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:
- Did the Battle of Hastings occur on 14 October 1066 or 14 November 1066?
Was the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson a major influence on Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence?
How can we best punctuate the classical Chinese on this stele to recover its meaning?
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.