• September 5, 2015

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

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.


1. 11232037 - November 30, 2010 at 05:09 pm

I hope I am not alone in the sense of amusement at the irony that a set of cultural anthropologists did not anticipate the power of naming and referencing a particular cultural construction. They did not recognize that the word "science" might be loaded, or come with particular associations? Then why go through the exercise of deleting it?

Or is this an indication that a large swatch academic (according to this article, primarily cultural) anthropologists are not seeing the need for a focused study of themselves from the perspective of the participant observer?

2. anthroboy - November 30, 2010 at 05:17 pm

Perhaps Roy D'Andrade can provide an updated version of his insightful overview: http://ccr.sagepub.com/content/34/3/219.abstract

Or perhaps a sequel called "The Ever Sadder Story . . . "

3. rsmulcahy - November 30, 2010 at 05:59 pm

I find it odd that no one realized how loaded the word "science" could be. What else do arbitrarily-defined, human-created, randomly siloed "domains of knowledge" have going for them if not the august burnishing of the word "science" attached to them? I laugh every time I hear the phrase "political science" as if the study of poilitics had objective and quantitative dimensions that will allow not just description but actual evidence-based predictions and explanations of human behavior. Go back to 1986 and show me all the articles that predicted and explained the upcoming rapid fall of Soviet-style communism. Oh, that's right, there aren't any. You are better off reading a Tolstoy novel than educating yourself through some self-important politcal science journal. The study of History is clearly populated by academics who know better since they have the good sense not to call their field "History Science." As for Anthropology, good luck to all of you in trying to keep your field "scientific." I can't think of a field of study that has less scientific rigor. As I remember, science is not an object but a method of inquiry based on the repeated empirical testing of reality through experimentation. This requires experimentation supported by reliable and credible methods and I see a distinct lack of that in many social sciences. The reason we have fields like sociology, anthropology, political science masquerading as distinct fields of study probably goes back to the positivist paradigm prevalent a century and more ago, I don't know. But I do know it is a shell game, evrey "profession" needs to find ways to mystify its existence and functions so the "layman" doesn't get wind of the fact the whole system is corrupt and self-serving.
That is a bit extreme a critique perhaps but people need to get over their need for self-importance and univbersal relevance. I thought the only proper measure of man was man, not science. And on a final note, I would encourgae everyone to go back and read Max Weber, over 100 years ago he wrote very eloquently on the idea there can be no such thing as an objective, value-free social science. Ultimately, there can only be objectivity within a very tight, bounded social/cultural subjectivity. In other words we need to remember we are not made of "pure reason" and the things that we believe are social facts depend mostly on us all agreeing to define them as facts. I think that is what Bourdeaux called the "naturalization of the arbitrary." So debate all you want, anthropology is a science if you want it to be and it isn't if you don't want it to be so. I think I will put my energy into a more tractable debate, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

4. drkull - November 30, 2010 at 07:39 pm

As academics, one of our responsibilities is to hold social convention up to the light of reason. This is why we define our terms as neatly as possible.

Define "science."
Define "discipline."

You start to see the problem.

I went through this exercise when asking whether or not Knowledge Management was an emerging business "discipline." Not a lot of literature on the subject - every "just knows" which is counter to intellectual rigor. I created a framework for doing that in my 2002 dissertation ("Stories of Knowledge Management: The Search for Coherence in a Community of Practice"), basing much of it on Thomas Kuhn's work.

Conclusions: a "discipline" is largely whatever community of practice members agree upon. With no intersubjective definition of science (is it repeatable or simply methodologically sound?) anthropologists should blow-off the criticism as more pecking-order BS of single paradigm-laden status seekers. Yes, we'd all like to be famous for our research, but not by diminishing others who practice research innovation and pursue valid efforts to develop a greater understanding of our world by pushing and/or questioning epistemological boundaries.

That said, we should not waive our linguistic rights to categorize and weigh meritorious work based on those categories. I simply point out the need to put the horse before the cart and define our terms before excluding fields of inquiry... and, when in doubt, opt for more inclusion than exclusion to foster creativity and passion.

5. paldy - December 01, 2010 at 12:08 am

I find this very interesting. The comments are intriquing and very "intellectual". Some good points made, but not without an edge. That's what all humans have and it leads to verbiage, conflict, belief, stance, war, and scientific debate. Someday antropologists will study this.

6. paldy - December 01, 2010 at 12:09 am

... and most of all - fun!

7. jffoster - December 01, 2010 at 08:27 am

You don't know any Anthropology, do you Paldy (5 & 6)?

8. dank48 - December 01, 2010 at 09:08 am

I hadn't realized anthropology was so irony-challenged.

