Science & Technology

Anthropology: Engaged social science in a changing world

Rosemary Joyce

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

American Anthropological Association, Statement of Purpose, Section 1.

Seems unambiguous, right? Anthropology’s largest professional association says we are a science.

So, why did the New York Times report on December 9 that the American Anthropological Association had “deepened a rift” by dropping the word science from its long-range plan?

Nicholas Wade, author of the New York Times’ original article and a follow-up a few days later, claimed that the change in the wording of the long-range plan

“reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.”

But the simmering isn’t actually so very clear to many of us.

As Katherine MacKinnon of Saint Louis University (PhD UC Berkeley 2002, and as a primatologist, safely within Wade’s definition of scientists) said in an article in Inside Higher Education,

“The audience at large (including students) might have the impression that most anthropologists are embroiled in a vicious debate about defining our field, and also that there are rampant turf battles in every anthropology department or program in North America… In my experience this is not true, and this depiction is hardly fair to those broadly trained anthropologists who are doing cutting edge, cross-subfield work that is pushing boundaries and furthering the discipline in a positive way.”

In his follow-up article, Wade substituted an even more noxious pair of contrasting terms: on one side, he says, are “evidence-based researchers”; on the other, “those more interested in advocating for the rights of women or native peoples”. Clearly, for Nicholas Wade, there can be no mixing human rights and science; or the study of race and gender and science.

Which is a pretty bizarre constraint to impose on a field that has just produced a highly successful public education initiative that looks at race “through the eyes of history, science and lived experience” and “explains how human variation differs from race, when and why the idea of race was invented, and how race and racism affects everyday life”. (The traveling exhibit that formed part of the program was on exhibit at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science for the first four months of 2010.)

For us anthropologists, it isn’t an either/or: understanding humanity requires both the approaches of the sciences and those of interpretive disciplines.

But of course, that’s not as fun a story for the media. As Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology on PLOS (for my money the site of the smartest discussions of the uproar around) says

To me, the people doing much of the most outrageous arguing are anthropologists with well-ground axes or are outsiders who have some sort of interest in stirring up a ruckus in our field, like vandals who take advantage of a social protest to smash a few windows and have a bit of a lark.

Or maybe a better analogy is a pack of enthused spectators hoping two angry drunk guys can be goaded into a punch-up if the spectators just keep shouting, ‘Fight!  Fight!  Fight!’ It’s all fun, but someone’s liable to wind up with a headache in the morning.

So what do we anthropologists do if we don’t want to be the angry drunk guys? What do you do if you don’t want to be one of the irresponsible spectators egging the drunks on?

Well, first, let’s act like scholars and consider the facts. However neat Nicholas Wade’s story seems to be, it was not actually evidence-based. Ironically, it is entirely an interpretive exercise that assumed motivations and treated assertions as if they were facts.

There was no move to “exclude” science in the long-range plan; the mission of the American Anthropological Association continues to describe the discipline as a science; and there aren’t two teams, one the right-thinking, evidence-based scientists and the other advocates who, as Wade also says, are more interested in “more interpretive subjects, like research on race and sex”.

Exemplifying the problem with Wade’s manufactured controversy is the fact– unacknowledged in the media coverage — that four archaeologists and a physical anthropologist were part of the group that approved the rewording in the long-range plan.

The Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association (of which I am President-Elect) debated the facts and came to the conclusion that

the AAA Executive Board (EB) acted with the intent to include, not exclude, scientific approaches when it accepted the now-controversial wording in a preface to the Long Range Plan, a document that essentially addresses public outreach.

Second, we might consider what is at stake that caused Wade and others in the media to leap on this story. Anthropology is not important enough on its own to justify the degree of coverage for what, really, was a tempest in a teapot encouraged by a little paranoia and a lot of imputing motivations where none could really be shown.

That brings me back to Nicholas Wade’s disdain for advocacy, which he uses as the opposite of science in his somewhat odd characterization of tensions in my chosen field.

Anthropology is a discipline that, from its science-based wings in archaeology and biological anthropology, to its interpretive edges (that can be found in almost every subdiscipline, pace Nicholas Wade’s world-view), is deeply committed to working out the morally ambiguous positions that taking human beings as objects of study can produce.

In the contemporary world, we bring those insights back into society.

And that means we make people uncomfortable about their certainties.

So I agree with Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology again:

many people outside our field still want to use anthropology as a surrogate battlefield, often to enact some ritualized intellectual combat that is over and done in their own home….

It’s also much easier to criticize when you don’t yourself have to wade into the mess – trying to do consulting for development projects, government advising, or social research is very, very messy and compromised at times…..

One reason I’m glad to be an anthropologist is that I constantly learn new stuff. A crucial reason that I constantly learn new stuff – in addition to a mild attention deficit issue – is that everyone in my field is not doing the same thing as me….

If you want to be in a field with intellectual consensus on every key point, you probably want to stay away from anthropology; we’re a glorious hodgepodge of all sorts of theoretical and research traditions…

my differences with a fellow researcher (scientist, pseudo-scientist or non-scientist) pale in comparison to my common cause in the face of attacks on independent research, of upper executives’ preening sense of entitlement and self-importance, of corporatization of universities, and of overall hostility in the public to intellectuals.

Amen.

And it is, in part, anthropology’s continuing commitment to debate, to public outreach, and yes, to advocacy, that makes my discipline what it is: a master example of engaged social science. And that’s what we need in the changing world we are living in.

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Comment to "Anthropology: Engaged social science in a changing world":
    • Anthony St. John '63

      Why Do We Never Learn?

      “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitations of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.” Paramount conclusion by Will and Ariel Durant in “The Story of Civilization.”

      At the rate our civilization is declining today, the paramount question is whether we shall continue to decline, or shall the never-ending failures of our political and intellectual leaders cause the extinction of the human race?

      Berkeley intellectuals must assume the role of leadership to end our decline. And that’s what we need in the changing world we are living in.

      [Report abuse]

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