Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The place of science in anthropology

By now the word has trickled out that at the recent American Anthropological Association meeting, the AAA executive board approved changes to the statement of purpose that omitted any mention of the word "science" or any description of the discipline of anthropology as a science.

As a news article in today's Inside Higher Ed reports,"a new long-range plan for the American Anthropological Association that omits the word “science” from the organization's vision for its future has exposed fissures in the discipline. The plan, adopted by the executive board of the association at its annual meeting two weeks ago, includes 'significant changes to the American Anthropological Association mission statement -- it removes all mention of science,' Peter N. Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences and professor at Lawrence University, wrote in a widely circulated e-mail to members. The changes to the plan, he continued, 'undermine American anthropology.'"

In the interest of full disclosure, I was not at the executive committee meeting, was not directly provided the changed wording, and have seen only second-hand accounts of the email circulated by Professor Peter Peregrine, President of the Society for Anthropological Sciences that raised an alarm about the changes, but I have received corroboration of the changes from trusted informants within AAA. The wording on the AAA website does not yet reflect these changes.

It remains to be seen whether there was a bioanthropological or archaeological presence when those decisions were made, and thus far the AAA has not provided a rationale for the changes. The Inside Higher Ed piece describes what frankly appears to me to be a bit of backpedaling on the part of the association: "The association said that the long-range plan's change in language reflected a simple wordsmithing choice more than a true shift in purpose. The removal of any mention of science from the plan's mission statement applies only to the long-range plan -- and not to the organization itself or its larger direction, said Damon Dozier, a spokesman for the association. 'We have no interest in taking science out of the discipline,' he said. 'It’s not as if the anthropology community is turning its back on science.' Dozier added that the alterations to the plan, though already adopted by the executive board of the association, are part of an ongoing dialogue and will be subject to revision. 'This isn’t something that’s written in stone,' he said. 'This long-range plan is something that will be tweaked over time.'"

Again, I am not privy to the inner workings of the AAA and don't know what happened or why, but it seems disingenuous to me to be surprised that these changes to the statement of purpose (which, remember, were approved by the AAA executive board) have been met with dismay and even a sense of betrayal by those of us who employ various aspects and tools of the scientific method in the pursuit of anthropological research. Obviously this move yet again tears the worn-out bandaid off the decades old debate regarding four fields anthropology and the divisive battles between departments over identity, many of which continue to lead to the splintering of sociocultural and biological factions into separate departments and in some cases, outright dissolution of anthropology departments.

I don't even know how to unpack the argument being made by at least one sociocultural blogger that the move to redefine anthropology as a non-science is to be applauded because science, as an emblem of Western privilege, obscures indigenous ways of knowing: "Historically not included under the rubric of "science", however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term "science" in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.
The 'science-free' mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged "science" over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining."

I am not arguing that there are no other valid modes of sampling the universe besides science, but explicitly eliminating science as a way of knowing in order to highlight other ways of knowing is not a concept I can grasp. It may be because I didn't take a lot of coursework in sociocultural anthropology. Unfortunately, I think some of our sociocultural colleagues believe that we biological anthropologists view our study populations as Dawkinsesque genomic automatons and culture as either a precisely quantifiable logic problem or completely irrelevant, a variable to be "controlled" in regression models. It might have been eye-opening for members of the executive committee to attend the fascinating and very culturally-driven biocultural session I and other biological anthropologists (including a geneticist, human biologist, and primatologist) participated in at AAA.

For our biological colleagues who already feel the AAA and its journal, American Anthropologist, are irrelevant to them, this move and the perception of dismissal it engenders only further exacerbate those tensions. If it was merely an issue of "wordsmithing" then it demonstrates a remarkable tone deafness and insensitivity to the various stakeholders within anthropology who fully consider themselves scientists (me included). I hope we hear more from the Association and I hope that this stumble does indeed open the way to meaningful dialogue and better understanding within our discipline. Stay tuned.


  1. I don't agree with the blogger quoted in the article, but I am also ambivalent about calling anthropology "science" when much of it (e.g., ethnography) is manifestly not science. I think anthropology is broader than science, and so I use the word "scholarly" in place of "scientific". I'm more concerned with the implication in the reworded statement that anthropology is a public service rather than an intellectual activity.