9. murielsr - December 01, 2010 at 10:37 am

Well, as an applied ethnomusicologist subscribing to the cultural anthropology side of things, I would truly prefer my more scientifically facing colleagues to remain part of the more general anthropological community. This I desire for the most selfish reasons of course: they tend to be better at numbers than I am and are able to help me devise 'measurable' ways in which I can convince policy-makers, grant holders and various other people with financial resources that my culture-based, experiential, qualitative research is not just merely a waste of public money and time, but in these hard economic times can 'demonstrate a quantifiable impact'.

Provided both the science colleagues and the cultural colleagues are able to appreciate that both approaches have their strengths as well as weaknesses and that actually they could complement each other, then all would be well.

Certianly here in the UK, where research councils are trying their utmost to have the scientists 'talk to' non-scientists this type of collaboration seems to be high on the agenda and for once, as an applied scholar, I might say that I am inclined to support such a governmental vision, albeit for purely selfish, discipline-specific reasons.

To call the whole of anthropology 'scientific' might not be correct, but to try and somehow include 'science' in any form of mission statement, name or similar might still be a sensible idea from where I am sitting.

10. katisumas - December 01, 2010 at 11:05 am

In French, "science" means the systematic study of something, anything, regardless of the methods used. Did that term have a similar broad meaning once upon a time in English? Was that the meaning originally intended in "anthropological science", so that it could be translated in contemporary parlance as "advancing the systematic study of humankind"? Wouldn't that work better? (I would rather favor "contributing to" but that's because I've given up on progress and "advance" is soooo nineteenth century!)

Given the enormous challenges we, as human beings, are facing today, it seems to me that squabling over these words is a pretty sad waste of time....

I'm an anthropologist myself and in my humble opinion the sentence proposed as substitute for science, "the public understanding of humankind", doesn't make any sense. It still puts a distance between that which the anthropologist studies and the object of that study, that is the portion of "humankind" objectified by the study, so in what way is it different from "science".

I am not opposed to that objectification because it's unavoidable: once you speak of something you're already putting it at arms length and you're selecting what part you're putting at arms length. A disciplinary framework gives you specific means of selection which might enable you to see something you might not have seen without it. However, it unavoidably also limits you, but limits are the lot of the scholar and the scientist, and also the fate of words....

11. unusedusername - December 01, 2010 at 01:18 pm

It looks like the post-modernist left had ruined yet another field.

What is the scientific method? Making obsevations (certainly possible in anthropology--anthropologists can't run many experiments, but neither can astronomers, and they are scientists), creating theories to explain the observations, can testing the theories with more observations. Repeat. It is the primary way we know about the world today. Thanks to the scientific method, we know where are species came from, and what powers the sun. If we want to learn more about humanity, science is the way to do it.

Unfortunately, the few people left doing real anthropological science are being shut out by the cultural "studies" professors. Once these people take over, they won't let anyone else in. We've seen it with English, and other college majors. Boas' prediction will come true. Once people notice that anthropology has become a joke, the smart people will become biologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Then the cultural anthropologists will whine when their programs are cut because nobody is taking their courses anymore.

12. rsmulcahy - December 01, 2010 at 01:30 pm

Not sure about #11's other points but I have no idea where his/her understanding of astronomy comes from. Astronomy is certainly a science and the methods used to study the cosmos are absolutely experimental in design. That is precisely how astronomy has progressed: Theory--hypothesis--experiment....picking astronomy to compare to anthropology is about the worse comparison you could have made to support your argument.

13. amnirov - December 01, 2010 at 01:39 pm

The essence of 11's comment is that once "science" is removed from anthropology, then all manner of idiotic goofy or hysterical crap will ooze further into anthropology just the same way it did into the study of English Literature.

14. crickels - December 01, 2010 at 02:06 pm

I am in full agreement with #11 if she/he is referring to the strong program post-modernists. Their attempts to "deconstruct" concepts in the natural and social sciences is laughable. Paul Feyeraband would love all of the anti-science (read anti-knowledge) sentiment in the field.

Perhaps a respected Anthropologist should submit a phony postmodernist research article to the Anthropologist News journal (the field needs its own "Sokal affair" to show the illegitimacy of postmodernism.)

15. unusedusername - December 01, 2010 at 02:15 pm

rsmulcahy (#12), astronomy is a perfectly reasonable analogy. If a chemist wants to know if a reaction will work, he can go into a lab, mix the chemicals, and try it. Astronomers can't do that with neutron stars. Almost all of our knowledge in astronomy has been the result in people looking at the sky--observation. Unless you can make a planet, my point stands.

