Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Anthropology Just Says No to Science?

“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 studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects, through This 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 American anthropologists, including the dissemination of
anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. and its use to solve human problems.
Section 2. To advance the science of anthropology the 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; act to coordinate activities of members of the Association with those of other organizations concerned with anthropology, and maintain effective liaison with related sciences knowledge disciplines and their organizations.
Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall, 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; and promote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.
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:
"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:


  1. I wonder if the fact that we are removed from the public relates to the lack of anthropology taught in K-12 education? The sciences are there. And social sciences (primarily psychology) are taught in many high schools. The public loves anthropology, but they don't always know what anthropology is. If we could just foreground our methods and techniques as unique to anthropology - a unique way of investigating the human world - perhaps public outreach would be easier (and more understandably anthropological)? Why not teach ethnographic practices in high school? Why not show how material and social culture were primary in our evolution?

  2. You make an excellent point about the presence of the other sciences in early education. However, there does seem to be a growing recognition and movement toward your latter point in some of my local area schools. In fact, I should be working with a high school class in the spring to help them understand and use ethnographic methods and see how anthropology is applicable to their world.

    I think that anthropologists themselves need to be a bit more proactive in terms of public outreach for the discipline. The media has largely shaped the excitement the public holds, as well as a belief that all anthropologists wear hats, carry whips, rob tombs, and escape death on a regular basis—and this picture seems to extend well beyond the archaeological realm. The idea is that anthropology is beyond the grasp of the general population, who don't often wear hats, carry whips, rob tombs, and escape death simultaneously on a regular basis.

    The difference between anthropology and some of the other sciences in this regard is that when news breaks about a discovery or issue in another field, there is a publicly accessible response. For example, recent news about the Goldilocks planet was covered not just by mainstream media but by physicists, astronomers, and others. The community invested and interested in this issue had a voice that the public could access. The media were not the only ones telling the story. Anthropology really doesn't have this. And it looks as if we are moving farther away from this.

  3. I'm glad to hear that you've delved into the K-12 outreach sector. It's something I'd like to do in the future but really have no idea how to get started - which is another problem with anthropology (or perhaps just with certain academic departments?): there is no real professional training in how to bring anthropology to one's community. (Although I think there are usually workshops at the AAAs and SAAs on this topic.) Bringing outreach how-tos into the graduate or undergraduate curriculum wouldn't be a bad thing.

    Your point about the Goldilocks planet is well taken, and Jeremy Sabloff, in his AAA keynote address, harped on the fact that since Margaret Mead we haven't had a real spokesperson for anthropology - we don't have a Richard Dawkins or a Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I hope that members of the AAA heed his call to bring at least part of their research to the public and to speak up when something interesting happens in the world. The squeaky wheel...

    Finally, I'm probably reading too much into your assessment of the mainstream media, but the TV show Bones is actually doing a lot to raise the profile of forensic anthropology and, I'd argue, anthropology in general. This season, the writers have even thrown in some bioarchaeology/historical forensic anthropology. I'm not saying that the portrayal of the lead character as some kind of socially-stunted, all-knowing weirdo is ideal. But if you look closely at the dialogue they give her, she does embrace a four-field approach in her breadth of knowledge. I wish I knew how much of this the public is taking away - but Temperance "Bones" Brennan is a much more complex picture of an anthropologist than Indy or Lara Croft. As much as I rail on the pseudo-science of the show, I think it is helping to present a more nuanced picture of what anthropology is.

    Forensics is just one aspect of anthropology, though. Wouldn't it be great to have another anthropology show on TV? Bones works because forensics has a sense of immediacy. I think you need to spin Anthropology in Practice into a TV series, showing the world how the practice of anthropology is relevant to their daily lives! :)

  4. I just don't see this as turning away from science, as science is presumably part of "public understanding of humankind". I see this as a recognition of the facts that a) there are tons of anthropologists working outside the discipline in the media and interdisciplinary departments, and b) "Science" is kind of a limiting and problematic concept for many of us that has a long history of being deployed in projects of domination. I think it is fascinating how upset people are about the AAA positioning "science" as one method for pursuing knowledge among many that anthropologists use. I see this as broadening the AAA mission statement to include problems outside of our field, and I think it is an improvement.