  2. Good point about the public service issue - I find that odd and wonder what the rationale for that emphasis of practice over theory was. I also take your point that anthropology employs a variety of tools that are non-science, but since several subdisciplines do use explicitly scientific tools, and they are the subdisciplines that have frequently been marginalized and even demonized by the discipline at large, it is troubling to me that compromise wording that indicated this full range was not used. Surely there are better ways to address the multiplicity of "scholarly" approaches than to dismiss that one of them is science.

  3. Bravo, Julienne. This is a great post.

  4. Agreed. Great post. Sad and depressing, if you ask me. I'm one of the few that loves being an anthropologist. Although I'm physical, I still love reading about and thinking about penetrating hegemony! I consider myself a 100% FOUR FIELD anthropologists. Although I may not publish on more social science topics, I live my life and teach using the methods and philosophies I acquired from the FOUR FIELD anthro departments I have been associate with.

    Thanks again for the post.

  5. Great post, and thanks for the heads-up. My take is that this move was made to point the AAA even further in the direction of current sociocultural anthro. I have listened to a couple dozen sociocultural colloquium talks over the past few years, and it seems clear to me that their subfield is moving more and more toward public interest journalism and community activism - fighting for the disenfranchised and repressed.

    That's a laudable goal, and it's in line with my personal politics. But I'd argue that it isn't really intended to help us understand humans or humanity - that it's not a "scholarly" exercise, to use Jon's word. The AAA statement seems to embrace this move though, replacing the aim of greater understanding with the aim of community service.

    There is good, scholarly sociocultural work out there - I've seen a handful of talks that make that clear. And it's those folks that I'm glad to work alongside, even if they don't share my science-based research perspective. One wonders how much longer that sort of cultural work will survive, or whether all four subfields will ever really find a common home in AAA, if the move away from scholarly activity continues.

  6. Herman, what a thoughtful contribution. I agree.

    Julienne links to a piece by Peter Wood over at the Chronicle that makes a similar point: he questions the insertion of "public understanding" over "science" and what this means for anthropological scholarship.

    What I find interesting about this is that I consider my work inherently activist, and I am very much a biological anthropologist and a scientist. The two are not separate goals, but in my owrk, being able to answer questions, test medical assumptions, and offer a new perspective to young women who want to better understand their physiology are entwined.

  7. Thanks for this Julienne. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of a socio-cultural blogger who was able to say exactly why this change is just so problematic (without meaning to): Science doesn't recognize the other ways of knowing. But aren't we, as Westerners and Americans (it's called the AAA after all) born of the Enlightenment, and thus science is OUR indigenous way of knowing? So the anthropology envisioned by the AAA is just really not recognizing one way of knowing. A really awesome way, I might add.

  8. I read the removal of the word "science" as pretty short sighted, but in line with other things I am have seen in anthro about making anthropology more accessible to the public. There have been posts around the internet about how anthro can engage more with the public and I have also read complaints about anthropologists not being called up as "experts" to comment on a story that seems to be calling out for an anthropological viewpoint. That said, it seems clear to me there were not many biological anthropologists involved with this decision, or else the wording would have been handled in a different way.

  9. a.k.a. Josh W. @ IUSB

    There are already humanistic ways of approaching sociocultural experiences without science. They are frequently called "area studies" or "cultural studies" or have similar names. They provide useful introspection and commentary on the human... condition, and include scientific results among their resources. Yet they are not science.

    The AAA is deflating its own purpose if it maintains that, without science, we "examine patterns and processes of cultural change ... are interested in human biological origins," and that although we recognize "within every society there are commonalities as well as variation," we nevertheless find that language and culture "equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds."

    These are all direct quotes from the AAA website under "What is Anthropology" and I maintain that science, as a practice of organizing knowledge with testable predictions about observed phenomena is the way anthropology is accomplished. We are not a 'hard science' modeling valence shells of cultural behavior, but what exactly is the point of participant observation if not to gather knowledge and organize it in a meaningful way to communicate the reality of a given experience? Why should anybody listen to an anthropologist/archaeologist/bioanthro/linguist who cannot explain WHY something happened in a way which allows the audience to learn the characteristics of that experience and compare it to other experiences.

