Why anthropology is ‘true’ even if it is not ‘science’

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed documented the latest ‘issue’ in anthropology making its way around the Internet: anger amongst ‘scientific’ anthropologists that the executive board of the American Anthropological Association has rewritten the mission statement of the association and removed language which describes anthropology as a science. Now, I have no intention to defend the executive board of the AAA, and I have no objection to labeling myself a social scientist. However, I am concerned that objections to the new statement 1) do a bad job of understanding what ‘science’ is and 2) fail to understand that the knowledge anthropology produces can still be ‘true’ even if it is not ‘scientific’.

The narrative at work seems basically to be this: for decades real, objective, scientific anthropology has been under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth. With the new language in the AAA mission statement, anthropologists have given up on truth altogether.

I wish that this were a parody or simplification of the argument, but it is not — this is honestly as it good as it gets from the critics of the AAA: Clifford Geertz is the thin edge of  a wedge inserted into the social sciences by Creationism, Sarah Palin, etc. etc.

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on. Is it true, as they claim, that anthropology will lose its public credibility, commitment to accuracy, and claim to speak the truth if the knowledge that we produce is not ‘scientific’? Obviously: No. To see why, consider whether the following questions could be accurately and knowledgeably answered:

1. Did the Battle of Hastings occur on 14 October 1066 or 14 November 1066?

2. Was the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson a major influence on Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence?

3. How can we best punctuate the classical Chinese on this stele to recover its meaning?

4. What languages are Ugaritic related to?

Are these unanswerable questions? Is the discipline of history impossible, or riddled with postmodernists? One astute blogger noted that by removing the claim to science from the mission statement anthropology opened the door to recognizing the truth claims of indigenous forms of knowledge. This is true, but 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’.

Now, someone might argue that historical work that is committed to accuracy, submits its claims to evidence and scholarly scrutiny and so forth is not actually a form of the humanities, but is itself a kind of ‘science’. In fact one person has made such an argument: Franz Boas.

Throughout his career — for instance in his classic short piece ‘The Study of Geography’ — Boas made a distinction between not between the ‘natural sciences’ and the ‘interpretive sciences’ but rather between generalizing sciences (which study things that happen over and over again, like gravity) and the ‘historical sciences’ (which study things which happen just once in history, like the Battle of Hastings). Boas was not alone in this — he was drawing on a wider strain of epistemological work that he got from Germany exemplified in the work of authors like Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert. Thus for Boas something could be ‘scientific’ even if it did not ape the manners of a chemist in his lab.

On the one hand, then, we need to recognize that knowledge is still knowledge even if it is not ‘scientific’. I think it important that anthropology stand up to people who push narrow and impoverished definitions of understanding and insist that what we do counts, matters, and is important even if it does not look like the kind of knowledge production they are used to

On the other hand, I think it is also important that anthropologists fight to maintain their right to speak within the scientific community to define what science is. The version proffered in the blog posts I’ve read is incredibly unnuanced, unreflexive, and simpleminded. We cannot let voices like this own the definition of scientific work.

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.

I think it would not be hard to write a history of how this brand of ‘scientific’ anthropology came to be so meaningful to its practitioners: the loss of epistemological subtlety in anthropology in the post-war period as guileless enthusiasm for ‘science’ overwhelmed the most humanistic training of the earlier Boasians, the important institutional position of know-nothings like Marvin Harris who taught a generation to equate close-mindedness with rigor, the inability (or lack of desire) to move beyond rehashing 80s debates about postmodernism, narrow technical training that blinds one to the wider horizons that a university education is supposed to offer.

I don’t want to descend in ad hominem about/explanations of the views of the people I disagree with here. My point is simply that positions which argue anthropology must be science or it is nothing have not just forgotten a vast amount about the philosophy of science and the other departments they share their universities with, they have forgotten a tremendous amount of the history of our discipline as well. There are lots of reasons to be critical of AAA leadership, but no one is well-served by this shallow, knee-jerk reactionism.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

114 thoughts on “Why anthropology is ‘true’ even if it is not ‘science’

