On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits

There has been quite a brouhaha percolating through some Anthropology circles following the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Associate in New Orleans last month.  It seems that the AAA executive board, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to excise the term “science” from the Association’s long-range planning document. You can sample some of the reaction to this re-write in blog posts from anthropologi.info, Neuroanthropology, Evolution on the Beach,  AAPA BANDITInside HigherEd, and Fetishes I Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on the first paragraph of this document.  Here is that paragraph as it stood before the November meeting:

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.

The new wording is as follows:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.  The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

So, anthropology is no longer a science, though there are lots of rather particularistic approaches through which one can pursue anthropology that may or may not be scientific.  Apparently, the executive board has a newfound passion for public communication as well.  I guess we don’t really need an organization that promotes scholarly understanding or the production of new knowledge.  Just look where that’s gotten us!

The new wording has greatly concerned a number of parties, including the Society for Anthropological Sciences.  I am a member of this section and have never seen so much traffic on the society’s listserv.

I will admit to being somewhat dismayed by the Society’s response.  While I am not quite as tweaked by this as many, I nonetheless wrote a longish call for specific action — one that involved good old-fashioned political organizing and attempting to forge alliances both with other sections within AAA and across other scholarly societies with an interest in anthropology (e.g., AAPA, HBA, SAA, HBES).  My call was greeted with a deafening (virtual) silence and I am left to guess why.  Perhaps the membership is suspicious of the imperialist ambitions of a biological anthropologist with the taint of evolution on him?  Perhaps they’ve heard and tried it all before and were simply convinced it would not work?  Perhaps they actually like being an embattled minority and don’t really want to take action to jeopardize that status?

To what extent is the scandal a tempest in a teapot?  I honestly don’t know.  The word “science” has been taken out of the first paragraph but there is nothing inherently anti-scientific about the statement.  After all, “advancing public understanding” can be done through “archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research.” Any number of these can be done through a scientific approach to understanding.

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!  You’d think if the goal of our flagship professional organization is really promoting public understanding, that more anthropologists would write in a manner that was generally understandable to, you know, the public.  In his distinguished lecture, the eminent archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff chastised anthropologists for their unwillingness to engage with the general public.  I could not agree with this perspective more, especially if “engaging with the public” entails engaging with colleagues from cognate disciplines, another thing that I think we do a miserable job of, in general.

I was a bit disappointed to read Alex Golub’s write-up of this issue on the Savage Minds blog.  I’m usually a big fan of both this blog and Alex’s posts more generally. However, in this case I think that Alex engages in the kind of ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists that normally gives anthropologists the willies.  Advocates of science are characterized as close-minded automata, utterly lacking any appreciation for ambiguity, historicity, politics, or contested meaning.  For example, he writes

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on.

Très nuanced, eh?

The statements made by many scientific anthropologists, particularly those of the generation to enter the profession in the 1960s and 1970s, need to be understood in the historical and political context of the speakers.  I think that it is simply disingenuous to claim that scientific approaches to anthropological knowledge have not become increasingly marginalized within the mainstream of anthropology over the last several decades.  One need only look at what has become to the departments that were home to the vaunted physical anthropology programs of the past to find evidence of this trend. Consider, for example, the University of Chicago, the University of California Berkeley or Columbia University.  And this is just biological anthropology; it does not account for the loss of scientific social and cultural anthropologists (think Gene Hammel or Roy D’Andrade) in elite, Ph.D.-granting programs. The reasons for the marginalization of scientific approaches to anthropology are complex and do not fit neatly into the simplistic narrative of “objective, scientific anthropology … under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth.” No doubt, part of the problem is simply the compartmentalization of knowledge.  As scholars become increasingly specialized, it becomes more and more difficult to be both scientist and humanist.  Increasingly, hiring decisions are zero-sum games. The gain of a scientist represents the loss of a humanist and vice-versa. Gone is Eric Wolf’s conception of Anthropology as “both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanist of the sciences.”

