Long Range Plan, Short Range Controversy

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:

Dear all,

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.

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7 Responses to Long Range Plan, Short Range Controversy

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  2. L Moore says:

    It seems that the White House is also interested in the social contract between scientists and the public. See
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40732112/ns/technology_and_science-science/

    and

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/scientific-integrity-memo-12172010.pdf

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  3. Just a pointer for people chronicling the AAA-Science controversy – I signed up for the Anthropological Sciences listserv, and I have been struck by the depth of feelings of marginalization and bitterness by senior “scientific” cultural anthropologists. These folks (some of whom are quite prominent) have felt marginalized within the AAA, within their departments, and within the discipline, for a long time. They frequently cite Boasian anthropology as the ideal they are trying to uphold. The strength of their reactions to the recent controversy make me think that Wade in fact may not be too far off the mark, at least in pointing to major festering divisions within the discipline.

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  4. L Moore says:

    I mean no disrespect to those senior scholars who feel marginalized but I do find it ironic that people who study culture change don’t acknowledge that it has happened all around them. The dominant ethos in America today is not rationalism/modernism (as it was 50 years ago); but, it is a new type of romanticism (aka postmodernism). Yes, anyone holding on to those older modernist values are being marginalized. And, it will mostly be people who are over age 50. The vast majority of younger people are romantics.

    Additionally, existing Anthropological concepts help to understand how our culture changed. Based on Nietzsche, Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) described Apollonian and Dionysian cultures. Later, E T Hall (Beyond Culture) described low and high context cultures as the same pattern. For most of the 20th century American culture was Apollonian/modernism/low context culture. Today, it is Dionysian/Romantic/high context culture.

    The cultural transformation is called an Awakening (based on the work of Anthony Wallace) and it spanned ca 1960-1990. For Awakenings see William G. McLoughlin (Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform) and Robert Vogel (The Fourth Awakening). The only other idea you need is the recognition that Apollo and Dionysus can flip flop within cultural history, something that only Nietzsche seems to have understood. And, it is the main thesis of my blog http://ageofintuition.blogspot.com/

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  5. daniel.lende says:

    I agree with Michael, in that I’ve heard from senior anthropologists who do feel this way, as well as other senior anthropologists who don’t. As a scholar starting towards the middle of his career (or so I hope), and someone who has been active in trying to do synthetic approaches, I don’t feel that same sense of marginalization.

    Yet Peter Peregrine’s comment on site about this controversy touching a raw nerve – that really struck me as accurate. It’s not necessarily a raw nerve for me, even if I am very concerned about the relations between notions of “science” and anthropology. But I do have to recognize that there is a raw nerve there, and a lot of it related to things that happened through the 1980s and 1990s and then into the 2000s – evolutionary biology vs. post-modernism, the Sokal affair, the El Dorado blowup, the controversy over Margaret Mead and Derek Freeman. Lots of tensions there, as well as within the groupings of anthropologists, with a wealth of competing associations now.

    With physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and applied anthropologists all having their own stand-alone associations, they do have arenas where they can pursue their own discinplinary interests.

    But cultural anthropologists don’t really have that, as they still fall under the umbrella of the AAA while also being the largest group of members in the AAAs. So alongside the raw nerves that more scientific anthropologists might have, I’ve also gained sympathy and insight into the position of many cultural anthropologists who want to be inclusive, who respect a broader AAA, but also who might want to have an organization that can advance some of their own disciplinary interests.

    A lot of tensions, in other words, within the discipline. I think that’s why I appreciated Greg’s post on it, that there are multiple tensions, and that we need to find some common ground because outside the discipline, there are plenty of people looking to see a divided anthropology as serving their own interests. And for me, given the sort of work I do, and for the field, which is unique in its ability to address human diversity and theoretical diversity, I think a divided discipline is not a good thing…

    I am hoping that senior anthropologists can overcome some historical animosities, and recognize that anthropology is moving in different directions and has more people working on synthetic approaches today. Their input and their leadership could make a big difference.

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  6. Jean Wolf says:

    Me fascino…
    Gracias por la mención… :)
    Y nunca olviden…. La antropología estuvo antes de la AAA y seguirá a pesar de ella

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