  1. Again, great discussion and I have learned a lot. From my corner of the world, I had assumed that people had long-ceased getting exercised over the po-mo and science wars debates. (That _was_ twenty+ years ago.) I was wrong. As I mentioned above, however, it is hard to see what scoring points in such debates has to do with the “identity crisis” that the field apparently faces. Indeed, given the direction of the discussion here, I’m even more curious than I was coming in about what is driving the implosion of cultural anthropology. If most here would agree with Michael Scroggins’ suggestion above that the distinctive “value added” of cultural anthropology lies in an inductive approach, then what is all of the fuss about? I, for one, agree entirely that the inductive moment is just as important to science as the deductive. Why, then, does a commitment to an inductive approach result in suspicion toward “science” in the field? My guess is that there must be some history to the politics of the field that I, outside-looking-in, am not privy to. I’d love to hear an insider’s take on this.
    One final observation: Rex has me “arguing that anthropology is ‘the study of primitive people’ and since ‘primitive people have vanished’ we no longer have an object of study. I don’t agree with this definition of anthropology, and hence don’t see that anthropology has a problem in this regard.” First, that’s not my argument, but how the modern university and system of disciplines divided up the pie. As such, how would you define cultural anthropology today? I ask – and think anthropology does have a problem in this regard – because I increasingly come across “anthropology” that is really bargain-basement political science, sociology, or economics. To be sure, I have seen plenty of poli sci, soc, and econ that is really 3rd rate anthropology as well. The difference, I think, is that there is a core to the latter disciplines. It is not clear what anthropology’s core subject matter is, given how it was positioned in the university. I’ll end with an anecdote that really solidified my thinking along these lines: I attended a job talk by a new Ph.D. in anthropology from at “Top 5” department of anthropology. The substance was interesting enough, but, to my great surprise, it was knit together theoretically by a piece pop social science produced by a scholar in my field. In and of itself, the book in question was a good book. Ultimately, however, as employed by the new Ph.D., it was sort of like building your dissertation in political theory on Hoxhaism around the old illustrated _Marx for Beginners_. I kept waiting for the reveal, when the “real” research on the topic in question would be mentioned, but it never came. An offer from the anthropology department did come the next week, however.

  2. Andrew, defend the quote from I supplied W.V.O. Quine taken from what’s been called the most important philosophical paper since WWII. Defend it as anything other than gibberish.
    Defend “naturalist epistemology” and and “disenchanted naturalism.” and various attempts to turn the humanities into sciences. Defend the statement “history is bunk”

    Defend “value free science” in the study of human beings other than yourself. Defend the idiot Bourdieu.

    And the last time I was here Rick was linking to idiots, including Pipes and worse, and at least one commenter wrote that she and others were staying away as a result of his blather. They considered him a fraud.

  3. “My point is simply that positions which argue anthropology must be science or it is nothing have not just forgotten a vast amount about the philosophy of science and the other departments they share their universities with, they have forgotten a tremendous amount of the history of our discipline as well. There are lots of reasons to be critical of AAA leadership, but no one is well-served by this shallow, knee-jerk reactionism.”

    I agree with your points about those who overreact and claim that anthropology is science or nothing. And I think that the quotes from Alice Dregger are particularly, well, lame. At the same time, I am not a fan of overreactions from ANY side of this. In fact, I think some of the debates between the various camps get fairly tedious and uninteresting. I really don’t think that anthropology can be simply defined in either/or terms. It falls somewhere in between science and the humanities…and while that may drive some people crazy for me it adds a lot to the field. To me that’s a strength. Even though I tend to focus on socio-cultural anthropology, I am glad to be in a discipline or field or whatever this is that also contains physical/biological anthropologists and archaeologists (ie the more “hard science” folks). For me, it works. And I don’t think that everyone has to agree or have the same perspective by any means.

    So, overall, I think the AAA made a bad call with this. I’d prefer to see meetings that have a mix of anthropological perspectives, rather than having all of the subfields start splitting off because of these definitional and factional issues.

    Ya, to me this is pretty unfortunate. Not the end of the world. But definitely not what I would have voted for.

  4. Ryan, I sympathize with that. It’d be great to have more biological and archaeological papers show up at the AAA. I don’t think, though, that the fracturing would be a /result/ of this change in direction — I think it’s already happened, professional-organization wise. It’s basically over and done with. I don’t know any archaeologists, personally, who are members of or who have submitted papers to the AAA. The SAA and C(anadian)AA are their primary loci of professional belonging.

  5. has anyone ever successfully read Wittgenstein? :)

    I’m joking of course. I’m very intrigued by what I know of him, but his work is pretty intimidating.

  6. As opposed to being more complex than acknowledged, I suspect the issue is much simpler. “Science” does not necessarily mean Hempelian algebraic deductions, it is simply knowledge gained through good evidence and sound logical arguments. None of the questions posed above by Rex can be adequately answered without reference to evidence and logic so, no, they cannot be usefully answered outside of science. The scientific method might be more or less formal in different disciplines and from different perspectives, but its key framework (observation and logic) is fundamental to identifiying a satisfactory answer to most any question about the physical world. Dropping “science” from the AAA’s mission statement implicitly retreats from this, and does indeed communicate to the public that ultimately Palin-style creationism is an explanation that is equally as valid as natural history.

  7. Andrew,

    “I don’t think, though, that the fracturing would be a /result/ of this change in direction — I think it’s already happened, professional-organization wise. It’s basically over and done with.”

    Ya, that’s a good point. Maybe I am lamenting something that is already a dead issue. But who knows? Change in one direction doesn’t preclude another shift at a later date. Personally, I’d rather see things going in another direction.

  8. “The scientific method might be more or less formal in different disciplines and from different perspectives, but its key framework (observation and logic) is fundamental to identifiying a satisfactory answer to most any question about the physical world.”

    Exactly, and I came across an example of an issue in the discipline at work yesterday, which brought the issue in more of a stark relief of the issue. I think it shows the fundamental problem that many have with the term science, which is the fact that research designs should be systematic, pre-planned after a point of proper inductive inquiry, and eventually have to end; i.e., come to some conclusion that is intelligible, and answers the original question (and adds to theory). I think the crux is somewhat in the systematic planning or it, but mainly in the conclusion phase.

    Ok, the anecdote from work:
    I was talking to a group of guys working with the other anthro at work, who I’ve never worked with. The guy is very impressive, elite educated, speaks at least 3 languages, etc… So, I was surprised when they started to complain about the guy. They told me that he was the ultimate time killer, in that he not only continually asked open-ended questions about data and research, but that the questions were never actually designed to be either answered or useful in themselves. Basically, as smart as he is, he became useless to the group when ends up moving on without him, and without a lot of insight. One research historian in the group said, “he just stands there and plays with the data all day… it’s like tantric masturbation, he just plays with it and never gets off!” This goes with the poster with bent fork which states, “just because your special or different, doesn’t mean your useful.”

  9. “”"But when we get otherwise rational people like Michael saying things like “science is about determination of facts” and “do you believe in reality” we are dealing with a definition of ‘science’ so hopelessly vaguely and so invested with emotion that serious discussion becomes impossible.”"”

    Just to be clear: when I ask questions, I am just asking questions. Not making rhetorical statements. I am not Michael, but I think I asked this question first, so I’ll take this as being at least partially directed at you.

    When I asked you if Anthropology is primarily concerned with the search for truth/facts/empirically demonstrable knowledge, I was not defining science. I was asking if the discipline met the first requirement for science. If the answer is/was “no”, then that provides us with an easy answer as to whether it could possibly be a scientific discipline.

    Yes: the question was simplistic, by design, but I didn’t get an unambiguous answer yet. We’re in a conversation and the answer to that question is just a starting point: not a definition of anything.

    With respect to models: models are the map which help you figure out the terrain. Models make testable predictions about the world, and therefore are fundamentally about the determination of facts. The answer to the question: “What will happen if a light beam travelling through a vacuum passes within 1 km of a mass of 3 solar units” is a fact. The theory of relativity is the tool you use to answer the question without doing a one-off experiment for those particular constants.

  10. Thanks for that clarification Paul. The answer, to my mind, is yes: anthropology is centrally concerned with truth/facts/empirically demonstrable knowledge. Of course saying this leaves rather wide open what “truths/facts/empirically demonstrable knowledge” is and how one ascertains it. Perhaps one reason I am having trouble understanding the reaction to #AAAfail is that I can’t imagine anyone who would give an answer different from the one I have just given. But apparently ‘scientists’ think there are anthropologists out there who would?

  11. Well Rex I did have a conversation one day with a budding young anthropologist who told me quite explicitly that he didn’t care what the facts of the matter were regarding his research conclusions concerning a certain homeless population in Los Angeles. It was perhaps the most cynical thing I had ever heard. But since I won’t say anything more than that, you can just call it groundless hearsay.

  12. People may have already seen this, but the EB posted a clarification (cynics can substitute “backpedal” at will) that takes the stance that change is intended to be more inclusive, not less. This seems to fit Rex’s basic read. http://bit.ly/gv3U0s

  13. Is history “primarily concerned with the search for truth/facts/empirically demonstrable knowledge.”?
    Is history science? Or maybe you want to separate out cultural anthropology and lump it with history.

    Truth:
    A man has been arrested for murder. The police have a videotape of the crime showing conclusively that the man was responsible. There is no other evidence. The tape was obtained without a warrant and the has judge ruled it inadmissible. The case is dropped.
    Why are societies considered civilized if they operate by the rule of law and not reason?
    Is there truth behind that logic? I’d say yes.

    Concilitator, your budding young anthropologist isn’t arguing in good faith.

  14. FYI, I have just posted the following on the AAA blog.

    ————–

    “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, archaeological,
    biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical,
    visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to
    further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the
    dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

    While much of the debate over the removal of “science” from the AAA’s description of anthropology has followed the familiar lines of the science versus humanity or science versus po-mo debates, I have been looking from this issue from another perspective, that of an anthropologist who has made a career in advertising, been active in the Democratic Party, and learned in both contexts the weakness of what I will call laundry-list communication. The second sentence of Section 1 is a classic example, a perfect illustration of what happens when committees attempt to satisfy a jumble of competing constituencies and lack the imagination to come up with a single, compelling message. The default is the laundry list. It includes something for everyone important enough to be seen as requiring conciliation. It satisfies no one. More important for PR purposes, it has zero or negative impact on anyone who is not already on board one of the wagons being circled.

    When I think of what got me into anthropology, it was a simple compelling message. This was the one academic discipline that proudly claimed to be not one or the other but both a science and a humanity, a uniquely liminal position from which humanity as a whole might be understood. There were also practical benefits. I could apply for grants from both NSF and NIH and also the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Add the appeal of exotic adventures in alien places. The image was irresistible.

    When I look at this statement I see a only a laundry list in which “public understanding of humanity in all its aspects” has all the appeal of a dead fish left too long before it is cooked. The omniscience it claims is ridiculous. There is no unique perspective to add particular interest. And were I in charge of funding or curriculum I would place my bets on people with a clearer sense of what they are trying to do. Looks like a disaster to me.

  15. John,

    “When I think of what got me into anthropology, it was a simple compelling message. This was the one academic discipline that proudly claimed to be not one or the other but both a science and a humanity, a uniquely liminal position from which humanity as a whole might be understood.”

    Ya, I agree. That’s what attracted me to anthropology as well–the fact that it was an interesting combination (not without tensions) of some different perspectives. For me, that was always a strength. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree, or think the same, or any of that. It just means that different people who approach problems from diverse perspectives can find a way to bridge certain gaps and maintain open dialogue and collaboration–all under the anthropology umbrella. And when people start leaving for the party for their own respective subfields, well, I think that more is lost than gained.

  16. If scientific and humanistic anthropologies were to split and go their separate ways, especially at the departmental level, I suspect that the former will fare better than the latter. Humanities programs are being cut and trimmed all over the place. And let’s face it, news media and policy-makers give more credit to the sciences than the humanities. In the end, I suspect that humanistic anthropology needs scientific anthropology far more than scientific anthropology needs humanistic anthropology (except perhaps to keep its soul!).

    Of course few anthropologists fall clearly on one side or the other, at least at present…

  17. “I suspect that humanistic anthropology needs scientific anthropology far more than scientific anthropology needs humanistic anthropology (except perhaps to keep its soul!).”
    “Soul” is a meaningless word, like “spirit”.
    A few years ago German medical students complained about new mandatory courses in medical ethics. “We have enough to learn!”

    Given the absurdity of life and the inevitably of politics I’m wary of those who prefer to treat other human beings as inanimate objects. But don’t ask me. Hookers say that musicians make good clients, and butchers are the worst.

    There’s a reason I linked to a biologist’s defense of the humanities. And my comment quoting and mocking Nussbaum was removed. There’s a reason some of us think the people who made “The Social Network” are more interesting than the people who made Facebook. But self-awareness is not “soul”.

  18. John, I like your critique of “laundry list” approaches to definition. Myself, I am partial to “Anthropology is the study of human beings as creatures of society.”

  19. I still don’t understand how utilizing various methods developed within the humanities, in our research designs makes us less scientists of social phenomenon. I think there is a lot of back and forth on this without properly defining what we all mean.
    If I go to a city archives to look up historical info. in order to better understand a social network analysis, it doesn’t make me a defacto historian. It just means that I am gathering another form of data. A historian friend of mine that I work with has taken me to an archive to help me gather data with more of a plan, rather than my untrained, discursive way since I never took a class on such things. However, the way he approaches research, comes to conclusions, and presents his work is not the same. It is clearly not scientific. The other very clear difference between what we do and what those in the humanities do, is that we have theory and they don’t. Even if my historian buddy decided to learn graph theory, and put together a sociogram for archived data, it wouldn’t make him a defacto social scientist.

