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

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

  1. I think it’s charming that anyone on either side believes that these epistemological debates (1) are consequential at the level of the discipline and (2) are being carried on in good faith in any case. The marxist in me, which is also the empiricist in me, has never seen these debates rise except within internal labor markets (departments) as part of highly-interested battles over resources and control of departments. My data from comparing notes with colleagues in departments in which these debates rage shows ‘scientifically’ that epistemological debates are the superstructure, or really just a fluff or mummery or window-dressing for battles over control of the resources. As a linguistic anthropologist, I can say that I have been tracking a pretty disturbing trend in which we are treated as a weak partner of cultural anthropology who can be bullied and bossed around at will (My archaeologist ‘colleagues’ attacked me for not teaching ‘phonemics’, you know, the scientific discovery procedure for the phoneme, a chimera which no one in linguistics believes in anymore anyway). The idealism of both sides in this debate is striking, it brings the vulgar marxist in me out, and the vulgar marxist in me is also the empiricist in me, I have never seen these words deployed at any time except as part of highly interested battles for the control of resources within a departmental context. Or as part of simply sadistic attempts to bully, which, I might add, is a disturbing trend as part of these battles which I have been documenting (and yes, the ‘scientists’ have been largely the bullies in peripheral departments where cvult and ling anth are the minority). Short answer, all the replies to this debate seem to be short on empirical analysis of the local contexts in which these debates are consequential, they take the ideological dimension of these conflicts naively at face value and there is no attempt to look beneath that and see what real social dynamics lie beneath it. Sometimes you need a nicely vulgar marxist intervention to see past the nonsense upon stilts of high-minded epistemological debates and see what the dynamics really are, this is something you can only see by looking at the internal labor markets.

  2. Paul — Hear hear! Finally, a wise word on the topic! This has been my understanding of discussion and debate over “4-field anthropology” over the years. In my experience, this topic emerged within anthropology departments in response to internal university politics, as parts of efforts to get resources for anthropology, to convince deans that anthropology is important and good, etc. But when competition moved down to within the department, cultural anthropologists dropped the 4-field rhetoric and started talking about how cultural anthro was the “heart” of anthropology, the most important subdiscipline, the nucleus that held the rest of us together, etc.

    Your Marxist analysis suggests that the science flap is about the control of the AAA among the subdisciplines, which I agree with. But what should be done? Half of me is ready to resign from the AAA (both because of “science” and because of the growing hegemony of cultural anthro), and half of we wants to fight it out for archaeology (well, actually its more like 80% – 20%; I’ll probably resign).

    That said, I still think the “science” issue does have quite important intellectual implications for the kind of scholarship that is considered useful by anthropologists. Maybe the heat of this current uproar derives from AAA politics (which maps onto departmental politics in many cases), but that should not obscure the intellectual context. One reason I personally have been drifting out of anthropology and toward other social-science disciplines is my increasing commitment to a scientific epistemology, which sits much more comfortably in all of the other social science disciplines compared to (cultural) anthropology.

    I must be a cultural dupe (or maybe a cultural dope?? I keep forgetting the distinction, but I always want to toss these phrases around). At universities where anthropology was always competing for resources, I was in the trenches advocating for 4-field anthropology. But it wasn’t till I moved to a place where university politics are very different that I really understood the political link between those activities and university resources. At ASU, we don’t have a “department of anthropology” but we do lots of good anthropology in lots of areas (well, we are very weak in linguistics). We don’t get hung up on four-fields or arguing with one another about the nature of anthropology. Our administration appreciates good research and scholarship, and we don’t have to invoke North American anthropological mythology in order to defend ourselves and justify our existence.

  3. Paul: “Short answer, all the replies to this debate seem to be short on empirical analysis of the local contexts in which these debates are consequential, they take the ideological dimension of these conflicts naively at face value and there is no attempt to look beneath that and see what real social dynamics lie beneath it.”

    Brilliant. That is absolutely true, they do seem to lack just that. Those of us outside the academy who haven’t completely disowned the discipline, and who feel a sense of stake in these debates, I think observe them without that very context; which makes the whole thing rather inexplicable. Moreover, there’s really nothing we can do about it, other than drop the AAA and move over totally to the SfAA and others. The context I noticed was that this is happening in the AAA, which is really the face of the academy.
    I don’t think there’s anything vulgar about what you wrote, but since you have an insider’s POV in the debate it would be great to get some of that insight and data to help some of us even understand why there is a debate.
    I can also see how a linguistic anthro would be much more attuned to these resource struggles. I think that linguistic anth has become the minor player, because it’s really only found in academia for the most part (from what I understand). If you guys leveraged your skills privately and publicly, you’d have more of a base upon which to gain greater resources at university depts. Perhaps, this is also then a valuation placed upon the sub-field by outside stakeholders.

  4. Paul while I agree with most of your analysis, I do also think that larger political commitments do also influence the debate. A lot of this debate about “science” vs. “not science” mirrors larger debates about “multiculturalism.” I have noticed a tendency for some “science” partisans to argue that cultural anthro was ruined by feminists, identity politics, political correctness and “relativism” (which often times is used as a code word for multiculturalism or multicultural policies). This is especially true of those “science” proponents who think NAGPRA is an impediment to their research. On the other side, I have seen “not science” partisans argue that “science” partisans represents colonialism and racism and that they do not care about the welfare of those whom they study (assuming they are still alive). This is especially true of those anthropologists who see certain forms of anti-capitalist activism as central to their commitment to anthropology. I always wonder if the people involved in these debates always had the political commitments that their rhetoric implies or did the political commitments come later when they were socialized into their part of the discipline.

  5. I think Paul’s comments are a perfect note to go out on. I’m closing this thread so we can move on to other things, including more discussions of this topic in future posts if people would like to do so.

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