Why is the Word ‘Science’ Not Good Enough for the AAA?

I recently caught a New York Times article about this and thought I’d share just briefly.

The American Anthropological Association recently revised it’s Long Range Plan, removing all mention of the word “science” and replacing it with softer, feel-good terminology. Where the purpose in the Long Range Plan used to read, “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects,” it now reads, “to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

Huh? How is this better?

The word “science” was previously mentioned in the Long Range Plan of the AAA in three places. Now it is non-existent.

And there’s been some backlash. Boy howdy. Two blog articles that the AAA actually links to are Anthropology Without Science and No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists. I’ve put a few more from just from Zemanta at the bottom.

So the AAA responded, but, to me, it’s every bit as wishy-washy as the decision they’re being criticized for.

In their response, the AAA board says, “[a]nthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture.  As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences.”

If by “holistic” they mean it makes use of all the natural sciences to examine and define human culture and history, then that’s fine. Why not simply say so? By why must it rely on or even draw upon the humanities? Just about any definition of “the humanities” you find expressly excludes “the sciences.” This is utter bollocks. The suggestion is that its okay to draw upon religious explanations and speculative post-modern critique to examine human culture past or present. If anything should be excluded and excised from the long-range plans of the AAA it should be this sort of non-scientific codswallop.

They go on to say, “[c]hanges to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage.  In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology…” and they go on to cite their What is Anthropology? document as evidence of this.

But if it was “never the Board’s intention to signal a break with” science, why not simply just put back the word science in the Long Range Plan? A word that has far more utility and express intent than the probably post-modernist appeasement of weasel-wording they settled upon.

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About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. It strikes me archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguists can tell themselves “We deal in facts here. We look at data, we formulate hypotheses, make predictions and test our ideas and try to extend our theories. We’re doing science.”

    Cultural anthropologists find themselves in a different box. The data they see is … mushy, ambiguous, contingent, context-shaped. enmeshed in historicity. Think of the Margaret Mead-Derek Freeman controversy, for example. Did Freeman “win” that war? Should we dump Mead, and her reputation, and all the work she did after leaving Polynesia into the trashcan, and try to explain this as “the progress of science” to non-anthropologist? Or should we view her as an anthropological Newton, inevitably corrected by ethnographic Einsteins? Or is there something basically WRONG with the whole idea of viewing this as a purely scientific dispute?

    Doing ethnography is more like writing biography than scientific research, I suggest. It’s holistic, it’s all encompassing, it’s aimed at building intuition rather than fitting parameters to equations, it’s … satisfying for people who basically don’t want to be “scientists”, and for people who –legimately! — object to a conception of anthropology as a form of knowledge that must be “useful.”

    “You go off and study some unknown South American tribe for three years,” I remember one very bright grad student in cultural anthro telling me, “and who bothers to read your work? The Coca-Cola Company, because they want to sell coca-cola to the natives. And the CIA.”

    [Okay, that was 15 years ago, and an anecdote isn’t data — except of course in social science! And a whole bunch of what cultural anthropologists do involves studies of cognition and language differentiation and data gathering that serve to guide archaeologists and other scientists — and thus is surely science itself. Still, I’d bet you could find counterparts without too much difficulty by chatting with folks in your department.]

    So. It strikes me a bunch of “anti-science” anthropologists have taken charge of redrafting the charter for whatever American Anthropologists can claim to be doing.

    [And this strikes me as sad and misguided and a horrible awful fundamentally wrong and completely stupid idea, which is not going to benefit anthropology in any way whatsoever, and — at best — will wind up smashing the whole discipline to fragments. But that’s a personal reflection, rather than fact. And I might be wrong. The Brits seem to operate with archaeology, biological anthro, and ethnography in totally seperate departments — how well does it work for them?]

  2. I was a graduate student in cultural anthropology back in the 1970s, when structuralism and post-modernism were NEW! and HOT! in the humanities and social sciences. I knew it was codswallop, but I was too young and unsure of myself to argue effectively against it, or to find alternative ground.

    Many years later, I can say with more assurance that ethnography is nothing but journalism if it doesn’t deal with issues of reliability and replicability. Furthermore, if it truly IS the study of humanity from early hominids to the present, then it has to *encompass* the other social sciences and much of humanities. The existence of anthropology departments is an accident of academic history, set in stone by academics fiercely defending their turf and tenured positions.

    I think that there’s a place for the epistemological critique of anthropology and the other social sciences, but it’s in the philosophy department.

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