    Since I have a joint appointment between anthropology and informatics (cf. computer science), I realize that I'm ideologically suspect. But the reason I have a job is that there are, cross-culturally human ways of engaging with information and technologies because we are information organisms (cf. cyborg!), and there are important culturally-contextual nuances to human-technology interaction. The fact that I try to recognize the origins, biases, and limitations of science makes me a more capable scientist, and hopefully a less hubristic one than this post would indicate.

  10. It's particularly ironic that news about the AAA's decision is breaking today. Today is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London (the world's oldest continuously-operating science academy) and they've just set up a website on which cultural evolution is listed as one of 12 major cutting-edge scientific endeavours:

    the general intro: http://royalsociety.org/news/science-sees-further/

    the 12 topics: http://royalsociety.org/further/

    the cultural evolution article: http://royalsociety.org/further/cultural-evolution/

    So, the AAA have decided to drop science just as the scientific study of culture is making headlines. Great timing.

  11. This is worth a read too: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fetishes-i-dont-get/201011/no-science-please-were-anthropologists

  12. I take exception to the assumption that the divide is between sociocultural on the one side and biological/archeology on the other. Many sociocultural anthropologists explicitly embrace the scientific side of anthropology, and even use scientific methods in studying traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and "other ways of knowing." As an applied sociocultural anthropologist I was hired to conduct science-based analyses and have no problem including both qualitative and quantitative data within those.

  13. There is no reason that ethnography needn't be included under the umbrella of science.

  14. Trish, I appreciate your views on this. To be clear, saying the divide is between sociocultural and biological anthropology is not the same as saying "ALL sociocultural anthropologists subscribe to this view." See Krystal D'Costa's great post over at Anthropology in Practice (I link to it in a more recent BANDIT post) as an example of the shared befuddlement regarding the AAA's stance. That said, it seems reasonable to assume that those who eschew the notion of anthropology as a science or the use of systematic empirical tools (not that there's anything wrong with that) and the endorsement of the discipline as "public advocacy" are more likely to be of a sociocultural persuasion rather than a biological/archaeological one. The membership of AAA overall skews enormously to the S/C constituency. While we are still awaiting more information, it seems unlikely that the AAA executive committee is peopled equally with representatives of all branches of the discipline. Unfortunately, the decision to change the wording and thus the identity of the association seems to have been a simple majority decision, without regard to the impact on minority constituencies.

  15. Ping! I've joined the fray, er, the conversation.

  16. I'm just wondering if anyone has bothered to check with the AAA about this? As I read the comments, I can infer a degree of us/them thinking when it comes to followers of this blog toward the AAA.

    IF, in fact, the AAA actually IS trying to distance itself from science, I say have at them, and grant no quarter. However, I cling to an archaic habit of checking sources.

    On the AAA website, I found this press release:
    "Some recent media coverage, including an article in the New York Times, has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology. On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research....
    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."

    There is more, and I found some of it helpful in placing the proposed changes in context. I strongly suggest reading it, which you may do at this URL:

    Further, in a private correspondence, a colleague who is a professor at a major university notes, "...the statement in question is not the statement of purpose of the AAA, or of anthropology as a profession.
    It is the mission statement of the AAA¹s long-range planning committee."

    As I understand it, the intention of these changes was to make the planning process more inclusive of those who practise anthropology using methodologies that do not fit neatly into rigid definitions of science.

    In my experience, anthropology has the merit of being a portmanteau field of study, seeking to understand the human species from a broad range of perspectives. To shut science out of that process would be utter folly. But many aspects of the lived experience of peoples in their cultures do not easily lend themselves to investigation by rigorous quantitative methods, in their current state of development. To deny the legitimacy of approaches that gather qualitative data about those aspects of our field is to cut ourselves off from vital sources of valuable knowledge.

  17. Sorry for the double post. First try got me an error message.

  18. Hmmmm...wonder why my comments, which had appeared on this board, have disappeared.
    Or should I say, been deleted?