Monday, December 13, 2010

Anthropology Drops Its Claim to Science

According to the NY Times,
"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 change acknowledges that there are factions within Anthropology which are not scientific.

This now leads to internal turmoil even greater than before:
"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."
In recent times even the science aspect of Anthropology has again come under attack in a manner similar to those attacks on Margaret Mead's ideological interpretations of Samoa. The problem arises with three considerations. First, truly objective science does not change the characteristics of the object being studied. Second, human-derived structures are not the same as naturally occurring, elemental structures, especially in terms of consistency and adherence to deterministic cause and effect. Third, human subjects deserve respect. Anthropology tends to run afoul of all of these considerations, with some participants more egregious than others.

The Times mentions the issue of Napoleon Chagnon's studies of the Yanomamis, a primitive tribe of tens of thousands living in villages spread across the borders of Brazil and Venezuela. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomami as being a "fierce" and violent culture, fighting each other for possession of the best women (an evolutionary precept). Others, including students of the Yanomami, claim that this is not the case, and in fact, such a characterization damages the Yanomami people:
"The ways in which anthropologists portray the societies they study have consequences, sometimes serious consequences in the real world. Indigenous societies have all too often been maligned in the past, denigrated as savages and marginalized at the edges of the modern world and the modern societies in it. It is not therefore a trivial matter to insist on the fierceness of a people or to maintain that they represent an especially primitive stage in human evolution. Chagnon has not done this inadvertently to the Yanomami. On the contrary, he has done so deliberately, systematically, and over a long period of time, in spite of the remonstrances of his fellow anthropologists."
The study of humans is unlike the study of mass-energy. Intrusions into a primitive society are not without producing secondary effects which are hardly quantifiable, yet can be significant.

Science is a self-limited endeavor. Maybe it has too much influence given its limitations. And maybe that influence has been envied by those engaging in other study methods, including the forensic and historical methods of investigation, which have their intellectual place but are not empirical in the experimental sense.

The "social studies" of my youth somehow morphed into the "social sciences". Perhaps that error is now being corrected.


  1. I think this is a wonderful development.
    Whatever findings and conclusions one draws about a group of people should not equated with a systematic, repeatable series of experiments designed to falsify or test an original hypothesis (or theory) such as is the norm in physics or chemistry.

  2. This is what happens when a bunch of morons with political views and ambitions infiltrate academia. Anthropology is certainly not without its faults but to abandon scientific aspects is rubbish. Additionally, anyone who has a knee jerk reaction to the word science is superstitious and needs to be burned at the stake like the rest of their intellectual peers. If you insist on clinging to primitive ideas then you are the reason the human race will never advance further than a a raging group of angry apes.

  3. Anonymous, yes you certainly have evolved.

  4. Anthropology is the study and recovery of the history of humanity and requires a huge swath of scientific principles from linguistics and sociology to biology and paleogeography. The fact that some anthropologists put a spin on certain cultural behaviors does not invalidate it as a science - especially when other anthropologists contrast and even contradict the work of former anthropologists thus demonstrating the basic definition of a science: to determine whether a presented idea is in fact correct.


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