Thursday, December 9, 2010

Where does anthropology fit in with science?

The American Anthropological Association is severing its ties with science. This was the top article listed in the science section of the NYTimes today, and frankly as someone who is going to be graduating with a B.S in Biological Anthropology I'm feeling quite abandoned by the AAA.

So what's going on here? The AAA still considers anthropology a science, but is seeking to be more welcoming to non-science related research. However, this move is a clear blow against science related anthropology. Nicholas Wade, who authored the NYTimes piece described it as, "The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines...and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights."

For anyone who is unfamiliar with anthropology it's the study of human beings, and it's split into four sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and physical/biological anthropology. For me, I study human evolution and I'm interested in continuing onto grad school to study paleoanthropology. I have no interest in living peoples whatsoever (no offense), but does this make me less of an anthropologist?

I'm firmly sticking by the fact that what I'm studying is a science. Two articles featured on the AAA website are "Anthropology without Science" and "No Science Please. We're Anthropologists" which were both negative responses to this move.

Have cultural anthropologists suddenly shunned the scientific method when approaching their observations and setting up their research plans? Have they dropped use of statistics? Is social science not science? Science is still in anthropology, and to drop the term from mission statement is ridiculous. If the AAA truly wants to create greater public awareness and understanding, they can't sweep half the field under a rug.

This move fails to resolve any tension described above by Wade. Instead it fosters even more. For me, seeing the NYTimes headline was heartbreaking. It makes me feel as if I am a minority within my own field, confirming what I have noticed in school in which general anthropology (cultural) is a very popular major, and biological anthropology is literally unheard of.

I will not be joining the AAA. I would join the SAS (Society for Anthropological Sciences) gladly, because even though it is smaller I would be around like-minded individuals. Why would I pay dues to an organization that has quite publicly denounced what I do? Anthropology is dividing, and not quietly. I am entering a field in relative turmoil but at least I know exactly where I stand.

Anthropology, whether some anthropologists like it or not, uses science in it's most basic definition. Merriam Webster's definition of science reads, "The state of knowing  : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding." Isn't anthropology seeking to understand humans and their behaviors, rituals, traditions through observation and other methods?

The AAA can only represent our field to the public after they have gotten over their own self-denial and ignorance.

I realize these are big words for an undergraduate but part of my reasons for undertaking this blog was to foster accessible public information on evolution. I plan on going into some sort of public education in the future (since American attitudes are so poor on evolutionary sciences) whether through broadcast, web based mediums, or museum exhibition. The AAA wants to increase public understanding of humankind instead of promoting anthropology as a science, but science is one of the greatest tools for understanding humankind.

Wade, N. Anthropology a Science? The Expert's Disagree. 9/12/10 

Long-Range Plan. The American Anthropological Association.


  1. Well, Bernadette, there's another way to view this. The story with the anti-science sentiment in anthropology and in the AAA is not recent nor, contrary to Wade, reopening. It has been a generation in the making. Probably before you were born--and I mean that literally!--the same antagonisms were afoot. I know, because I was there, an AAA member and on some of its executive committees. Some of us tried to rescue it, but only with mild, temporary effect.

    Penn State is the #1 ranked Anthropology department in the country, to the extent that such rankings mean much. Yet I think no more than one or two of us (at most) are AAA members. I dropped my membership years ago, for the reasons we're discussing.

    But I happened by chance to be at the AAA meetings this year (that's why we canceled one of our classes this semester!), I think the only member of our Department who was there. I went because I was invited to give the plenary talk to the BAS (Biological Anth. Section).

    I paged through the abstracts for the larger AAA meeting, and casually overheard people in their various huddles in the hotel lobby and the like. All I can say, and it's not flattering, is that it seemed like a Dirigibles Anonymous convention: a lot of people with little but air between their ears, stuck to the ground only by the ballast of the rest of their bodies.

    But one should be fair. If thousands of people think that 'science' is not the right way to understand people, but that there are other ways, then the society is clearly theirs and we should not begrudge them the right to their world-views. Those views don't impede your ability to pursue your interests in the field.

    Those of us who aim to be scientific in some serious sense simply need to find and form our own companionship, rather than attempting to unseat this large group of people who simply share a different ethos.

    There is a need for serious-minded anthropology in many areas of life, and indeed in national policy it would be potentially serious if the AAA is taken to represent 'anthropology'. But then those with scientific interests simply need to form a society for their version of like-minded poeple.

    Whether or not anyone likes it, Anthropology AAA-style is what it is and has been for decades. It's time, perhaps to accept that, and move towards some other way of forming our own associations.

  2. Hi Bernadette P,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written!

    Merlen Hogg