Anthropology is not a science, says the AAA

(editor's note: click here to learn more about the AAA's decision from a partial but enlightening point of view)

The Board of the American Anthropological Association has recently adopted a new "mission statement" that omits any reference to "science" in its characterization of anthropology. The previous mission statement contained such a reference.

A number of US anthropologists have protested the new mission statement. I paste below a recent post from Professor Eric C. Thompson of the National University of Singapore. I find Professor Thompson's post especially interesting because it summarizes some of the data that he and his associates collected from graduate students in several leading US anthropology programs. The student respondents gave their opinions as to which anthropologists they regard as having been most influential on the development of anthropology during the last two decades. Professor Thompson has given me permission to reproduce his post here, along with relevant contact information. Those of you who may want to read his preliminary survey are invited to contact him directly.

Thompson's e-mail:

I'm writing in response to this valuable discussion of dropping the term "science" from the AAA mission statement. I was trained and worked (dissertation, c.1990s) largely in an "interpretive" tradition… with "postmodern" influences – scaremarks and all, haha. But I've followed and signed on to the SASci because I've never agreed with the anti-science ideologues and am not keen on an anthropology that excludes the modern scientific tradition.

In collaboration with students in a graduate seminar on anthropology and anthropological theory just completed here at the National University of Singapore, we queried graduate students in cultural anthropology at six leading anthropology departments in the United States (Chicago, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, UCLA, U of Washington) as to the most influential anthropologists of the past two decades. This was a very informal 'survey' but yielded some interesting results; which bear on the discussion here.



I can't send the report as an attachment through this list, but email me and I'll be happy to send it. We got 51 responses listing a total of 202 scholars (small response rate and very informal methodology). Lots to qualify, but nevertheless the following are the scholars listed by more than 3 students from 3 or more graduate programs:



Name (#students/#schools)

Arjun Appadurai (11/3)

Jean Comaroff (9/4)

John Comaroff (9/4)

Anna Tsing (8/3)

James Ferguson (7/5)

Talal Asad (7/4)

Michael Tausig (7/4)

Akhil Gupta (6/3)

David Harvey (5/4)

Pierre Bourdieu (5/3)

Bruno Latour (5/3)

Aihwa Ong (5/3)

Benedict Anderson (4/4)

Veena Das (4/4)

Michel Foucault (4/3)

Web Keane (4/3)

Sherry Ortner (4/3)

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (4/3)

Mikhail Bakhtin (3/3)

Philippe Bourgeois (3/3)

Clifford Geertz (3/3)

George Marcus (3/3)

Edward Said (3/3)

I'm sending it as it reflects the trends mentioned in this list – particularly, I think the influence of the "postmodern turn" (for want of a better term) in anthropology around the 1980s. I'm working on a further write up of this with more discussion of the theoretical developments that the list of influential figures here have been at the center of. I'd be interested in any comments; can email me directly at the address below.

The whole discussion on this list reminds me of a strange remark by a newly hired faculty c.1992 when I was a grad student. She remarked dismissively and with much distain of a more senior colleague in the department "he still believes in science." I still wonder – as opposed to what? Good old-fashioned nihilism?

Finally, I would second the comments by Victor, too often "science" is far too narrowly reduced to "confirmatory hypothesis testing" (e.g. through questionnaires and surveys); both by "pro-science" proponents and "anti-science" opponents. IMHO, anthropologist would be best served by both maintaining "science" as a core epistomology and by pushing for a more expansive rather than reductionist understanding of what we mean by science.

Eric C. Thompson
Associate Professor
Department of Sociology*
National University of Singapore

(*FYI – Anthropology here in Singapore is generally construed as a sub-field of sociology; long story!)


  • comment-avatar
    Stuart Brown 1 December 2010 (21:22)

    [quote]This was a very informal ‘survey’ but yielded some interesting results.[/quote] — And there, in a nutshell, the problem is exemplified.

