I am sitting in the Montreal airport on my way home from this year’s AAA annual meetings. I spent most of my time at these meetings conducting interviews, thus missing much of the actual “action” at the meetings. One of the items that has received the most attention was the session focused on last year’s AAA-science controversy (i.e. #AAAfail), in which the word “science” was removed from the organization’s long-term mission statement. I was able to follow some of the action via twitter (#AAAsci) while on my way to Montreal, and Michigan graduate student Caroline Van Sickle has put together an excellent recap of the twitter coverage. In addition, both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Education have posted stories on the event.
The response I got from people who were at the event was one of frustration. The biggest complaint was that the AAA science session was scheduled at the same time as sessions put on by the Biological Anthropology Section and Evolutionary Anthropology Section of AAAs, making it very hard for a lot of individuals who would have liked to attend the event to do so. But from those who were at the event, it seems the frustration was the result of little progress in the arguments, with the various speakers largely talking to different points on the issue and at times, seemingly undermining the significance of the event altogether.
I think the idea that last year’s re-wording is “no big deal” is wrong, and the wrong path for AAA and members of the association to take. A brief look at the changes made to the statement (you can see the complete set of revisions here) might make it appear to be much ado about nothing. Basically, mentions of the “science of anthropology” or “anthropological sciences” end up being eliminated or swapped with the broader phrase, “public understanding.” But what ends up happening is that the statement goes from using some form of the word “science” four times to not using at all. The discipline is clearly uncomfortable with that word – “science” – and made sure to eliminate it.
Understanding this issue is complex, because the minor/major revisions to the statement need to be placed into a much broader historical and theoretical discussion within the field and academia going back decades. First, I am sympathetic to the argument that science is not the only, or even always the best, avenue for knowledge production. Furthermore, most anthropologists, even many biological anthropologists (particularly in anthropology’s past), aren’t engaging with science. So why should the mission statement say they are?
The folks at Living Anthropologically, following on tweets from Greg Downey, note a kind of victimology inherent in both sides of the debate. Biological anthropologists feel marginalized within the discipline by leadership decisions within the discipline to do things like…remove “science” from AAAs mission statement. Major and historically important anthropology departments, University of Chicago and Columbia University as two examples, have opted to let their training of biological anthropologists wither to nothing. From the other side, biological anthropologists at historically important anthropology departments have opted to leave anthropology and identify themselves as something more scientific, such as those at Harvard University (Human Evolutionary Biology) and George Washington University (Hominid Paleobiology). More humanistic anthropologists, meanwhile, feel marginalized by movements within academia as a whole that seem to privilege (through support, monetary and non-monetary) the teaching and research of those in the science and technology fields over the humanities. At the end of the Living Anthropologically essay, the author calls for the best of both worlds, agreeing with the sentiment expressed by Russell Bernard in the session:
In short, anthropology should be a humanistic science and scientific humanism, embracing science across approaches labelled “interpretivist” or “social constructionist.”
But is that even possible at this point? Falling back to my own comfort zone of evolutionary biology, I think you can conceptualize anthropology as being akin to a ring species. From its common origin as a multidimensional field at the beginning of the 20th century (and Boas-era four-field anthropology in America may be part-myth, part-reality), the discipline has been pulled in opposite directions – one, influenced by the development of postmodernism and an at times valuable dose of internal self-reflection, and the other, influenced by an increasing incorporation of knowledge generated from the biological sciences (and related fields) and modeling itself on practices within the traditional natural sciences. These two ends do not articulate. If you put my work examining anatomical variability in a set of 2 million year old fossil hominids next to that of a contemporary socio-cultural anthropologist studying state-building processes within urban youth, you would find very little in common with respect to content, method, question or theory. It is possible, of course, to trace back both my research and that of my hypothetical colleague back to a common set of questions, but that path will take you through what are now largely ghost towns of anthropological inquiry. The historical center of anthropology, particularly the training of graduate students at the center, has largely been abandoned.
Perhaps this is not a bad thing. As Jonathan Marks pointed out, both in his presentation at the AAA-Science session and later in his keynote address to the Biological Anthropology Session, the history of anthropology, particularly its arguments about what biology does and does not say about humans, is filled with ugly landmarks that should serve, like archaeological tsunami stones, as warning marks against repeating old mistakes. At the very least, the passive and at times active fissioning of anthropology seems the path of least resistance, if not least controversy, as it requires nothing more than what is currently being done.
Again, I find myself thinking this is wrong. The study of humans within a common framework, albeit a complex framework that incorporates multiple ways of addressing what it means to be human, is of great value. If it was not, I would not be an anthropologist. We need more people in anthropology working at its center. More people approaching human variation from a biocultural perspective who recognize the role biological variation plays in shaping broader patterns of human variation and the critical role human culture plays in shaping the dynamics, including the evolutionary dynamics, of human populations.
Daniel Segal of Pitzer College suggested that the Society for Anthropological Sciences should be renamed the Society for Defensiveness About Science (or else be disbanded). Segal said that the entire AAA is about science, and that a subset shouldn’t claim the only expertise about science.
This is simply not true. Most anthropologists, at both an undergraduate and graduate level, are not trained as scientists, even if they do get training in critiques of science. Scientific approaches to understanding human variation are aided by a strong reflexivity, the kind of self-critique that is difficult to ask of the authors of such work. But the critique of such work in anthropology should be aimed at making that research better, not rejecting the endeavor altogether.
Researchers who attempt to conduct serious studies of humans in a bio-cultural lens often find themselves attacked from both sides. Anti-science factions point out the obvious absurdity of reducing complex human systems to blunt quantitative metrics, devoid of the “thick description” we anthropologists like. Pro-science factions criticize small sample sizes, poor control over both explanatory and confounding variables, and insufficient theoretical grounding in the construction of both hypothesis and test. And the critics, both sets of them, are at times correct. This quote from the Insider Higher Ed piece captures this sentiment:
One woman in the audience spoke of being criticized by some in her department as “not scientific enough” while others have told her that because she works in part on the issue of the evolution of behavior, “I must be a fascist.”
Training a “center” of anthropology is hard not only because of the theoretical challenges presented by the approach but also because of structural obstacles. The Chronicle article correctly makes reference to the role that money, in the form of funding for research, teaching and mentorship, plays in these debates. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences tap into different, and differently changing, pools of money for support. The classification of the field within these divisions matters. Additionally, supporting high-end graduate training of socio-cultural and biological anthropology graduate students require different approaches. Ethnology demands high investment in time – allowing for both language expertise and the intensity of contact necessary to carry out outstanding ethnographic work – increasingly discouraged by administrators focused on time to degree. Biological anthropology graduate students typically need less time investment, but more investment in the form of access to high-cost equipment and technology.
“We need to be supporting the array of ambitions of our students,” he [Russell Bernard] said. The future needs to be one in which “we don’t ask them to choose humanism or science, qualitative or quantitative. We support them to get all the skills they need for the array of jobs available,” he said.
“And this means never mistaking quantitative for science or qualitative for non-science,” he said.
There is no easy path forward for anthropology. How can I, with an interest in patterns and process of human evolution over the past two million years, not take human cultural practices seriously? The expansion of the human brain over the past two million years is nothing if not an indication of the role complex human behavioral systems play in shaping the evolutionary landscape of humans. This evolutionary process, meanwhile, plays a major role in shaping patterns of human variation today. Not in the 19th and early 20th century racialized sense, but in a far more subtle, but also more far-reaching manner. Additionally, the increasingly widespread availability of fundamental biological information, such as personal genomic data, make the acknowledgement of our biological selves all the more vital.