Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a short comment on science

I haven't blogged about the #AAAfail issue, since, honestly, I don't care that much. The AAA is largely irrelevant for most archaeologists, and this incident shows one of the reasons why. I do support a four-field approach. Call me an elitist, ugly American, but I find most American-style archaeology to be more interesting than European-style archaeology. We tend to deal with bigger questions in a way that I find more compelling (but maybe it's just my training). The difference, I believe, comes from our four-field approach. The value of the approach does not negate the fact that cultural anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology have been developing in their own directions. That's OK, it just makes it hard for us to be members of one over-arching organization where we all can feel included and valued. Personally, I consider myself a scientist, but I have no problem with more post-modern or humanistic approaches to human culture. I think we can learn from them, as well, I just don't find the methods or conclusions as useful for the questions that I want to ask.

My problem with the changes to the AAA's Long Range Plan comes from the perceived slight to those who are interested in science, particularly in an academic climate where archaeologists and biological anthropologists may be quick to assume the worst motives. It was poor politics, and serves to further alienate factions within anthropology. In my opinion, this is not because of any real or significant change in the AAA's plans for the future, but because of the distrust and dislike that was stirred up on both sides. Contrast these two comments, and you'll see what I mean:

From A Hot Cup of Joe:

In their response, the AAA board says, “[a]nthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences.”

If by “holistic” they mean it makes use of all the natural sciences to examine and define human culture and history, then that’s fine. Why not simply say so? By why must it rely on or even draw upon the humanities? Just about any definition of “the humanities” you find expressly excludes “the sciences.” This is utter bollocks. The suggestion is that its okay to draw upon religious explanations and speculative post-modern critique to examine human culture past or present. If anything should be excluded and excised from the long-range plans of the AAA it should be this sort of non-scientific codswallop...[W]hy not simply just put back the word science in the Long Range Plan? A word that has far more utility and express intent than the probably post-modernist appeasement of weasel-wording they settled upon.

Now, let's hear from Rex at Savage Minds:

The narrative at work seems basically to be this: for decades real, objective, scientific anthropology has been under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth. With the new language in the AAA mission statement, anthropologists have given up on truth altogether.

I wish that this were a parody or simplification of the argument, but it is not — this is honestly as it good as it gets from the critics of the AAA: Clifford Geertz is the thin edge of a wedge inserted into the social sciences by Creationism, Sarah Palin, etc. etc.

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on...At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

Those quotes illustrate the problem nicely: a complete and utter lack of respect between different factions of anthropology.

I really couldn't care less how the AAA defines anthropology, or what it thinks our long-term goals should be as a discipline. Assuming the AAA wants to make a claim to being the professional organization for more than cultural anthropologists, however, it is going about it the wrong way. Deliberately sowing discord in an already uneasy marriage was a dumb move.


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