Views from the ANThill: Anthropology as Science

Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on November 26, 2010
As Lana mentioned a few posts ago, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans last week. While I have a number of things to share, I want to start with comments on the new organizational mission statement adopted by the executive board during the meetings. The new plan is a substantial redraft, and perhaps most significantly, removes all mention of the word "science". For those from outside of the discipline, this may seem like an insignificant change, however, for many anthropologists, this comes off as a stunning development. Take for example, the following email, sent out to member of the Society for Anthropological Sciences:
Dear Supporters of Anthropological Science,
I write as President of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS) to inform you of a troubling development that occurred at the Executive Board (EB) meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) this past weekend. The EB adopted a new Long-Range Plan (LRP) that includes a significant changes to the AAA mission statement—it removes all mention of science. The old and new versions of the AAA mission statement are reproduced below. Members of SAS feel these changes undermine American anthropology, and we passed a resolution at our business meeting condemning them. That resolution is also reproduced below. If you are concerned about this, I encourage you to contact the AAA. I would also urge you to renew your membership in the Society for Anthropological Sciences (
Thank you,
Peter N. Peregrine, President
Society for Anthropological Sciences
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.
Society for Anthropological Sciences resolution:
We object to the change in the mission statement included in the long range plan because it abandons the core principles of and rationale for the association and because it abandons support of the membership. We urge the executive board to amend the long range plan so that it is in accordance with the core principles and rationale of the association and does not abandon support of the membership.
This email illustrates that some anthropologists are taking these changes seriously, however, I'm not sure that the email argues their case very effectively. To be sure, there are innumerable aspects of American anthropology that utilize science: much of archaeology, forensic and biological anthropology, for example, all lean heavily on distinctly science-based methodologies. Further, as a new instructor in the discipline, I can provide evidence of the lengths to which the discipline goes to frame "anthropology as science" in most introductory text books. There is good reason to maintain representation by "science", primarily because of the lofty reputation that it holds not only in academia, but culturally in the US and globally.
These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from "science" - especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term "science", we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. "Science" has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.
Historically not included under the rubric of "science", however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term "science" in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.
The "science-free" mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged "science" over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.
Photo Credit: "Studying Humans" by H. Malinda McCall ~ See this and other work at

For the Next 7 Generations

Following is a video posted on Reality Sandwich, which features Grandmother Clara Shinobu Iura of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, who works with Grandmother Maria Alice Freire in Mapia, Brazil, as a healer with increasingly international followers. Their work with medicinal plants -- along with the work of the other council members -- is chronicled in the documentary feature, For the Next 7 Generations, directed by Carole and Bruce Hart.

Marginalization & Re-creation: New Orleans in the American Imagination

While we await an update or recap from Dooglas about the American Anthropological Association's 2010 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA, I thought we might live vicariously through literature, or, more exactly, through interviews with writers from New Orleans who talk about the city's place in the literary and American imagination. Click here to read Matt Robison's interview with Anne Gisleson, Haven Kimmel, Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Duncan Murrell, Rosemary James, Joseph J. DeSalvo, and W. Kenneth Holditch on The Morning News.

One of the most fascinating points, in my opinion, arises in Murrell's description of the city in response to a question about New Orleans' perceived unique cultural quality:

Too much can be made now, in 2010, of the French, Spanish and Caribbean influences. The French live on mostly in people’s last names, the Spanish in the architecture of the French Quarter. The Caribbean influence folds in both Spanish and French colonial influences, as well as aspects of the African diaspora. Of the three, the Caribbean influence is the most persistent. We should also note that the Irish and the Germans were major players in New Orleans culture. I think it’s somewhat misguided to try to pick out cultural influences by language and geography. It becomes hopelessly muddled the more you look into it. The most persistent cultural influence to me is the fact that New Orleans was a port city and a crossroads, a collector of people and things, the end of the river. And it’s still that way. It’s hard to overstate how much New Orleans loomed in the imaginations of 19th century frontier settlers, for instance. Once you got over the Appalachians and through the Cumberland Plateau and into the Mississippi drainage, one’s orientation to the world shifted from an east-west movement to a north-south one; or more specifically, an upriver-downriver one. And at the end of that river sat New Orleans. Nearly every outlaw legend that sprang up in the western territory in the early 19th century has some aspect that takes place in, or is related to, New Orleans. There is no legend of the Natchez Trace without New Orleans. The city is where crooks, race-traitors, Catholics, vagabonds, and every other marginalized person could go to hide and, sometimes, recreate themselves. To a great extent, it’s still that way.
Looking forward to hearing Dooglas' experiences at the AAA Conference...

