Anthropology Times

All right, continuing coverage of anthropology and science. I want to highlight several things. First is the Brian Lehrer radio show yesterday, Anthropology: Science or Humanity?, which featured Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, and Hugh Gusterson, executive boardmember of the AAA.

Peregrine has been one of the leading critics of the dropping of “science” from the AAA long-range plan, Hugh Gusterson was an early responder to the charges that the AAA was somehow rejecting science. If you’re not caught up on the controversy, see my initial coverage of the news (which features Gusterson) and then a more thorough accounting of what really happened (which features a good comment from Peregrine).

I’ve embedded the show below. I definitely recommend listening to it. The first part shows the agreement about moving forward between Gusterson and Peregrine, particularly in the context of the new AAA statement, What Is Anthropology? In the second part, the debate shifts to the tensions that do exist within anthropology. Overall, it’s very informative.

Nicholas Wade’s coverage in the New York Times has been slanted towards science and playing up the controversy. Gusterson responds directly to Wade’s most recent piece in the radio show. I covered why Wade’s metaphor of warring tribes is wrong.

The New York Times published a letter on Wade’s first article from Tom Boellstorff, editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist. The letter, The Definition of Science, points towards misunderstanding, rather than a rift. Here is what Boellstorff writes:

I hope the association will reconsider because anthropology helps broaden the definition of science itself. Science takes place not just in laboratories but in field sites; it involves not just experiments but forms of nonreplicable observation, and not just in anthropology but in sciences as diverse as zoology and astronomy.

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.

Many other people have not been happy with Wade’s NYT coverage. The entire department of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame came together to write a letter to the Times. As former colleagues of mine, they sent me a copy and I am happy to reproduce it here:

In an essay published in the New York Times on December 10th, Nicholas Wade stated that “Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession” by the removal of the word “science” from the long range plan of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). A follow up piece by Wade (12/14/10) again stoked the fires of an assumed “battle of the anthropologists.”

We, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, say that this assertion is not the case: we know who we are and what we do. Anthropology as an approach involves the inclusion of diverse perspectives united around core themes such as evolution, ethnography, ecology, lived experience, material histories, embodied beliefs and practices, for example.

For most of us who practice and teach anthropology the issue at hand is not “science or no science” in a mission statement, but rather maintaining collaborative methodologies and generous theoretical engagements (and entanglements) that give us the best toolkit when asking and answering questions about becoming and being human. As a department of diverse practitioners in anthropology, we feel that getting caught up in the science wars again at this point is counterproductive to our impact in the academic and broader public spheres.

Yes, many of us practice science as one of our methodologies and others don’t, but that doesn’t matter. We think methodologies should fit the problem, not serve a political end. We also value the range of theoretical approaches as heuristics and possibilities under the rubric of a dynamic anthropology.

Good research can be done in the either-or (humanistic or scientific) schema, but great research combines and collaborates, across disciplinary boundaries and intellectual areas. Some of us are not happy that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) removed the word “science” from the mission statement and hope that they would reconsider. But it is not going to change what we do and what we teach as a department, as a collection of scholars, and as an anthropological community.

Asking good questions about the human experience, whether based in genetics or poetics, requires varied expertise and theoretical orientations. As anthropologists we are scientists and we are humanists, and there is no turmoil or doubt about our nature and future.

-The Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

Rex at Savage Minds returns to the crisis itself in the piece, #AAAfail as PR meltdown, calling it “more or less over.” His post highlights how institutional responses to public debate must change in the Internet age, drawing a parallel with the blow-up over climate change skepticism earlier this year.

Bloggers and other grassroots voices take up the issue, official and authoritative voices abstain from public debate as it is beneath them, the issue blows up, and they find themselves backpedaling and attempting to control a debate which others have already named and framed. What scientists learned from all this was that there is no substitute for early and extensive engagement with critics and involvement with all stages of debate. I think this is a lesson that the AAA should be learning from #AAAfail…

I think it is clear that its strategy of “do nothing until the New York Times runs a piece, then reveal that you had been right all along” has not been very effective. Honestly, for how many people is the take-away of #AAAfail “anthropology is a science”? This genie is out of the bottle, and to the extent it has any effect at all it will be to create vague memories of anthropology’s silliness for all who read the article.

For those of you looking for more balanced coverage than appeared in the Times, I definitely recommend Dan Berrett’s Inside Higher Ed piece, Affirming Science’s Place. Here is how it opens:

Seeking to put to rest a controversy that has flared for the past two weeks in the news and blogosphere, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement Monday reaffirming the importance of science to the discipline.

“Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture,” the statement reads. “As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.”

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