Late to the science-anti-science bum fight…

Daniel has written a series of excellent posts on the controversy allegedly sparked by the revision of the long-term planning statement by the American Anthropological Association (first, second, third, fourthfifth, sixth, seventh and eighth post in series).  According to some journalists, critics from other fields as well as disgruntled anthropologists, the AAA executive board made a major power play by leaving the word ‘science’ out of the revised statement.  

In the eyes of the most excitable observers, the omission is the latest salvo in the great post-modern anti-science war, an attempt by reality-impaired, science-dubious cultural anthropologists to silence hard-headed, right-thinking scientists.

I’ve watched the debate from the sidelines, and, to be honest, not had too much interest in getting engaged.  Daniel has just done a fantastic job repeatedly taking stock of the rapidly emerging tempest, highlighting the diversity of views, and showing how the fracas shaped up (with links to just about every relevant piece online).

Daniel gently mentioned, however, that I might comment on the whole episode from my perspective as a cultural anthropologist, even though the whole debate just made me feel really weary.

I’m sure that I’m not the only anthropologist who had a hard time getting worked up about this particular tempest, feeling like we were watching the compulsory figures of an ice skating competition.  Part of me just wanted to write, ‘good lord, people, it’s a bloody mission statement.  Has anyone else ever written one of these documents and realized what an excruciating writing-by-committee exercise this is?!’

Besides, I’m fighting a pretty grim case of the blues and a writing slump at the moment even though summer is upon us in Australia.  The primary reason for the slump is that I’ve been stood down by my University for taking ‘industrial action’ with the union to try to get a long-term contract.

In other words, I’m temporarily laid off with around 100 of my colleagues because I wouldn’t turn in final marks.  We’re protesting the fact that our university, in spite of running a $61 million surplus last year and giving our Vice Chancellor (like a president) a 60% raise in less than three years, wants to give the academic staff among the worst pay scales in Australia and continue to increase our workload (enrollment up 10% last year with less than .5% increase in staff).  Lauded here in the financial press as bring a ‘Wall Street’ sensibility to university administration, we see that our Vice Chancellor is bringing a Lehman Bros.-style approach to things like giant bonuses for himself while peanuts for the peons who actually do the work.

Nothing like going into Christmas with no income to help clarify what’s really important in your life.

But one of the things that’s really provoked the staff into action was that the administration manufactured a budget ‘shortfall’ for the Faculty of Science; the Financial Office shifted the numbers around to produce a fictitious budget shortage after years of profitability, primarily by decreasing the allowance per student.  Finance then asked the Faculty of Science to cut $2.5 million out of its budget.

When the Faculty staff, which was not happy about this, was successful through teaching reductions, slashed travel allowances, decreased support to PhD students, and individuals voluntarily decreasing to partial appointments (yes, taking pay cuts), the university administration responded that this was fine, but the Faculty would still have to shed employees.

So I’ll try to write something that doesn’t retrace paths that other people have already tread, most notably Daniel, from my own particularly morose state of mind and from my specific position of having my thoughts occupied by the battle on our campus.  But congratulations on everything Daniel’s done, which I think has been simply magisterial.

Is there a problem?

To me, the people doing much of the most outrageous arguing are anthropologists with well-ground axes or are outsiders who have some sort of interest in stirring up a ruckus in our field, like vandals who take advantage of a social protest to smash a few windows and have a bit of a lark.

Or maybe a better analogy is a pack of enthused spectators hoping two angry drunk guys can be goaded into a punch-up if the spectators just keep shouting, ‘Fight!  Fight!  Fight!’ It’s all fun, but someone’s liable to wind up with a headache in the morning.

Like some of the calmer commentators within the field, I think that the facts speak for themselves: the vast majority of anthropology departments, certainly in the US, are inhabited by a cross-section of the field, including practitioners of all different sorts of anthropology.  And they mostly get along just fine, thank you.

Many of us teach across the discipline, pedagogical generalists, even if our research requires us to be subfield specialists, and we often have enthusiasm for diverse parts of our field in our own intellectual biographies.  If we have problems, they’re similar to other academic departments, including the usual jealousies, bickering and rivalries found in most groups of colleagues in and out of academe.

I don’t want to diminish the experience of those scholars who are living in pockets of dysfunction in universities around the world.  The only truly dysfunctional anthropology department I’ve ever known (and I’ve known five well) was divided mainly by out-sized egos and petty corruption, not grand theoretical debates (although some of the players tried to make out the ego and corruption problems to be about grand theoretical debates).

