It seems the controversy over the wording of the AAA long-range plan is slowly settling down. It’s amazing how far it reached, from the New York Times to Gawker, Christian talk radio to About.com. And now we even have a cartoon! Antradio put this up on Twitpic. Jean Wolf, or antradio, also runs the blog, Antropologia Radio Podcast (apologies in advance for not getting it to fit quite in frame).
There has been some debate among bloggers on whether the Twitter hashtag #aaafail has been a fair one. I just want to add a note of clarification here. On the Internet, led by the amusing and very popular site Fail Blog, “fail” is as often humorous as it is indicting. People mess up, and video, photo, and text capture that in all its glory. Remove “science” from mission statement and watch public firestorm ignite? Fail!
I now propose a new hashtag – #wadefail. Nicholas Wade’s inaccurate and unbalanced coverage in the New York Times deserves it. Do you bring a knife to a gun fight? No. Do you bring a science reporter to cover a complicated and heated debate over science? In this case, no. The knife of precision did not cut through all the smoke from the gun battles, some internal, many external, that surrounded the controversy.
Onto a big salvo in the #wadefail saga. The American Anthropological Association Executive Board wrote to the New York Times:
We write as members of the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association to express our dismay at the inaccuracies in your coverage of a debate within the anthropological community over the role of science in our discipline (“Anthropology Group Tries to Soothe Tempers After dropping the Word ‘Science,’” December 14, 2010).
First, you note that we excised the word “science” from our long range plan without mentioning that we also included it in several places in another document articulating anthropology’s goals that was approved at the same meeting. While you give the impression that we removed the word “science” from our statement of purpose, it would be more accurate to say that we moved it around, though this is hardly exciting news.
Second, you characterize the current debate in anthropology as one between “evidence-based” anthropologists, who believe in science, and others. But even anthropologists who do not believe it is possible to develop ironclad predictive laws of human nature are deeply committed to the integrity of evidence in their scholarly work. Indeed this is why, scientific and humanistic anthropologists alike, we devote years of our lives to the arduous practice of fieldwork — because we care deeply about data.
Third, you suggest that those who do not see anthropology as a science are activists “more interested in advocating for the rights of women or native peoples.” This is not an “evidence-based” characterization of our discipline. Many of those who advocate for indigenous peoples, women and the disadvantaged are deeply committed to scientific knowledge, which lends them the authority from which to speak about the damage being done by toxic waste, deforestation and climate change to the people anthropologists have traditionally studied.
But there is still #aaafail. In an effort to turn that into a unified win (always part of the “fail” dynamic online), the Section Assembly, which represents all the different sub-groups within the American Anthropological Association, has come together to approve a unanimous resolution directed to the AAA:
On behalf of the Section Assembly (SA), I’m pleased to submit the following resolution:
Because the SA represents all 38 sections of the AAA, it has a unique (and uniquely powerful) kind of voice. When we speak together, we have an authority that the Executive Board (EB) alone, or the Association as a whole, cannot match precisely because we represent the discipline in all its variety.
We have two issues which demand our attention, and together they clearly illustrate the challenges facing AAA. On the one hand is the revised wording of the Long Range Plan (LRP), which eliminates any reference to science. On the other we have the National Research Council (NRC) rankings, which—whatever their merits or flaws as rankings of individual programs—presume that Anthropology is a social science and hence only journal articles should be counted toward research productivity, with books and monographs not counted. One is perceived as turning its back on science, the other turns its back on anything except science narrowly defined.
Both are objectionable. Both humanistic and scientific approaches have characterized Anthropology from its inception, and this should be viewed as one of the discipline’s greatest scholarly strengths.
The Section Assembly unanimously rejects the NRC logic regarding publications as misguided and not reflective of any of the 38 sections comprising the AAA or the discipline as a whole. We take this as an opportunity to stand together and formally affirm that Anthropology includes and should include both scientific and humanistic modes of scholarship.
Second, and conversely, we unanimously ask the EB to revise the LRP to reflect the value of both scientific and humanistic approaches to the discipline. While doubtless the intention was to be inclusive, dropping science from the statement has the opposite effect. Few could credibly argue that scholars eschewing scientific approaches feel rejected, marginalized or unwelcomed by the Association. But it is true, for better or worse, that many scholars adopting such approaches do feel rejected, marginalized and unwelcome, and this demonstrably weakens the Association by minimizing the number of these anthropologists who maintain AAA membership.
These measures have been offered and approved by unanimous consent.
While the role of the Section Assembly is still evolving, its ability to express the will of the Association–across its diverse membership–is one of its most powerful attributes. We use that power here because, whatever our epistemological and methodological positions, we recognize and affirm that significant scholarship is performed by colleagues holding other positions, and this continues to be one of the greatest scholarly strengths of the discipline.
The SA presents its position to you in the most collegial spirit and as our contribution to the ongoing conversation regarding our discipline. We hope it duly informs the process of revising the LRP statement.
Thank you for your dynamic efforts addressing this matter and, on behalf of the SA, I wish you the best at this time of the year.