The study of humankind: questions, answers, and good faith

By Razib Khan | December 12, 2010 4:59 pm

John Hawks, Anthropology in transition:

Of course, by the 1980’s, anthropology was already disowning many of the central figures of its early development. If they had not themselves been tools of the colonialist oppressors, they were dupes of their knowing research subjects. Lewis is quite correct — many students of anthropological theory were no longer required to read extensively of early anthropologists. Alfred Kroeber became more well known as the oppressor of Ishi than for his synthetic work.

Still, I argue that anthropology is a science, even while I acknowledge that many anthropologists are not scientists. How can we have a coherent, rational study of humankind without much of its subject matter being ultimately humanistic in content? I don’t think our situation is very different from most of the social sciences. Psychology, political science and sociology all encompass some body of normative and descriptive theory that is not especially subject to empirical testing. In each field, quantitative data may actually settle some questions, but not others. Nevertheless, our understanding of many empirically tractable issues is enhanced by considering historical, narrative, or normative information.

Science is just a word. In this case it has become a banner around which people coalesce, to tear it down or defend it. But that’s really not the ultimate point. All intellectual enterprises have a human element to them. Consider the debate over who should be credited as the inventor of calculus. The tardiness of the French in accepting Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution. The adherence of Fred Hoyle to a Steady State model of the cosmos. Geographical differences in the perception of the plausibility of the model of Continental Drift.

From what I can tell many people who have been involved in anthropology, and left the field because of the “anti-scientific” stance, really have more issues with the overwhelming dominance of normative and critical considerations. In particular, as alluded to below the tools of intellectual decomposition and critique are often applied very selectively. There is a tribal aversion to things labelled “Western”, suspicion of “science” as a distinctive and unique production of the “West.” The examples I used above, from mathematics, physics, and biology, indicate that the tribal temptation and tendency is very strong, and can overwhelm fields which are extremely robust and precise. So obviously its impact on disciplines like economics and anthropology can be greater. The main distinction I would make between economists and anthropologists is that the former speak in mathematical or plain language in a manner which makes their manifest falsity clear. Like it or not, many economists did accept a “Great Moderation.” And they were wrong. As an outsider some of the tribal arguments in anthropology are so abstruse that I don’t know what the points of ultimate contention are, though dead white male anthropologists (and intellectuals generally) figure largely in the background as angels or demons in the debates.

MORE ABOUT: Anthropology
  • Ron Strong

    Perhaps we should treat cultural anthropologists the way we treat creationists. There is not much difference between deriving truth from a 2000 year old religion and deriving truth from tribal folk tales.

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  • miko

    Ron, which anthropologist makes truth claims based on tribal folk tales? I’ve never been to an AAA meeting, but I have a hard time imagining a panel session where someone announces “The moon is made out of Htc!kse’s left testicle, and here’s a picture of the guy who told me the truth about it.”

  • TGGP
  • Georg

    this phenomenon is typical for some “school” being
    revolutinized from outside.
    All the stakeholders of the sinecures will protest.
    Two examples:
    Justus von Liebigs applied new chemical evidence
    on agriculture. His reaction to the established
    agricultural “professors” is very funny to read.
    (He edited his own paper, “Liebigs Annalen” :=)

    Staudinger stirred up the “Colloid Science” by
    introduction of covalent polymers.
    As late as 1980 I heard some theories from that
    nonsense. Sometimes the grandsons have to die,
    before a “school” vanishes.

  • Marnie

    When I told my husband about the recent Anthropology decision, he quipped that those uncomfortable with the science aspect of anthropology should move over to the new field of ανθρωπομύθος.

  • John Hawks

    dead white male anthropologists (and intellectuals generally) figure largely in the background as angels or demons in the debates.

    Derrida be praised!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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