I have never visited the departments at Stanford or the couple of others that are the famous battlefields of the Great Anthropology War, but I don’t think we’d look at any other discipline and say that the discipline was falling apart because a handful of departments went through painful schisms (as some have in psychology, English, sociology, political science, economics…).

As intellectuals, of course we sometimes blow up small theoretical disputes into moral crusades (I’ve referred to this as the ‘tyranny of minute differences’), but this needs to stay in perspective.

I don’t think that the answer is more and louder ill-mannered screaming. That sounds a bit to me like trying to achieve peace by giving more arms to whichever side in a civil war last took a hiding (yes, my even more extravagant-than-usual deployment of long-bow analogy is intentional – just because I know some of our readers love a wild analogy).

God knows that many academic departments torn asunder by high-sounding theoretical debates that, upon closer examination, often reveal themselves to be a lot more banal and personal: who slept with whom, who back-stabbed a colleague in a promotion application, which big egos keep bumping up against each other over whose persona is more eminent, who was ungenerous to a colleague’s innovative paper, who always bogarts the booze at the sherry hour, petty irritations blown up into full-blown loathing over the course of decades together.

Maybe an occasional punch-up would be healthier…

Again, this is not to discount how painful it is to live in one of these embattled departments, and denial of tenure cases can be especially inhumane and embittering.  But again, I don’t know why some anthropologists want to argue that this shows our field is falling apart. Observers inside and outside of anthropology have been saying that the field’s days are numbered for decades.  Personally, I’m not going to put on the purple sneakers and proceed to the landing point for the end times just yet.

The field, itself, from where I stand, is alive and well.  I suspect that the AAA’s membership is as high as ever; if membership is down, that likely has more to do with the effect of the financial crisis on American universities than any ‘long simmering’ hostilities within the field.  Anthropologists get jobs in consulting, the NGO sector, and a host of other fields outside of academe.

In our department, student enrollments have doubled in five years, making us one of the healthiest programs at our university (although all of us have been stood down over our current labor dispute).  Theoretical and empirical innovations, including stuff like we’re attempting here at Neuroanthropology, are happening across the four fields (or five, depending on how you count), although I’m sure that there are causes for complaint.

In other words, I can’t see the crisis.  In fact, as far as I can tell, most of the heat has gone out of the Great Science-Anti-Science War as lots of individuals occupy the middle ground and some of the more excessive figures have been shown to be absurdly partisan and one-sided.  Frankly, a lot of the worst offenders were non-anthropological theorists with whom anthropology flirted, sometimes productively, sometimes in disappointing ways.  Only the most hardened dead-enders still really see this as an irresolvable conflict, although there’s probably enough residual bad blood and insult in corners of the field for a spasmodic outbreak of anachronistic and hyperbolic name-calling.

Most of us in the younger generation — I know, I’m getting a little old to say that — look at the leaders of the last round of war as living dinosaurs, fascinating specimens interesting for historical and theoretical reasons.  We still think they’re worth reading and talking to, but only the least creative want to continually re-enact the old jousting, like some Medieval Knights dinner show that’s long past its prime.

Many of us are now trying to rebuild bridges that our elders may have once sought to burn.

On being a surrogate battlefield

However, many people outside our field still want to use anthropology as a surrogate battlefield, often to enact some ritualized intellectual combat that is over and done in their own home.

They want us to play the part of the vanquished rival, back from the grave, so that they can slay the old foe again and relish the triumph: ‘Look at how we smash the imperialist thinkers!’ ‘Watch as I dispatch the post-modern cretin!’  ‘To the barricades to fight the cultural determinists!’  ‘Light up the torches to roast the secular humanists!’  So, tired old stereotypes, two-dimensional caricatures, and typecast versions of what we do get ceremonial dragged out and pilloried by scholars in other fields.

Some of our neighbors in cultural studies, for example, who can at times be very smugly post-everything after-ologists, love to use anthropology as the alleged stronghold of pre-all-that-is-good-and-right perspectives to be condemned: colonialist, imperialist, modernist, empiricist, positivist, ethnocentrists, etc.  We get cast in some sort of 1950s costume drama of theoretical debate so that they can sneer at us and pretend that we didn’t come up with the very critiques they now level against us more than twenty years ago.

Frankly, critique from this end of the spectrum is more irritating to me than being bashed for allegedly being ‘anti-sciences,’ but that’s just my own personal annoyance.

