Fri 10 Dec 2010
I just stumbled across an article in the New York Times:
Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The decision 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.
As an archaeologist who’s never really seen himself as an anthropologist but, truth be told, more as related to historians (I was originally trained in Belgium), I must admit that I wasn’t too much aware of this issue. So I went over to the Savage Minds group blog, my usual source for what goes on in anthropology. Two posts seemed most relevant: “Why anthropology is ‘true’ even if it is not ‘science’” and “Ethnography as a solution to #AAAfail.”
… we don’t have to go that far afield to recognize forms of knowledge that are rehabilitated when anthropology jettisons its label as ‘science’: history, epigraphy, historical linguistics, and the humanities in general. The opposite of ‘science’ is not ‘nihilitic postmodernism’ it’s ‘an enormously huge range of forms of scholarship, many of which are completely and totally committed to accuracy and impartiality in the knowledge claims they make, thank you very much’.
At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.
What do most anthropologists think anthropology does? What do the terms they use to evaluate it mean to them? To the best of my knowledge, we simply have no answer to this question beyond our impressions that ‘cultural anthropologists are taking over’.
The Neuroanthropology blog has collected a lot of the online discussions. Hmm… How would I normally characterize what I do to the general public? Luckily, archaeology is sufficiently popular that I can just use that term and leave it at that. Only occasionally does someone engage me on whether it’s a science or not. I guess I associate “science” with empiricism, in other words, can my explanation be tested, measured, replicated? Obviously, archaeology which destroys much of what it studies in the act of excavation is not fully empirical though we do use a lot of empirical methods to describe what we excavate. To me, it seems that the context for the question “Are you a scientist?” determines my answer. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not an empiricist. I’m not even going to venture into the issues surrounding the formulation of theories which then are tested in a targeted excavation. Food for thought for sure.