Thou Winter Wind: Poverty, Climate Change and Indigenous Women Elders

From the Women News Network and author Lys Anzia comes an important article addressing the global invisibility of indigenous peoples through the circumstances of the Lakota Oglala Sioux women Elders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. With extreme poverty and severe winters, members of Pine Ridge -- in particular women, argues Anzia -- face mounting fears of how global warming will affect their already precarious living situation. Some sources count this Reservation as having the worst living conditions in the entire United States, including substandard housing, toxic Black Mold, little to no plumbing or electric, as well as extreme weather conditions that bring 100 degree heat in the summer and below freezing temperatures in the winter.

Using as a springboard the 2010 Oxfam statistic that more women than men die during disasters, Anzia asserts that women and children on the reservation are more likely to suffer from the collision of these environmental and economic factors. Anzia also suggests that gender roles play a part: "Learning from their own mothers and grandmothers that they must accept life 'as it is,' without complaining, Elder women often risk their lives by staying 'too quiet' in the fact of many needs." Further information about the particulars of women's and women elder's lives on the reservation would be helpful in understanding their experience. As Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls states in the article, "We're the foreign country suffering under (extreme) poverty in your (U.S.) backyard."

Following is a glimpse of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation from USA Today:

Read the full article here.

The Importance of Mumia

It must be seen as amazing that despite years of sitting on death row in a Pennsylvania prison, Mumia Abu Jamal has managed to maintain a public voice, to speak out for the disenfranchised, and remain remarkably relevant in the rapidly changing meme-based times of the internet. An activist and journalist from Philadelphia, wrongly convicted of the murder of a police officer, Mumia has continued reporting on world events primarily through the tireless efforts of Prison Radio. A recent example of Mumia's work was shared on Z-Space, which posted a speech given by Mumia to the International Anti-Repression Congress on October 8-10, 2010 in Hamburg, Germany. Here are some excerpts:
"We have seemingly forgotten, it seems, the fundamental nature of the state, as held by Marx and Engels over 100 years ago in The Communist Manifesto, where the state is described as but “the executive committee” of the bourgeoisie. As such, there are hardly limits to the repression it will utilize to serve the rulers, especially in the stark absence of an effective counter-force. That force must be—must be—an organized, resistant people, who will fight for another way; a way out of the trap of the state — as presently conceived."
Speaking of neoliberalism, Mumia states:
"Societal resources are mobilized to attack foreign subjects (usually in the so-called developing world) while denying social services to the domestic population, like healthcare, education, housing and other such necessities.Indeed, the very notion of “social” is attacked by the rulers, and their corporate media, as the business model is raised and reified as the only reasonable structure upon which society is organized."

We have uploaded the speech to our Scribd library for you to read in its entirety, and to see this one example of how Mumia is able to speak clearly to a wide audience and send a positive message of hope for humanity. An internet search will provide a number of interesting and prescient works from Mumia, all of which make it clear that he is an important voice needed in this world.

This Tuesday, November 9th, Mumia's case comes up before the "Third Circuit Court to decide between removing the stay on Mumia’s death sentence, or ordering a new hearing to decide between a new death sentence, or life in prison without the possibility of parole. These are the only two possible outcomes in the courts at this time. The US Supreme Court has pre-arranged the Nov 9th hearing to make an immediate reinstatement of Mumia’s death sentence the likely outcome." There are demonstrations taking place around the globe that need your support. Check out Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle for more information, and show your support for Mumia!

Thanks for the photo from Prison Radio

Wade Davis on Sustainability and the Environment

While he does not work in an academic setting, and he doesn't publish in academic journals, Wade Davis remains a compelling anthropologist and public intellectual. As a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Davis has brought anthropological insight and knowledge to the public in ways few anthropologists have. I showed the following video to my Diversity class last week, and as my students appreciated the talk, i think it should be shared here as well.

Davis gave this talk in February, 2010 to a group in Whistler, BC, Canada, and having grown up in BC, he is able to speak to some of the environmental issues occurring there. He describes the difference in the world view of someone like him (from the West), who grew up seeing the vast forests around him as something to be cut down, harvested, and turned into profit. Conversely, the indigenous of the region view those same forests with reverence as sacred space and vital to their culture and well-being. This indigenous worldview is common around the world (and a number of examples are shared), and Davis explains how such a position allows for sustainability that is built into the everyday lives and actions of indigenous peoples. Holding what is essentially the opposite view here in the West has certainly allowed many great achievements, however it is safe to say that the issues of climate change and resource depletion, among others, would not hold our attention as they do now.

It's a 24 minute video, that touches on a number of interesting topics and examples, and Davis shares a number of his amazing photos from his journeys around the world. Enjoy: