Anthropologists Debate Whether 'Science' Is a Part of Their Mission

November 30, 2010

Is anthropology a science? Is it a coherent discipline at all?

Those questions are as old as the field itself. They were taken up by Franz Boas in a 1904 lecture and by Clifford Geertz in a 2002 essay.

This month those old questions have resurfaced in a familiar context: the structure and purpose of the American Anthropological Association. At the association's annual meeting, in New Orleans, its executive board adopted a long-range planning document that removes the word "science" at several points from the description of the association's mission. Where the old language had defined the association's purpose as advancing "the science of anthropology," the new document says that the association will advance "the public understanding of humankind."

Those might not sound like fighting words, but the new language has drawn sharp criticism from some scholars, most notably the leaders of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, an eight-year-old group that exists both as a section of the anthropology association and as an independent scholarly organization. The new document has been debated on a number of blogs this week, including at The Chronicle.

"The discipline needs a forum that can bring all of the subfields together," says Peter N. Peregrine, a professor of anthropology at Lawrence University and president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. But the AAA is failing to play that role, Mr. Peregrine believes, as its conferences and journals have become more heavily dominated by cultural anthropologists. Archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguistic anthropologists—in other words, the anthropologists who are more likely to identify themselves as scientists—have retreated, little by little, into their own specialized associations.

It is in that context, Mr. Peregrine says, that the removal of "science" feels like a slap.

A spokesman for the anthropology association, Damon Dozier, says that the association is committed to every element of the discipline. "The AAA is not actively or passively seeking to marginalize any of its members or the subfields that they represent," Mr. Dozier says. "Anthropology is very diverse, and to borrow a quote from politics, the party is big enough for all of these interests."

He adds that the association's president, Virginia R. Dominguez, a professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been in contact with leaders of several of the association's sections to discuss their concerns about the new language. (Ms. Dominguez did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.)

'Very Strange'

In addition to the substance of the language change, Mr. Peregrine says he is concerned about the process that the executive board followed in creating the planning document.

An official change in the AAA's Statement of Purpose would require a vote by the association's membership. But in the preamble to the new long-range planning document, the executive board essentially rewrote the language of that statement, changing the wording at several points.

Mr. Peregrine does not dispute the executive board's authority to do that, but says that the procedure seems "very strange." He is now serving on a long-range planning committee for his own university, and says that all of that committee's decisions have flowed from a broadly held understanding of the university's mission.

"The AAA's mission statement hasn't been changed," he says. "But it seems to me that in terms of implementing that mission, it actually has been changed. When I raised that objection in New Orleans, they said, 'Well, this is just for planning.' Just for planning? I find that troubling."

Mr. Dozier replies that there is no reason to object, given that the organization's actual Statement of Purpose has not changed. And he notes that it is not uncommon for the association's executive board to revise its decisions after members raise concerns.

"I understand that certain sections are preparing petitions to send to the executive board and to our president," Mr. Dozier says. "That's how our process works, and I think it's a very open process."

A Loaded Word

Will the association—and the field itself—hang together over the long term? In his 1904 lecture, Franz Boas was not so sure. He predicted that biological anthropologists would soon find their homes in biology departments, linguistic anthropologists in humanities programs, and so on.

That, of course, was more than a century ago, and the field is still structured more or less as it was. But some scholars believe that a disintegration of anthropology may be accelerating today. A widespread rumor in New Orleans held that, of the roughly 6,000 scholars in attendance, only 160 were archaeologists. (Mr. Dozier says he believes the actual number was somewhat higher. The words "archaeology" and "archaeological" occur 104 times in the conference's 414-page program.)

Mr. Peregrine is an archaeologist himself, but he says he has no interest in retreating into an archaeological cocoon. "I absolutely rely on insights from cultural and biological anthropology," he says. "Archaeologists rely on cultural anthropologists for understandings of contemporary societies, which we then use as models for understanding past societies."

The problem, Mr. Peregrine suggests, is that cultural anthropologists seem less interested in that kind of holistic interaction. In general, he says, they don't draw on insights from archaeology or biological anthropology—so when it comes time for departments to hire new scholars, they don't see the point of hiring anyone from outside cultural anthropology. (Roy D'Andrade, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut, made a related argument last week on an e-mail list maintained by Mr. Peregrine's group.)

Mr. Dozier, meanwhile, believes that this month's dispute has been rooted in miscommunication. "We wanted to choose language that described our purposes in more expansive ways," he says. No one realized, he says, how loaded the word "science" actually might be.