Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Anthropology is not a science" - American Anthropological Association

The Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) had adopted a new long-range plan that omits the word "science" from the association's long-term plan. Not surprisingly, scientific anthropologists are upset, and the controversy is all over the internet. I think this is a VERY BAD THING, and it may just be the straw that breaks the camel's back for me -- perhaps it's time to resign from the AAA. My intellectual and alienation from cultural anthropology, and my professional and intellectual alienation from the AAA. go way back (I have various prior posts on this, check the index).


Check out the controversy. My favorite post is Alice Dreger's column, "No science, please. We're anthropoloigsts." in Psychology Today. By the way, Dreger will shortly nail the AAA for its behavior toward Napoleon Chagnon in the Tierney Darkness in El Dorado affair in a detailed scholarly article.

For basic reporting, see articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education.

Savage Minds has a post on it called: "Why anthropology is 'true' even if it's not 'science.' Pretty lame, but there is a lively discussion on the post.

But the best discussion is on Neuroanthropology, "Anthropology, Science and Public Understanding." Daniel Lende  points to something I missed in my initial reading. The new list of topics covered by anthropology replaces the subdisciplines with a list that includes the subdisciplines PLUS a bunch of things that fall largely within cultural anthropology. As Lende says on Neuoanthropology:

The AAAs emphasis on cultural anthropology continues, and is actually reinforced in this new document. Before there were just four sub-fields – “archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research.” Now we have a list of ten – “archeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” The new additions fall largely within the domain of cultural anthropology – social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, and visual. Equal weighting for biology would likely demand some mention of primatology and evolutionary anthropology. I am sure an archaeologist would also have relevant additions.
So I guess we now know what the AAA board thinks anthropology really consists of: it is mostly cultural anthropology, with, oh yes, a bit of biological and archaeological material thrown in to satisfy the four-fields myth. Not very encouraging for archaeology.


Michael E. Smith said...

I just joined the Society for Anthropological Sciences.

Chris said...

sorry, I originally posted this in the newer posting (P.S. this is an awesome blog! I'm glad I finished my PhD before finding out about it).

Coming from a strong four-field background, this is distressing news. I do not see what anthropology gains from restricting its intellectual range. I am an archaeologist, and I see ample room for multiple approaches to understand the human condition.

But I am not surprised. I especially took note of Peter Wood's comment that some fear that this is "'to rid' the profession of archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and perhaps even linguists."

Maybe I am sensitive, but I have begun wondering if cultural anthropology graduate students (together with sociologists, cultural studies students, political science students, etc.) somewhere, sometime take a secret seminar, the theme of which is "archaeologists are idiots."

I am a young archaeologist, and this is my first year on the job market with a PhD. I actually applied for jobs that were not only in my sub-field, and I actually got an interview at a place wanting a cultural anthropologist (score one for 4-field!). At another place, however, I received an ultra-rude, deliberately callous email from the search chair saying that they have no interest in an archaeologist (he was a jerk, so score two for 4-field!).

These changes just seem to be a reflection of anthropologists' paradoxically ironic, growing disinterest not only in 4-field but in holism (which includes many perspectives, such as scientific approaches). I have met many cultural anthropologists who doubt the need for these anthropological values, but I have met far fewer archaeologists who wonder all the intro to anthro classes at the school where I am teaching are being taught by archaeologists now... (score 1 for archaeologists!).

Lastly, I am new on the job market. I just want a job so I can pursue something I love. But here I am having to watch a bunch of tenured anthropologists creating unnecessary drama from their ivory towers. It is sad. This issue will probably be in AN's next issue but not the way the economy is affecting students and new PhDs (many of whom have more pubs than their profs did when they got tenure): score 0 for anthropology and the intelligentsia.

Colleen said...

The new AAA statement is absolute garbage - weren't there any bio anths or archaeos present? My program has a pretty strong rep for being experimental and oriented toward what I think you were calling "social archaeology" in a previous post, but we absolutely believe in having a firm basis in science, particularly materials sciences.

I'd say to call a boycott, but what is a boycott to an organization who doesn't want us anyway?

Chris said...

archaeologists should remain the standard-bearers for a four-field tradition... we usually are the ones to do so anyway.

also, isn't there a stereotype that it is impossible to get a job with a PhD in the humanities??? I am sure we have all seen the funny video by now:

I am always going to call myself a social SCIENTIST... Isn't reckless (and disconnected with the real world) for the AAA executives to try to convince the world we aren't? At least for those of us who want careers in academia...

Anonymous said...

I do think this debate is going to go on for a while, and there will be a significant backlash, particularly from the AD executive board (my understanding is that they didn't see this coming). That said, I do find it interesting that very few people are talking about the distinguished lecture at the meetings this year by archaeologist Jerry Sabloff, which was received extremely well:

I for one hope that the AAA statement is changed, because I'm not ready to give up on the association. Marilyn Strathern recently gave a great talk making the point that the fragmentation of Anthropology will hurt ALL corners of anthropology, no matter what each sub-discipline seems to think. This seems particularly true with the stresses felt across academia these days.


Anonymous said...

PS - you can post your thoughts here..

Dvergatal said...

Loosely paraphrasing Karl Butzer and Rip Rapp.. archaeology is an earth science or it stands alone. Ever since I crossed over from geology to archaeology I’ve wondered why my archaeology courses where taken in an anthropology department. Twenty five years of a federal archaeology career later... I still wonder. The “cultural” classes were the easy A’s and I’ve always found that interesting. I can’t remember now what they were about but they must’ve been an easy break after hours in a min-pet lab staring at thin sections or puzzling through intergalactic calc. So they were good for something. Anyway thousands of people can be utterly wrong about something and be wrong for a long time. Just look at Christianity or neolib policy. In the end.. it’s all arbitrary playground rules for that day’s made up recess game. In the end is soil, sediment and whatever clasts they contain. Be they anthropogenic.. or glacier shit.