  • comment-avatar
    Pascal Boyer 3 December 2010 (23:37)

    All this is sad but hardly surprising. This is after all the same American Anthropological Association’s leadership that pilloried Derek Freeman for simply pointing out that Margaret Mead had got more or less everything wrong about sex and Samoa, censored David Stoll for revealing that Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography was a work of fantasy, and that failed to defend Nap Chagnon against the Tierney-Turner-Sponsel accusations of homicide-by-vaccination. Once you have decided that facts should never stand in the way of current political pieties, abandoning the “science” label would seem to make sense. As Alice Dreger points out in a brillant [url=]blog[/url] about this whole sordid affair, [quote]It’s safe to assume the AAA will not be promoting the public understanding of how human behaviors evolved, especially if those human behaviors are anything that might make some or all humans look violent, greedy, harmful to the environment, or (worst of all) sexually dimorphic. [/quote] Eric Thompson’s informal survey is disheartening, showing that the problem is endemic. The AAA’s leaders are sadly representative of their troops. The graduate students surveyed cite as major influences people whose work, with some exceptions, is shall we say not in the super brilliant league, and mostly from their own institutions… After several decades of selection and self-selection of cultural anthropology graduate students, most practitioners in the US are resolutely ignorant of all science, especially science of human behaviour (neuroscience, economics, biology, genetics) and eager to engage in some form of what Dreger calls “esoteric political journalism”. Does all this matter? After all, people who choose to lead such institutions are usually more interested in administration and politicking than in scholarship, and whatever problem they have with science (including the inability to do any) surely cannot stop more open-minded anthropologists to do good scientific work. On the bright side – the general public [i]is[/i] interested in scientific approaches to human behaviour, including culture – witness the readership of popular science books in the field. So we should just leverage this interest into attracting bright people to scientific projects on cognition and culture.

  • comment-avatar
    Emma Cohen 4 December 2010 (11:12)

    It seems that the widespread negative reaction to this “slightly changed” wording (see Hugh Gusterson’s interesting comment [url=]here[/URL] has taken the AAA by surprise. In a [url=]statement [/URL] that serves more to clarify the importance of form over substance in some sections of the discipline than what this decision really means, the AAA spokesperson, Damon Dozier is reported to have said: “they represent changes in words, not values”. This suggests that there will be lots of “I-didn’t-mean-it-like-that” kinds of statements now, and perhaps there’s some truth to that. But, as has been said already, there’s a long history here. For years now, it’s been possible for a dedicated and diligent student to get through an anthropology degree with flying colours (at least in the UK) without ever having read (or been encouraged to read) any scientific research reports relevant to human evolution, human psychology, or human culture, and much less any scientific publications about non-human evolution, psychology, or culture. While some course conveners and lecturers are neutral or apathetic, others question why one might wish to spend time on it – there’s more nuanced, reflective, inspired/inspiriting writing on the same topic (e.g. politics, economics, religion, etc) within the interpretive anthropological tradition, so why bother?. These priorities are also reflected in decisions about journal content, funding, hiring, and all sorts of professional academic opportunities within the discipline. If the ability and drive to read, understand, and do the kind of scientific work that is valued beyond the more interpretive quarters of anthropology are not acquired as a student, and there is little incentive to do so afterwards, from what position do such anthropologists judge the value of scientific anthropological work? Perhaps the lack of adequate familiarity with this work explains why much debate is at the level of futile and dated generalities (e.g. to do with colonialism, imperialism, and so on) and based on fundamental misunderstandings about what scientists actually do and why (- after presenting the results of a couple of studies, I was once questioned by an anthropologist of interpretivist persuasion, “But why do you [i]want[/i] to [i]prove[/i] that X is [i]true[/i]?” -italics added as hazard warnings). I don’t wish to be polemical, but do anthropologists who are unfamiliar with scientific literature and untrained in scientific methods (as some of us once were) know whether a particular piece of scientific research is timely, adequately represents and builds on the relevant literature, is well-designed and methodologically sound, is potentially high-impact, etc.? It’s difficult to imagine so. This, I think, is the source of much conflict and frustration on the part of the scientific minority, and part of the reason scientific anthropologists take up residence in a different discipline, where constructive dialogue and cross-fertlization can start from a place of mutual (scientific) interest and understanding. The question of how we are all to get along is not just about open-mindedness and kum-ba-ya-style goodwill, but about recognizing the deep intellectual differences that exist and either creating a workable space for all, or granting that “anthropology” is no longer a particularly meaningful or sustainable category. Alice Dreger’s latest blog post contains a [url=]quote[/URL] from Jim Brown, psychologist and president of Cornell College, in which he compares the current situation in our discipline with the challenges that eventually led to the splitting of psychology between those in the clinical profession and those in psychological science. I wonder what’s next for anthropology?

