Worrying about our status as a science is not a new habit for anthropologists — in fact its one of our perennial concerns. Its useful, therefore, to see how our predecessors have worried the same way we have about the same topics since, a lot of the time, they did it better than us.
One wonderful brief piece of such rumination is Kroeber’s The Personality of Anthropology, available free and open access from the good people of the Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, along with tons of other great, free and open content. The piece is a speech that Kroeber made in 1958, near the end of his life. These were important questions at the end of the 50s, when ‘science’ was everywhere, funding was rife for it, and a wave of anthropologists were interested in making anthropology more ‘scientific’ whether it be in the form of componential analysis or Stewardian ecologism.
His main concern in the piece is to compare Anthropology’s unique personality and status among the discipline, particularly with comparison to sociology, British social anthropology, and ‘applied’ anthropology. Is anthropology ‘science’? Is it useful? What is unique about anthropology when so much of what it does is also done by other discipline?
“What impulse is it that drives anthropologists as a group to participate in so many fields which are already being cultivated by others?” Wondered Kroeber. The answer, it seemed to him, was
A two-prong impulse to apperceive and cenceive at once empirically and holistically. We constitute one of the smaller learned professions, but we aim to take in perhaps more phenomenal territory than any other discipline Our coverage must of necessity be somewhat thin. Yet it is rarely either vague or abstruse — we start with concrete facts which we sense to carry an interest, and we stick with them. Perhaps our coverage can fairly be called spotty; though without the implication of being random, irrelevant, disconnected. If a whole is steadily envisaged, the relation of its fragments can be significant, provided the parts are specifically known and are specifically located within the totality. So the holistic urge is perhaps what is most characterlistic of us.
For Kroeber, anthropology’s uniqueness is its empiricism, what ie calls “a love of fact, an attachment to phenomena in themselves, to perceiving them through our own senses”:
This taproot we share with the humanities. And we also tend strongly here toward the natural history approach. Sociologists have called us “nature lovers” and “-bird watchers,” Steve Hart says; and from their angle, the epithets stick. There are anthropological museums of tangible objects, but no sociological ones. We are strong on photographs, films, and tapes that reproduce sights and sounds. We write chapters on art in ethnographies and and sometimes offer courses on primitive art. How many sociologists would venture that, or even wish to venture it?…. We insist on field workd as an opportunity, a privelege, and a profesional cachet. We want the face-to-face experience with our sbjects. The anonymity of the sociological questionnare seems to us bloodless.
For Kroeber, it is abstraction that is the mark of a certain type of science which anthropology is constitutionally unable to appreciate. Not because it is not a science, but because its definition of science is different from the fads in social science which Kroeber responds to:
Since personalities are initially determined by their ancestry, it is highly relevant that anthropology was not a social science at all originally. Its father was natural science; its mother, aesthetically tinged humanities. Both parents want to attain reasoned and general conclusions; but they both also want to reach them by way of their senses… anthropology settled down to starting directly from experienced phenomena, with a bare minimum of ready-made abstraction and theory, but with a glowing conviction that it was entering new territory and making discovery. The visions was wide, charged,and stirring.. It may perhaps fairly be called romantic: certainly,it emerged historically about at the point when aesthetic romanticism was intellecturalizing. The pursuit of anthropology must have seemed strange to many people; but no one has ever called it an arid or a dismal science.
Now, maturity has stolen upon us… The times, and utilitarianism, have caught up with us, and we find ourselvres classified and assigned to the social sciences. It is a dimmer atmosphere, with the smog of Jargon sometimes hanging heavy. Generalizations no longer suffice; we are taught to worship Abstraction; sharp sensory outlines have melted into vagueoness. As our daily bread, we invent hypotheses in order to test them, as we are told is the constant practice of the high tribe of physicists. If at times some of you, like myself, feel ill at ease in the house of social science, do not wonder; we are changelings therein; our true paternity lies elsewhere.
To me, this remarkable piece is immediately relevant to contemporary debates about anthropology’s status as a ‘science’. One of the most interesting is the way it focuses on abstraction — not ‘being about the facts’ or ‘being true’ — as the aspect of ‘science’ that anthropology is most reluctant to embrace. Like a faerie child raised in a human house, anthropologists feel ill at ease with attempts to conform to the (imagined) standards of physcists and other ‘real’ sciences. While others have argued our unwillingness to conform is because we don’t ‘believe in facts’ or ‘that some things are true and others aren’t’ it is rather our commitment to the actual reality of the world — not a ‘postmodern’ attempt to ‘destroy truth’ — which makes us unwilling to become something other than what we truly are.