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:
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.
But 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.