It’s also much easier to criticize when you don’t yourself have to wade into the mess – trying to do consulting for development projects, government advising, or social research is very, very messy and compromised at times.  To those who do this work, we who do not get into the tangle should offer support, sympathetic criticism when necessary (and requested), and a constructive ear when they have time to present their research to the more academic among us.

Even among university-based anthropologists, I think we can be overly critical at times of those doing the hard work of trying to solve social problems; it’s hard as hell business, and I’m glad that the AAA is moving to be more inclusive of practitioners for this reason.

On the opposite border of our disciplinary turf, some critics like to treat anthropologists as if the field was entirely a ‘bastion of anti-science’ or practitioners of mysticism and ‘fuzzy-headed thinking.’  (I’ll come back to how we sometimes play into their hands in a minute.)  These critics are the individuals who say that acknowledging other ‘ways of knowing’ than science make them want to ‘vomit’ or insist that science can only take one form – whichever form they practice – failing to recognize that even those fields that sit more comfortably in the area of ‘science’ themselves have quite diverse research methods, forms of analysis and evidentiary standards.

The irony is that for those of us living at the border zone in intellectual life between science, social science and humanities, the way that cultural anthropologists typically write is so much bloody easier to understand than some of the authors we read in Continental philosophy, cultural studies, and the humanities.

I’m often pleased to read anthropologists’ discussion of key concepts from philosophy or literature, for example, because at least I am confident that the author will eventually offer some case study where I might have a hope of understanding what some of the more esoteric authors are on about.

That is, I think anthropologists are sometimes startled when we’re accused of writing opaquely (admittedly, at times we do) because by the standards on the other side of the border, we’re boring plodders with an unseemly attachment to actual ethnographic or historical cases.

If the critique were merely about pretentious or overly technical writing, why don’t the critics go after analytical philosophy or Classics or French literature and only come for the anthropologists later, when they’ve successfully razed more egregious bastions of opaque theory production?  I suspect it’s because critics feel comfortable trying to beat up on us at the border, perhaps even perversely interested in what we’re doing, or trying to do.

The ‘pro-science’ anthropology critics sometimes sound like some bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Commander Data tries to understand how humans can know anything except through ‘logic’ or ‘science,’ and then has to acknowledge that humans know in various ways: through experience, through skill acquisition, through authority, through physical sensation, through hypothesizing, even through… gasp (well, Data doesn’t gasp)… through emotion!

Some of those who are most fervent in their criticisms of anthropology for being insufficiently ‘scientific’ are in fields that themselves might be subject to the same critique.  As anthropologist Arjun Appadurai points out, in times of civil strife, individuals often try to make a play for legitimacy within a group, especially if they are on the boundaries or of indeterminate status, by attacking the other side most vehemently. That is, anyone who wants to make a claim that what they are doing is science can buttress the claim by, for example, beating up on anthropology.

These outside critics use anthropology as a convenient strawman for some argument that they want to illustrate.  For example, in my teaching career, I have had to counter students being told in their introductory classes in other disciplines that anthropology should be rejected out of hand because anthropology is: irremediably colonialist, imperialist and Western; culturally relativist and therefore unable to condemn what the Nazis did; anti-science and advocating cultural conversion to whatever culture the anthropologist studies (by implication, nihilist, I suppose); insufficiently ‘objective’ because anthropologists get too close to their subjects; and culturally relativist and therefore unable to be a science at all.

In other words, if you sum up the critiques of anthropology, they are incoherent, cast from multiple sides because we are the border: for some, we are imperialists, for others too ‘politically correct,’ for some the handmaiden of ethnic exoticization, for others, too close to the natives to be trusted, for others not scientific enough, for others, too scientific…

And when the outsiders successfully get someone in the border zone riled up – or when someone in the boundary area doesn’t realize what is at stake and acts insensitively – the warring parties sitting on the sidelines get the vicarious thrill of watching us try to rip each other apart (well, in a rhetorical manner of speaking).

On feeding the fire

One problem with being positioned at an intellectual crossroads – and anthropology sits at a number of them – is that the different groups represented within the discipline can be treated as smaller surrogates for larger partisan politics.  And, of course, sitting at a crossroads means you can get run down from multiple directions.

But I think we contribute to our own mistreatment by outsiders by a number of things we do in anthropology that I wish we would all seriously reconsider.

