"The" unbearable "whiteness" of "science"

By Razib Khan | December 10, 2010 1:59 am

Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

Aspiring to Know like a white man

If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding Chagnon and the Yanomamo, see Wikipedia. This sort of flare up, as implied by the article, has less to do with the removal of the word “science” than the general tension within anthropology which has simmered and boiled over decades. As someone with a natural science background I naturally have a subjective perspective here, in that I hear from biological anthropologists all the time about weird confusions and bizarre experiences which they’re subject to from cultural anthropologists who emphatically deny that they are scientists. At one point in college I considered adding an anthropology major, obviously focused on the biological field. I went into the anthropology advising office to explore this possibility, and I definitely got the impression the advisor was not happy when I explained my interest in evolution and biological questions. Later an acquaintance who was a biological anthropology major intimated to me that the science and non-science oriented anthropologists did not get along, and the advisor was a non-science type who was rumored to discourage people who were more science-oriented. All that seemed weird enough to me that I never did major in anthropology.

The article I linked to above is reporting on a controversy which already came and went. See these posts:

No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists

Whither Anthropology as a Science?

The place of science in anthropology

The above posts do veer into the ad hominem territory and express a lot of petulance. But I think I know where it comes from. How would you feel as a chemist if professional meetings were dominated by alchemists? If you were a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injuries who had to go to conferences where they mostly talked about Qi? I’ve personally listened to enough  cultural anthropologists who seem to be channeling aliens for whom Michel Foucalt is God as they issue forth a river of impenetrable jargon that I have sympathy for the frustration.

Alex Galoub naturally has a different perspective. I have had friendly internet encounters with one of the other principals of the blog, Kerim Friedman, and in 2004 I was curious as to when they were going to add a biological anthropologist to round out Savage Minds. At the time he said they were looking into it, but reviewing their author list 6 years on it doesn’t look like they ever found anyone. Why? I think it has less to do with discrimination than the simple fact that they don’t know any biological anthropologists well enough to invite them to the blog. In any case, the blog is a conventional one focused on cultural anthropology, so it’s probably best to keep things “in house,” so to speak.

Here’s a response from an “anthro” “blogger” who “is” definitely “on t”he ‘side’ which “de-privileges” “science”:

This email illustrates that some anthropologists are taking these changes seriously, however, I’m not sure that the email argues their case very effectively. To be sure, there are innumerable aspects of American anthropology that utilize science: much of archaeology, forensic and biological anthropology, for example, all lean heavily on distinctly science-based methodologies. Further, as a new instructor in the discipline, I can provide evidence of the lengths to which the discipline goes to frame “anthropology as science” in most introductory text books. There is good reason to maintain representation by “science”, primarily because of the lofty reputation that it holds not only in academia, but culturally in the US and globally.

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. 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.

I assume you’re back now that you’ve cleaned up after vomiting? This is fundamentally Another Way of “Knowing.” There’s really not much that can be said here. If the author above really believes what they’re saying, of course the analogy between cultural anthropologists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine won’t be seen as a slam at all in its impact. But I want to open the conversation up and assert that there’s more than just a division between biological (and archaeology) and cultural anthropology. There are Others Ways of Knowing in cultural anthropology. Alex in his post alluded derisively to Marvin Harris. Harris was a ‘cultural materialist.’ Many of the neo-functionalist arguments you hear today seem to go back to Harris. I don’t agree with a lot of what Harris says, in fact, I think he’s wrong a lot of the time, but I know what he was trying to say. Honestly I can’t really say that with a lot of the cultural anthropological DiScouRsE.

Too often when I argue with the sort of cultural anthropologist who is strongly influenced by what we would broadly (and sometimes inaccurately) term ‘post-modernist,’ and buys strongly into the thesis that we look through the glass so darkly that objectivity is well nigh impossible, one is invariably pummeled by a gale-force blast of obscurantism. But there is a curious tendency at work: obscurity, complexity, and subtly, are on stark display when they wish to deny a positive assertion you make, but such nuance recedes when they make clear statements as to what is just, right, and true. In the end I feel that I’m wasting my time with a bizarro-world lawyer. People who work for amnesty international at least are clear in what they’re trying to do, and what they believe. That I can respect.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689But there are other ways to study cultural anthropology. My own preference is for the small but feisty sect which uses the ‘naturalistic’ approach. Dan Sperber outlines his framework in Explaining Culture, but personally I find D. Jason Slone’s exposition by parody of conventional cultural anthropology ‘discourse’ in the first half of Theological Incorrectness the most entertaining introduction I’ve ever encountered. The Cognition & Culture weblog expresses the general outlook of the naturalistic school, which is promiscuously interdisciplinary, but chaste enough in jargon that even a civilian like me can make do!