The key is that the declining importance of science in the elite anthropology departments has led to a feeling of embattlement — that is almost certainly counter-productive most of the time — among the remaining scientific anthropologists. Another consequence is that the decline of the place of science within anthropological discourse selects for personalities who thrive on embattlement, so that the reproduction of the field is relatively enriched with young scholars who see no point to professional or intellectual engagement. And so it gets more and more difficult to integrate.  This is the lens through which I view much of the public complaining about the recent actions of the AAA executive board. However, as my colleague Rebecca Bird noted, those of us who still see a place for science in anthropology need to move beyond reactionary statements.  We need to be proactive and positive.

The academy is changing. This can be seen in the increasing number of cross-cutting requests-for-proposals from funding agencies such as NSF (e.g., HSD, EID, CHNS) or NIH and the wholesale re-organization of many research universities (ASU is only the most extreme case; the ascendency of interdisciplinary centers such as the Woods Institute for the Environment or the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford is a more common manifestation of this trend; the Columbia Earth Institute also comes to mind).  In an academy that increasingly values transdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge, I think that anthropologists have an enormous comparative advantage — if we could just get over ourselves.  As I wrote in my 2009 Anthropology News piece:

Four-field anthropology is a biosocial discipline that integrates information from all levels of biological and social organization. To understand human behavior, the four-field anthropologist considers genetics and physiology; the history of the human lineage; historical, cultural and social processes; the dynamics of face-to-face interactions; and global political economy. Each of these individual areas is studied by other disciplines, but no other field provides the grounding in all, along with the specific mandate to understand the scope of human diversity. The anthropologist stands in a unique position to serve as the fulcrum upon which the quality of an interdisciplinary research team balances. Revitalizing the four-subfield approach to anthropological training could move anthropology from the margins of the interdisciplinary, research-based academy of the near future to the core.

I have no interest in disparaging forms of knowledge or excluding particular types of scholars from any social movement, but I think that scientific anthropologists have a particularly important role to play in such a revitalization, if for no other reason than they (presumably) care about more of these levels of organization.  Maybe such scholars could even communicate the subtlety and richness of ethnographic experience that our more humanistic colleagues so value if we could just get beyond the name-calling.

I may be dismissed as being naively optimistic by the old guard of scientific anthropologists (hypothesis 2, above), but I think that I have good reasons to be optimistic about the future of anthropology, despite the many challenges. This optimism stems from the work of individual anthropologists.  I’ll do a quick shout-out to a number of people who I think are doing particularly good work, integrating different anthropological perspectives, and communicating with a broader audience.  This is a very personal and idiosyncratic list — these scholars are people I’ve encountered recently or whose work has been brought to my attention of late. They tend to be focused on questions of health and human-environment interactions, naturally, since these are the issues that organize my research.

If you want to feel good about the future of a scientific anthropology that is simultaneously integrated into contemporary anthropology and communicates with a broader scientific and policy audience (and is generally great and transformative — that key NSF buzz word), check out the work of:

  • Craig Hadley at Emory on food security and psychological well-being
  • Amber Wutich at ASU on vulnerability, water security, and common-pool resources
  • Lance Gravlee at UF on the embodiment of racial discrimination and its manifestations in health
  • Brooke Scelza at UCLA on parental investment and childhood outcomes
  • Dan Hrushka at ASU on how cultural beliefs, norms and values interact with economic constraints to produce health outcomes
  • Crickette Sanz at Washington University on multi-ape ecology of the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo
  • Herman Pontzer at CUNY on measuring daily energy expenditures in hunter-gatherers
  • Rebecca and Douglas Bird on subsistence and signaling among Martu foragers

This list could go on. I won’t even mention the amazing anthropology post-docs, Siobhan MattisonSean Downey, and Brian Wood, with whom I have been so lucky to interact this academic year.