For example, anthropologists tend to have theoretical arguments in language that is disproportionately dramatic, as if their very being and sanity depended upon vanquishing the opposing viewpoint.   I don’t know when exactly this started, but theory is not political activity; political activity is political activity.

In the context of going on strike, this plain fact is painfully obvious to me at the moment.  Talking theoretically about ‘resistance’ or ‘power’ is not the same as resisting power.  I wish we could dial down the intensity sometimes and be better at acknowledging how diverse interpretive strategies actually constitute a strength in our field.

Right now, for example, a profoundly uncivil exchange is boiling on the Australian Anthropological Society list-serv, where people aren’t just saying, ‘Wow, that’s an interesting perspective, but here’s how I see things…’ or ‘While I see where you’re coming from, I tend to interpret Foucault this way…’  Instead, they’re accusing each other of having pathological conditions, being complicit in the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians, being duped by different dominant groups or ideas…

In other words, for some of cultural anthropologists, it’s business as usual: ad hominem attacks, overheated language and accusations of bad faith or fuzzy-headedness.  And then they’re surprised when people push back with equal vigor!  The more I work with other fields, the more this sort of debate sounds like the wind-up to a good night of professional wrestling (‘Are you READY to RUUUMBLE!!’). I just don’t think the tone is productive or proportional, although it does get the adrenaline going and makes everything sound really important.

The sad thing is that the theoretical content is often excellent (as it is right now in the AAS-net discussion), and I think that the vigorous debate in anthropology makes the field disproportionately a generator of theoretical innovations.  But I suspect we could still generate this innovation without hurling invective at each other.

More importantly, the shrill intensity, the hyperbolic kill-or-be-kill tone of theoretical debate, can obscure what we agree upon while it aids and abets those equally shrill critics from outside the field who want to argue that anthropology of one stripe or another is a form of mild derangement. When anthropologists are busy shrieking at each other, it’s pretty easy to just ignore the whole lot of us.

On being alienated in an academic field

If there’s no way that the Executive Board of the AAA could have written anything that would make you feel less alienated from the organization, then please don’t pretend that the only reason you’re feeling alienated is because of their wording of the statement.

I’m really not convinced that some of the people within the AAA who felt so alienated by the revision of the statement by the Executive Board didn’t already feel irremediably alienated and were just looking for another event (like the scandal around Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado).

Nor are many of the outside critics condemning the field for the first time, as if suddenly taken aback by trends in our field. Both groups are long-time critics of many cultural anthropologists and of the AAA. Some of them probably still would feel disenfranchised or dismayed by cultural anthropology even if the board had amended the statement to read ‘Science science science science science science science and science…’

Personally, if I don’t drink heavily with my friends, sneak off repeatedly for Mexican food, and spend most daylight hours in the publishers’ expo, I also find the whole AAA conference thing pretty alienating.  But that probably just reveals whose social skills are inadequate for coping with 6000+ intellectuals crammed into a conference centre.  It’s rare when the conference doesn’t make me feel lost and alone.  I feel that being engaged at this conference is more about who you know and want to see and plan to talk to, and less about what you think. Standing alone at the conference bar waiting for someone to come up to you to talk about the 15 minute paper you presented is probably a guarantee of remaining a conference wall flower.

In addition, the more I work at the intersection of anthropology, cognitive science, neuropsychology, and evolutionary theory, the more I find some of the professional journals of the AAA intellectually remote from my own projects.  But that doesn’t mean that I feel they are attacking me.  Part of living at the border means that not everyone speaks the same first language.

That said, anthropologists could work at being a bit more conversant in pidgin, and writing a few more things in some lingua franca as well. If we talk amongst the like-minded too much, we don’t realize just how badly we’ll be misunderstood when we do something like drop the word ‘science’ from our programmatic statements (I actually don’t think that this is the real etiology of the word getting left out of the statement, but you get my drift).

Some of the outside critics, however, often come from fields with equally opaque internal languages – it’s just that they seldom have as much terminological and jargon diversity within their own fields.  There’s a fair bit of complaining about someone else’s splinter while ignoring the plank in your own eye, if you don’t mind a New Testament reference.

An inclusive discipline

One reason I’m glad to be an anthropologist is that I constantly learn new stuff. A crucial reason that I constantly learn new stuff – in addition to a mild attention deficit issue – is that everyone in my field is not doing the same thing as me.

Life is already repetitive enough without surrounding ourselves with people all doing the same thing we do (can you tell that I’ve been grading papers?).  Students love this about anthropology (well, those that like the field), that the tent is so big with so many interesting acts.

