Not Feeling the Kinship

Anthropologists debate whether their discipline is divided into humanities and science tribes, and wonder why they can’t all get along.

November 18, 2011

MONTREAL -- As she opened a session here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Virginia R. Dominguez of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the group, told those gathered here that “we don’t have to agree. Sometimes consensus is oppressive." That was one kind of oppression that no one needed to worry about in this session.

The topic was the role of science within anthropology. And while most speakers were careful to say how much they respected one another, it didn’t take long for tensions to surface. Daniel Segal of Pitzer College suggested that the Society for Anthropological Sciences should be renamed the Society for Defensiveness About Science (or else be disbanded). Segal said that the entire AAA is about science, and that a subset shouldn't claim the only expertise about science. Jonathan M. Marks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte asked the audience, "Is there really an anti-science movement in anthropology or is that just a paranoid delusion?"

Others, however spoke about what they see as a strong anti-science movement within anthropology. Anthropologists talked about departments being divided, those who advocate more of an emphasis on biological or physical anthropology said that their views are too often ignored, and some scholars who said that they view themselves as neither pro-science nor anti-science spoke about being caught in crossfire.

One woman in the audience spoke of being criticized by some in her department as "not scientific enough" while others have told her that because she works in part on the issue of the evolution of behavior, "I must be a fascist." She urged the discipline's leaders to find ways to work together, and said that the split is affecting graduate admissions, hiring decisions and tenure evaluations. "People who start out trying to walk the middle ground are pulled in one or the other direction."

Most here agreed that tensions over the exact role of the science and humanities roles in anthropology are hardly new. But many said that the revision of the anthropology association’s long-term plan last year left more people -- especially those who identify with the sciences -- thinking about these issues. The new plan left out the word “science” entirely – and that omission angered many.

The association’s board issued a statement a few weeks later affirming that science remains central to the discipline. And while that statement pleased some of those who had been upset about the new long-term plan, many have argued that the association needs to spend more time talking about these issues, and that led to Thursday’s session.

Peter Peregrine of Lawrence University, who as president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences was among the prominent critics of the way the long-term plan didn’t mention science, organized the session. And he said here that while some anthropologists have said that the debate over the long-term plan was just semantics, or that it was a false issue played up by journalists, he didn’t see it that way.

“A hornet’s nest was opened up,” he said. He said that he had never seen more anger on the part of anthropologists who identify with the discipline’s science traditions. “There was an explosion like I have never heard before,” he said.

But Segal of Pitzer was among several who said that the omission of the word "science" was not that consequential. "That change in the long-range plan would have made nothing happen," he said. "It neither was a threat to science nor did it represent any underlying hostility to science," he said. And "only a few people were worried" about the change.  (He did at one point later say that leaving out the word was a mistake, but suggested that the mistake was a political error, not a substantive one.)

His biggest concern, Segal said, is not for the future of science, but about "hyper-defensiveness about science" and "false friends who keep saying 'the science is falling. The science is falling.' "

Science is in fact quite powerful in the discipline, Segal said, and the “binary” seen by many between science and the humanities within anthropology is a false one. Discussion of that binary is “an attempt on the part of some within the association to regulate what counts as science and not to accept critiques” of how science may be applied without sufficient context, particularly on issues of race.

Segal discussed the way W.E.B. DuBois wrote about issues of race as they related to his grandfather, Alexander DuBois, who was born to a white father and black mother. At some times in his life, when protected by his father, Alexander DuBois was treated as white, and at other times he was treated as black. This illustrates that race cannot be treated as a matter of something that can be determined by biology alone, Segal said. “If you move cats and dogs to different places, they would remain cats and dogs,” he said. In many periods of history, that has not been true for issues of race.

What Segal said is at stake isn’t the right for him to be a humanist, but for his analysis of race (and other issues) to be considered science, even when it extends beyond biology. "I don’t want tolerance" of that work, Segal said. "I want recognition for the scientificness of my anthropology." Much of the anger over the treatment of science in anthropology, he said, is coming from people who have "intolerance for the interpretive social sciences."

H. Russell Bernard of the University of Florida argued that anthropology may now be moving back toward a more unified discipline, after nearly five decades in which specialization was pushing scholars apart. “We’re polarized” now, he said, and the question should be how to change that.

Bernard said that prior to around 1950, anthropology doctoral programs were relatively small (only 22 Ph.D.s were awarded in anthropology that year, he noted, compared to hundreds a year by 1970). And as small programs, they all taught “four-field” anthropology to all students, at least through the master’s level. (While people name the four fields in different ways, they include physical/biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and archaeology.) In the era of smaller programs, anthropologists may have had a research agenda in one of the four fields, but they all knew and saw value in all of them, he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many universities grew rapidly, and so did anthropology departments. Instead of having small departments, where people identified with the discipline, people started to be hired for focused agendas. “The age of highly specialized degrees had begun,” he said. And that specialization, he argued, has left the discipline with much of the fighting that was visible at last year’s meeting and this year’s gathering.

It's time to go back to "building the big tent" in anthropology, and Bernard said some of the current discussion could lead there. And a major part of such an effort needs to be the guidance faculty members give to doctoral students. "We need to be supporting the array of ambitions of our students," he said. The future needs to be one in which "we don’t ask them to choose humanism or science, qualitative or quantitative. We support them to get all the skills they need for the array of jobs available," he said.

"And this means never mistaking quantitative for science or qualitative for non-science," he said.

While no one objected to those ideals, many raised issues pointing to the divisions in the discipline that may make it difficult to act on those values.

Dominguez, the association’s president, noted that many of those most angry over the long-range plan were people who are not active in the association. She noted that many biological anthropologists or archaeologists support their own more specialized groups, and not the larger structure provided by the AAA.

Peregrine of Lawrence University said that while he appreciated all the calls for mutual respect, it is lacking toward those who pursue some approaches. He said he hoped the session would help to identify “what we mean by science” when talking about anthropology. He said that many anthropologists will not tolerate comparative approaches that look at different groups of people.

He described chatting with some graduate students when he was at a recent conference on comparative methods. When he told the grad students what he was there to do, they said, "don’t you know that you can’t do that? You can’t compare people like that. It’s not right."

Further, Peregrine said that too many anthropologists reject quantification. "In my experience, there are anthropologists who believe that by quantifying things about people, you have dehumanized them and turned them into numbers."

Similarly, John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin at Madison objected to people framing the debate as one of the "delusion" of some scholars that there is a bias against science.  Going back to the absence of the word “science” from the long-range plan, he said that "words matter, and words that are voted on by elected committees matter more…. Words don’t get deleted from text files without agency, without somebody doing it."

And while Segal and others said that they don’t know any anthropologists who are anti-science, Hawks said that there are far too many such people. "We get a lot of resistance from colleagues who either don’t understand science or who are resistant to it," he said. At a time when science is important in so many ways to society, he said, "it’s mind-numbingly incomprehensible that our organization wouldn’t want to be in front of that."

Several anthropologists also talked about how these disagreements play out in the current economic environment in higher education – a period in which most departments are more likely to be fighting off retrenchment than planning growth.

A professor from the University of Aberdeen talked about how that Scottish institution is debating whether archaeology is best classified as a science or social science discipline. If it’s a science discipline, he said, it gets continued government support for training undergraduates. If it’s a social science, it doesn’t.

A biological anthropologist in the United States said that the discipline’s disagreements are worked out (or not) in different ways based on how much money is around. “People get along when resources are plentiful, when you can all hire and admit all the graduate students you want, but when resources are drying up, it’s difficult." She added, "And that is unfortunately the future."

Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top