Is Anthropology a Science?

Politicized anthropologists gain ground against archaeologists and physical anthropologists after their chief American professional organization rewrites its mission statement.

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.

According to the AAA’s new long-range plan, anthropology is about “public understanding,” not “science.”

Some public understanding occurs no matter what, but the dispute seems to favor those who want anthropology to favor their political agendas.  These are the same postmodern folks who argue that anthropology always served a political agenda, so perhaps they are simply being more up-front about it.

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.

Anthropology is easily politicized because it deals with social structures, kinship, war, death and burial—everything to do with identity at various levels. And yes, anthropologists have often served larger, powerful interests. Think of Ruth Benedict researching The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, studying Japanese culture to benefit the American occupation.

But I still think that there is a place for “science” and objectivity as ideals, even while keeping one’s eyes open (“reflexivity”).

One thought on “Is Anthropology a Science?

  1. Well, I’m not all that certain what this means to the profession of anthropology. On its face, “public understanding” doesn’t seem all that bad. At the same time, public understanding, advanced or retarded, appears to drive few if any political or economic agendas.

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