Last summer Greg Downey blew a gasket when I stated “I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship.” I was honestly a little surprised that my Orthodox Jewish readers didn’t object in the comments to the comparison! But in general I still stand by that sentiment. The broader influence of the silliest manifestations of extreme epistemological relativism seems to have waned after the Sokal affair and the publication of Higher Superstition. But it clearly persists in some pockets. Scientific anthropologists throw fits because they know that they’re being locked in an asylum where in the inmates are in charge, and frankly no one cares anymore.

Note: I am currently taking a break in the middle of War in Human Civilization to read First Farmers: the origins of agricultural societies, and am struck by the fact that archaeologists were swayed by fashion so often. And yet despite this weakness in this field, archaeologists by and large at least speak in concrete, if often boring, ways. So that you know what they’re saying, wrong or right.


Comments (37)

  1. Sandgroper

    *points the bone at doog*

  2. Interesting story. I have never been one for letting my social scientist friends call themselves ‘scientists’ (following the argument made in John Gaddis’s exemplary The Landscape of History , that history is more of a science than most anything done in the neighboring department), but I have had little exposure to biological anthropology. (Where is the best place to start?)

    Just as disappointing– if not more so – as the decision to jettison science was the choice to make “public understanding” the raison d’etre of anthropological study. I always knew that Gender studies and related fields were more a medium for activism than academics; it is sad to see another field follow in such footsteps. I had thought anthropologists took their work more seriously than this.

  3. bob sykes

    The division here is really between the Enlightenment, which promoted reason and modern science, and Romanticism, which disdains reason and science and embraces emotion. There is a similar divide between environmental science/engineering and environmentalism. The two sides simply do not understand each other and talk past each other.

    Of course, Romanticism leads inexorably to superstition and in extrema to Naziism. And science and reason can be replaced by pseudoscience and pseudoreason leading to totalitarian communism and Italian-style facism.

  4. omar

    Razib, its hard to tell (at a quick read) where your anthro blogger stops and you begin….you should make that clearer otherwise those who are scanning quickly (like me, I had to go back and read more slowly) will get confused.

  5. Wallace

    Interesting. Reminds me slightly of the split in psychology that was basically between the researchers and the practitioners. I believe that ended with the researchers splitting off and forming their own group (Association for Psychological Science) from the main group (American Psychological Association). Generally speaking the two groups do not interact much. I wonder if a similar thing could be in the future for Anthropology?

  6. vnv

    “There are other means to knowing” is a great expression.

  7. dave

    I took a graduate seminar with a group of anthro PhDs once on anthropological linguistics. I thought we were studying the particulars of human language communities in order to learn general principles about human language. When I said so, all the PhDs became visibly angry and disgusted with me. They insisted they had no interest at all in generalizing and several said it would be morally wrong to do so. The seminar was interesting, but it consisted entirely of focusing on incredibly specific linguistic traits of, seemingly, randomly selected language communities from around the world. The seminar mainly provided some cool anecdotes to tell at parties.

    The most positive spin I can put on them is they are like early naturalists who were content to simply document the great variety of living creatures on the planet. And many naturalists greatest hope was not to discover some great organizing principle, but just to find and document some new and novel specimen, and show the specimen off to their colleagues. And the weirder and more remote the specimen, the more prestige in finding it.

    And since many early naturalists would also have been devoutly religious, I imagine some would have felt it morally improper to speculate on the hows and whys of the particular specimens they found. That doing so would somehow be intruding on God’s proper role. They might react with anger and disgust to someone trying to generalize like that, presuming to know the mind of God.

