Friday, December 3, 2010

The AAA responds

The AAA officers released a statement about the rewording of the mission.

Long-Range Plan

From the officers of the AAA to our membership:

Our AAA long-range plan needed updating in order to address the changing composition of the profession and the needs of the AAA membership. At its November 20 meeting in New Orleans, the Executive Board specified, concretized, and enlarged its operational roadmap for investing the Association’s resources towards a sustainable future. Section leadership was consulted prior to the New Orleans Annual Meeting, and the Executive Board acted. Then immediately after the highly attended 2010 AAA Meetings in New Orleans, some criticisms of the plan were circulated electronically that had not been sent our way prior to the Meetings. Among them were thoughtful responses from several quarters, many queries about hearsay, and some suggestions for improvement or change. These responses, however, were amped up by blog headline editors earlier this week: “Anthropology Without Science” and “No Science Please. We’re Anthropologists.” We believe that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings. Each one of us (the four officers of the AAA) may add or comment on the issues separately, but collectively we care about letting the entire association see the document at hand. We know that comments will continue to come our way and we welcome them from our clearly engaged membership.

Virginia R. Dominguez, President
Leith Mullings, President-Elect
Debra L. Martin, Secretary
Edward Liebow, Treasurer

Interesting that they blame bloggers for "amping up" the response. Wonder if they noticed that a lot of the bloggers were some of their own? I think it's good that they are considering this as an example of the power of symbols, but wonder why this didn't occur to them sooner. Indeed, according to their own spokesperson a few days ago, the AAA wasn't prepared for the impact of that symbolism:
"Mr. Dozier, meanwhile, believes that this month's dispute has been rooted in miscommunication. "We wanted to choose language that described our purposes in more expansive ways," he says. No one realized, he says, how loaded the word "science" actually might be."


  1. I am puzzled by the responses to all this. Scientists are generally concerned with things like "empirical description" "precision" "deduction" "experimentation" "hypopthesis testing" "replicability" etc. Essentially, they are concerned with being "accurate." And it is more accurate to state that anthropology is "the study of humankind" (or some variant thereof) and it is less accurate to suggest that all of anthropology is science. The recent rewording reflects this. I, for one, want the public to be aware of the following: not all of anthropology is science. Our mission statement doesn't need to reflect anything more than what we are as a discipline. A lot of the criticism of this revision brings in external baggage, like discussing the 'war on science' or pointing to the roots of our discipline. This is unnecessary. Anthropology, as a discipline has changed. The preface of the planning document this reflects this. If layfolks come away with the impression that all of anthropology (and anthropologists) are scientists, they'll get a pretty big shock reading the works of many current cultural anthropologists at U. of Chicago (as well as its "satellite campus," University of Virginia); some of these anthropologists have been pretty anti-science for awhile (and this has had the reciprocal effect of causing us science-minded folks to better define our goals and state our positions). If you want the public to view Bruno Latour as a "scientist" in the same vein as, say, Tim White, then by all means let's return to having "science" define anthropology. But that would be both misleading and inaccurate. And both White and Latour would agree.

  2. Rich, great comments. A few things come to mind:
    1. If we say that defining anthropology as a science is inaccurate, then I would argue we have to open up a much broader discussion about what constitutes the "social sciences." For much of its history, anthropology has been considered a science in this realm. So changing the wording to eliminate that distinction is a rather large jump even beyond the confines of just anthropology.
    2. Totally agreed that Bruno Latour and Tim White do not equate. Sort of a straw man as I don't think anybody would make that argument. What I object to is that by totally eliminating the terminology or the tools of science from this statement, a Latourian identity is privileged over a Whitian one. That is, the sociocultural and philosophical dissection of science practice, rather than the practice of science itself, when both are legitimate expressions of anthropological research.
    3. I think we are far from a widespread popular impression that all anthropologists are scientists. I don't think on the whole anthropology has done a good job at letting people know what we are. Certainly, having "science" in the mission statement - which was barely read by the membership let alone the lay public - didn't establish a singular anthropological identity. Nor should it, as one of our central commonalities IS our diversity of theory and practice. From a personal standpoint, one of my concerns is that as a biological anthropologist in a basic science and clinical environment, I know many of my colleagues already don't consider me a "real" scientist. That's troubling to me, particularly as far as tenure and funding are concerned.
    4. It is concerning that the leadership was seemingly not aware that this would be a sore point, that a largely sociocultural organization cutting all mention of science - without any explanation other than vague and frankly baffling comments about greater inclusivity - would raise a stir given the history of tensions within our discipline and the marginalization of those anthropologists who absolutely subscribe to a view of anthropology as a science and themselves as scientists. How about a survey of the membership BEFORE the wording was changed? How about a session at AAA to discuss this? This tone deafness, perhaps more than the change itself, is what disturbs me.

