Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift
Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.
The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.
During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”
Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.
The word “science” has been excised from two other places in the revised statement.
The association’s president, Virginia Dominguez of the University of Illinois, said in an e-mail that the word had been dropped because the board sought to include anthropologists who do not locate their work within the sciences, as well as those who do. She said the new statement could be modified if the board received any good suggestions for doing so.
The new long-range plan differs from the association’s “statement of purpose,” which remains unchanged, Dr. Dominguez said. That statement still describes anthropology as a science.
Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, an affiliate of the American Anthropological Association, wrote in an e-mail to members that the proposed changes would undermine American anthropology, and he urged members to make their views known.
Dr. Peregrine, who is at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said in an interview that the dropping of the references to science “just blows the top off” the tensions between the two factions. “Even if the board goes back to the old wording, the cat’s out of the bag and is running around clawing up the furniture,” he said.
He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.
Dr. Dominguez denied that critical anthropologists or postmodernist thinking had influenced the new statement. She said in an e-mail that she was aware that science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues. “Marginalization is never a welcome experience,” she said.