  8. Good article. I too shied away from anthropology, although the history of human origins has been a life long interest. Chalk it up to living in Ghana, West Africa in my early childhood and then growing up in Vancouver seeing totem poles and being hauled to the Calgary Stampede every summer (the Blackfoot).

    What I always wanted to know, simply, was how I was related to THEM. It’s not that I ever discounted indigenous knowledge, but I’ve always wanted to know, by whatever means possible, the real story.

    For millenia, we’ve all clung to our creation stories in trying to know where we came from. They were useful and often contained origin stories that have stood up under the weight of scientific evidence.

    The archaeologists were the first to try to find a more systematic history. I’m sure that archaeologists have had their battles. Look at the persistent belief in the “missing link.”

    The linguists have also had their battles.

    Now comes genetic anthropology. It appears to have been divorced from anthropology as a discipline. What’s sad is that there is now a split in the discipline. Much of the information emerging from genetic anthropology and other scientific disciplines will now be sidelined by anthropologists. In so doing, it will be quite difficult to integrate the stories of indigenous peoples with information emerging out of genetics.

    There’s no way around it. Many people are afraid of knowing and of having to modify the story of who they might be.

    I didn’t know about this latest decision. However, it’s obvious that at many major universities, genetic anthropology has been sidelined by anthropology departments.

    What an unfortunate state of affairs!

  9. Alex

    I’m left speechless. The very idea that a discipline like anthropology could be taken over by hacks who would abandon science in favour of the muddying effects of less rigourous and often emotionally based knowledge systems is deplorable. I would hope that the real scientists would divorce themselves from these pseudo-practitioners of anthropology before the entire field is left bare of any credibility. Their pursuit of other knowledge bases may be laudable but these should be studied and categorized and placed where they belong, in an archive, not used as the means of study. An age of darkness will engulf anthropology as surely as Europe was engulfed by the middle ages.

  10. Chris T

    The AAA appears to have adopted nihilism as it’s philosophy.

    At what point can we split off scientific oriented anthropology from cultural and de-fund the latter?

  11. as noted, there’s no $ to have a split. ppl will muddle on.

    all the PhDs became visibly angry and disgusted with me.

    they do have a lot of disgust at various things.

  12. Matt B.

    I thought of an analogy kind of like what Wallace said at #6. It’s like having a bunch of physicists who want physics to be just engineering. It’s a divide between the pure and the applied. But if you want to be an engineer (not just teach engineering) you don’t work at a university. So where are the post-modernist anthropologists going to go to get paid?

  13. Shoup

    As an anthropologist, I’m fairly disgusted by Alex’s comment.

    On a more serious note, it’s disappointing to see so many comments that reflect poorly on anthropology and anthropologists. I’m surrounded by reasonable people, critical realists doing interesting, empirically dense work with a genuine interest in methodological rigour.

  14. dearieme

    “There are other means to knowing”: perhaps, but there’s only one means of spitting.

  15. Daphne Holland

    I’m lucky enough to be in an anthropology department where scientific methods are rigorously taught and where taking biology, chemistry, and statistics classes is highly encouraged. Then again, this is probably because we have both a brilliant and experienced biological anthropologist and a human-ecology-oriented cultural anthropologist on staff.

    For a funny take on this whole postmodernist mess in anthropology, I recommend Matt Cartmill’s 1994 lecture to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, called “Reinventing Anthropology.” It’s actually pretty funny.

    -D. Holland

  16. The post you link to under my name was written by Alex Golub, AKA “Rex.”

  17. I am simply appalled. I knew it was bad in some areas, had no idea it had gotten this bad. But looking back on my grad days in Latin American Studies, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. They (we) were a joke then, now not even that.

  18. What I’ve noticed so far reading comments on this contentious issue across various blogs (mine are on anthropology.net), is that the “science” crowd rarely offers analytical comments. Emotional explosions dominate, which suggests that “scientists” lose their “cold reason” when it comes to the reality of the social process. It puzzles them, escapes rationalization (how could they!) and even causes nausea. (It happened to me a few times at Stanford.) This doesn’t mean, of course, that “cultural anthropologists” are right. But they are err not so much in the act of erasing science from anthropology (-logy still remains as a good proxy of science for all practical purposes) as in their inability to articulate “public understanding” as a necessary part of the scientific process (often overlooked by science proper). The extreme specialization of academic scientists and the growing complexity of the information field, plus the relative recency of organized science as a mode of inquiry leads to frequent ascertainment biases and sometimes the retention of pre-scientific beliefs. Scientists, just like the rest of the population, still need to learn more to become more worldly, not just “study” and “specialize.” Scientific method needs to evolve. What I’m sad about is that “cultural anthropologists” don’t want to help to evolve it with their own wealth of knowledge of human cultures.