16. cantonnoise - December 01, 2010 at 04:22 pm

unusedusername: Your rebuttal in #15 is ridiculous. You're saying that astronomy is less of a science than chemistry is because astronomers can't go out and test things as tangibly as chemists can? So, are we to say that geologists can't go out and test their own ideas about, say, earthquakes because they have no "control" earthquake? Or, because you said "[U]nless you can make a planet, my point stands", then we can map that argument onto geology and declare geology less of a science than chemistry because geologists can't make the earth. So, what you're saying is that anthropology is not *really* a science because it can only rely on observation and not on controlled experiments in the same way that, say, psychology can?

It's ironic that you would make this absurd "point" about astronomy vs. chemistry because your first comment in #11 states--and then restates--that "the scientific method [is m]aking obsevations, creating theories to explain the observations, can testing the theories with more observations." Where is there anything about creating anything based on those observations? You contradict yourself between these two posts.

17. gavery - December 01, 2010 at 04:22 pm

Another step on the politicization of academia and abandonment of the scientific value of skepticism in the pursuit of knowledge. More and more, cultural anthropologists try to identify the field less with the pursuit of knowledge and more with cloaking themselves under the guise of objective seekers of truth to try to disguise their underlying goal of changing cultural and political norms.

18. gavery - December 01, 2010 at 04:26 pm

Unusedusername - I think you left out "objective skepticism" from your definition, and that is where many of the cultural anthros are departing from science. I agree with you that observational work CAN be scientific, but far too many instead choose to follow what Hayek called a "scientistic" approach - misusing the forms of science to disguise goals other than the production of knowledge. The farce known as "action research" in the qualitative world is a classic example - where "research" isn't the goal, but rather the production of social change, as even its practitioners admit.

19. gavery - December 01, 2010 at 04:36 pm

#12 - How do you construct a controlled experiment in astronomy? You can construct a carefully controlled observational study, even a good quasi-experiment, but a true controlled experiment? You have the same problem economists have (maybe even worse) in that the field is such that a randomized, fully controlled intervention to see if the universe responds according to theory is almost never possible due to the nature of the field and the field's natural units of analysis.

OTOH, one can be quite scientific without the random controlled experiment, IF the scientist remains skeptical. Science, in truth, isn't the deductive field implied by the RCT, but rather INDUCTIVE. Repeated observational studies, particularly by multiple methods, that provide mutually supporting confirmatory data provide tremendous evidence to support a theory, but even then the objective and skeptical researcher realizes that the underlying theory is alway incomplete, and the weaknesses in methods leaves open a possibility, however small and however useful the model, that the paradigm is wrong.

Having trained in both the physical (chemistry), life (epidemiology), and social sciences (economics), I am amazed at the lack of attention to epistimiology and the logic of the design of confirmatory analysis in graduate training in the physical sciences. Personally, I believe this has a lot to do with the problems of askeptical acceptance of results I see growing in both the scientific and lay communities.

20. tappat - December 01, 2010 at 05:13 pm

With the so-called decline of the Humanities, Anthro sees a vacuum it feels it can fill. "The public understanding of humankind": Isn't that popular entertainment, when it is not one of the academic disciplines comprising the Humanities?

The record and consideration of past facts, regardless of how incomprehensible to any single view -- what used to be called history and the art of historical thought -- is not be considered by the new Anthropology, I see, since that might expose the fact that Anthropology's historical appearance was motivated by the desire to form a sort of science of certain immaterial things, such as human practices of the past or the foreign. No irony intended. Indeed, irony was made an anathema. A consideration of past facts might also expose the historical specificity of the concept of "public," and that the sense the New Anthro's appear to be using is a distinctly past phenomenon, except in an ersatz version. We now have, those in the proper Humanities understand, only a simulacrum of a public. So, perhaps, we are to have simulacrum of the Humanities, and that is to be a New Anthropology.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

21. unusedusername - December 01, 2010 at 05:45 pm

cantonnoise, please learn to read. My point is that astronomy IS a science even though you can't generally run experiments.

22. rsmulcahy - December 01, 2010 at 06:29 pm

Unusedusername, I am not trying to quibble with you to be right about the fact Astronomy is a science. The fact that I should even have to write back to discuss this should embarrass you. You are just wrong and you should perhaps seek counseling to accept that. But since you are being so obtuse and clueless about what controlled experimentation means, please allow me to educate you through the use of some examples from the study of relativity. Albert Einstein proposed several therories connected to theory of relativity that could not be tested at the time (1920s)due to constraints of technology. For example he theorized that during an eclipse, there should be a measureable bending of light around the moon if the theory of relativity were correct. Years later the experiment was done and Einstein proved right. Einstein also hypothesized that as you approach the speed of light, time should slow down. Future experiments with high speed aircraft proved that was correct. Even though planes travel slowly compared to light, they go fast enough that a very miniscule, unperceptable slowing of time occurs. So, WTF? These are experiments based on theory that have been replicated in different ways at different times with the same results. That is science. So, please go back and continue to do whatever you do well but if you want to continue this conversation, I suggest you pull your head out whatever black hole it may be currently located. Oh, wait, you probably don't believe in black holes because astromnomy isn't science.

