• September 1, 2015

Anthropology Association Never Intended to Break With Science, Board Says

The American Anthropological Association released a new statement on Monday about the controversy surrounding the removal of the word "science" from the association's self-description in a long-range-planning document.

"It was never the board's intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology," the new statement says. To buttress that argument, the association has released a draft document that was approved at the same meeting last month during which the disputed planning document was completed. The draft document, titled "What Is Anthropology?," announces in its first sentence that anthropology draws on the biological and physical sciences.

Daniel Lende, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, has maintained a comprehensive list of links related to the debate at his blog, Neuroanthropology.


1. addled - December 14, 2010 at 10:44 am

I don't think anyone is going to buy what their saying at this point since it took them about two weeks to come up with a positive statement about science.

2. rsmulcahy - December 14, 2010 at 01:40 pm

Sarah Pallin sometimes "draws on the biological and physical sciences" in her rambling, confused, twisted twitters, I don't think that statement is a ringing endorsement of rigor and meanining in the study of anthropology. Also, if you want to talk about problems in epistemology as they relate to the study of...well, anything, I think the arbitrary division of science into the "physical sciences" and the "life sciences" is just that, arbitrary. At the end of the day, science ends up a form of cultural studies whether astronomists, mathematicians and anthropologists want it to or not. Oh, I guess the anthropologists do want that.

3. al_wallace - December 14, 2010 at 02:27 pm

If anthropology "draws on the biological and physical sciences", why can't it be a science? Poetry draws on biology in the sense that it is written by primates. Drawing on stuff isn't the same as engaging in the scientific method. Either you use methodological naturalism to reach successive approximations to objective reality as part of your tool kit or you don't. Disciplines that don't we already have a word for....the humanities.

4. beattie_author - December 15, 2010 at 04:01 pm

Bravo. About a dozen years ago or so I was teaching as an adjunct in a university social science department. I attended a meeting at a different university and talked with members of their department. This meeting included their anthropology department, a subset of which was their women's studies department.

I had just lectured to my students about why we don't accept a few anecdotal statements as the basis for a scientific finding, giving as examples UFOs, angels, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster. Somehow that came up in conversation.

But, the anthropology and women's studies people were offended. They said that their entire domain depended on anecdotes. Their "science" was anecdotal. They thought I didn't know anything about social science.

The social psychology people sided with me against the anthro and women's studies people.

Blah blah. Back and forth. There was no meeting of the minds. I presume the anthro-WS attitudes had something to do the now possibly aborted anthropology statement. Studies are not science.

Or are they?

Perhaps accurate cataloging of behaviors, social taxonomies, and agreed upon nomenclatures can be a science by itself, independent of statistical methods. Certainly, if we have accurate statistical measures of how many angels can do x but not y, it's still not scientific if there are no agreed upon definitions of angels, or where they fit in the taxonomy, or whether they exist.

In any case, while you'll never convince me on anecdotal evidence alone that the Loch Ness monster exists (or angels), I don't have any problem with using best available methods to study the matter. In some cases, the best method may be no better than anecdotes -- anthropological studies, not anthropological science. In cases where scientific methods can apply, then that would be anthropological science -- but maybe the social psychologists would say you're in their domain. Round and round.

5. cstars - January 05, 2011 at 06:23 pm


I was astounded by the anthrologists' severing 'science' from their statement. But, I would like to point out that comments such as, "Either you use methodological naturalism to reach successive approximations to objective reality as part of your tool kit or you don't. Disciplines that don't we already have a word for....the humanities" paint with too broad a brush.

Philosophers do not do experimental sciences, of course, but most of us do try to achieve successively better approximations of reality, whether the reality of physical existence or that of morality. Whether we do so via methodological naturalsims or not varies, particularly according to one's conception of naturalism.

At any rate, I am glad to se that a segment of American anthropologists has not toppled the discipline from membership in the social sciences.

6. cstars - January 05, 2011 at 06:24 pm

Gagh. Why can't we have an edit function?

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