Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Much Ado About Not Much in Anthropology

First, two disclaimers. I have no inside knowledge about the the matters about to be discussed. Like most other commentators, I only know what has publicly circulated. Second, despite what I'm about to say, I have a lot of respect for Nicholas Wade as a science journalist.

A few days ago the New York Times published an article by Nicholas Wade "Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift" describing an internal debate within anthropology.

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 decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.

The word “science” has been excised from two other places in the revised statement.

Note the construction of the paragraphs, which constitute the lead portion of the article: Wade sandwiches the discussion of a well publicized decade old controversy between two paragraphs devoted to the article's main point (the change of wording in the association's long-range plan). By referring to the earlier debate Wade documents the existence of significant divisions among anthropologists. By surrounding his description of the past incident with material about the current event, Wade links them together in the reader's mind. It is the juxtaposition of the two events that provide evidence of the supposed ongoing "tribal warfare" within Anthropology.

Individuals familiar with studies of how journalists construct their stories (see, for example, Tuchman's Making News: A Study in the Social Construction of Reality or Ericson's Visualizing Deviance: A Study of News Organization) will recognize some of the strategies Wade is deploying. First, there is the obvious emphasis on social division present in the "tribal warfare" reference. As captured in the well known journalistic homily, "If it bleeds, it leads" crime, deviance, violence, tension, etc. all attract readers. Or, stated another way, a story framed in terms of conflict and drama is more likely to make it past the editors desk than the same information framed in a less attention-grabbing format. Second, by providing context journalists help their readers understand the information being presented. Without that context, the event might be dismissed is trivial and irrelevant. Wade's reference to the earlier controversy is designed to provide that context. It lets the reader understand the current event not as an isolated event but, rather, as an outgrowth of a long-standing rift within the discipline.

Viewed in this light, we can pose a simple question: Has Wade described an actual feud within anthropology or has Wade, through the use of journalistic tropes, constructed a narrative that fundamentally misrepresents the situation? My vote is with the second alternative.

(Parenthetical note: I'm treating Wade as representative of a variety of reports, not as the sole origin of the problem. Indeed, other sources (see the articles in Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education) reported the dispute earlier. I've focused on the Wade article for three reasons. First, a focus on the specific construction of an article is necessary to highlight the points I'm trying to make. Second, as a long standing and highly regarded science journalist for the NYTimes, I hold Wade to a higher standard. Third, Wade's characterization of the dispute is less nuanced than the Inside Higher Ed piece and more stereotypical and cartoonish than the Chronicle article.)

Individuals interested in a blow by blow account of how the controversy emerged and spread should read Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened and the series of related posts at Neuroanthropology. What you discover are the following:

1) There was no attempt to exorcise 'science' from the association's conception of anthropology. (Click here for a marked up version showing the original and more recent versions of the controversial text.) While the word 'science' was deleted from the long-range plan, the same meeting approved a document 'What is Anthropology' including the following text:
Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.

The language here is quite inclusive -- covering natural science, social science and the humanities. Moreover, the committee's claim that the wording changes were really a matter of mundane housekeeping appears supported by the shift of another passage -- that dealing with the "application of knowledge to the solution of human problems" -- from the long-term plan to the 'What is Anthropology' document. Thus, in contrast to Wade's account of an internal putsch aimed at re-defining the discipline, the motives for the word change appear to have been boring and bureaucratic -- the updating of documents -- with no sinister intent.

2) The controversy spread mainly through articles, like Wade's, written by outsiders. It did not emerge organically from inside the discipline. The discussion became an intense focus in the blogging community only after articles about the feud appeared in the Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other similar locations. The notable exception to this generalization is Peter Peregrine's email on behalf of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. However, the SAS appear to have based their understanding of what transpired at the AAA executive meetings entirely on the text of the long-range plan without knowledge of the 'What is Anthropology' document. In addition, there is the possibility that Peregrine was attempting to arouse a sense of outrage in order to boost membership in the SAS. If nothing else, he clearly saw the controversy as an opportunity for encouraging membership renewals.

3) There exist real divisions within anthropology -- and indeed within all social science. But they are neither as tidy nor as stable as Wade's warring tribes allusion suggests. For example, if you survey the range of online reaction to the controversy, virtually none of the comments invoke the Chagnon debate that Wade uses to frame the dispute. Rather than attempt to unpack the real divisions, Wade constructs an overly simplistic division between 'science' and everything else without ever defining science. Indeed, the whole controversy has played itself out that way. People are for or against the change in wording -- but few actually define what they mean by science. They are, in many ways, ships passing in the night.

In short, the current controversy tells us more about the state of contemporary science journalism than it tells us about anthropology. But, the title of the post is 'much ado about not much' and not the proper Shakespearean 'much ado about nothing' for a reason. The fact that these articles created such a stir is a sign of something -- I just don't think it is a sign of what Wade claims. In the same way that a psychologist will say that an affair is the result of marital breakdown rather than the cause, Wade's ability to stir up controversy is a manifestation of real divisions even if they are more complex and unacknowledged than he is aware.

Attempting to explain those divisions would make this (already long) post much, much longer. Suffice it to say that I think there are at least three major things going on:

1) A post-Kuhnian understanding of how scientific knowledge changes. I take this to mean both a) an appreciation that the production of scientific knowledge is rooted in social context (for example, that observation is theory-laden) and b) that scientific knowledge evolves from rather than evolves toward (i.e., that it moves away from theories with empirical problems rather than toward 'truth')

2) The legacy of the Science Wars of the 1990s between natural scientists and social constructionists over whether natural science is or is not just another belief system.

3) The organized chaos of modern methodological practice so brilliantly explicated by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines. Challenging the accepted belief that knowledge is in a perpetual state of progress, Abbott contends that disciplines instead cycle around an inevitable pattern of core principles. New schools of thought, then, are less a reaction to an established order than they are a reinvention of fundamental concepts. This leads Abbott to characterize the social space of methodological practice as analogous to a city street grid. Thus, not only can researchers opt for recognizably different methodological practices (e.g., locate themselves at the intersection of different streets) but they can mistakenly think they are engaged in the same research practice (e.g., find themselves at the same intersection but only realize after much discussion that they arrived there by taking different paths and that those paths affect the meaning they ascribe to a particular research practice).

Anyone seriously attempting to understand the social dynamics within anthropology would need to start with a clear definition of science (is it a method? a body of knowledge? a form of reasoning? or what?) in light of the above considerations.


  1. This is really interesting and somewhat provocative post. I'd like to take it up at my site, but that won't be till tomorrow.

    Meanwhile, one quick observation: my impression is that Wade was a late entry to this--that his article came after the debate was already raging in the science blogosphere and elsewhere.

    But your larger points are well worth discussing on their own.

  2. Keith,

    It's true that Wade was a relatively late entrant. But, in some ways, that makes it worse. He had the time to look through, for example, the reactions to the Chronicle of Higher Education piece and realize that it had noting to do with the Chagnon debate.


  3. Gary,
    Thanks for this post - I don't have a lot of context on this debate but I tend to perk up whenever I hear people debating the word "science".

    As for your last statement:
    "Anyone seriously attempting to understand the social dynamics within anthropology would need to start with a clear definition of science"

    I'm not sure exactly what you mean, could you elaborate?
    I'm not surprised to hear of people arguing about science without bothering to define it. That seems quite normal in my experience, and the definition is tricky as always. How can understanding a clear definition of science help to understand these social dynamics? Post-Kuhnian science scholars certainly don't make a habit of giving a clear definition, and I think they've done pretty well arriving at various sorts of understandings of social dynamics.

    -M Zajko

  4. Thanks for the comment. The basic point I was trying to make was that the multiplicity of epistemological positions present in anthropology can't be accurately reduced to the caricature of two warring tribes. People are all over the map. So, to properly locate individuals in that conceptual space, you would need to take into account a wide variety of factors including, among other things, their individual understanding of what 'science' means. So, I wasn't suggesting that analysis of what was going on depends on some universally agreed upon definition but, rather, the need to attend to the different meanings that individual anthropologists gave to the term.

  5. Thanks, that clears it up quite a bit.
    I've found attending to the meanings people give to science can be a real challenge, considering most of it goes unsaid. All too often the conceptual space gets reduced to pro and anti science, without much probing of what either of these positions is supposed to mean.