    The other issue is the fact that we are having a hard time separating what individual cultural anthros do, and what the discipline as a whole is trained to do, and does. Just because a few folks think it’s cool to present their work in a free form poem, doesn’t mean the discipline is automatically a humanity. It is the most broad ranging discipline that uses techniques and methods from both sides, but clearly within a social science schema.

  20. John: “The default is the laundry list. It includes something for everyone important enough to be seen as requiring conciliation. It satisfies no one.”

    It’s funny you put it in those terms. Yesterday, some colleagues and I were talking about the “Abilene Paradox,” which is about the problem of developing consensus in a group. The way it works is that a group of people in Abilene, Texas, have to chose a restaurant to go to, so one person says the name of a place that he doesn’t really want to go to, but which they feel might be best for everyone one. Another person in the group doesn’t want to be the odd man out, so they agree to the place, and eventually everyone ends up going to a restaurant that no one wanted to go to in the first place. This is the problem of group consensus. In the end, like at the UN, no one get’s what they want, which seems somehow fair to everyone. This usually happens unconsciously, but sometimes it is done deliberately.
    I’d like to point out that a social scientist would want to test his phenomenon to determine it’s validity, outside of anecdotal experience.

  21. Conciliator, speaking of arguing in good faith

    nakedcapitalism.com/2010/07/backfire-at-america-speaks-propaganda-campaign-vs-social-security-and-medicare.html

    “For those who did not catch wind of it, the Peterson Foundation, which has long had Social Security and Medicare in its crosshairs, held a bizarre set of 19 faux town hall meetings over the previous weekend to scare participants into compliance and then collect the resulting distorted survey data, presumably to use in a wider PR campaign. It’s important to keep tabs on this propaganda effort, since its big budget (the Foundation has a billion dollars to its name), means it will keep hammering away on this topic. But it appears that they overestimated how much public opinion expensively produced and stage-managed presentations can buy.

    The brazenness and ham handedness of these so-called “America Speaks” sessions, which have garnered well deserved criticism on the Internet, is probably due to at least two factors: deluded confidence that the average person will fall into line when a confident and well-credentialed presenter makes a pitch and a stunningly naive belief that aggressive efforts to manipulate opinion and mislabel it as polling would not be called out.”

  22. Rick: “The other very clear difference between what we do and what those in the humanities do, is that we have theory and they don’t.”

    Overall, I think I agree with what you’ve said here, Rick, but I have to take issue with this unless you are referring to a specific type or definition of theory. I think people in the humanities have plenty of theory, but they don’t have many ways of satisfactorily testing theories (or to put it more kindly, they test theory in a very different way from us). Thus I would think that the difference is between what type of theory is pursued, and more centrally, the difference in methodology.

  23. Design typically utilizes a form of applied anthropology – I’ll take “bastardized”, if you’ll give me the time of day as a result of the compromise – to understand a problem with sufficient depth to move forward. It’s part of a larger process of abductive reasoning, where an intuitive leap based on “just enough data” allows for forward motion.

    Design is not Science, and it’s not Art.

    Somewhere in this mess of argument, this is relevant, because it implies that there are ways of knowing that are related to, but not necessarily the same as, a formal and inductive or deductive approach to understanding the world.

    http://www.jonkolko.com/writingDesignInnovation.php is relevant, too.

  24. “Rick, but I have to take issue with this unless you are referring to a specific type or definition of theory.”

    yes, I’m talking about the specific type of theory developed and tested in the sciences, not the common parlance of how someone may use the word. They have ideas and methods, but they don’t have theory to test. This is as far as I know the reason why a journal devoted to bringing historians and anthropologists failed, because we speak two different languages. I know someone will want the details of that and I’ll have to find them somewhere.
    I’m just got home and got very drunk tonight with my humanitarian brothers.

  25. Jon, would it make sense to you to suggest that “knowing” varies from subjective conviction, sufficient for the Artist, to public verification, demanded by science and courts of law at whatever level is taken to count as beyond reasonable doubt, with design falling between these extremes. Practically speaking the issue is when certainty reaches a level sufficient to drive action.

    The artist is free to be inspired and proceed however he or she wants; the feedback that will determine the ultimate status of the work, as masterpiece or forgotten in history’s dustbin will be relatively slow. Indeed, in some cases, the artist may be long dead before the value of the work is recognized.

