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Hold the science, says anthropology society

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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.

The changes have drawn the condemnation of data-collecting anthropologists, including the Society for Anthropological Science, which is a subsection of the AAA.

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and an anthropologist, says the change represents longstanding tension over whether human culture should be studied using a data-driven scientific approach, or with a more interpretative perspective that’s characterisic of humanities scholarship.

My own view of anthropology is that it is a hybrid discipline. Its main scholarly tradition is rooted in science, or at least the aspiration for science. If those roots wither or are cut off, anthropology will lose any real claim to serious intellectual attention and perhaps even its identity as a discipline.

At Psychology Today, Alice Dregger singles out “fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.”

Not all cultural anthropologists are fluff-heads, of course. You can usually tell the ones who are fluff-heads by their constant need to look like superheroes for oppressed peoples, and you can tell the non-fluff-heads by their attention to data. But the non-fluff-head cultural anthropologists are feeling utterly beleaguered in this environment that actively denigrates science and consistently promotes activism over data collection and scientific theorizing.

Damon Dozier, a spokesman for the AAA, tells Inside Higher Ed that the mission statement changes are not a fait accompli and that they represent changes in words, not values. “We have no interest in taking science out of the discipline,” he says. “It’s not as if the anthropology community is turning its back on science.”

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    Katie Feldman said:

    That fact that you would adopt the usage of the phrase “fluff-heads” to describe some anthropologists is quite disturbing. (Did you mean something more along the lines of people who don’t embody the anthropological ideals you believe in?) While I recognize you did not coin that phrase/idea, you imply that you consider some cultural anthropologists to embody that unfair description.

    Removing the word “science”… hmm, sounds like you should to ask a linguistic anthropologist their opinion of why this might have been done. Perhaps it has to do with the general American understanding/conceptualization of the term? Just a thought…

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