Eric Wolf - Science in Anthropology

Science in Anthropology

The 2011 American Anthropological Association panel, “Science in Anthropology: An Open Discussion” featured panelists Daniel Segal, Jonathan Marks, and H. Russell Bernard. Bernard advocated a return of a “big-tent” anthropology: “We should be the humanistic science and the scientific humanism that Eric Wolf described nearly 50 years ago.”


Re-capping the Science in Anthropology Panel

From my perspective, as Greg Downey tweeted in from Australia, there was a bit of victimology on both sides. Both those who claim scientific approaches and those who claim more interpretive approaches felt marginalized. However, at least from audience comments, those claiming scientific approaches point to marginalization and then say their marginalization is greater. The claim is that while no one would shut down humanistic approaches in anthropology, people more actively shut down quantitative approaches.

As people were saying such things, my mind raced back to that truly terrible 10 December 2010 article from Nicholas Wade. Check this quote: “‘I really don’t see how or why anthropology should entail humanities,’ said Frank Marlowe, president-elect of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society.” Many anthropologists were about to lose our minds that morning, when Daniel Lende came to the rescue with a dose of humor. “Take that, you fluff heads! I’m still getting in my swings while I’ve got the media’s eye. If I swing hard enough, I might even knock you out of the AAA!”

But however much I disliked that quote and that moment, we do have to remember it came from Nicholas Wade. In the panel, Daniel Segal called Nicholas Wade for what he is. Wade is a pseudo-science journalist, who will call anything “science” as long as it validates his race-as-genetic interpretations. Wade will condemn as “interpretivist” anything that points out how race is a social classification scheme. That “race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation” (Edgar and Hunley 2009:2) has been more than validated by the AJPA issue on Race Reconciled. But Nicholas Wade pays no attention to this scientific research.

Daniel Segal had perhaps the most provocative comments. I’m going to go out on a provocative limb and argue that anthropology can actually rally around an agenda for science in anthropology contained in his commentary.

Science in Anthropology: A Provocative Agenda

First, anthropology must stop cavorting with the “false friends” of science. I’m not sure what I would do if I were in the same room as Nicholas Wade, but it may be time to ask for a voluntary ban on further communication with Wade. He is anti-anthropology and anti-science, as his reporting must always fit his genetics-driven agenda.

Second, anthropology must embrace and defend a wider berth for science. Segal noted that the response to stickers saying “evolution is a theory” should not be to repeatedly bash people over the head with expert evolutionary fact. This is an arrogant approach that does not seem to budge any of the percentages of people accepting evolutionary ideas. Instead we should embrace our work as generating and investigating theories, such as the “theory of gravity.” We do not condone the stickers because they unfairly single out evolution-as-theory. This approach is really not so different than what Benjamin Z. Freed does in the article Re-reading Root-Bernstein and McEachron in Cobb County, Georgia.

In short, anthropology should be a humanistic science and scientific humanism, embracing science across approaches labelled “interpretivist” or “social constructionist.” Segal’s most radical idea was to disband the Society for Anthropological Sciences, because it simply duplicates the American Anthropological Association, which is the Society for Anthropological Sciences. Bernard countered that no one had asked for the dissolution of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (although see above!).

Later in the session, when asked about the need for a Society for Anthropological Sciences, people commented that it served as a home for quantitative methods, comparative work, and cultural evolution as change over time. Someone then added falsifiability. But really now. Counting, comparison, change over time: these are things every anthropologist does. As for falsifiability, even the most “interpretivist” accounts are certainly not arguing that any story can be told, that any account is equally valuable. The standards are the same. The stories we tell must be supported by the evidence, and submitted to debate.

So let’s get to building “the humanistic science and the scientific humanism that Eric Wolf described nearly 50 years ago.”

Updates on Science in Anthropology

2013: Many of these issues came surging back again with the publication of the Napoleon Chagnon memoir. See also Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature, Goodbye to all that and Anthropology Is Your Ally – Science & Humanities Together.

2012: Tom Boellstorff’s Three Comments on Anthropology and Science provides an interesting perspective on Wade, journals, and anthropology blogs:
1. It Is Crucial to Characterize All Research Paradigms with Respect and Accuracy
2. Internet Technologies Can Broaden and Complexify Anthropological Conversations
3. Journals Should Not Serve a Gatekeeping Function in Disciplinary Debates

Update 2011: See also an earlier blog-post by Daniel Segal, The Republican Candidates’ Attacks on Science which elaborates on his position. Segal referenced this in response to the commentary from Jonathan Marks, So, est-ce la science?

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Science in Anthropology: Humanistic Science and Scientific Humanism.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 17 November 2011. Revised 21 September 2017.

Post Comment 10 comments on “Humanistic Science & Scientific Humanism

  • Greg Downey on

    I read about the comparison of the Society for Anthropological Sciences and the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, and I wonder if anyone there has actually been to the meetings of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. I don’t get to the AAAs as often as I used to, but I attended the business meeting of the Hum Anthro folks, and it was far, FAR smaller than even the meeting of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, on part with the turnout for the Central States Anthropological Society (which I also have been part of and an officer in, so this is no dig on any of these groups).