I have plenty more to say on this — particularly how the portrayal of politics and political agendas enters the discourse — but I have final exams to grade!

16 thoughts on “On Husserl, Hexis, and Hissy-Fits”

  1. Thanks for this post. I would like to clarify one thing: You write that I engage in "ahistorical, totalizing stereotyping of scientific anthropologists". I don't think this is accurate. In fact my statement was historical and particular, since I was summarizing the arguments made in two specific pieces, both of which I linked to in my article, one of which mentions Geertz as a example of 'activist' and 'interpretive' (read: unscientific) anthropology (!), the other which explicitly used the adjective 'fluff-headed' and 'scientific' as adjectives to describe different kinds of anthropologists. This was me commenting on two specific posts, not me taking potshots and people just because they want to do science.

  2. Fair enough. It wasn't completely obvious to me that this was a specific reply to Dreger and Wood or a general reply to the overall grumbling by the Society for Anthropological Sciences and company. Dreger is clearly exasperated. Regarding Wood, I think it's entirely possible that the "psychological reasons [he is] strongly committed to identifying [himself] as [a] scientist and everyone else as blasphemers" is politics plain and simple. Science is a convenient mantle to don when attempting to make hay with your political enemies in a public forum. I am very interested in the way that politics -- left or otherwise -- get strategically deployed in these conversations. Political sensibility, the degree to which one advocates for the people one works with, the degree to which one is critical of colonialism, neoliberalism, globalization, etc. is another dimension that I suspect is completely orthogonal to whether one identifies oneself as a scientist or humanist, despite the way that an apparent opposition between "the intellectual leftist" and scientists gets worked into so much that is written on this topic. Perhaps that will be the germ of another blog post...

  3. Jamie,

    Regarding the deafening silence that followed your post on the SAS listserv, I completely agree that it would be great for scientific anthropologists to play a greater role in the governance and organization of the AAA. Unfortunately, I could not muster enough optimism to believe that a sea-change is imminent. That is, you indicated that we would need more support from biological anthropologists and archaeologists. Alas, whereas the AAA meeting is THE annual meeting for most cultural anthropologists, the allure of the AAPA meeting and the SAA meeting is unlikely to wane soon. Given that, it may be unrealistic to imagine that enough bio-anthropologists and archaeologists will attend AAA for us to see much of a difference.

    Overall, what motivation is there for, say, a paleo-anthropologist to join AAA? With online university subscriptions, for instance, it's easy enough for them to get any relevant article that gets published in American Anthropologist.

    Given the relatively expensive membership dues, perhaps it would require some well-organized interdisciplinary sessions at the annual meeting combined with another compelling reason to join. Maybe this brouhaha over the role of science in the discipline will be a catalyst for folks to join . . . but I admit that I'm not overly optimistic.

    I think a more realistic goal will be for EAS and SAS to promote science-friendly candidates for elected roles on the AAA executive meeting.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. I just thought that there was an historic moment where we might be able to get anthropologists of other stripes to pony up for AAA -- since there clearly isn't any other reason (given the current configuration of the association). There's little hope for getting paleoanthropologists to join AAA, but there are quite a few people like me in societies like HBA or AAPA or HBES who don't belong to AAA because they see no point but care about a larger anthropology and think about questions of behavior, social structure, and even culture in their work. There are, in fact, quite a few self-identified cultural anthropologists who don't belong (it sure would be nice to know how many) -- think about all the practicing anthropologists who only go to the applied meetings. I only joined AAA three years ago (though I've belonged to AAPA and/or HBA for a decade).

    Anyway, I think the moment has passed and I am actually encouraged at the possibility for constructive engagement. Ultimately, political organizing can only get you so far. The real key is that we have to relentlessly pursue scholarly excellence and make sure that our work is visible to folks both within and outside the field. The work of scientific anthropologists is (at least at this historical moment) more interdisciplinary, so it is essential that we communicate effectively outside anthropology. Ensuring the quality (and quantity!) of our work is the best way to keep our place at the table.