23. rsmulcahy - December 01, 2010 at 06:40 pm

Hey, unusedusername, sorry I was writing a reply and missed your #21 post. Once again what are you talking about? They only kind of study that can be called science is one based on experimentation and replication of experimentation. How can astonomy be a science if you can't run experiments? You make no sense and contradict yourself in the same sentence. Even worse you try to qualify you statement and say "you generally can't run experiments" in astronomy. That makes no sense. Please enlighten everyone as to the experiments that can and can't be done in astronomy. And don't include ideas that are currently beyond our current technological ability to test. That disproves nothing. The ball is in your court, I anticipate you will smash it squarely into the net of logic and reason. Game over.

24. walsh05 - December 01, 2010 at 08:14 pm

I'm going to weigh in on this issue here. The issue of whether astronomy is an experimental science is something of a red herring to unusedusername's main point. He was arguing that anthropology, even if understood in a looser way than the hard-core natural sciences like physics, chemistry, etc., can *still* be understood in an approprately scientific sense. Hence, cultural anthropologists are wrong to cast anthropology in a nonscientific vein because of its differences.

His reference to astronomy is only intended to make the point (which I've heard made myself) that sciences like astronomy may lack some of the "typical" characteristics of hard-core sciences, but are certainly considered scientific. Here, for example, is a passage that makes this sort of point:

"As an example of the variability of particular scientific characteristics within disciplines, consider the case of experiments in astronomy. Physical experiments in astronomy differ from other ordinary physical experiments in a number of respects: they do not take place within the controlled conditions of a laboratory, they do not usually involve interventions in nature, and quite often their observational consequences are not reproducible (at least not within what might be deemed a reasonable time period). Despite this, absence in astronomy of many of the "typical" characteristics associated with physical experiments in, say, physics or chemistry, important experiments . . . still take place within the discipline." (section IV)


25. unusedusername - December 02, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Thank you walsh05 for explaining it well. You get it, as does amnirov, crickels, and gavery. I guess rsmulcahy is too busy making supernova explosions in his lab to be able to understand my posts.

26. crickels - December 02, 2010 at 03:42 pm

For an excellent look into an epistemological debate in a social science field (one which has been going on since the 80s) I'd suggest looking at the field of International Relations--the "Tickner v. Keohane debate". Keohane is critical, yet fair of his postmodernist colleague.

27. rsmulcahy - December 02, 2010 at 03:48 pm

The reason I don't understand unusedusername's points, which apparently others are willing to dig deep to find, is that he is not clear in his argument. He states: "anthropologists can't run many experiments, but neither can astronomers." There is no distiction made among controlled, observational and field experimentation here. So the statement is wrong. Astonomers use observational experiments and economists use field experimentation so I find the comparison unhelpful and confusing. Why compare apples to oranges? If you want to argue that controlled experimentation is the gold standard for research, go ahead, I think that is incorrect too. Science is not limited to one particular method (eg RCTs versus quasi-experimental designs versus obsevational studies). And who is arguing that science is only deduction? No one I know, and as for theories, of course they are always open to rejection. Theories can never be "proven" true but they can always be proven false so theories only remain the current best explanation until new data comes along. Popper made that point a long time ago. If the ultimate point is that a positivist, empirical, scientific worldview does not offer a fully grounded epistimology, well, welcome to the human condition. Discussion of theories of universal knowledge/truth is best left for the young and high.

28. clouseau - December 03, 2010 at 03:44 pm

I have to say that I think the commentary, while certainly interesting and valid, tends to miss the central point. Is the principal goal of anthropology to pursue the investigation (scientific, non-scientific, or otherwise), or to advance "public understanding?" On the one hand, the science vs. cultural studies arguments (Spy vs. Spy?) could be seen as inward looking, and the emphasis on public understanding outward looking. All to be defined, of course. Who is the audience for the work of anthropology? We serve "knowledge" in the long run, true, but I've been to too many meetings and seen too much research where we seem to be advancing knowledge among ourselves, sort of passing the corn and squash around the circle of high priests and priestesses, but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans with the public (mixed origins of agriculture metaphor). Seems like that audience question and public goal needs to be part of this debate. And of course, that inevitably leads to--who's paying the bills? And is it worth it to them?

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