Over the last couple weeks controversy erupted in the world of anthropology. No, they didn’t find more Hobbits. The problem began when the American Anthropology Association altered their mandate removing science from their long range goals.
When the organization met for its annual meeting a decision was reached to strip the words “science” from their long range plan.
The new plan has changed from:
“to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.”
it now reads:
“The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”
The word “science” has been removed from two other places in the revised statement.
This change was reported by the New York Times on the 9th of December and started a considerable upheaval.
There was already tension within the field of anthropology and this latest episode has seemed to exacerbate it further. The debate is between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines like archaeologists, physical anthropology and forensic anthropology — and anthropologists who focus on the more humanities based issues like race, ethnicity and gender.
Those that are defend the old mandate, members of the fields that are science based, are interested in relying on the scientific method to inform their theories about anthropology and ensuring that due diligence is done on new theories and that research is being conducted based on sound principles. In opposition are members who view themselves as advocates and activists. As they see it, research on culture, race, and gender is only harmed by science as it represents the cold arm of colonial imperialism.
This change has brought about serious concerns by researchers. The article quotes Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, who suggested that the changes to the mandate “would undermine American anthropology.”
Obviously viewing this as more than a simple cosmetic change, he compared the attacks and challenges on anthropology to creationism in that they both are “based on the rejection of rational argument and thought.”
After the article in the New York Times, the American Anthropological Association attempted to clarify their position, they issued a statement in which they stated:
“the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research.”
To further clarify matters they went on to describe anthropology as:
“Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture.”
In the follow-up article by the New York Times, Damon Dozier, the association’s director of public affairs is further quoted saying “We mean holistic in terms of the diversity of the discipline.”
Despite the attempts to head off a huge rift, there appears to be lingering doubt as to the direction the American Anthropological Association is going and even more concern that the field of anthropology is under siege from post-modern attacks on its science foundations.
These concerns should not be taken lightly by anthropology or skeptics either.
One of the most important contributions of science to the world has been a method of inquiry that has proven itself unequalled in explaining the natural world. The scientific method is, and should, be foundational in any field where the goal is to explain the natural world.
The so-called “hard sciences” understand this. Where things get muddled is in the “soft sciences” like anthropology, history, and psychology. For some reason these fields have proven especially vulnerable to post-modernism and have fallen prey to schizophrenic notion that science is “western” and trying to use science to explain things is another branch of imperialism.
As someone who’s education is history I’ve personally seen this attitude reflected in the teaching material, my fellow students, and most disturbingly, the professors who teach history. In the field of history, post-modernism claims that no objective truth about the past may be known. In his book Denying History, Michael Shermer warned that “here we find the seedbed for pseudohistory and Holocaust denial.”
The so-called “soft sciences” are occasionally put in the position of making assumptions. When you have a hypothesis you want to test, you unfortunately can’t travel back in time and do an experiment. Therefore, relying on the evidence you already have and employing your critical thinking skills you formulate a rational assumption and await the opportunity to confirm or deny it. It’s not based on a “hunch” or conjured up from the imagination. It’s based on rational skepticism.
This debate is far from over. We can probably expect to see more controversies within the field of anthropology and most likely, continued accusations that science is the tool of western imperialism.