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 (http://anthrosciences.org/csac/SASci/sasci.tabs/Members).
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 http://malindamccall.com.
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15 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:43 AM

    As I was reading this, I was at first appalled and frightened by the deletion of the word science. But your explanation and justification for removing it laid my fears to rest.

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  2. I began as a cultural anthropologist in grad school but shifted to evolutionary work emphasizing great ape behavioral ecology. I am a firm believer in the four-field approach but have been increasingly disturbed by the antagonism to science by many of my friends in the cultural subfield. This oft-reflected attitude doesn't suggest a respect for "other means to knowing," but rather the exclusion of a quantitative approach.

    You write that, "This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented." However, the field is already dominated by cultural anthropologists who don't use a scientific approach to their work. How can you claim that this change is representing a minority perspective when it clearly is not. Can't science and advocacy work together? Can't we make it our aim to listen to what indigenous knowledge systems have to offer while, at the same time, seek to understand the diversity of human societies using empirical methods?

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  3. To me, the most concerning issue in this Long Range Plan shift isn't about the use of the word science. The organization seems to be shifting its focus from that of organizing anthropologists and facilitating them and their interests as a group to one of public outreach about diversity. I think public outreach is an integral part of any professional organization, but I don't think it should be the primary purpose. That is a fundamental shift in the function of the organization.

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  4. Anonymous6:08 PM

    a.k.a. Josh W. @ IUSB

    There are already humanistic ways of approaching sociocultural experiences without science. They are frequently called "area studies" or "cultural studies" or have similar names. They provide useful introspection and commentary on the human... condition, and include scientific results among their resources. Yet they are not science.

    The AAA is deflating its own purpose if it maintains that, without science, we "examine patterns and processes of cultural change ... are interested in human biological origins," and that although we recognize "within every society there are commonalities as well as variation," we nevertheless find that language and culture "equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds."

    These are all direct quotes from the AAA website under "What is Anthropology" and I maintain that science, as a practice of organizing knowledge with testable predictions about observed phenomena is the way anthropology is accomplished. We are not a 'hard science' modeling valence shells of cultural behavior, but what exactly is the point of participant observation if not to gather knowledge and organize it in a meaningful way to communicate the reality of a given experience? Why should anybody listen to an anthropologist/archaeologist/bioanthro/linguist who cannot explain WHY something happened in a way which allows the audience to learn the characteristics of that experience and compare it to other experiences.

    Since I have a joint appointment between anthropology and informatics (cf. computer science), I realize that I'm ideologically suspect. But the reason I have a job is that there are cross-culturally human ways of engaging with information and technologies because we are information organisms (cf. cyborg!), and there are important culturally-contextual nuances to human-technology interaction. The fact that I try to recognize the origins, biases, and limitations of science makes me a more capable scientist, and hopefully a less hubristic one than this post would indicate.

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  5. You said:

    > 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.

    Contrary to what "Anonymous" said, I find this MORE appalling and frightening than the deletion of the word science.

    The first thing is the sneaky insertion of the word "Western" into science. Every advanced technological culture, East or West uses the same techniques to discover the underlying organizing principles of the world. We call that system science, and they use it in Tokyo, Beijing and Jerusalem. What "non-Western" forms of science are there?

    Further, can you please point me to a non-scientific indigenous system which can make predictions that are comparable in sophistication to science's? I admit to being ignorant of such a thing, and even more ignorant that such a system is "recently being accepted as equally valid to Western science."

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  6. Following up Paul Prescod's comments:

    Dooglas: Do you really believe that the local belief that Krakatoa was the home of a fire-breathing god who showed his wrath by destroying much of the locality with thousands of its inhabitants is as valid as modern scientific understanding of the origins of volcanoes?

    And what is your view of the beliefs of Southern evangelicals who are convinced that natural disasters are God's way of showing His disapproval of certain aspects of American/Western society?

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  7. Kelly Moran3:31 PM

    Yes, there are other ways of knowing. But if you are trying to promote "public understanding" then I am assuming that the Western World (as well as Tokyo, Beijing, Jerusalem, etc as Paul Prescod noted)are included in your intended audience. Your job then is to translate your group of advocacy into something your audience is ready to understand. Right now, that means science. Science is valued, even when not understood, and accepted. It makes the impact you are seeking. Sorry if that makes your crusade a little harder. You have to work with what you have in order to create change.

    Not to mention that the last phrase of Section One is being omitted: "...and it's use to solve human problems." AAA just can't stand the applied folks. Why solve human problems when you can advocate for change? Wait...am I detecting an inconsistency?

    I stopped supporting AAA two years ago. Vote with your dollars (or make some other non-Western type of protest if you choose).

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  8. A few points for comment:
    I should first note that I consider myself an applied medical anthropologist, and I utilize a theoretically informed scientific approach to my anthropological research. I also recognize the importance and value of a 4-field approach. My work with indigenous populations has allowed me to witness different ways of approaching and knowing about the world around us, ways that have not arisen out of the Western scientific worldview, yet have also been successful in maintaining human populations. And so...

    1) I am not advocating for the removal of science from the discipline of anthropology, and I don't think AAA or any other anthropologist truly is. A closer read of my post should make this clear.

    2) I agree that this is probably not the most important issue regarding the changes made by AAA. In particular, anthropologists must consider how these changes will affect funding opportunities for their work (such as NSF, NIH, and the like)

    3) AAA is not claiming that anthropology is no longer a science, and neither am I. I encourage those of you that are interested to visit the AAA website to view the entire Long Range Plan and other AAA documents. Further, as a discipline rooted in the Western worldview, it would be difficult for us not to use science if we strive for relevance and meaning in our work.

    4) Science is a distinctly Western invention that has spread around the globe. Of course it is practiced in non-Western settings, and other systems use scientific methodologies. However, the labeling of other systems as science has only occurred after the fact of the global spread of Western science.

    5) The question of audience is a good one. As an applied anthropologist, I am walking a line between speaking to and with an academic audience, and reaching a wider public with my work. This blog attempts to bring anthropological insights to a wider public, and I acknowledge that some of the language I use may not always be fully understood. This is an ongoing challenge, and one that I constantly have in mind.

    6) Finally, the proposition that indigenous knowledge is on an equal field with science is explored in a number of studies with indigenous populations, particularly those dealing with health and the environment. I plan a future post to further expand on this topic.

    Thanks to everyone who has read, especially those who have commented. We look forward to your visit and contributions in the future.

    doog

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  9. You say:

    "4) Science is a distinctly Western invention that has spread around the globe. Of course it is practiced in non-Western settings, and other systems use scientific methodologies. However, the labeling of other systems as science has only occurred after the fact of the global spread of Western science."

    Monotheism is a middle eastern invention that spread around the world. But at some point is is a bit pointless to call it "Middle Eastern Monotheism". Monotheism, like science, is simply a feature of the modern global community/culture. If Western nations stopped doing it, the Eastern ones would happily continue to use it.

    "6) Finally, the proposition that indigenous knowledge is on an equal field with science is explored in a number of studies with indigenous populations, particularly those dealing with health and the environment. I plan a future post to further expand on this topic."

    I would not for a moment dispute that indigenous people know things that self-described scientists do not. That is not the same as saying that their way of knowing is as efficient or as good at routing out false truths. A culture that has spent five thousand years in the rain forest will probably know more about it than scientists who drop in for five years at a time.

    But give one tribe the scientific method and let the other use a random walk of trial and error. Then leave them alone in the jungle for 5000 years. Which one will have the more accurate understanding of their surroundings at the end?

    I claim that this experiment has been run already and science has demonstrated itself the best known system. If there is a native system that is as good, then it is our moral duty to use it, rather than science, to find new drugs to save lives. In fact, in addition to saving lives, we could make a lot of money, which is not a bad side effect.

    Note that I'm not talking about building a pharmaceutical company around drugs which the indigenous people may have found which cure cancer or whatever. I'm talking about building a company around their technique for discovering drugs.

    If there is a better technique, then we should all be using it. It should either supplant or be merged with science. As empiricists, scientists should be willing to adopt new methods which are empirically shown to be better.

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  10. Caravelle4:53 AM

    I'd like to see some specific example of what you mean when you say that indigenous knowledge is accepted as equally complex and equally valid as Western science.

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  11. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Let's remove all words from the mission statement.

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  12. Samuel Kleiner4:49 PM

    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.

    You, and all who think like you are liars and traitors to humanity, and in any just world you would spat on in the street.

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  13. Check out this UGA link with a number of resources that discuss indigenous knowledge and science.

    http://www.uga.edu/iws/IK/ik_science.html

    This is just one of many examples that can be found on the topic.

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  14. Anonymous3:14 AM

    thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Anonymous2:33 PM

    The author wrote an addition to this article in mid-February, 2013:
    Seeing, Hearing, and Feeling: Reflections on Ways of Knowing

    ReplyDelete

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