The love of variety is one reason I can never understand colleagues who want to hire scholars who do virtually identical research to their own – good lord, how bloody boring!  And the last thing I need around is a rival who’s too close to my own area of expertise.

If you want to be in a field with intellectual consensus on every key point, you probably want to stay away from anthropology; we’re a glorious hodgepodge of all sorts of theoretical and research traditions, a kind of intellectual Island of Lost Toys (another seasonal reference).

But if we’re going to be a customs house of conversation on the border between intellectual worlds, we have to listen to each other with good will.  This is why I’m not citing in this piece a single outrageous thing written by aggrieved anthropologists on either side, nor am I going to cite the rageaholic bloggers and columnists who just want to stir up a s***storm in our field. It’s too easy to get revved up by something insensitive someone says about you and go on an equal and opposite diatribe.

I’m always amazed how the rageaholics can be so thin-skinned to criticism, so long-remembering of an insult suffered (or suffered by a supposed ‘friend’), and yet so indifferent to the effect of the bile they spit or the insensitive things that they themselves say. To me, scholarship is about generosity of spirit, acknowledging of one’s own limits, recognition of other’s achievement, in addition to the fun egocentric, narcissistic blowing of one’s own trumpet.

The resurgence of the science-anti-science debate seems to me to be the clearest evidence that even in academe, the loudest malcontents and angry screamers get more than their fair share of time on the microphone.  Some of the screamers are specialist polemicists, thriving on strife, even when it’s mostly just in their own eyes (as Daniel has pointed out is the case in this particular outburst).  And, yes, I know, you can find some riled up intellectual adversary who said something truly asinine — that’s the nature of over-heated posturing.

To me, one of the great lessons of anthropology, unlike those fields that are faithfully devoted to a more narrow set of research methods, is that methodological versatility and resourcefulness in research design allows anthropologists (and similar researchers) to ask and answer questions that other fields can’t wrap their hands around. If we’re not defensive about our research methods, there’s no reason why we can’t learn from each other and innovate, and teach the diversity of methods as a real strength of our discipline.  Anthropology would be immeasurably impoverished if we let the limits of a small toolkit of research methods set the limits of what we could examine.

When I read good work done by biological anthropologists or linguistic anthropologists or archaeologists, I usually think, ‘damn, I wish I could do that project, too!’  I cannot understand my colleagues who look at a journal like American Anthropologist or Current Anthropology and are dismayed that there’s not more research exactly like their own – wouldn’t that make producing original work that much harder?

In addition, analytical versatility, the fact that the field does not all march under the same theoretical banner, means that anthropology isn’t an intellectual sausage factory. In homogeneous fields, whatever goes into the mix, you’re pretty sure you already know what the end product is going to taste like.  As I tell my students, theoretical diversity means that we can see more sides of the same problem, comb through the old data and notice patterns that someone else missed.

I’m not going to lash out at methodological critics of anthropology, but if you are never, under any circumstances, will recognize the validity of fieldwork methods or interview-based research or genetic testing for ancestry or material culture research or statistical analysis, then please don’t pretend that you’re keeping an open mind or only upset because of a change in wording or a statement. Personally, I can’t stand theoreticians who are like a one note symphony.  No matter what data you give them, they’ll pretty much come to the same conclusion that they wrote in their original project descriptions, or that they read in their favourite theorist, but I recognize that this is making a virtue of my own intellectual inconsistency.

Likewise, those cultural (or biological or archaeological) anthropologists who unflinchingly stay devoted to a single theoretical perspective — no matter what empirical results they find, they will always return to the same argument — seem to me to be simply another flavor of sausage factory.  That’s the type of scholarship that really makes me groan; not one school of thought or another, but rather the slavish repetition of the same conclusion, whether it’s by a feminist post-structuralist, a cultural materialist, an evolutionary psychologist or a neo-Marxist discursive theorist.

There’s an important intellectual role for the real theoretical monomaniacs that I have to acknowledge, even if I don’t want to do that kind of work: they help us to see clearly all the entailments, the limitations, and the strengths of different perspectives. We need a little personal fanaticism in our research from time to time if we’re going to truly pursue a theoretical argument, methodological innovation or topic out to its conclusion.

But we have to still recognize that we are part of a larger collective effort when we engage in this sort of monomaniacal pursuit.  Just because you paint a brilliant monochromatic portrait, don’t try to throw out the rest of your oils.

In such a wide, diverse field as anthropology, everyone is in a minority group, so it’s a little rich to think that any one intellectual clique is the only body of real dissenters and that the rest of the field is out to persecute them, a brew of intellectual narcissism and academic paranoia.  But since there’s nothing to get the blood flowing like a jolt of self-righteous anger, some folks keep getting charged up by this debate, for reasons that I don’t full understand.

On teaching outrage

From the trenches of teaching, mentoring young researchers, trying to get good research findings, training people to do analysis, and applying for grants from respectable science foundations, all the vitriol and internecine bashing of folks down the hall in the department seems hopelessly counter-productive to me. But I also understand how it makes sense for getting some tasks done.

Since I teach a course on culture and human rights, I know that a liberal dash of outrage is an easy way to spice up your lectures.  Throw in a bit of overheated purple prose, and even a few of the otherwise borderline comatose students will perk up from intellectual somnambulance, stop breathing through their mouths, and get all worked up.

But over time, I’ve tried to stop doing this, in part because I realized that, although it made for lively lectures, the tone of outrage had a negative impact on my pedagogical aims.  The outrage-as-rhetoric was especially problematic as a teaching strategy.

First, students began to think that the most important part of cultural anthropology (or whatever I’m teaching) is a moral or emotional posture, perhaps because it’s one of the easiest things about our field to imitate.  So if I teach the outrage, that tends to be all that I get in final projects and papers – lots of outrage, very little evidence-based argument (harder to imitate that part of the lectures and readings), and a lot of over-the-top, adjective-thick, violet verbiage.

I’ve had to explain to students that, even if you’re trying to persuade someone of a profoundly moral argument or talking about great injustice, too much of your own emotion in the account can suck the air out of the room, leaving little space for your reader to have his or her own emotional reaction.

Second, teaching theory through outrage tends, in my experience, to give students the message that their job is to get outraged and attack everything in sight (kind of like some bloggers, I suppose).  By the time they get to their proposals, the theory section can briefly be summarized as, ‘The vast majority of my predecessors were complete idiots who couldn’t be trusted to scratch their own elbows.’  To put it bluntly, some forms of critique are just too easy and a person can do them without really understanding a theorist’s or analyst’s argument.

For example, there’s the ‘critique for incompleteness,’ where the critic points out something tangentially related to the author’s topic or argument and then asserts that this missing element is THE most important consideration, so the argument is hopelessly, fatally flawed.  Bonus points for picking something missing that your audience already thinks is crucially important (for example, didn’t take into account genetics, or gender, or race, or economic realities, or ‘agency’ or something that your audience agrees is absolutely fundamental).

I’ve had this one done to me many times and I find it terribly frustrating as the ‘incompleteness’ criticism is always available and virtually never, by definition, going to the heart of what’s presented.  It’s almost always a redirection into something that the critic asserts is interesting, but may not be germane to the material at hand.

Or there’s the ‘critique from creative misunderstanding’ in which the critic latches onto a single term or phrase, intentionally misunderstands it or comes up with an interpretation that could only occur to the most hostile, cranky, ill-disposed reader, and then projects the misunderstanding onto a straw version of the presenter.   Then, outraged, the critic can attack straw man for outrageous things that the critic alleges the straw man said.

Or there’s the ‘guilt by association’ critique in which the critic sees some sort of link between what the author writes and some deeply loathed intellectual villain, draws some sort of tenuous connection, and then just substitutes the villain’s ideas for the argument, essay or analysis in question.  Although not as defenseless as a strawman, the substitution of associated villain can often allow the critique to comfortably slide into familiar grooves for tidy formulaic conclusion.  We can almost sing along with the conclusions to these critiques as the critic returns to the familiar chorus.

We could go on, but the point is that, although critique is good intellectual practice, I actually think that, once you’re trained in it, some forms are pretty bloody easy.  Before you think I’m, by implication, accusing exclusively one side in the science-anti-science debate of engaging in this sort of activity, I think it’s pretty rife on all ‘sides’ of this shifting intellectual polygon.  That is, the same writers who are outraged that their use of genetic data provokes a critic to link them to notorious ‘race science’ practitioners will sometimes then assume that their critic must really be a reincarnation of Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler, and take out all their pent up frustrations.  Or the same scholar who feels wronged by being taken as a formulaic applicant of Foucauldian thought accuses his or her critics of being unthinking positivists.

On ‘persecution’ and institutional fragility

For me, the Great Anthropology Science War all gets put into perspective by events like what we’re suffering at Macquarie University right now, where I’ve been ‘stood down’ for taking industrial action (that’s like being laid off).

Our union confronted our university administration over stagnating wages, the Faculty of Science being forced to slash its budget (including likely lay-offs and horrible cuts to teaching budgets), and steadily escalating student enrollments without staffing keeping pace.  Our administration tries to tell us how our demands that salaries match increases at other publicly-funded universities are out of line even though our Vice Chancellor (like a president) was crowing in June about a $60+ million surplus.  In addition he’s given himself a 60% raise in less than three years and increased the number of high-level administrators by 250% (if you want to find out more, check out the union website or the Facebook ‘I support Macquarie staff’ page).

For some inexplicable reason, Macquarie administration has especially gone after the Faculty of Science this year, calling for staff cutbacks even though programs like Computer Science and Environmental Science managed to come up with millions of dollars of savings after the Financial Office manufactured a supposed ‘budget crisis’ (they moved the goal-posts on Science).

I should also point out that our anthropology department, composed entirely of cultural anthropologists and one neuroanthropologist, is unanimously in the mix, standing together with the Faculty of Science here at Macquarie and taking a pre-Christmas lay-off on the chin.  The solidarity arises in part because a lot of cultural anthropologists, in spite of their fancy language, do understand profoundly social justice, resistance to arbitrary authority, and the machinations of the powerful. Ironically, some of the most high falutin of cultural anthro- and cultural studies-speak is really useful for grappling with the world of PR, spin, and creative mis-statement that we’re up against in this fight for continued support for the Faculty of Science.

In other words, stand together or be hung separately in the intellectual world, as far as I’m concerned.  And my differences with a fellow researcher (scientist, pseudo-scientist or non-scientist) pale in comparison to my common cause in the face of attacks on independent research, of upper executives’ preening sense of entitlement and self-importance, of corporatization of universities, and of overall hostility in the public to intellectuals.

I know we love to fight amongst ourselves, but we really do need to keep the whole thing in perspective, especially when the kids are listening.  I wish my colleagues, cultural anthropologists, were better at this, but I’m really pleased that when push comes to shove, we tend to side with the underdog, even when it’s ‘scientists.’

In my view, forces outside the University and research community more generally often use exaggerated rhetoric from our internal battles against us, manipulating us into fighting each other for their own purposes (‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’).  I’m not saying it’s some sort of conspiracy; rather, when anti-intellectuals want to delegitimize academic inquiry, or when people on the border want to attack those on the other side or in the middle zone, they elevate any critique from within science for their own purposes (witness the debate around climate change and the way that any dissenting view is quickly blown up in importance, even if the exaggeration requires that the view be distorted).

I sound like my mother, pleading with everyone for greater civility and politeness (‘Why can’t you STOP YELLING!?’  I yell.).  But I think we’re getting played when we fall for the crowding cheering us on to ‘Fight! Fight!’ Do we really want to demolish our home discipline, one that offers us unique opportunities that we would not get were we to find other homes?  Do we really look around and, aside from the truly pathological departments, and think we’d be better off in some other discipline?  And even if you do want to move on to a difference discipline, can’t you leave anthropology here for those of us who love the joint?

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8 Responses to Late to the science-anti-science bum fight…

  1. Greg, it’s good to get your take on this, and I’m sorry that your principaled stance at your university has had such negative consequences. Your sense of irritation with the whole matter rings out loud and clear, and given your personal situation, it makes a lot of sense that this issue wouldn’t register as a major priority. However, I’m afraid that your analysis of the situation feeds into the notion that most of us who have been engaged in the issue have been a bunch of hysterical thin-skinned twits about the whole thing and have just been itching for a philosophical fight with an association against which we’ve harbored resentment 4-eva. Indeed, that’s how the NY Times pieces have spun this – a strictly dichotomous bitchfest – but that’s not how it’s played out in the conversations I’ve been part of. I am a biological anthropologist who is also a dues-paying member of the AAA, has presented at the AAA conference, and has purposely published my work in American Anthropologist (which, frankly, is a risk for me as non-tenured faculty in a clinical department because of its obscurity and low impact factor). Because my academic home is in a non-anthropology setting, I’ve been actively reaching out to increase my knowledge of and participation in the AAA in a sense to anchor my identity as an anthropologist in something broader than my immediate field of interest. And I also consider myself a scientist. Given the ideological history of the field and the very real minority of biological anthropologists within the AAA (along with fairly steady bioanth membership losses largely because of what is viewed as AAA’s irrelevance to many biological anthropologists), the replacement of the word “science” with the phrase “public understanding” was in fact very troubling. But even more so was the lack of any compelling explanation or self-reflection on the incident from the board regarding what these changes meant or how they would be viewed. These were the primary issues being raised by anthropologists involved in the debate, not rehashings of the science wars or Napoleon Chagnon.

