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K. Kris Hirst

Is Anthropology a Science? #AAAFail

By December 15, 2010

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A long-standing debate in anthropological circles has become a recent and white-hot discussion on many science blogs--so hot both the New York Times and Gawker have covered it. Basically, the debate is about whether anthropology--the diverse study of human beings--is a science or a humanity. Archaeology, as it is taught in the Americas, is part of anthropology. Anthropology here is considered a four-part study, including the subfields of sociocultural anthropology, physical (or biological) anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology.

Buffalo Jump Diorama at the Museum of Natural History
Buffalo Jump Diorama at the Museum of Natural History. Photo by
Kio Stark

So when the American Anthropological Association (AAA) decided on November 20, 2010, to take the word "science" out of its long-range plan statement, they were talking about us, too.

It occurs to me that this debate centers on whether as anthropologists, our focus should be on human culture or on human behavior. Human culture, as I define it, emphasizes the cultural traditions of a particular group, specific kinship relationships, specific religious rituals, what makes a particular group special, and so forth. The study of human behavior, on the other hand, looks at what makes us similar: what physical limitations humans have that create behaviors, how those behaviors evolved, how we create language, what our subsistence choices are and how we deal with them.

On that basis, it's possible that the AAA is drawing a line between sociocultural anthropology and the other three subfields. That's fine: but it would be too bad if scholars saw this as a reason to restrict certain realms of knowledge to help understand human cultures--or human behaviors either one.

Bottom Line

Do I think anthropology is a science? Anthropology is the study of all things human, and as an anthropologist I believe you shouldn't rule out one form of "knowing"--what Stephen Jay Gould calls "non-overlapping magesteria") from our field. As an archaeologist, my responsibility is both to the culture I study and to humanity at large. If being a scientist means I cannot include oral history in my investigations, or I must refuse to consider the cultural sensibilities of a particular group, I'm against it. If, however, not being a scientist means I can't investigate certains kinds of cultural behaviors because they might offend someone, I'm against that too.

Are all anthropologists scientists? No. Are any anthropologists scientists? Absolutely. Does being a "scientist" rule out calling yourself an "anthropologist"? Heck, there are plenty of archaeologists who don't think archaeology is a science: and to prove it, I've assembled the Top Five Reasons Archaeology is Not a Science.

I'm an archaeologist, and an anthropologist, and a scientist. Of course! I study humans: what else can I be?



December 15, 2010 at 12:02 pm
(1) Wondering out loud says:

If anthropology is indeed a four part study then I would consider that at present, and hopefully in the future, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology are indeed a science. Unfortunately sociocultural anthropology when dealing with Native American studies is viewed by an increasingly number of professionals as science in service of a reactionary religious agenda.

In the name of political correctness and to avoid offending peoples with differing world views sociocultural anthropology if not disiplined could in the future become more of a religion than a field of professional studies.

As far as the disipline of archaeology is concerned, is it any wonder that an increasingly number of graduate students shun prehistory when it deals with Native American studies and instead focus their talents on historic archaeology.

In formulating research questions for a project and submitting our final conclusions, archaeological method and theory should hold precedence over person opinions or the opinions of special interest groups.

To compete for diminishing funding dollars and to retain public support it is extremely important that archaeology continues to view itself as a science as it has in the past.

December 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm
(2) RBH says:

Anthropology is the study of all things human, and as an anthropologist I believe you shouldn’t rule out one form of “knowing”–what Stephen Jay Gould calls “non-overlapping magesteria”) from our field.

I’m glad you put “knowing” in scare quotes. But Gould’s remark had nothing whatsoever to do with anthropology; he was writing of the relation between religion and science. Is that what you mean by applying it to the distinction between the ‘scientific’ subdisciplines of anthropology and the advocacy-oriented subdiscipline of socio-cultural anthro? (I should note that it was partly due to the increasingly perceptible roots of this conflict in the late 1960s that I left anthro grad school for the greener pastures of cognitive science.)

December 20, 2010 at 4:53 pm
(3) Smoke Pfeifer says:

Dang good blog, Kris! I hope you will keep following the controversy!

December 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm
(4) PotterBeth says:

As someone with a clinical psychology background plus a lot of research and time spent dwelling in social psychology, I am left scratching my head. Certainly, one could go on forever about “hard science” versus “soft science”… but if there is a solid methodology in anthropological pursuits (of any or all ilks), it seems absurd to me to remove “science” from the AAAs plan statement.

After all, is a marine biologist studying the structure of whale pods that much different than an anthropologist studying human cultural structures?

Granted, I’m coming at this from an outsider’s perspective, but still…..

December 21, 2010 at 1:43 pm
(5) Annette Hughes says:

I had to study Anthropolgy as a part of my Archaeology degree. I do think it is a science, any study that centres around the way people and animals (technically humans are animals!) live or have lived is in my mind a science.
Any one that wants to debate this needs their head read. At university Archaeology and Anthropology come under science, what would they come under if they are not a science. With the work that is involved with an excavation, lets just say it is not just about digging holes in the ground!

October 4, 2013 at 9:29 am
(6) Darius says:

The question that needs to be asked is why are humans beings being treated differently by their own academic activity? No one would ever think of asking, “Is entomology – the sturdy of insects – science?” or “Is herpetology – the study of amphibians – science?”

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