects as applying to race. Ugh. I have little hope of getting it published, but it would be great to see some corrective in the NYT.

  6. gregdowney says:

    Daniel, you’re a braver man than I. When this debate came across the internet, I just groaned and waited for the overheated rhetoric, the parade of tired battles that could flare up again… And for the vast majority of us, the teaching, research, and other work goes on with anthropology departments getting along about as well as any other departments (and so often, when we look back on the profound ‘ideological’ battles that split departments, we often find much more banal fights being inflated by supposed theoretical differences — who slept with whom, who mistreated someone’s grad student, who took the corner office or wrote the backstabbing ‘reference’ for a promotion application…’

    Controversy generates interest, and especially for polemicists, they like to ‘bring the sword’ because it generates productive carnage (I’m reminded of the cockroach alien from Men in Black, which showed the other night while I was working on union posters). The sad fact though is that our internal rhetoric feeds into the projects of external parties that want to undermine our discipline (and other intellectual projects) for their own purposes.

    I write this as I am currently ‘stood down’ (read: laid off for the duration of the strike) over a serious labor dispute at my university. I sometimes worry that we inadvertently contribute fuel to the fire underneath us in a world where strong anti-intellectualism and anti-science forces (the more serious kind, by folks like creationists and science deniers and corporate manipulators of research) conspire against us. Our fights across the hall or between the buildings (humanities v. science) are, to me, small scale, compared to the kind of battle we’re fighting at Macquarie right now. Here, the Faculty of Arts has rallied to try, among other things, to save the Faculty of Science from brutal budget cuts, including layoffs, by a bizarre central administration that has manufactured a false deficit (even though the Vice Chancellor keeps crowing about our University’s six straight years of multi-million dollar surpluses). Mind you, he’s gotten a 60% raise in less than three years.

    Ironically, I think anthropologists, who should be very hip to the way that bigger forces are playing parts of our discipline off against each other, sometimes fall right into this bear trap. The polemicists are going to do their thing, but I think anthropologists need to get a lot smarter about what’s at stake around us.

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