Tag Archives: #aaafail

Nicholas Wade on Science and Anthropology

Nicholas Wade, who normally writes really terrific stuff on science in the New York Times, has a brief piece on our Anthropology fracas du jour. It’s good to see an expression of concern for the place of science in anthropology in such a prominent place and by such an important science writer.  I just wish he had gotten a few more things right.  While the Darkness in El Dorado fiasco was not a high point for the AAA, I suspect that this had not one iota to do with the re-wording of AAA’s long-range planning document. Secondly, I was pretty horrified to learn that science can’t be used as a framework for studying gender, ethnicity, and race, nor, apparently, can scientists advocate for indigenous people’s or human rights:

The decision [to remove the word ‘science’ from the long-range planning document] has 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.

I think that this will come as quite an unpleasant surprise to many fine scientific anthropologists who are apparently fooling themselves by attempting to understand race or gender or working to improve the lives of the people with whom they work.

So, I’m left with mixed feelings about this turn of events.  On the one hand, the prominence of a Science Times piece by Nicholas Wade means that debate is likely to continue for a while to come. It would be particularly helpful if this work helped engage what I suspect is a quiet majority of anthropologists who are (1) sympathetic to science maintaining a prominent place in anthropology, and (2) too busy with their work to worry about yet another shrill controversy in the professional society they may or may not belong to (having given up membership because they already felt it didn’t represent their interests). On the other hand, I think we’re going to need to stop being inflammatory and falling back on facile received categories (e.g., “postmodernists,” “sociobiologists,” etc.) at every opportunity if we are going to make this debate productive and fashion a society that is friendly to rigorous scholarship in whatever form it may take. For my part, I am sticking with my view that the best way to promote science in anthropology is to do it, do it well, and communicate with a broad scientific readership.

Back to grading my final exams…

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!