Is anthropology a science?

There’s an amusing [1] note in the New York Times today. It seems that the American Anthropological Association has decided to change its long-range plan [2]. There’s normally not much humor to be found in that [3], American Anthropological Association has decided to remove the word “science” from their plan. In essence, they are declaring that what they do is not science. Instead, it is “advanc[ing] public understanding of humankind in all its aspects” [4].

Naturally, this has led to a split in the group. The more experimental anthropologists (e.g., archeologists) are upset because what they do clearly is a science. They find evidence. They make hypotheses and test them. And (most importantly) they argue about what the evidence means in various journals.

And the more political anthropologists (e.g., ethnologists) are happy because what they do is frequently not science. They argue for increased political rights for indigenous peoples. They advocate for queer rights. And (most importantly) they get very involved in the political arguments about what can and cannot be done on native lands [5].

What may happen is that the scientific anthropologists take their licking this year and then re-write the plan when they take over the American Anthropological Association.  This is a fairly common occurence; witness how the IAU’s changed the definition of “planet” [6]. However, there may be a split in the community. The American Anthropological Association may break into two groups, one of which emphasizes the science and one that focuses on the politics [7].  But in the meantime, it gives the rest of us something to tease anthropologists about…

John [8]

[1] Amusing to those of us outside of the fray, that is. For the folks in the field, it is deadly serious.

[2] A description of the strategic goals of the organization over the next five to ten years. If it doesn’t take at least that long, it doesn’t belong in the LRP; it belongs in the annual review.

[3] Having written my fair share of these documents, I can assure you that humor is actively discouraged.

[4] One of the constants in LRPs is that they are invariably badly phrased. “Humankind”? What a crappy neologism. Sure, “mankind” is putatively sexist, but why not simply say “humanity”? “In all its aspects”? Which “its” – humankind’s or the public’s? And why the passive voice? Wouldn’t saying “The American Anthropological Association will improve the public’s understanding of all aspects of humanity” be simpler, clearer, and better? Notice how the new phrasing leads easily into describing specific actions that can be taken, where the original is just so much waffle?

[5] Are you seeing a pattern here?

[6] The original committee was packed with planetologists who said “big, round, in its own orbit” was definition enough. The Executive Committee was packed with observational astronomers who didn’t want to keep track of 200+ planets, so they used exceptions to the rules (What about the Moon? What about exoplanets? What about co-orbital bodies?) to kill the definition. They then put forth their definition (“big, round, clears its orbit [a]“) and quashed any objections to it (“What about the Moon? What about exoplanets? What about co-orbital bodies?”) and then prevented the planetologists from explicitly stating that the new category of dwarf planet is a subcategory of planets (even though everyonein the field knows that it is). When the planetologists have a majority in the Executive Committee, the definition will be re-visited. Until then, everyone in the field ignores it.

[7] Something similar happened in geophysics when the Society of Exploration Geophysicists split off from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, though there to problem was the focus on math and not the focus on politics.

[8] As a last-moment add-in, here is a link to a post on how Mythbusters follows the scientific method. I knew I liked that show for some reason…

[a] Note that the last particular can only be determined by an observational astronomer.

7 thoughts on “Is anthropology a science?

  1. If I had my druthers, and no need for income or worry about paying for school, I’d have pursued a degree in Cultural Anthropology. My undergrad Anthropology course efforts were spent on orangutans.

    The days spent observing their behavior were certainly scientific!

  2. I’m not sure the anthropologists have ever really known where they belong. Way way back in my undergraduate days (the late 1970′s) I took a class in Physical Anthropology. Loved it. No question it was a science class. Except for the fact I was taking it to satisfy a Humanities requirement. Go figure.

  3. Poor anthropologists. A good friend’s wife was a “post-colonial American” anthropologist. She went back and looked at economic documents (bills of sale, manifests, etc) and tried to piece together a day-to-day economic model for subsets of the population. It was cool. Was it science? There was data collection. There was hypothesis. But I don’t really think it was all that testable. She was more like a historian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    • Well, any good science depends on data in order to evaluate its models. So she may not be a front-line scientist, but she is certainly contributing to the fight!

  4. I’m married to an anthropologist. I don’t even know where to begin on this one. But I think he would agree that anthropology is not a hard science and too many theories are untestable and don’t even hold up to peer review.

    One of his favorite antics is to pick up a piece of trash from the ground and then postulate what anthropologists and archeologists would falsely assume about that trash 1000 years from now. Was that cheeto’s cat on that wrapper some religious deity? It’s pretty funny stuff. Makes it hard to take the archeologists seriously sometimes. Unless they are Indiana Jones and then I’ll blindly believe whatever they say. (Who could refute Han Solo?)

  5. One of his favorite antics is to pick up a piece of trash from the ground and then postulate what anthropologists and archeologists would falsely assume about that trash 1000 years from now.

    Have you given him a copy of Motel of the Mysteries yet? One of the funniest books written after the hysteria about King Tut.

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