  3. As I understand it, folks replaced the word "science" with the word "understanding" (let's forget the "public" part). "Understanding" subsumes "science." The change is accurate and even you agree that a strength of anthropology is its "diversity of theory and practice." Anthropology is conceptually variegated--it is a rainbow, so to speak. Yet for a long time, the preface to the planning statement has described it as "blue." Now the planning statement has been reworded and the word "blue" has been replaced with something along the lines of "anthropology is a rainbow." This seems pretty black-n-white to me.

    In my opinion, the presumed politics of the AAA leadership, how you are viewed by your colleagues, how we define "social sciences" etc., are peripheral to this basic issue (I'm not trying to minimize these things, just suggesting they fall outside of the debate). The change is simply semantically accurate. It is not a straw man to suggest that Latour and White are different; they are. Like Latour, there are many anthropologists who do not do science nor view themselves as scientists. Yet they are anthropologists nonetheless, just like you, me, and Tim White. But to label what the former does as "science" is well, unscientific. And the recent change reflects this.

    Just my 2 cents (or technically, that'd be 4 cents, given my previous comment).

  4. I guess this depends on what each individual considers to be the central debate, right? To you it is semantics: anthropology as a discipline does not fit your definition of a science. End of story. For me, the central debate (if I can distill it to a single entity) is more complex than that. And historical precedent, understanding the motivation and agenda of AAA governance, and how this could shape the view colleagues, administrators, and funding agencies have of my discipline (not just me personally, although we are our own best test cases) are of central importance to me. Maybe not for others and that's ok.

    I do agree there is room to discuss whether anthropology as a discipline should be defined as a science. I'm flexible on that for all of the reasons you and I and many others have been saying. However, the new wording doesn't merely substitute "science" with "discipline". It changes the primary intent from a scholarly pursuit to public understanding, again without explaining what that is or how it is best accomplished: "Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

    So there's a list of different kinds of anthropological approaches, the basis for the claim that this statement invites greater inclusivity. However, I think most anthropologists would agree that at least 5 if not 6 or 7 fall firmly within the traditional bounds of the sociocultural field, which again privileges a very specific connotation of anthroplogical identity and practice. Perhaps the word "science" did that previously; if so, this is not a better solution.

    A point: the straw man I was referring to was the rhetorical suggestion that if we call anthropology a science, we cannot distinguish between Latour and White: "If you want the public to view Bruno Latour as a "scientist" in the same vein as, say, Tim White, then by all means let's return to having "science" define anthropology."

  5. Well, we do both agree on the "public understanding" part. I'd be happier with just "understanding," since I read "public understanding" as being somewhat synonymous with "applied anthropology"...more like "outreach." Most of my research (and a lot of anthropological research in general) is pretty "unapplied," except for maybe some of the stuff that can articulate with conservation and/or education.

    But you'd think they would just write, "This includes archaeological, biological, sociocultural, and linguistic anthropological research." This is congruent with what is a fairly unique American phenomenon: departments generally teach four-field anthropology under one roof. The AAA changes now make their mission statement sound a lot like the Royal Anthropological Institute.

  6. Thanks for posting this and for continuing the conversation, Julienne. I've appreciated your coverage and your perspective.