Turning Anthropology from Science into Political ActivismThe self-anointed, self-justified, auto-holy messiahs are everywhere. At least here they removed the designation as a "science" from their self-description. But their crusade should not retain the name, "anthropology", either; the activity's name should reflect "personal retribution through self-righteousness".
Beginning in the 1960s, a movement developed in academia with the aim of transforming scholarly pursuits into instruments of social change. It was motivated by intellectually fashionable ideas, such as Marxism and feminism, and by a trendy antipathy towards Western Civilization in general. Eventually it overwhelmed the humanities and deeply affected the social sciences.
The impact of the movement on my field, anthropology, was varied, since anthropology, with its four sub-disciplines, spans the range of scholarly activity from the physical sciences through the social sciences to the humanities. Three of those sub-disciplines (archeology, physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology) have remained mostly unscathed by the efforts to transform anthropology into another politically correct university outpost.
But the largest of the four, sociocultural anthropology (the study of social and cultural variation around the world), has been greatly distorted. It has been redefined from a science to an instrument of political ideology.
It is very revealing that in 2010, the executive committee of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the discipline’s major professional organization, dropped the word “science” from its mission statement, and elsewhere. Since then the organization has focused on trendy issues such as the environment, violence, climate change, race, etc.
The AAA now wants “to help solve problems” rather than to understand and explain reality. Different sections have appeared within the AAA reflecting radical politics, such as the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Association for Queer Anthropology (their designation), and other internal organizations that are highly politicized. Committees expend much energy on political issues and the formation of task forces like the Global Climate Task Force and the Task Force on Race and Racism.
One element in politicized anthropology is the repudiation of the West’s colonial past. Western expansion, as seen from this perspective, was not a phase in history, similar in many respects to the phenomenon of cyclical empires that goes back to the beginning of civilization, but rather an abiding sin for which activist anthropologists have vowed to make amends.
One of them is UC Berkeley professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has often called for the redefinition of anthropology from an academic discipline to what she calls “forensic” anthropology. (See, e.g. her essay “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” in the June 1995 issue of Current Anthropology.) What she means by that is that anthropology should move from objective scientific analysis to activism, with a focus on the “crimes” committed by earlier anthropologists.
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