Anthropology Without Science

A change to an association's long-range plan sparks concerns that it no longer believes the objective truth is a goal worth pursuing.
November 30, 2010

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."

The Society for Anthropological Sciences, which is a smaller and more recently formed group than the larger, older and broader association, embraces and promotes empirical research. It condemned the move by the century-old, 10,000-member American Anthropological Association, Peregrine wrote.

The move has sparked debate on blogs and among the various sub-specialties of the discipline about the proper place of science in anthropology. Some also say privately that this conflict marks the latest in a running cycle of perceived exclusions among the heterodox discipline. In the past, archaeologists and practicing and professional anthropologists have argued that the discipline as a whole has become dominated by cultural anthropologists, and has grown indifferent to their interests.

More fundamentally, the dispute has brought to light how little common ground is shared by anthropologists who span a wide array of sub-specialties, said Elizabeth Cashdan, chair of anthropology at the University of Utah. For example, some anthropologists might mine the language and analytical tools favored by such humanities as literary criticism, while others may be more likely to deploy statistical methodology as befits social science. Still others might rely on the biological metrics, hard data and scientific method used by natural scientists. "This is reflective of tensions in the whole discipline," said Cashdan, a bio-cultural anthropologist who described herself as "very dismayed" by recent developments.

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."

Still, the change seemed to resonate uncomfortably with some more scientifically oriented anthropologists, who perceived a broader shift in the discipline that they say began decades ago. "It’s become so dominated by, not so much humanistic scholars, but by scholars who are actively hostile" to science, said Raymond Hames, chair of anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a cultural anthropologist who favors a scientific approach.

Hames and Cashdan echoed an argument that was articulated more provocatively in a recent blog post in Psychology Today by Alice Dreger, who holds a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, and who distinguished between "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing" and those who pay closer attention to hard data -- and follow that data wherever they lead. To one group, objective truth as revealed by science is an ideal to pursue, while to the other, that notion poses problems because it embodies Westernized and colonial ideals. "Our only strength is that we use the scientific method and try to get things right rather than act as a vocal, emotional do-gooder group who’ll use any argument," said Hames. "We can use science to understand culture."

It is unclear what the reasoning was for the change, and leaders of the executive board of the anthropological association did not respond to requests for comment. Some observers pointed to an opinion that appeared on the blog, Recycled Minds, posted by someone describing himself as a doctoral candidate in applied anthropology at the University of South Florida. The blogger, Dooglas Carl, argued that continuing to use the term "science" in the association's mission statement had become a concern because it maintained "the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline."

In contrast, scrubbing science from the plan's mission statement would allow anthropologists to better incorporate and appreciate the ways of knowing practiced by the people that scholars study and work with closely. "It is well past the time for this to change," wrote Carl. "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."

Such arguments found expression at the recent annual meeting of the association, where some anthropologists held themselves to very high ethical standards in dealing with informants and sources; some argued that being an anthropologist, by necessity, meant that one had to advocate on behalf of one's subjects.

Hames did not dispute the need for advocacy, but faulted what he saw as an imbalance in the methods used to pursue that aim. Culturally centered interpretations must be subjected to empirical evaluation, even if doing so exposes anthropologists to charges of disrespecting local customs in favor of the "hegemonic" scientific method, he said. He described a hypothetical field study in which children being studied in a community were found to be dying of dysentery or cholera. "Are we to accept the local explanation that children are dying ... because someone is breaking a taboo and the gods are angry," he said, "or do we look to see how fecal matter is being introduced to the water supply?"


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