    The designer works to order and combines inspiration with immediate feedback from clients whose wishes must be respected if not always obeyed. And when designs go into production the public response is fairly rapid.

    The scientist’s inspiration leads to methodical research whose methods and results must then be exposed to the scientist’s peers for verification. The results may then be further confirmed by application in development of new and, sometimes, radically world-changing technology.

    This latter point marks the difference between science and the great bulk of sound humanistic scholarship. The humanist also writes for peers who will question his or her methods and results. In the humanities, however, truly world-changing ideas are rare. The humanist’s ideas are only effective in changing the world in so far as they lead to the mobilization, energizing and organization of political movements. Most of what now counts as anthropological research is not in this category.

  26. Hot off the presses: Science, November 19, 2010, p. 1032

    “A new analysis of the U.S. research base by Thompson Reuters points to an increasing concentration of academic research….The report also documents the growth by Asian and European nations in overall research productivity. It notes that the 27-member European Union surpassed the United States in 1995, and that the Asian-Pacific countries did likewise for the first time in 2008….It also finds that U.S. scientists work disproportionately in the health and social sciences when compared with the rest of the world.”

  27. Design is instrumentalized communication and overdetermined art. It’s illustration. It’s hypertrophy is a manifestation of the 20th century. Amazing how the language of the most vulgar Marxism is reconstituted in marketing.

    The ability to communicate well is the ability to manipulate formal systems well: actors act, writers write. We communicate in form. If the form is public display it’s followed by debates over interpretation. The link is to the musicologist Richard Taruskin discussing doctrines of originalism in music and law, at a symposium organized by Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional constitutional law at Yale. As a theory of our understanding of the past, originalism is considered by most scholars as both mistaken in fact and reactionary as ideology. Yet production modeled on the doctrine of originalism is the now the model of academic discourse. That is we now produce as if reception will follow intent. This is the logic of modernist ideology. Design is the art of intent. Advertising is the art of intent. But we don’t look at the frescos of Fra Angelico because we all worship his god. Most of us look at them in spite of the fact that we don’t.

    You could call the US Constitution a work of design, but that only in the understanding that it was ‘designed’ in such a way that we have to interpret meanings again and again, and that in the process of debate we define ourselves and our values and make our own inevitably political decisions. You can design for the short term or the long term. Design for the long term is “art” because the object of the pitch is long forgotten but the structure still holds interest. Design for the short term is just that. Art is long, marketing is short.

    Bourdieu operates on the same assumptions as advertising theorists. The assumptions are both intellectually vulgar and simply wrong. As wrong as the originalism of Antonin Scalia.

  28. I’m an archaeology grad student in a four-field program, but I’ve also got a degree in gender studies, so I’m familiar with both the sciency and non/anti-sciency sides. I can assure you the science wars are far from dead in my department. I’ve got to disagree with Rex’s one-sided characterization of the debate in the post. For every “science” partisan who thinks that we can’t know anything reliably unless we practice as hard a science as possible, there is an “anti-science” partisan who believes that using data to confirm or reject hypotheses is colonialist, immoral, and ultimately futile.

    It’s hard to work with someone who thinks you’re a handmaiden of colonialism for running statistical analyses of pot sherds. Sometimes there *is* a fact of the matter, and that’s when evidence is useful and even necessary. We need some way of evaluating which evidence is relevant and its relative importance, but we can’t do that by attacking the motives of our colleagues. If you’re not a scientist, that *doesn’t* mean anything goes, but it’s just as important for the non-science side to understand that as it is for their opponents. Even if your argument isn’t backed up by science, it has to be backed up by something.

    I agree with Ryan A that there’s no reason anthropology as a whole needs to be either a science or a humanity. There are some questions that are better addressed with the sort of rigorous hypothesis testing found in a historical or inductive science. But there are other valid questions that are more interpretive, even subjective, in nature. Both are needed to get to anthropologists’ purported goal, an understanding of human culture.

    Can’t we all just get along?

  29. Alex, the cases you’re talking about you’re arguing with fundamentalists, who operate pragmatically when driving a car or turning a stove on and off, but for whom everything changes when they’re dealing with abstractions that they assign great moral weight. That boundary is a function of normative understanding within any group. The normative model of “objectivity” in the American press was never more than the function of unified American nationalism: bias vis-a-vs the outside world. When the country becomes divided within itself then all bets are off.
    And try asking someone who calls himself a “liberal zionist” how that can mean anything more than liberalism granting an exception for zionism. Conservatives make that point to no avail.