  19. Douglas Knight

    In what sense is Chagnon “science-oriented”? He looks to me to be doing the same thing as other cultural anthropologists, just reaching different conclusions.

    It seems to me that in anthropology “science” is a political label and it would be good to get rid of it for that reason. I’m more concerned about statements like “Chagnon’s friends are scientists, so he’s right” or “Chagnon is right, so he’s a scientist” than this. In other words: “the scientists started it.”

  20. In what sense is Chagnon “science-oriented”? He looks to me to be doing the same thing as other cultural anthropologists, just reaching different conclusions.

    hm. i don’t know. it seems that cultural materialists, and evolutionarily informed anthropologists, use different methods, and come to different conclusions, but their methods are of a broadly similar family. i.e., they presuppose a particular naturalistic model of how the world works. the man gap seems to be between that sort, and the anthropologists who have been influenced by, and work within, stuff like post-structuralism, critical race theory, etc. so chagnon and r. brian ferguson use somewhat different frameworks to understand conflict, but there is a fundamentally common currency. it is really hard to map stuff from critical race theory and what not onto general explanatory frameworks.

    the main objection i have to this stuff is as i allude to above most cultural anthropologists who work within subjectivist frameworks seem to use it primarily as a cudgel against western culture and paradigms. they’re quite clear and certain about what they object to in western culture. but that means they have a specific and distinct model of western culture, which is pretty much as straightforward as those who don’t use their methods. in other words, i don’t think they take their methods to their rightful pyrrhonian end point.

  21. rick


    Your comparison to early naturalists is brilliant up to where you suggest a parallelism in the motive not to generalize.

    My own view is that when you have a scientific approach available to you and you rebuff it, you are a charlatan at worst and intellectually lazy at best. In other words, the humanistic study of literature is legitimate because an empirical approach or any other way of knowing is unavailable, but a humanistic study of anthropology is about as valuable as a humanistic study of chemistry–save it for fiction and editorials.

    The study of cultures should be ethnological where possible, and if it must be ethnographical, the standards of the ethnographic pursuit should be more like that of how historians synthesize accounts of original sources to make a coherent picture of the past (of course, these methods are not without flaws, but this standard of knowing is far superior, I think, to maintaining that “The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence.”)

    I’ve read other defenders of this change say that Anthropology is a “big tent” and the diversity of ways of knowing is what makes the field strong and that the change in this wording makes the field more inclusive and liberates the field from the hegemony of the scientific method (vomit, indeed). But my litmus test of “Are empirical methods available for what you’re trying to do? Are you using them?” would jettison those who are hawking accounts of cultures that serve an editorial purpose, not the standards which allow us to identify these people as not worth listening to.

  22. i use the term “ways of knowing” in a joking fashion all the time, but what does it really mean? i believe that science as a culture of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism, as we know it today, has its roots in 17th-18th century europe. though its barest constituents as distinctive elements obviously are evident in other societies. and, i think alison gopnik et al. are on to something when they claim that scientific thinking can be traced back to the psychology of children. additionally, the western scientific tradition has been to some extent universalized with the acceptance of its power in non-western societies. to the point where muslims, indians, and chinese, sometimes try to concoct their own earlier scientific traditions which roughly match the outlines of western science.

    and as i noted earlier, the debate about the word “science” isn’t really the core of the conflict. rather, it’s the sort of thing which cropped up with the sokal affair, where some scholars believe that other scholars aren’t being technical, but obscurantist. history, for example, is not science, but by and large much of it is written in an atheoretical and non-jargonistic fashion. even marxist historians who work with a theory in mind are pretty clear in their argument because the theory isn’t too complicated. my main beef is that i think some disciplines use obscurantism to service a strongly normative agenda.

