Friday, November 26, 2010

Whither Anthropology as a Science?

There must have been some buzz this past week at the AAA meetings in New Orleans. Peter Peregrine sent an email out to members, past and present, of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS) (for which Peregrine is President). Quite rightly, he was massively alarmed about a motion the Executive Committee of the AAA has taken in revision of the Association's mission statement. In essence, the committee has expunged all references to Anthropology as a science as part of their "Long Range Plan." He has called for a response to the AAA in the form of a resolution for the SAS. I assume there will be other responses as well. Here is what is being proposed:

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.

When I first read this, I thought "well, that is at least being honest." In many ways, Anthropology has survived in some of its least flattering forms due to the impression that many people that "doing Anthropology" is somehow necessarily "scientific." One might think, for example, "why are these people 'specialists' and getting paid to do this?" if science didn't have something to do with it. Here, science is confused with "systematic" but the gist is basically the same (i.e., assuming something systematic produces some regular and recognizable product). Of course, so much of what anthropology does do really isn't science, not even in its most empiricist and "systematic" form. Looking over the set of papers presented at the AAAs, one sees largely an ad hoc assortment of viewpoints, beliefs, assertions, claims, stories, tales, re-envisionings, interpretations, polemics, rallies, hubris, hue, and so on. Little of it is even empiricist in its crass form and even less is "systematic" in any recognizable way.

But on second thought, the idea that the people who believe that anthropology cannot or should not be a science can entirely co-opt the entire discipline is pretty outrageous. This kind of gerrymandering of the mission basically makes it necessary for those who believe that there are ways of generating theory-laden falsifiable accounts of the world in terms of culture (and other basic anthropological concepts) must work under a different banner than anthropology. But why should this be - we (science focused individuals) are anthropologists in the best sense of the discipline and its tradition. The anti-science theme is something early anthropologists fought against -- and is a relative late comer to the party.

And to make things worse, this new "mission" for anthropology seems only to further its the association's self-perpetuation interests without providing any particular reason for existing in the first place. The mission statement is insular, self-fulfilling and largely pointless. Deleting the goal of "solve human problems"? Uh, isn't this defining the mission of the AAA as simply promoting anthropology to simply replicate itself in whatever random form it happens to take? While ideas are all conceptually equal, some have more use than others when goals such as "solve human problems" are explicit. So removing this clause simply means that everyone doing anything is all okay. While this might not seem like such a big deal (i.e., who cares?), the reality is that resources are always finite and decisions have to be made. Plus, the "everything goes" kind of mentality seems to breed idiotic, political minded, self-congratulatory, post-hoc rationalized initiatives like the AAA Executive Committee's earlier witch hunt after Napoleon Chagnon.

Personally, I decided long ago to never send another dollar towards the AAA -- the journal sucks, the meetings consist of endless parade of dour, self-serious blathering and the association is a platform for mindless PC agenda and attacks on the folks struggling to make anthropology have a purpose. This change in the mission largely serves to confirm my earlier feelings about the AAA. Still, I cannot help but feel even more abandoned and disrespected by many of my academic colleagues.

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