    I don’t feel persecuted and I’ve yet to hear my equally concerned scientifically oriented colleagues describe themselves feeling thus. But while AAA membership overall may be holding steady and relations within departments are largely pleasant, the attititude the flagship anthropological association toward a minority of its membership, while not rising to the level of crisis that losing one’s job certainly is, is a concern worthy of debate, critique, and solution.

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  2. daniel.lende says:


    I agree with you, in that the whole controversy has felt like a high-stakes affair for me, and that the AAA could have done better in thinking about what the changes in the long-range plan might represent to the entire membership and explaining more about the whole process and what they are going to do moving forward.

    But I like Greg’s piece, coming as it does from someone not actively engaged in the controversy and also from someone deeply committed to the breadth and depth of the discipline. These two points especially resonated with me:

    -His characterization of the hybrid, in-the-middle nature of the field of anthropology (and thus beyond the either-or dichotomy)

    -His “stop complaining” and get on with the good stuff point – that there are other, potentially larger, battles to fight and things to accomplish

    Largely, I see it as a call for more unity, and using that unity as a way to move forward as a discipline.

    We’re in the middle, and rather than apologizing for diversity, and for past “sins” that others are all too happy to keep pointing out to their own benefit, we can come together and make anthropology stronger and more central as a social science focused on humanity at large.

    I also see his post as a call for civility and respect, against previous high-pitched battles and the strong echoes of that seen in the present controversy. I definitely applaud that, and I have especially seen it in the vast majority of anthropology bloggers online in our interactions around this AAA controversy.

    I think that then puts us in a position to find our commonalities and to use that as a platform for building a better discipline towards the future.

    I do see him as spending time trying to diagnose what creates rivalries and divisions within the field – one-note theoreticians, human fights over resources and prestige and slights, guilt by association critiques, outrage and jargon rather than civility and evidence, focusing on one’s own ability to maintain an open mind, and so forth.

    But I don’t think he is calling the people who really tried to move forward the debate thin-skinned twits. Rather, he’s like to see people move beyond the few who do like to play the “I can critique louder than anyone” ploy. Hurrah for that.

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  4. gregdowney says:

    Julienne –
    Great to hear from you, and I always remember our conversation about placentas (well, there have been a couple) at the AAAs when I talk to my students about sexuality, reproduction, and male-female differences in human evolution. I always feel like that lecture probably postpones the age of first reproduction in my young women students by at least six months…

    I understand where you’re coming from, and I think we would all have slightly different desires from our professional organization depending upon the particular position we’re in.

    But I do think that some of the commentators on all sides (not just the biological anthropologists) have sometimes taken a tone which is not terribly productive and is a bit over the top. Some things I read from cultural anthropologists made me cringe (as did some of the stuff written by biological anthropologists). I felt like I was watching a fight and everyone someone would say something that made me feel like, well, that’s an insult that’s going to be hard to forget.

    Part of this overheated temp in the rhetoric arises from the nature of blogging, which I find really encourages over the top hyperbole, and part of it comes from some journalists gravitating toward the most incendiary quotes. I just think we can be smarter about this, realize that playing up the intensity of the debate and letting those with an interest in the hyperbole get us on the record saying things we might not say if we thought a bit longer about it plays into the hands of those who want to divide the field.

    Like you, I’d love to see more interaction between cultural anthropologists and scientists from a number of fields: demography, biology, genetics, neurology, cognitive science, ethology… I’m probably in the minority among cultural anthropologists, but I would be deeply disappointed to see the AAA lose greater relevance among biological anthropologists — I’d like to see more of them at the AAA (there’s really none of them at the Aus Anthr Soc, and it’s a profound disappointment about relocating here, something I’d like to see change).

    So my goal would certainly not be to decrease the representation of self-identified ‘scientists’ in anthropology (cultural or biological or any other subfield) but to throw some water on the sense that it has to be a battle to bring about this change. I hope that I walk this walk in what I write and in the panels I propose (such as the one for the AAS 2011) and in the posts I put up.

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