Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Here's an idea why the American Anthropological Association took the word "science" out of their long-term plan. They took the lay of the coming political landscape, where science will be increasingly under fire from politicians and others. They then decided that if anthropologists pretend that we are not scientists, then maybe we will escape some of the anti-science fire.
**** END OF SARCASM ****

What anti-science trends? Look around, it's scary. These are only a couple of examples:
The way to counter this kind of anti-science is not to get rid of "science" as a descriptor by the AAA. Rather we need to EMPHASIZE the scientific nature of archaeology, and we need to communicate that information to the public. This was the topic of Jerry Sabloff's recent plenary lecture at the AAA meetings in New Orleans. Here is some coverage from the AAA blog:

Our motto shouldn’t be “publish or perish, but rather, public or perish,” archaeologist Sabloff said to a crowd of fellow anthropologists. He noted how other scientific fields have their iconic scholars – think Stephen Hawking, or Cornell West, or Jared Diamond.
But anthropology? With the exception of the deceased (Margaret Mead) and the fictitious (Indiana Jones), not so much.
That needs to change, Sabloff says, especially considering the intensity and complexity of global issues. Take your pick of front page headlines. The Obama administration’s healthcare bill would benefit from having anthropologists share their perspectives in a public forum, such as an op-ed piece in the newspaper. The ongoing war in Afghanistan is another example; anthropologists could provide different viewpoints from the talking heads the public is used to seeing on television.
Part of the problem has been university departments’ traditional avoidance of the limelight. Worse yet, anthropologists who speak out in the media are often criticized by their colleagues. “We shouldn’t be sniping, but rather supporting, our colleagues who write op-ed pieces,” Sabloff said.
The lecture, which was as inspiring as it was bold, was met with wild applause, a standing ovation and likely more than a few anthropologists considering their future (however large or small) in the public spotlight.

Sabloff has written about this topic before:

Sabloff, Jeremy A.
    1998    Distinguished Lecture in Archaeology: Communication and the Future of American Archaeology. American Anthropologist 100:869-875.

See also some of his more recent publications:

Sabloff, Jeremy A.
2008    Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology in the Modern World. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

2009    How Can Archaeologists Usefully Contribute to Public Policy Considerations. Archaeological Dialogues 16:169-171.

This is the time to be scientific, and to show the public what we know about the past (and how we know it).

1 comment:

Chris said...

This is worth a read.


I particularly loved this comment:

"The thing that I find completely bizarre about the new wording is the exclusive focus on public understanding. Public understanding? Really? Judging from my recent search committee and scientific review panel experience, I can only be left with the conclusion that the public must have an insatiable hunger for phenomenology. This explains why I can never find any Husserl at Barnes and Noble — he must just be flying off the shelves!"

What a great characterization of the whimsical hypocrisy that marks these constant shifts in intellectual tenor.

That said, I am a strong supporter of public archaeology. Where I work, there is no other way. I have to navigate and work with several community organizations regardless of what my INAH permit says. It is a collaborative process by its very nature; I am not the other hand, I never put it on a pedestal. It was part of the process. Now, however, I am finding myself having to rethink my work so I can sell myself on the job market given the new trend. The irony is that I have done a ton more community archaeology than the average public archaeologist (who might have a "community day" after several years of work and then write an article about it...).