Anthropology Association Rejecting Science?

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

My doctoral degree is in anthropology (University of Rochester) and for 17 years I taught anthropology at Boston University, where I was tenured and also served in the university administration. My major publications—Diversity: The Invention of a Concept and A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, though aimed at an audience beyond anthropologists per se, still constituted works of ethnographic description and anthropological analysis. This seems worth mentioning as a prelude to the following comments on the intellectual turmoil surrounding a proposal at the American Anthropological Association. The AAA is my disciplinary home, and I have been a member of it since the early 1970s.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, at the closing of the annual convention held this year in New Orleans, the Executive Board of the AAA discussed a new long-range plan that alters the AAA’s mission statement. The new mission statement deletes the idea that anthropology is a science. It also blurs the intellectual boundaries of the discipline and, ironically, inserts a stronger warrant for using anthropology to engage in public advocacy.

The proposal has already prompted a strong dissent by, so far, at least one section of the AAA, i.e. the Society for Anthropological Sciences, which is objecting on several grounds. The Society’s listserve, SASci, reflects the widespread distress.  One prominent anthropologist observed that the proposal makes the “mission exclusively educational rather than [focusing] on the discovery of knowledge.” Another sees the move as the latest attempt of cultural anthropologists “to rid” the profession of archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and perhaps even linguists. Another complains, “Those of us in applied anthropology are hired because of the scientific nature of our work,” a status that the proposed mission statement would undermine. Another anthropologist wonders what will happen to the flow of federal research funds predicated on anthropology’s contributions to science.  And yet another prominent anthropologist, Murray Leaf, observes:

The only reason to expect the AAA to sway public opinion would be that it carries authority. What authority? Perhaps [post-modern anthropologists] could argue that good rhetoric or metaphor has an authority all by itself, but in fact any influence the AAA would have with the general public would be based on the public presumption that its views are grounded in science.  So in effect, the AAA position is that the AAA should engage in speaking with authority of science but without actually bothering to do the work and exercise the critical restraint of science.

The old mission statement declared that the AAA’s purpose “shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The new statement jettisons “science” in favor of “public understanding.” It begins, “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” What’s the nub of this distinction? Why does the Executive Board seek it?

The change reflects a long-standing and growing divisiveness within anthropology between those who stick with the classic conception of studying humanity by means of systematic, rigorous, and ideally objective forms of inquiry, and those who see anthropology as inextricably and profoundly tied to the subjectivities of its researchers and their admitted epistemological limitations. From its earliest days, anthropology sought the status of a science, though anthropologists necessarily dealt with materials that posed hard problems for a strictly scientific approach. Ethnography, the descriptive component of anthropology, doesn’t lend itself to controlled experiments, and attempts to grasp what we have come to call “culture” involve the researcher in matters that go beyond empirical inquiry. The next step for anthropologists who aspire to science (which historically meant virtually all anthropologists) was to examine ethnographic work [usually a society other than his own] through careful cross-cultural comparisons, in an effort to refine variables and to seek underlying constants.

That rough edge to the scientific aspiration of anthropologists long provided an opening for those who longed for a more humanistic conception of what anthropologists do. In the last few decades, the advocates for this humanistic approach seem to have gradually gained the upper hand. Especially prominent are those influenced by the late Clifford Geertz, whose idea of an “interpretive” anthropology emphasized the unsettledness and contingency of knowledge about culture. “Interpretation” opened not just one but dozens of exits from scientific rigor and was the beginning of what we have come to recognize as the postmodern moment in anthropology.

This Geertzian view also lends itself well to those who are eager to blend their “interpretive” work with ideological bias and political advocacy. Of course, “scientific” anthropologists can also be political activists, but their advocacy tends to be much more compartmentalized and separate from their disciplinary tasks. Their scholarship stands on its own in contrast to the work of the interpretivists who decline to draw any such boundaries.

So what seems to have happened at the AAA’s leadership roundtable is that the interpretivist faction has ridden roughshod over their rivals. The substitution of “public understanding” for “anthropology as the science” is a perfect intepretivist move. A “public understanding” rests on no bottom at all; it is just the play of opinion across ever-changing circumstances, and becomes virtually indistinguishable from popular myth, collective misunderstanding, political credo, and even sheer propaganda of one sort or another. The other changes to the mission statement follow suit.

Here is the marked-up copy of the mission statement showing the deletions crossed out and the additions bolded:

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 interpretationand 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 practiceact 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.

Knocking out the word “ethnological” in section 1 and substituting “social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, [and] visual,” is another way of rubbing out the vestiges of science. “Ethnology” is the old word for the comparative scientific study of these things. The new language is akin to “Do what thou wilt.” Note as well that anthropological “knowledge” is now part of a triplet that includes “expertise” and “interpretation.” We are in the heady days when expertise and interpretation are enterprises in their own right, no longer dependent on knowledge per se.

My own view of anthropology is that it is a hybrid discipline. Its main scholarly tradition is rooted in science, or at least the aspiration for science. If those roots wither or are cut off, anthropology will lose any real claim to serious intellectual attention and perhaps even its identity as a discipline. Absent its scientific basis, anthropology would be little more than colorful travel literature (travelogues) occasionally mixed up with political hucksterism and theoretical obscurantism. But anthropology has never been only a science, and it ought to be sufficiently broad-minded to embrace the poetics of culture and some of its music as well. The best anthropologists have always been attuned to the aesthetics of their discipline as well as to the demands of science, and have managed this without letting go of the essential rational and universal basis of their inquiry. (Think of Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Levi-Strauss as the exemplars in the British and French traditions; Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and Robert Lowie as exemplars of the American tradition.)

We are at a point where it seems that a self-appointed radicalizing faction has taken hold of a discipline and is un-disciplining it. It is cause for alarm among anthropologists, most of whom still see themselves as a vanguard of relativistic liberalism and who further see the illiberal direction of defining the science out of the study of culture. That move ought to be cause for larger worry within the university, especially in times of tight budgets and a public increasingly skeptical of higher education’s evasions of accountability. The AAA’s decision to throw off science seems very close to an assertion of complete intellectual non-accountability, a strange move at a vulnerable moment. An important discipline is in trouble—and it is a species of trouble that has counterparts throughout the social sciences. We should pay attention.

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