    My point is, they’re simply not comparable. The Soc for Anth Sciences has to be understood in the light of two things: 1) the PERCEPTION (accurate or not) that the AAA is dominated by social and cultural anthropologists and 2) the lower attendance of AAA meetings by archaeologists and biological anthropologists (and other members who would more often identify as ‘scientific’ than the cultural and social people). Part of that abandonment is no doubt driven by some dissatisfaction with the AAA, but part of it is driven by the very active meeting schedule and professional societies that draw biological and archaeological anthropologists to other meetings. It’s a classic problem: once a few start to skip, the disproportion exacerbates and the rest feel less and less welcome, whether or not there’s any actual intent to push them away.

    Add to that the fact that some social and cultural anthropologists do say extraordinarily stoopid things about ‘science’ (of course, I’ve also heard biological anthropologists say some pretty moronic things about what my type of folks do), and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for a disciplinary ship that lists waaaaay too far in one direction. If we hang onto the various stupid things that people have said about us in order to justify our own sense of being embattled and our willingness to lash out at our colleagues (what I’ve called ‘victimology’ although now I regret the word), I don’t foresee the gap closing.

    I just think we’ve got to bury the science-anti-science hatchet. It’s just not interesting, and it typically paints both sides into some pretty unnuanced, anti-progressive, biased positions. When I look around at the sordid group of characters from outside of anthropology who want me to fight with my anthropological colleagues over ‘science,’ I just don’t like the company.

    I wouldn’t ‘vote to disband’ anyone’s society, scientific, humanistic, or any other stripe. If there’s one thing that is certain to throw petrol on the victimology fire, it’s someone else voting to disband the refuge you’ve found for your own sense of embattlement.

    Do I want to get rid of this constant schismatico-genesis (apologies to Bateson for the not-quite-neologism)? Of course. But a better solution, in my opinion, to voting other people’s organisations out of existence would be to create a giant open access journal that seduces under its very big tent all the journals of small and frightened disciplinary sub-subgroups, giving each a section, so that they would actually feel like they were in the same ship (which they ARE!). Hang together or hang separately, eh?

    To all those of you not on Twitter, though, the live-tweeting of this panel is precisely the reason that the technology is worth checking out. With multiple postings, I feel like I was listening in on the conversation…

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Hi Greg,

      Thank you for this insightful commentary. Virginia Dominguez did mention that the Society for Humanistic Anthropology is one of the smallest sections in the AAA. My suggestion to disband both is of course at least partially tongue-in-cheek, although I did look through the list of sections and those two seem the least specified in subject matter or membership.

      The idea of a giant open access journal sounds great and perhaps related to your Online Anthropology Compiler.

      Thank you again,

  • Thomas Strong on

    Based on your tweets and those of J Hawks, I do think I would’ve been cheering Segal’s presentation. Sounds like it was an important session. Did anyone talk about Alice Dreger in any of their presentations?

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Hi Thomas,
      Thank you for the comment. I agree with Segal’s points, but his presentation style was at times confrontational. Alice Dreger was not there and I did not hear anyone discuss her.

      1. Greg Downey on

        I’ve also read some rumour that the session might have been recorded to be made available. Any chance of that?

        1. Jason Antrosio on

          Hi Greg,
          Yes, there were multiple recording devices and the panelists signed-off on the recording just before the session. Audience comments were allowed to be anonymous for that reason, unless they wanted to identify themselves. I don’t know about availability, but the recording was happening.

  • M Schwartz on

    ***but it may be time to ask for a voluntary ban on further communication with Wade. He is anti-anthropology and anti-science, as his reporting must always fit his genetics-driven agenda.***

    Yes, maybe you could ressurect the V.I. Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences to announce that your view is the “the only correct theory”. For good measure Wade and his fellow travellers could be sent to gulag prisons in mass.

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Dear M Schwartz,
      Thank you for stopping by, but I believe you misinterpret my intention. By asking for a “voluntary ban” I am asking for more and better science journalism, not less. I am not asking to silence any voices, but this prominent journalist has consistently misinterpreted and twisted anthropological research. He has explicitly stated hostility to anthropology and refuses to consider anthropological argumentation. In this context, it is important for anthropology to find adequate venues to publish and promote good anthropology. It is Wade who is claiming “the only correct theory,” not me.

  • Akanfe on

    I was a gdatuare student in cultural anthropology back in the 1970s, when structuralism and post-modernism were NEW! and HOT! in the humanities and social sciences. I knew it was codswallop, but I was too young and unsure of myself to argue effectively against it, or to find alternative ground. Many years later, I can say with more assurance that ethnography is nothing but journalism if it doesn’t deal with issues of reliability and replicability. Furthermore, if it truly IS the study of humanity from early hominids to the present, then it has to *encompass* the other social sciences and much of humanities. The existence of anthropology departments is an accident of academic history, set in stone by academics fiercely defending their turf and tenured positions. I think that there’s a place for the epistemological critique of anthropology and the other social sciences, but it’s in the philosophy department.

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Hi Akanfe,
      Thank you for stopping by. There’s a lot in your comment, but I would just note that the existence of most academic disciplines and the divisions between them are indeed accidents of academic history. As Wallerstein outlines in The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century, the very division between the Humanities and Sciences was barely existent before mid-eighteenth century, and the tri-modal division of Humanities-Social Sciences-Natural Sciences is even more recent. For all of its issues, anthropology’s potential is to precisely encompass the kind of holism that these fierce academic divisions attempt to set in stone.

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