  23. Zora

    Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

    When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

    I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

    No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

  24. Zohar

    As a Talmudic scholar, I was offended by your comparison, and enjoyed it very much.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    i think alison gopnik et al. are on to something when they claim that scientific thinking can be traced back to the psychology of children

    They may like to think that, considering how fast and much children learn. 😀

    Seriously, I don’t know what they say so probably misconstruing it, but personally I maintain that learning the way children do (trial-and-error and trial-and-reward) is a complement to and of course a basic tool of the science tool set.

    Problem is that it is context dependent relating to subjectivity in the first place, and even when going meta, learning about patterns among patterns in data, one can facilely maintain it can never tell what is eventually wrong. So it can never tell what is eventually right in a vague sense, which on the other hand is the sharp hallmark and raison d’être of testable science.

    I would then draw a surprisingly sharp dividing line between learning data and knowing facts (while maintaining a blend of tools). And claim that “other ways of knowing” isn’t even wrong.

  26. The cultural anthropologists frame it as an issue of opposing “positivism“.

  27. “The most positive spin I can put on them is they are like early naturalists who were content to simply document the great variety of living creatures on the planet…And the weirder and more remote the specimen, the more prestige in finding it.”

    I would agree with the first one: cultural anthropologists like to document cultural diversity ad infinitum. And disagree with the last one: cultural anthropologists refuse to exoticize cultures. Read Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other.

    “my main beef is that i think some disciplines use obscurantism to service a strongly normative agenda.”

    Good point, Razib. By jettisoning “science” from their statement of purpose AAA doesn’t advocate for obscurantism. In fact, if ask any cultural anthropologist, s/he would say that the rise of critical anthropology was directed precisely against obscurantism, which sometimes comes through “religion,” sometimes through “politics,” sometimes through “science.” Now, it’s clear that obscurantism can come from race studies, gender studies and whole host of other subfields of that which is neither science, nor religion, nor politics.

    “And claim that “other ways of knowing” isn’t even wrong.”

    Science, especially science dealing with human diversity (biological anthropology, anthropological genetics, archaeology, and sometimes historical linguistics) routinely uses other ways of knowing (aka assumptions derived from culture) to stitch data into a theory. How in the world would you apply scientific method to, say, the scattered Pleistocene leave-behinds (tools, bones, etc.) to arrive to a theory of the origin of human languages, cultures and populations?

  28. where they mostly talked about Qi?

    I think you should not mock traditional Chinese medicine, nor the Ayurvedic which is just as scruffy.

    1) By their time they had none of the investigation means we have now, neither theoretical (biology, physics, chemistry) not practical (technologies, instruments) and they did their best to figure out correlations between observable causes and effects without any computation resources whatsoever, no wonder the results are “approximate”.

    2) The seemingly preposterous “concepts”, Qi, the elements, the meridians, the fancy organs with no corresponding physical embodiment can actually make sense if seen as latent variables within the state space of causes/effects which was available to them.

    The only “scientific” way to gauge the actual effectiveness of these loony theories would be to ascertain the mutual information (*) which may or may not exist between the “traditional” observations and diagnostics, the prescribed remedies and the expected outcomes.
    Unfortunately neither the “scientists” nor the traditional practitioners are interested or able to do this, plus, who would/could fund such kind of studies?

    *) I specifically mention mutual information and not correlation because the relationships may not be linear.

  29. Sandgroper

    “Unfortunately neither the “scientists” nor the traditional practitioners are interested or able to do this”

    Want to bet?

    “who would/could fund such kind of studies?”


    Why? Well, for one thing, because for some conditions. Chinese medicine offers effective treatments, where Western medicine has nothing to offer.

    Want an example? Diverticular disease. If there is a treatment for diverticular disease which seems to work for at least some people, it would be worth researching, don’t you think?

  30. Kevembuangga

    If there is a treatment for diverticular disease which seems to work for at least some people, it would be worth researching

    Even more so since I do have diverticulosis diagnosed during a colonoscopy 🙂
    I am not dismissive only very pessimistic.

  31. Sandgroper

    Kev – if you can find a good Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, give it a try. Seriously. There’s nothing Western medicine can do except for surgery, which is drastic, so you may as well.


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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 http://www.razib.com


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