“Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” - Alfred Kroeber
Kroeber is rolling his eyes at the AAA Executive Board.
At a recent AAA meeting the Board decided to remove mentions of “science” from the mission statement via a strategically crafted "long term goal" statement (original PDF here):
Mission Statement in the new LRP (additions underlined; deletions in strikethrough)
Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance
anthropology as the science that studiespublic understanding of humankind in all its aspects, throughThis includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research; The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of Americananthropologists, including the dissemination of
anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.
and its use to solve human problems.
Section 2. To advance the
science of anthropologythe public understanding of humankind, the Association shall: Foster and support the development of special anthropological societies organized on a regional or functional basis;Publish and promote the publication of anthropological monographs and journals; Encourage anthropological teaching, research, and practice; a ct to coordinate activities of members of the Association with those of other organizations concerned with anthropology, and maintain effective liaison with related sciencesknowledge disciplines and their organizations.
Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall,The backlash has been immediate. Various anthropological communities justly feel such changes alienate those with a scientific background from the Association. This prompted spokesman Damon Dozer to respond that the changes are examples of “wordsmithing” and are not meant to be intentionally provocative:
in addition to those activities described under Section 2: Take action on behalf of the entire profession and integrate the professional activities of anthropologists in the special aspects of the science; andpromote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.
"We have no interest in taking science out of the discipline," he said. "It’s not as if the anthropology community is turning its back on science."Fantastic. So then what was the goal of this “wordsmithing”? It only seems to exacerbate divisions within anthropology while overlooking the roles and contributions of the physical anthropological disciplines.
As a cultural anthropologist, I am perplexed.
The suggested changes shift anthropology from a scientific endeavor to a public forum where the primary goal appears to be advocacy and cultural preservation. I don’t necessarily object to advancing “public understanding of human kind in all its aspects,” but I am at a loss as to how anthropologists are meant to go about identifying and advancing public understanding because this move reduces us to storytellers.
Some have embraced what they perceive as a “science-free” mission statement that abandons “a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us.” PhD candidate Dooglas Carl argues that science has long overlooked the value of indigenous knowledge, and that this recent statement by the Association works to restore the “equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science.” There is some truth to this statement: Indigenous knowledge is a wonderfully rich and complex resource that is often not given the importance it deserves. For example, Cori Hayden's When Nature Goes Public: The Making and Unmaking of Bioprospecting in Mexico makes clear that the knowledge of local villagers about the medicinal values of plants is often overlooked. These people are not free to own their knowledge—that falls to the lab coats. But the two groups could really benefit from a partnership. One should not be abolished in place of the other. Indigenous knowledge is wonderful, but for it to have a broader impact it needs to be understood and applied objectively, otherwise it represents a very specific and isolated way of looking at the world. And for science to be effective, it needs to understand and account for the nuances of indigenous knowledge. If the anthropologist is to be a successful advocate, this is where he or she comes in: a champion of neither, but a mediator of sorts who can help both parties navigate change with minimal conflict.
I want to stress however that I do not think the primary point of anthropology is advocacy. I am a social scientist. Like all scientists, I hope that my work will increase understanding that may contribute to positive change. To do so I must draw upon a vast store of knowledge. Without the partnership of colleagues in psychology, biology, chemistry, math, physics, economics, and other departments, I lose the ability to see the whole picture. All that are left are the anecdotes. Advocacy grows out of my understanding. It is not a requirement for the discipline. But as I read and reread the proposed changes, I feel that there are two roads being offered for anthropologists: activist or record keeper—but not scientist.
As a cultural anthropologist, I have always practiced the “science of anthropology”: I regularly use quantitative data and tested theories to investigate the nuances of common relationships. Without this information, there is no analysis. There is no sharing “anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation,” which the Association lists as a purpose. While research by various departments is included as a means of advancing the public understanding, it is not clear how this research is to be leveraged—it seems to be merely cataloged for others to use. In this context, anthropology does not appear to be positioned to make contributions of its own to scientific discussions. And that troubles me.
While Dozer insists that the Association is not “turning its back on science,” the explicit excising of the word from descriptions of the discipline and its mission creates a public perception of anthropologists as professionals who cannot analytically contribute to the debate and discussion about current events that are shaping our society. We are reduced to advocates who do not understand larger processes and can speak only from a specific position. In a world facing major political and social conflicts, anthropology has never been more important. It can lend great insight to other fields, and stands to gain much from partnerships with other disciplines. The quotation from Kroeber cited above speaks to this partnership. It is interesting that even as the Association states that it will maintain “effective liaison with related knowledge disciplines and their organizations,” it has essentially limited the conversation that we can have with other groups. Science is the common ground on which we can build understanding. Closing the door on science removes the means of generating theory and policy.
This distancing from science closes the discipline in on itself, and threatens to leave its students immensely unprepared to pursue any career other than an academic one, even while it is unprepared to support the scholars that it produces. Anthropology is a field that is woefully removed from the public. We talk to ourselves while other sciences engage the public freely and regularly via blogs and other media. One of the issues covered at the recent AAA meeting appears to be the ways anthropology can increase its public persona. Perhaps this reshaping of the mission statement is a misguided attempt to make anthropology publicly palatable. But the public is not afraid of science. Why does the Association appear to be? The public has already grasped the analytic potential anthropology can add to other disciplines, so why is the Association retreating from opportunities to engage?
Abandoning and alienating science is exactly the sort of thing that gets anthropologists—and the cultural ones in particular—labeled “fluff heads.” Good job, AAA. The psychologists are laughing at us.
Edit: So much has been written on this issue, I thought I should do a proper list of other items you may want to review. Please see also:
- Anthropology Association Rejecting Science (Peter Wood, Chronicle)
- Removing Science from Anthropology: Parallels with Medicine (Orac, Respectful Insolence)
- What is the Real Concern About #AAAFail? (Megan, Great Lakes Ethnohistorian)
- Why Anthropology is True Even if it's not a Science (Rex, Savage Minds)
- Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding (Daniel Lende, Neuroanthropology)
- The AAA Does Away with Science, Seriously (Anthropology.net)
- What is a Generous Interpretation of the AAA Mission Change? (Kate Clancy, Context and Variation)
- Whither Anthropology as a Science? (Carl Lipo, Evolution Beach)
- Anthropology as Science (Dooglas Carl, recycled minds)
- The Place of Science in Anthropology and Cross-field Anthropology: Opportunities and Obstacles (Julienne Rutherford, BANDIT blog)
- No Science, Please. We're Anthropologists. (Alice Dreger, Psychology Today)