Affirming Science's Place

Seeking to put to rest a controversy that has flared for the past two weeks in the news and blogosphere, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement Monday reaffirming the importance of science to the discipline.

December 14, 2010

Seeking to put to rest a controversy that has flared for the past two weeks in the news and blogosphere, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement Monday reaffirming the importance of science to the discipline.

"Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture," the statement reads. "As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths."

"It was never the board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology."

The statement follows several news accounts here and elsewhere on the subject, which peaked with a piece last week in The New York Times. Those stories focused on changes to the mission statement included in a long-range plan for the association. The plan cut the word "science" in many places and replaced it with references to "public understanding."

Anthropologists from the four traditional subfields -- sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics -- who were grounded in scientific practice raised alarms about what this change signified. The Society for Anthropological Sciences condemned the altered language, arguing that it would undermine anthropological practice.

The new statement, which blames media coverage for blowing the issue out of proportion, may go a long way toward allaying those fears, judging by reaction from some of the most vocal critics of the change to the long-range plan. "This is a very positive move, obviously," said Peter Peregrine, professor of anthropology at Lawrence University and president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. "I think it’s what everybody hoped would happen."

Daniel Lende, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida who has chronicled response to the controversy amongst practitioners through his blog, Neuroanthropology, called Monday's public statement "an important step forward" for the association. "We finally have a statement from the executive board that reaffirms the place of science in anthropology," he said. "My initial concerns have been largely addressed."

Peregrine and Lende also lauded a statement, titled "What is Anthropology?" that was approved during last month's annual meeting on the same day as the changes to the long-range plan. The statement, referred to in a link in the press release that was issued Monday, describes anthropology as the study of humans, past and present. It goes on to say that the discipline "draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences." Peregrine called the statement "very good" and "very clear," while wondering why the statement defining anthropology was not released sooner.

The reason it did not come out sooner, said Virginia R. Dominguez, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the association, was that the two documents -- the long-range plan and the statement defining anthropology -- were intended to serve two different purposes. This difference in purpose also struck a critic of the association, Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University -- and served, in her view, to undermine the effectiveness of Monday's public statement. A long-range plan, which is akin to a strategic plan, stakes out the future direction of the organization. It differs in function from a statement on the nature of anthropology, she said.

But Mary L. Gray, associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University and a member of the executive board, posted on a blog that the long-range plan was intended as a guiding document for the board, and not as a new mission statement. She described a public and inclusive process of revising the plan, which included anthropologists from across the subfields. "The responses on the [listserv] did not suggest that there was any storm brewing or that people felt like they needed more time to block the adoption of this internal document," she wrote.

Dreger also pointed out that the press release issued Monday still does not explain why the long-range plan's language was changed in the first place. "Instead of that explanation, what we've seen are rather patronizing comments about scientists feeling marginalized," Dreger said in an e-mail.

The lingering effects of the controversy are also being debated. Peregrine and Dreger said the controversy made clear to all in the field -- in a much-needed way -- that there is a deeper split over the role of science in the discipline. "There is a division between scientists and humanists in anthropology right now," said Peregrine. "We need to find out how to bridge that gap." Dreger added that the speed with which scientists raised their concerns in this case testified to the depth of anger they felt. "The (still) unexplained purging of 'science' from the long-range plan clearly opened a surface wound that is gushing a fair bit of pus and blood due to previous injuries," she said in an e-mail.

Others pointed out that the way the debate was framed, as a fissure between science and the humanities -- or between an embrace of the scientific method as a means to get to the truth versus a postmodern critique of science as just one more means of knowing -- is an artifact of the 1990s. It has largely resolved itself in anthropological circles as devotees of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have aged and mellowed, some have said. Dominguez said anthropologists are typically very passionate about their discipline. "Every so often something leads us to focus on our intellectual similarities and differences, and we usually end up reminding ourselves and each other why we all chose to become anthropologists," she wrote in an e-mail. "To say that there is a rift is to miss the wonderful plurality of topics, approaches, concerns, and practices in the discipline."

But still, some anthropologists worried that the very public fracas over an internal document will prove harmful, and that it is the last thing the discipline needs as departments nationwide face cuts or merging with other departments. They also fret that a popular perception that anthropology is anti-science will complicate future grants from the National Science Foundation, and that students will be turned off from entering the field.

"The audience at large (including students) might have the impression that most anthropologists are embroiled in a vicious debate about defining our field, and also that there are rampant turf battles in every anthropology department or program in North America," Katherine C. MacKinnon, associate professor of anthropology at Saint Louis University, wrote in an e-mail. "In my experience this is not true, and this depiction is hardly fair to those broadly trained anthropologists who are doing cutting edge, cross-subfield work that is pushing boundaries and furthering the discipline in a positive way."

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