  • comment-avatar
    Tom Widger 5 December 2010 (11:06)

    As a recently ‘qualified’ anthropologist with what outside of this blog are terribly unfashionable ideas about anthropology, human culture and evolution, and the scientific method (which I argue in a way is possible even in ethnography), I too find the decision emblematic of an ultimately self-destructive bias against ‘science’ in the subject. It is also emblematic of a general loss of awareness about the history of the subject. Emma Cohen rightly comments that students can get to the end of an anthropology degree without ever having read any of the scientific literature on culture, and indeed from my own experience it seems possible for people to get to the end of an anthropology PhD in the UK without even having read some of the founders’ key works. When presenting in post-fieldwork ‘writing up’ seminars my work on suicide, I was asked by one colleague why I ‘kept on talking about Durkheim’ – she had never heard of Le Suicide! Similarly, discussion of ideas beyond standard social science models was much lampooned by my cohort, to the extent of my contributions being censored in the seminar room. During a discussion of romantic love, I raised the case of bonobos, who famously engage in ‘sexual’ gratification of all kinds and combinations with close kin (except parent/sibling) for the purpose of relationship building. My point was to support the case being made by my colleague who wished to do away with any simple notion that sex was only ever about reproduction, from what I thought was a rather interesting example from a close primate relative. The reaction I received was, for an academic and therefore one would have thought ‘open’ forum, incredible. ‘This is an anthropology seminar, so why are you talking about monkeys?’ I was asked, by my colleague had clearly found the comment offensive. To my surprise, all hell then broke out with the majority of the rest of the seminar rallying against me with such noise and vigour that the staff member chairing the session was forced to quieten them down and move the discussion on, and strike, as it were, my contribution from the record. So how is it that even at doctorate level we can have some anthropologists who never knew Durkheim wrote something important about suicide and other anthropologists refusing to admit discussion of primate relatives in the seminar room? And what, to pick up a theme mentioned by Pascal Boyer, does this tell us about the public reception of anthropology? Having gained my PhD and begun looking for jobs outside of anthropology (as most of us are forced to do), I found that for psychologists looking for qualitative/ethnographic researchers to join their teams, an anthropology PhD was simply too fluffy to entertain. In the public and third sectors, where demonstrable quantitative skills are an essential selection criterion for any research or management post, anthropologists don’t get a look in. As it happens , I used statistics in my doctoral work and taught myself, on the back of limited pre-fieldwork training, the elements of descriptive statistics, and that has just been enough to help me work in private sector consultancy were no one is interested in anything more complicated. But having got as far as one can go in formal education and obtained the highest degree possible, it nevertheless seems ridiculous that as an anthropologist I am unemployable even as a qualitative researcher in most settings. There is more at stake here than the intellectual future of anthropology, crucial though that is. At a time when UK students are being asked to pay more for their university degrees and self-funded PhDs are likely as a result to become less common, what particular incentive, from an economic point of view, do they have to choose anthropology? We all know that the so-called ‘soft sciences’ and humanities have long lost out in terms of employability, but anthropology, with its focus on cross-cultural knowledge, is in fact more in demand than ever across a range of settings. (To named just two: in the UK public sector equality legal duties mean that social and cultural diversity need to be planned for in service delivery, and global corporations are seeking to find competitive edge by tapping into cross-cultural marketplaces.) It is essential that as a discipline we have a serious discussion about our status as a science and our methodology in particular, that goes beyond pompous statements about ‘deep hanging out,’ as if that could really ever be useful to anyone.