One of the things #AAAfail has revealed is not just wide divisions within the anthropological community about what anthropology is — I think we all knew those were there — but also wide division about what the terms to evaluate those divisions mean. Especially the term ‘science’: does this mean a general belief ‘in reality’ and ‘a broad commitment to empiricism’ or something more specific like ‘deductive research methodologies, an attempt to minimize the subjectivity of the researcher, extremely specific genre choices about conveying research results’ and so forth. One of the biggest problems, in other words, is that we have no ethnography of what anthropologists believe about their discipline.
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’. As a scientist (in the general sense of the term) my training tells me the first step in resolving the issues raised by #AAAfail is to get some data on the phenomena we want to study.
Now, one body that would seem to be the obvious candidates to do that would be AAA themselves. After all, we know they can run surveys: I for one feel like I get emails requesting me to take them all the time. Why not design a research program to spend, say, 10 months figuring out what anthropologists actually believe their discipline is about? The results would be a lot more interesting than those produced by other surveys the AAA has run, most of which seem to focus on how many times a week I read the AAA blog and how likely this is to make me want to donate money to them.
But of course this won’t happen, because it would actually mean the genuine democratic assessment of member’s beliefs in a way that could change things, which is a lot more trouble than most of the people running AAA want. Instead I think we are probably on our own on this one.
What if, as an alternative, we started a grassroots movement to say, in a public and synthesizable way, what we thought anthropology was about? An anthropologist’s creed, as it were. They would have to be short, a paragraph each, and address (hopefully in the same order) a concrete number of issues: what the word ‘science’ means to them, what disciplines are adjacent to anthropology, what research methods are important, the role of the analyst, the appropriateness of politics involvement, and so forth.
There are enough anthropology bloggers out there these days that I bet we would have a pretty nice hunk of empirical material to work with — even if it wasn’t a scientific random sample. Since it would be a chance for bloggers to narcissistically reflect on themselves, participation would be high. And then we could just make Daniel Lende summarize it all up for us over at Neuroanthropology…. 🙂
What say you, is it time for a round of anthropological creeds?