December 2, 2010

Anthropology MINUS science?

You know, I really like the whole history of science. I mean the kind that looks at scientific practice as yet another human social and cultural system. Fascinating stuff. And when it comes to those wonderful discussions about truth, the limits of objectivity, and the fallibility of science...I think it's all very relevant, fascinating, and important to think about.

At the same time, I am by no means against science. Everything has its shortcomings and faults. But then, we don't simply abandon each and every endeavor or term or idea simply because it has some drawbacks. While there are certainly plenty of drawbacks to science, there are also more than enough strengths. I mean, do we really need to talk about germ theory and cell biology and DNA studies and, well, everything that IS science? Doesn't everyone know about the value of science? Don't all anthropologists agree that science matters? Why am I even talking about this?

Because the American Anthropological Association decided to remove any and all references to science in their mission statement:
Is anthropology a science? Don’t ask the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which recently voted to strike the word “science” from its long-term mission statement.

At the society’s annual meeting in New Orleans two weeks ago, the AAA’s executive board voted to change its long term goal statement from: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects” to: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

Three other mentions of science were removed from the three-paragraph statement, while teaching and promoting public understanding were emphasized.

This makes no sense to me. Sure, I am a cultural anthropologist--you know, the type that is usually blamed for this sort of thing because of an overly opaque interest in postmodernist intellectual ping pong (or something like that). But while I read my fair share of Foucault and James Clifford and Donna Haraway and Latour and all of that good stuff, I am also a devout fan of science. I mean, I credit Stephen Jay Gould for my current intellectual path just as much as anyone else. I understand the clashes and disagreements between the so-called hard sciences and the so-called soft sciences. But overall I think these divisions are pretty silly, if not outright stupid. There is a reason why anthropology is, at least in some places, a four field approach. The basic idea being that each perspective can inform the other. This means that more biologically inclined anthropologists can gain something from the "cultural" folks, and vice versa. Archaeologists can get something from linguists. It's all about cross-fertilization. And to me, it's a good way of going about things, instead of constantly closing ourselves off into little disciplinary corners.

Overall, I think this is a bad call. I understand why the AAA made some new references in the statement, and why they wanted to emphasize particular foci, but I completely disagree with the decision to remove all references to science. What were they thinking? And what do the more scientifically inclined anthropologists think about this? For the record, I vote NO on this decision, "cultural" anthropologist or not.

UPDATE 12/3: Here are a couple more posts that discuss this issue:

1. Savage Minds-Alex Golub provides one response to the issue.
2. BANDIT: Another good discussion of the issue from Julienne Rutherford writing for the Biological Anthropology Developing Investigators Troop (BANDIT).
3. Daniel Lende over at Neuroanthropology has the ROUNDUP of ALL ROUNDUPS for this issue--and he provides a valuable (and calm) lens through which to look at this issue.

UPDATE 12/8:

Check out Colleen Morgan's response to this issue over at Middle Savagery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A recent discovery that is interesting: A bacterium discovered in a Californian lake appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus – even incorporating the toxic chemical into its DNA. That's significant because it goes against the general rule that all terrestrial life depends on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. These are needed to build DNA, proteins and fats and are some of the biological signatures of life that scientists look for on other planets. Leaves one to remind ones self to always stay open to the possibility more information is forthcoming.....