Putting 'science' back in anthropology
December 3rd, 2010
01:59 PM ET

Putting 'science' back in anthropology

Remember Anthro 101? You probably learned about far-off cultures and methods of observing human social life, in addition to some human evolution, perhaps. Your professor likely referenced published research, and the course catalog said it was a “social science.”

So naturally there was an online uproar when the American Anthropological Association took out the word “science” from its long-term goal statement at a meeting on November 20.

This week, Twitter has been buzzing with anthropologists and social science enthusiasts weighing in on #aaafail, concerned that anthropology is rejecting science. And the American Anthropological Association is receiving a slew of comments and petitions to change the statement, which will be taken into consideration, said Damon Dozier, spokesman for the group.

"Our process is built up through engagement, and I think that engagement is happening now," he said.

The previous goal statement from this association, which many view as a representation of the field as a whole, said the association would “advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” In place of that, the association now says its purpose is to “advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

This apparent shift away from championing scientific study to promoting public understanding has prompted blog posts with headlines like “No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists” and Anthropology Association Rejecting Science?.

The American Anthropological Association responded to that criticism this week with a statement explaining that it had intended to emphasize a more “inclusive” list of domains that fall under anthropology: for instance, "archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

"My reaction is that anthropology is a science, and that it will continue to be a science," said Dozier. "There was never any intention overtly or covertly to take science out of our mission."

In the view of Daniel Lende, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, the association is “not saying anthropology is not a science, it’s just more than a science," he told CNN. Those embedded in the field know that the role of science is obvious in subcategories such as biological and medical anthropology.

But it's still concerning that this vision statement doesn't capture the sense that anthropologists move among disciplines, Lende said, nor does it  mention the practical applications of what anthropology does.

And the scope of anthropology is remarkable. A close look at AIDS therapies and policies through portraits of marginalized patients in Brazil - that's anthropology. The way that humans found solutions for survival thousands of years ago - that's also anthropology. Observations about and by the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert is anthropology too.

"We do science, and we do other things," Lende said.

Post by:
Filed under: Science
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Name*

    I grew up with science. By continuously changing what's going on in the schools you start to leave out a lot of important details.

    December 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. laserles

    I challenge any scientist or archaeologist to disprove the fact that petro photoglyphs (photograph inscribed stones) are not only an unknown language of hologram projections...but the platform for contact with an ancient intelligence.

    The Only Research On Earth Dedicated To Petro Photoglyphs

    December 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • There is obviously no evidence for evolution, stupid.

      That is a stupid website selling fake stuff to idiots. lol

      December 3, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • heliocracy

      And I challenge you to disprove that the universe was created by a giant green caterpillar. See how that works?

      And to you, "There is obviously...," there's plenty of very convincing evidence for evolution. You're just too stupid or brainwashed to know it when you see it. If you even try to see it, which I doubt.

      December 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • PingPong

      I challenge any and all of you to a duel! There can only be ONE!

      December 4, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jason Atchley

    I believe this is a critical step to establishing the importance and foundation of anthropology. I enjoyed the 2 anthro classes I took at University.

    Jason Atchley

    December 3, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. LarryW

    Anthro should only do science and nothing more. Yes, communicate the science, explain the science to lay people, advance the understanding of the science of anthro to others, teach the science.

    If anthropologists just want to be opinion makers become journalists and radio talk show personalities. If they're not going relate the knowledge gained from science, they've got nothing to say, and I don't want them to fill the already burden airwaves with more noise. We've got plenty of that now.

    December 3, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. rmays2

    As a member of the AAA, I'm saddened to see this approach being taken. I was at this conference in New Orleans this past month, and I'm just now hearing about the change to the mission statement. I believe that being "inclusive" doesn't mean you have to refrain from calling it a science.

    December 4, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jesus

    Let Anthroplogy separated from Science, and stand of its own as field of discipline. And let biology, pathology, psychology and any other that stutides about human nature under its scoop.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jesus

    Let Anthroplogy separated from Science, and stand of its own as field of discipline. And let biology, pathology, psychology and any other studies that involves human nature to fall under its scoop.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:00 am | Report abuse |
  8. xray

    I agree with the AAA. Anthropology is not, and never was, a science. The term "science" should be reserved for hard science, which by definition can be absolutely proved or disproved with repeatable results. Results arrived at by disciplines that don't use that method are only opinions supported by known facts. They can neither be wholly proven or disproven, and ergo are not true science. Not saying that we don't know anything about those disciplines, or that they have not done much to further mankind. They have done both. But they are not true science.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:24 am | Report abuse |
    • amanda

      Well there's the problem – Many subfields of anthropology CAN be considered hard sciences. Biological anthropology, forensic anthropology, primatology...just a few examples.

      December 14, 2010 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
  9. Tommy TT

    I'm not as disturbed by the "science" uproar as by the word "public." Is it really becoming the mission of anthropologists to popularize their findings? I should think that uncovering findings, analyzing and understanding them is the mission. Popularization is a side show.

    December 4, 2010 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  10. PingPong

    My mother was an archaeologist, and I was surrounded by anthropologists my entire life. They're all a bunch of loony potheads.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cesar

    Yes, the scope is remarkable. I like cold milk with my M&M's. Please tell me if any of you do the same. Thanks.

    December 4, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Cesar

    Nearly 24 hours have passed. No response. I'll take that as a no.

    December 5, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. kmcg

    Unfortunately, while other disciplines are relishing in the fact they have found a hidden research gem, anthropologists themselves, especially those with their ivory towered tenure tracked better than thou mentality, are the only ones left bashing the very discipline they helped mold, just because some stupid postmodern theory made them question the ethics of their prior research and now they can't get over it. Guess what, every discipline was challenged by postmodernism, but they all go over it. We need to take the self-reflection it offered, use it to design better studies and grants, and keep applying our social science to research and communities, with the hope that evidence-based research will be the strongest way to advocate for our participants.

    December 18, 2010 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  14. kmcg

    The first part of my post:

    To the man who thinks "hard" science is able to "absolutely prove or disprove facts" you need to go back to Science 101! Science uses hypotheses, theories, and paradigms which are considered the best available response as they have not YET been disproved. It does NOT mean they have discovered absolutes, truths or facts. Actually, within the "hard" science disciplines there are many controversies! Don't dissuade social science because it works in mediums that are more fluid and changing than "hard" scientists. It just means that researchers need to have better, stronger designs!

    December 18, 2010 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |