Science, the AAA, and mutual disrespect

I’ve been thinking a long time about blogging on anthropological things, but just never got around to it. I feel sufficiently compelled by the brouhaha over the missing “science” in the AAA LRP to comment on it. For a recap of what it’s all about, visit Neuroanthropology.

There are a couple of things I want to say. As a position statement/disclaimer, I would like to mention that I am somewhat disturbed by the absence of the word “science,” but I’ll clarify that position.

As a cultural anthropologist, I appreciate the position of those who feel that “science” doesn’t describe what they do. I understand the qualms of those who feel that “science” implies “objectivity,” a battle we abandoned long ago as a lost cause. To briefly comment on this, it’s not possible to be “objective” (in the sense of being completely unbiased) about people and what people do. We have opinions, and those opinions influence our scholarship. This is a given, and those who dismiss it haven’t been studying their cultural anthro well enough.

However, on the flip side of the debate, that doesn’t mean we abandon the word “science” in its entirety. Since Comte, the battle for legitimation of the social sciences, the studies of humanity, has been about establishing them as scientific disciplines. More than ever, in this time when education is undervalued and universities are turning into trade schools, we need to maintain the strengths of our discipline. We’re anthropologists–we have to understand the importance of how other people perceive us.

So what is science? The “scientific method” involves, at its most basic, observation, experimentation, and replication. And let’s not forget objectivity. The assumption is, of course, that you’re examining stars, or chemical elements, which couldn’t give a damn if you are looking at them, and can be counted on to behave in more or less the same way, or at least in the same patterns, over and over again. If they don’t, you have an anomaly, which is terribly exciting and the mainstay of plot devices for shows like Voyager. The methods and experiments of the natural sciences, therefore, are replicable.

Let’s take this to people. I’m not talking about fossils here, or material culture. I’m talking about living people. The kind who do what they want when they damn well please, and tell you they’re doing one thing while you can see perfectly well that they’re doing quite something else. Let’s try observation, replication, experimentation.

How’s that going for ya?

You see my point? Studying living people needs a slightly different perspective, slightly different methods. They do care if you look at them. They do things you have opinions about. To maintain that objectivity is possible under these circumstances is a bit silly, and frankly, it’s bad science.

We gather data, look for trends and patterns, and arrive and conclusions. These conclusions are not generalizable to everyone in the world, but they are not highly individualized either. In other words, we do science, just a little differently. Our variables are variable, what can I say? This doesn’t mean that we have abandoned rigor in methodology and theory–only that we have found theories and methods which work for us, given the special nature of the thing we study–people.

This brings me to my second point. The amount of open disrespect I have seen/read about/heard toward cultural anthropologists is ridiculous. From Alice Dreger’s dismissive and highly impolite description of cultural anthropologists as “fluff-headed,” to the large number of people who have felt compelled to ridicule cultural anthropology for being “politically correct” or “postmodern” (heaven forbid!), there’s been a rather disrespectful tone being taken in this discussion.

The disrespect was already there, let’s be frank. The discipline has been dissolving into a bunch of subdisciplines, held together by tradition and mutual antipathy. The poison is administered carefully to students, undergraduate and graduate alike, so that by the time they graduate, they’ve completely absorbed the culture of disrespect and dishonor that marks contemporary American anthropology.

You know what? I abjure it. We all do things differently. It’s the nature of what we do. We are joined by our love for investigating the nature of our humanity. And if some of us lack “objectivity”, why, others among us who “do science” often take large leaps of faith. What would biological anthro and archaeology be without the (sometimes shocking) kinds of conjecture that are necessary to disciplines which function based on limited evidence? You can measure, and scan, and run stats, but at some point you’re going to have to take a pretty good guess, because we just don’t know.

That’s science. And we all do it. So yes, it belongs in the AAA mission statement and needs to go back into our long-range plan. But we also need to acknowledge that we all do different kinds of science, because we study different things. That there are different kinds of science. Some are simply more philosophical than others.

Postmodernism, political correctness, postcolonialism…these are labels I choose to wear with pride, because they are important markers in the methodology of cultural and linguistic anthropology. Without these paradigm shifts, to put it in a Kuhnian way, we would never have understood what we were doing wrong, as anthropologists. To mock them makes no more sense than to mock the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. They are what they are–new ways to view the world and the people in it.

And finally, my last point. To the bio anthropologists and archaeologists who are upset with the AAA–where are you at the meetings? Don’t say the AAA makes you feel unwelcome–you ARE the AAA. Put your mouth where your money is. Reclaim the AAAs for your subdisciplines. I, for one, will be happy to see you there.

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2 Responses to Science, the AAA, and mutual disrespect

  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

  2. Pingback: Anthropology after the “Science” Controversy: We’re Moving Ahead | Neuroanthropology

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