Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is Anthropology a Science?

Anthropologists have long debated whether the field should or should not be seen as a science. Recently this came to a head at the annual American Anthropological Association meeting that was held in New Orleans last November. At this meeting, the executive committee removed three references to the word "science" in its long range plan. Predictably, this caused a great deal of consternation among many anthropologists who felt that this was an attack on science.

The following is an excerpt from a discussion between two anthropologists (one cultural and the other biological) at Boston University. (To read the entire article, click HERE. You can also check out the New York Times article alluded to in this piece - click HERE.)

BU Today: Do you agree with the decision to delete the word “science” from the plan? Weller: I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t see what is gained. A lot rides on what we call “science.” If we mean scientific method—controlled experiments in laboratories with disprovable hypotheses and reproduceable results—lots of us don’t do that. I don’t do that. But there’s long been an anthropological line: let’s take the term in its German sense, which just means trying to put order on knowledge. I’m totally comfortable with that—I claim science.

But I don’t read the change as a real attack on the scientists, either. The critique of science isn’t from the majority of social and cultural anthropology, but it’s been a vocal piece at certain universities, of which ours is not one. I have no problem with the rewording, either, and I would say zero people in this department have a problem, one way or the other.

Cartmill: I see no reason why it should have been deleted. I think there are all sorts of things that are worthwhile for people to do that aren’t science. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing science. There are anthropologists who describe science as “cognitive colonialism.” I am outraged by people calling me a cognitive colonialist.

But I’m not outraged by people saying that they’re not scientists. Science is theorized, repeatable experience—I can go and check you, see if what you said is true. It is an extremely useful formula for getting at what’s going on in terms of nature. It’s less useful for talking about human motivations, desires, ambitions, psychology. I am also sensitive that there are people who treat science as though it were something handed down from Mount Sinai, authoritative. Science does not recognize the existence of authority; you’re always obliged to say, “Check me out.”

I have done things that weren’t scientific. I wrote a book that was an intellectual history of hunting.

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