    In the end all these division are going to have to be resolved politically. In my comment to conciliator above I linked to data. My argument was “backed up with something” but there was still room for interpretation. Maybe you should try asking the people you work with if they want the carpenter who builds their bookshelves to use a tape measure and a level. Still, religious fundamentalists, like hippies, like advertising intellectuals, Chicago economists and quant geeks, are all aspects of the problem of ideologized representation and discourse.
    It’s gonna be that way for a while.

  30. Seth, isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?

    Serendipitously, I was in Milan last week with a Japanese chorus (but that is another story). During time off from rehearsals and performance, I went to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and then went on to the Museum of Science and Technology where an entire gallery is devoted to exquisite scale models of the machines sketched by Leonardo found in the Codex Atlanticus. Both the Last Supper and the models pose serious problems for conventional notions of art, design, science and technology. The Last Supper is art; but the history of its production demonstrates that it is also a great piece of advertising. The work was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, as part of a mausoleum designed to celebrate the power and glory of his house. It is, in this respect, as thoroughly instrumental as the headquarters buildings designed by celebrated architects and corporate ad campaigns by which transnational companies now celebrate their success and power in the marketplace. The little book I bought at the museum shop takes note of the studies of anatomy, optics, and pigments that informed Leonardo’s art. It reaffirms “the status of Leonardo’s painting as the highest expression of that link between art and science that characterizes all of his work.” The models bring us to the same point starting from the opposite direction. They are mostly of war machines intended for use by the Duke’s armies. Their designs are elegant in the way that my iPad is elegant, a pleasure to the eye as well as highly functional. The forms are, considered apart from function, so compelling that I have no trouble calling them art.

    It is clear, then, at least in this case, that the attempt to separate works into discrete cateogires labeled art, design or science is bound to fail. Suspecting that the same is true across the board, I have, instead, in my conversation with Jon Kolko, adopted an anthropological approach informed by my reading of Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu. The heart of this approach is to follow the advice that Becker received from his mentor Everett Hughes and avoid the fruitless effort involved in trying to reduce socially significant distinctions to lists of necessary and sufficient conditions. The basic assumption is that distinctions become social facts when those both inside and outside a particular field treat them as such. The critical questions then become who are these people (both the insiders and the outsiders), how are they related to each other and how are their relationships shaped by material and institutional factors as well as personal differences.

    Seen from this perspective, it is clear that art, design, and science are overlapping but partially autonomous fields in which different standards for “knowing” apply. Why this should be and the processes involved in the different applications are interesting topics for further study.

  31. “the attempt to separate works into discrete cateogires labeled art, design or science is bound to fail.”

    da Vinci’s paintings have as much to do with science as Jules Verne’s novels. The mythologizing behind them is a story in itself. And of course the last Supper began falling apart within years of its completion. da Vinci was an indifferent chemist.

    Also I did not say that great art has never been constructed as advertising. I know more than most people that the greatest art has been made specifically as advertising. What I said was that the advertising function is not what lasts. Study the royal portraits of Velazquez, They mark the difference between faith in god and the divine right of kings, and the desire for faith. The honesty of the portrayal of human beings playing as something greater than the are is frankly stunning. it makes me want to believe well known but otherwise almost unbelievable story of Philip IV stooping down to pick up Velazquez’ dropped paint brush and handing it back to him. But today people collect paintings by Velazquez not portraits of Philip IV. Serving clients is simply professional. Being remembered long after they’re gone is something else. That’s the good stuff.

    And Bourdieu was such an ass. He couldn’t even predict Sarko, who whatever his background has the tastes of the petit bourgeois. He had the mind of a bureaucrat. No imagination at all.
    Bourdieu is to Panofsky what a passport photographer is to August Sander.

  32. Seth, I agree that Art with a capital A is what lasts, long after the instrumental advertising function is forgotten. But Art with a capital A is no more typical of most of what the art world produces than Leonardo’s tempera is of modern chemistry. When, however, you preach a highly romanticized version of ART! with religious fervor and call the other guys ideological…. Give us a break.

  33. “When, however, you preach a highly romanticized version of ART!”

    I don’t. I’ve argued that John Ford and Barnett Newman are both painters of the american landscape of the imagination but that Ford is better by far. Avant-Garde kitsch most of the time.
    Greenberg certainly defended it by the end. I’m with Panofsky: “While it is true that commercial art is always in danger of ending up as a prostitute, it is equally true that non-commercial art is always in danger of ending up as an old maid.” But as often as not that’s the result of pressure forcing you to work harder. The brilliance of recent Iranian film as as much to do with the need for subterfuge as anything. Everyone I know doing commercial work tries to get away with things.

    I’m not opposed to advertising I’m opposed to an academic idealism that defends it. Vulgarity is vulgarity and instrumentalism makes the world go round. To put another way, I know there’s greed in the world and I know there’s something more noble. I know also that I’m not a saint.
    But I won’t defend the nobility of greed.

    Any good commercial filmmaker tries to find a way to make what they want to in the context of what others require, That’s the game.

  34. No need to apologize. We are, I believe, on the same page. It is just that as someone in the business I have a more forgiving view of what my advertising colleagues are up to.

  35. As this thread drifts off topic I will probably close it over the next couple of days. However, I did want to respond to just a few of the comments here.

    At first i had problems understandings why people found the other of science so abhorrent — until, that is, I realized how low some people had set the bar for science. Much of what has been advocated as science here is (as I thought it might be in my initial blog post) simply a commitment to the idea that epistemology is naively and transparently simple, that ‘there are facts’ and science is ‘believing in them’. On the one hand, its hard to imagine an interlocutor who thinks they could drive through a sky scraper because they are a postmodernist. On the other hand, the unwillingness to realize that epistemology is complicated means that there are a lot of people who could legitimately be committed to a (coherent) account of truth and rigor and still not be happy with these simple definitions of science.

    Alternately, if we switch our viewpoint from the other below us to the one above us, I think that several of the people advocating ‘science’ here in hope of emulating ‘more rigorous’ disciplines are providing accounts of ‘scientific research’ that would, frankly, make experimentalists laugh so hard that milk came out their noses. Finding a scientific problem in a state of equipose, creating an experiment to systematically test a clear number of discrete variables, carefully monitoring background conditions to make sure they are in the background, describing your experimental system such that it can be replicated — this is a very long way from ‘going to the archive to get, you know, the facts’.

    Alex insists that postcolonialism is alive and well and the enemy of ‘truth’, but I think these claims remain problematic. For one, postcolonial scholars (including Indigenous archaeologists) have no trouble ‘speaking truth to power’ (see how I used ‘truth’ there). Even the most vulgar engagement with postcolonial theory must recognize that being critical of structures of power and being epistemologically agnostic are two different things that are not necessarily yoked together.

    Finally, I have a question: if the armies of darkness have massed to make the overwhelmingly popular decision to expunge the rump of True Science from the AAA statement, then where is the outpouring of support from them on the AAA decision? Shouldn’t there be dozens of anti-Science types loudly applauding the decision? I think universal condemnation of the AAA strengthens interpretations of the event which hold that it was a bureaucratic farce, not a conscious plan to make make ‘scientists’ feel bad.

  36. Rex: “Alex insists that postcolonialism is alive and well and the enemy of ‘truth.’”

    I think you’ll find that I carefully did *not* say this. I said that I and others in our department have been criticized by those in our department who believe that science is inherently a tool of oppression. I definitely recognize that there is a difference between criticizing power structures and being “epistemologically agnostic.” (I have a gender studies degree, too, remember, which I got during the height of postmodern critical theory.) But, unfortunately, not everyone on the extreme humanistic side sees that. So that the craziness is far from one-sided on the part of the science fundamentalists.

    I am, in fact, quite critical of attempts to make anthropology more like a hard, experimental science and the crass materialism and dubious claims of objectivity and privileged knowledge that often accompany such projects. The range of anthropological questions amenable to experimental testing is severely limited, to say the least. All I’d like is a civil discussion of evidence and epistemology, with no one storming out to form their own club (complete with a “No scientists/postmodernists allowed!” sign).

    This misreading illustrates my main point precisely: the debate has become so polarized that people don’t even really try to understand what people they perceive to be on the other team are saying. Instead, they impute to them nefarious motives and straw-man arguments. Boas’s vision of American anthropology as a holistic discipline may be doomed if we can’t work this out.

  37. Alex I think that’s a fair point — you do not commit several of the crimes that I accuse you of. However, of the authors that I cite in my original post do: including attempting to believe that anthropologists want to be political activists and not believe anything is true. So I think it is fair for you to point out that I misread you, but I think the point stands nonetheless about other people. Sorry for making you an example of something you don’t exemplify.

    I have to ask though: if you admit that you _are_ a handmaiden of colonialism, then why does it bother you when it is pointed out?

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