  5. Is this formula correct?

    Anthropology minus science = sociology

    I have only taken one sociology class, so perhaps I'm being unfair, but it seems to me that sociology is all too willing to base theories on anecdotal evidence, while anthro tries to see a bigger picture and bring in more ways of seeing.

    Yes, I preferred my anthro classes to my one sociology class, tho the later was fun and well-taught. A young woman said something funny to me after one of our soc tests: "They ask me a question in sociology, the answer is no. They ask me the same question in biology, the answer is yes."

  6. Thanks so much for writing this, Krystal. Well done!

    Lindsey, if the mission statement had been written in a way to include more ways of knowing, or acknowledge ways in which we need to be thoughtful about science and bias, I would agree with you. Instead, it removed every mention of science. I think there's a difference between broadening things, and deleting them. Further, I think a number of news articles and blog posts have covered quite nicely the other problem inherent in these changes: that the mission statement now focuses less on our scholarly mission, and only on outreach. I do a ton of outreach, but it is only one arm of my anthropology.

  7. This reminds me of the dialogue between processual and post-processual archaeology - which might be summarized as asking "Is the purpose of archaeology to act as a science, cataloging information and presenting only conclusions which can be directly proven? Or is archaeology meant to tell the story of ancient people, filling in the blanks and rendering these people as humans?"

  8. Great post. Caveat: I'm not an anthropologist so my comments are from the outside.
    It almost seems that they misunderstand science - science is not just cataloguing information. It is a way of asking questions and examining evidence. Anecdotes are great (and I write them all the time) but you need the question and evidence before a conclusion.
    I don't see science as clashing with indigenous beliefs but rather a way to bridge the Western understanding and indigenous understanding. Science can create a common question and a framework for discussion.

  9. One of my biggest complaints about Blogger is that I can't respond directly to comments—in cases like this where many of you have chimed in, I have to tackle you as a group, so please bear with me. That said, thanks to all of you who have responded. I am glad to see this issue being discussed here and elsewhere. And I am also glad to see that non-anthropologists are also sharing their thoughts—this helps us understand how anthropology is perceived.

    I strongly agree with KBHC. I don't necessarily object to advancing “public understanding of human kind in all its aspects.” After all, that is sort of what I do here on AiP. I share my research, and my thoughts and responses to anthropological research. But by removing all references to science as a way of "knowing" limits the conversations we can have with each other and with other disciplines. Science provides a basis on which we can come together and objectively discuss the questions we are asking. Otherwise, we are just shouting at each other in an effort to be heard. Does indigenous knowledge matter? Yes, of course it does. But it is specific to the people and the place of its origin. It has value, there is no question about that. And it is important to ethnography. But that is not really the issue that I think has triggered so many responses around the web. I think we are all struggling to understand how the AAA wants us to identify ourselves and the discipline.

    Anthropology is a social science. As Meg writes on Ethnohistorian (see links in post), we do not need to defend it as a science. But we need to establish that the mission of anthropology remains scholarly understanding. That is not clear in the proposed statement. While I have read elsewhere and it has been suggested in the comments here that this is "knee jerk" reaction, that anthropology is not diminished and splintered, I don't think the long-term plan truly supports interdisciplinary work. As Daniel Lende states at Neuroanthropology at PLoS: "I do not think the combination of “public understanding” and “expertise” adequately represents the applied side of anthropology."

  10. In response to Lindsey, science has certainly been used as a hegemonic tool, but so has anthropology. I think that we have to come together as a discipline and determine how best to talk about these things with a recognition of bias. Science and anthropology today are not the same disciplines as science and anthropology even 50 years ago.

    GG, I think one difference between anthropology and other sciences is that we may not always start with a question, but tend to highlight the issues that grow out of observations, which we may then explore further and can support with data. I do think you're right, however, that there is a break in understanding that science and indigenous knowledge together can be a powerful combination.

    KK, if you're interested in working with K-12, why not reach out to a local school and see if a teacher would be interested in hosting you for a lesson? You could do a show and tell, bring in specimens for them to handle, etc. Or maybe your lab could host a school visit? Since there isn't a practice in place to encourage this sort of liaison, perhaps it is up to us to initiate it and lead the way. In any case, any action that breaks us out of the mold of speaking only to each other is good, I think. And hey, I totally forgot about Bones. You're right—she's a much better and much more accurate representation of anthropologists over all.