  5. My characterization was specifically of Dreger and Wood but it increasingly becomes clear that it is not a bad take on at least the leadership of SAS. The one thing that I did think was unfair was portraying them as saying cultural anthropology was " the thin edge of a wedge inserted into the social sciences by Creationism" because they did not actually say this. It was gratifying to see Peter Peregrine take up the slack for me in the recent New York Times article on this topic when he said "Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought". Tres nuanced, eh?

  6. I took great interest in your post to the SAS listserv. But, in trying to recruit presenters for AAA sessions, I have found that many scientifically-oriented anthropologists have no interest in the AAA. I doubt that the new wording in the “long-range plan” will make them more interested in the organization now. Despite the breadth of anthropologists that use evolutionary theory, the Evolutionary Anthropology Society has largely attracted only human behavioral ecologists to the AAA. I suspect that human behavioral ecologists do not feel entirely at home in organizations like SfAA, HBES, AAPA, HBA, AAS, etc. and want to create a home within the AAA. I suspect this is also true for many of the SAS AAA members. Primatologists, archeologists, paleontologists, geneticists, etc. have professional organizations outside of the AAA where they feel at home. Drawing them en masse into the AAA without detrimentally feeding the flames of a perceived “all-out-war of humanists versus scientists” is daunting. Many SAS members would probably love to see your strategy succeed but realize that it requires coordinated action from very influential people. Indeed, you specifically asked for influential and important people to step up. Everyone may have been waiting for someone more important and influential than themselves to step forward.

  7. Phenomenology is primarily the study of intentionality and human consciousness from the first-person perspective. Prima facie, it has nothing to do with anything you discuss in this blog post. Your reference is so muddled that I'm unsure what to make of the paragraph in general.

    Generally, anthropology (even the non-scientific, quasi-sociology bit) is incommensurable with most phenomenology. The only methodological similarity between phenomenology and the AAA description is a putative marginalization of scientific inquiry (which, as you note, is not what the AAA description says). But they depart from this premise in completely different directions. Linguistics bears some minimal relation to phenomenology, but both subjects take a very different approach to understanding language and the structure of human thought.

    I gather your reference must relate somehow to 'public understanding.' Is it that phenomenology is written obscurely (the French phenomenologists in particular)? Do you think anthropology is inaccessible in the way phenomenology is?

    I can think of about a thousand better comparisons if this is your intention. Something like American pragmatism, for instance, might convey what you mean.

    Just to be clear, phenomenology isn't the only branch of philosophy that entertains 'phenomenological' questions. Analytic philosophy of mind mostly deals with the same issues, albeit in a much more structured and logical way.

  8. Ever read any contemporary medical anthropology? Much of it strikes me Merleau-Ponty, presumably filtered by Bourdieu. I don't see anything wrong with it per se, but I don't think it has an awful lot of value in terms of promoting "public understanding" of anthropology!

  9. I would heavily disagree with Roaming Philosopher when he says that analytic philosophy of mind deals with the same "phenomenological questions" that European phenomenology deals with. Dermot Moran has a great article dealing with the vast differences between how intentionality has been taken up in strikingly different ways that makes the above statement somewhat naive.

    Next, to the blog author: Why not re-appropriate the German term "Wissenshaft"? In Europe, there is a tradition of thinking of the qualitative methods of inquiry as more inclusive with what science means than debating the elimination of the word. It is the fact that "science" is always meant with a narrower meaning than it should have.

  10. I think that Wissenshaft is a terrific -- and terrifically inclusive -- term for what anthropologists do, regardless of their relationship to science, and it is actually something that has been discussed somewhat on the SAS/SASci listserv.

    Thanks for the pointer to the Moran paper. Personally, I am struggling with the role of phenomenology -- especially continental phenomenology -- in anthropology and maybe this will help me to think this through.

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