Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hurricane Anti-Science hits New Orleans

The American Anthropological Association, to which I belong, held its annual convention last week in New Orleans. I was unable to attend, and I may just not bother any more, if what was proposed at those meetings comes to pass.

Anthropologist Peter Wood, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports that the AAA Executive Board is proposing a new mission statement that deletes the term "science" and replaces it with "public understanding,"  as in this marked up paragraph:
Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research; The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. and its use to solve human problems.
Note that they have also deleted the term "ethnological," which has always referred to the comparative study of human cultures with the goal of developing broad general theories about Human Culture.

This is a disturbing development for a discipline that has, since the days of Franz Boas, the founder of American academic anthropology, seen itself as linking the sciences and humanities to gain the broadest and deepest knowledge of what humans are, where they came from, and so on.  But it's not entirely unexpected, as for the last several decades people who call themselves "postmodernists" and "interpretivists" have gradually taken over the field, bringing with them a rejection of the empirically based, objective, systematic, logical, and rational methodologies developed by Boas and those who followed him.

One of the most dangerously bogus claims that these folks have made is that science cannot help sort out immoral from moral aspects of cultures.  This is wrong, because we need good, empirically based, objective knowledge if we want to make valid assertions about who is doing what to whom, to what ends, and at what cost.  Fuzzy-minded "interpretations" of, say, female genital mutilation may be useful and even necessary, but if all knowledge is contingent then any claims we make about the harm this does can always be contested and anthropologists become, essentially, over-educated journalists.

I have a feeling I may be writing more about this...


  1. Well, we could use some EDUCATED journalists to start with...but I guess that's a separate problem.

  2. Ha! Sarah Palin has a BA in Communication/Journalism!

  3. It sounds as if they fear the word "science" has hegemonic and nerdy undertones that threatens the "public" or the "all our thoughts are equally rational" crowds This works out in a nation that generally accepts the science that leads to faster airliners, better bombs, body scultping, and painless medical processes, but generally rejects any science that challenges their worldview, i.e., evolution.

  4. I'm as irritated at some of the anti-science rhetoric as any.

    On the other hand, while ethnological was removed, it is worthwhile considering that the old statement read, "through archeological,
    biological, ethnological, and linguistic research". It seems pretty clear that ethnological stood for 'cultural anthropology'.

    But compare this to: "This includes, but is
    not limited to, archeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research". Ethnological is being replaced by social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, and visual anthropology. It is very inclusive. It is not a picture of four-field anthropology, but of a 10+ field anthropology. I'm not sure that this inclusiveness is a bad thing, but I suppose that ethnological could have been kept in anyway.

    We have to keep in mind that the prior stance was very much tilted toward anthropology as science in the first place. But anthropology is a big tent, and it probably should be. And of course, that is one of the reasons we ought to be upset that 'science' has been excluded altogether. Hence, I like some SASci members suggestion to amend the amended statement to something like:

    Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research CONDUCTED FROM A VARIETY OF SCIENTIFIC AND HUMANISTIC PERSPECTIVES;

    I think the proposal very sensible.

    I would also put back in the bit about solving human problems.

  5. Actually Neuroanthropology covers some of these same points in a convincing way.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.