  11. Wendy, your formula isn't quite right. Sociologists use a great deal of quantitative measures in their work. The two share a fair amount in common. The difference as I have been taught is that sociology tends to look at function while anthropology looks at form. That is, sociology studies specific elements of society, while anthropology looks at the overall culture. Others should feel free to chime in with their own perceptions!

    Hasufin, has a decision been made in that debate? Or a general consensus reached? Seems both elements are necessary!

  12. Wow--there is so much here to respond to (I've been lurking for a long time, but now I am compelled to comment), but I think I'll just limit it to my take on science. As an interdisciplinarily trained ethnographer/linguist/psychologist/anthropologist (who thus combines all sorts of contextually informed quantitative and qualitative methods in my work), I think that anthropology as a discipline needs to stop apologizing for coming from a world view that promotes science--let us not forget that our way is also valuable even as we seek to reduce it's hegemonizing influence on the world.

    This isn't to say that science is the "best" way to understand the world, but it is the set of world views and filters that we come to the field with and it is the world view that we largely have to address and negotiate as we tackle the task of interpretation, representation, and even yes, generalization into theory (ah, theory, that most scientific of scientific concepts). Rejecting science turns us back to the ineffectual anthropological identity crisis and navel-gazing of the 80s and 90s. Why can't we just accept that we are who we are (i.e. Western people trained in a Western worldview that values scientific methods and classical forms of logic) and seek to use science as a tool for ourselves while simultaneously striving to not impose it on others? There is a place for our science in building our knowledge. It's OK to use it--we just can't use it uncritically.

    I believe that one of my tasks as an effective anthropologist is to be able to translate between worlds--none of us ever goes fully native in our field and when we get home, we have to make our findings make sense *here* as well as check our facts and interpretations *there*. Our training as critical and methodical thinkers gives us our first entree into our communities of study/collaboration--we can't help but gather data (what else are field notes?!?), compare and contrast local experience in the field with our own worldviews and frames of reference--and there is nothing wrong with that. The beauty of it all is that at the end of the day, though we take a "scientific approach" to our work, we value, acknowledge and promote indigenous worldviews and understandings as valid, real, and compatible with our own. We can help the rest of the world recognize that even thought the communities we work with come to their knowledge via paths and logical structures different from our own, they know what they know and we must learn from them.

  13. Sarah, thanks for delurking and sharing your thoughts—well said! I particularly like your discussion on reconciling our training as cultural anthropologists as a "scientific approach" that still permits us share and support indigenous knowledge. I also really applaud your call for anthropologists to accept and acknowledge our Western positioning. As culturalists, we're trained to observe, to not interfere, and I think this has fueled some of the arguments around hegemony. But Dan Berett's piece in Inside Higher Ed presents an interesting take on this point for consideration. Citing Raymond Hames, anthro chair of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Berett writes:
    Culturally centered interpretations must be subjected to empirical evaluation, even if doing so exposes anthropologists to charges of disrespecting local customs in favor of the "hegemonic" scientific method, he said. He described a hypothetical field study in which children being studied in a community were found to be dying of dysentery or cholera. "Are we to accept the local explanation that children are dying ... because someone is breaking a taboo and the gods are angry," he said, "or do we look to see how fecal matter is being introduced to the water supply?"

    (Link to piece here:

  14. Non-anthropologist here. Crystal writes
    "GG, I think one difference between anthropology and other sciences is that we may not always start with a question, but tend to highlight the issues that grow out of observations, which we may then explore further and can support with data."

    That's a difference? My understanding is much research in all sciences is exploratory and curiosity driven, but that you had better not say that in a grant application.

    Sarah writes
    "...we value, acknowledge and promote indigenous worldviews and understandings as valid, real, and compatible with our own."

    My view is that indigenous peoples may or may not be as superstitious as my neighbors, but they are probably better empiricists.

    Oh, and for heaven's sake keep science in the mission statement.


  15. Pete, I framed my response in terms of cultural/ethnographic approaches. When we start fieldwork we don't always have a specific question the way a geneticist may have a question. Our discussion grows out of observations and patterns. (But point well taken regarding grant applications.)