Anthropologists Seek a More Nuanced Place for Science

November 17, 2011

A year ago a very public controversy over the proper role of science in anthropology played out on blogs and in the news media, only to be patched over by the American Anthropological Association a few weeks later. On Thursday, during a session at the association's annual meeting, which is being held here, several anthropologists tried to find common ground by defining a more nuanced place in their discipline for science.

Thursday's session was billed as a post mortem on last year's dispute over the removal of the word "science" from the mission statement in the association's long-range plan. At the time, the removal stoked fears among some anthropologists who focus on biological causes and effects of human behavior that their work was being devalued by their colleagues who emphasize the role of culture. The association later sought to soothe those fears by affirming the place of science in the discipline.

Many anthropologists worried that the public skirmish would hamper their ability to get grants for research, dampen enthusiasm for their field, or lead to an exodus of scientifically minded anthropologists. The latter two fears have not been realized, said Virginia R. Dominguez, president of the association and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"I'd like to think that anthropology matters to all of us," Ms. Dominguez said. "We've got numerical evidence that there is something that keeps us together."

About 6,300 attendees are at this year's meeting, making this the second consecutive year that attendance has set a record.

While membership in the association has grown, anthropology's appearances in the popular press lately have not been for happy reasons. Gov. Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, recently made headlines when he said it was not in the state's vital interests to have more anthropologists. (It was later revealed that his daughter earned a degree in that field.)

Last year's squabble, which was portrayed in some news outlets as a threat to the future of the field, did not help matters, many anthropologists have said. Things were not much better within academe, said some panelists and audience members. Departments have been closed or merged and resources have dwindled, and some anthropologists turned on each other, as happened last year.

"To me, this is an ecological problem," said Karen B. Strier, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "People get along when resources are plentiful."

Defining the Role of Science

A larger debate that emerged Thursday was not whether anthropology valued science, but when and how scientific methods are best deployed. A narrative that has run through much of the debate, and continued Thursday, is that cultural anthropology is ascendant in the discipline, with its emphasis on in-person fieldwork and participant observation of everyday life for extended periods of time.

Such a dichotomy is false, said Daniel A. Segal, a professor at Pitzer College. But he said it is also true that scientific methods and approaches are applied where they do not always make sense. A faction in the discipline wants to "regulate what counts as science," he said, and that group is not doing anthropology or science any favors because they are "hyper-defenders and false friends of science."

But accusing those who took umbrage last year of being overly defensive did not sit well with several people in the audience.

"This is not a delusion," said John Hawks, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He also took issue with the argument, expressed by Mr. Segal, that the changes in the planning document were ultimately not important and that the conflict was being stoked by journalists.

"Words don't get inserted and deleted into text files without some agency," Mr. Hawks said. "I'd like to get away from, 'It's all the crashers and wreckers who are making this look bad for us.'"

And, in an age when scientific inquiry has perhaps never been more important, or more subject to politicization, Mr. Hawks said he found it "mind-numbingly incomprehensible" that the association would appear to give serious weight to the position that science doesn't matter.

It made far more sense, said several speakers, for cultural approaches to the discipline to coexistco-exist with more-scientific ones.

Besides, science has not always helped itself, said Jonathan Marks, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in biological anthropology, which is one of what he called the most "science-y" of the subdisciplines.

In the past, some anthropologists have used scientific terminology to justify their prejudices, like seeking to show that criminals have a different physiology, or that white humans evolved from primates hundreds of years before black people did, he said. "There's an awful lot that's not just rubbish, but evil rubbish."

Perils of Popularity

Another version of the debate over science played out beyond that session. Mr. Marks took issue with the granting of an award to Helen E. Fisher, who was being honored by the association for raising public awareness of the discipline.

Ms. Fisher, who is a biological anthropologist and a visiting research professor at Rutgers University, has appeared widely on television and radio, and in print media as well. She has written five books for popular audiences on human sexuality, gender differences in the brain, and the chemistry of romantic love. She is also chief scientific adviser to Chemistry.com, the Internet dating site.

Mr. Marks wrote to the association to object to Ms. Fisher's being recognized with the Anthropology in Media Award. He characterized her work as overly deterministic and "pseudo-scientific quackery."

Ms. Fisher said she was not surprised at the response. But, she added, Mr. Marks seemed to have read her quotes in the mainstream press instead of looking at her scholarly work in publications like Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and the Journal of Neurophysiology.

"There's a long history in anthropology of not liking people like me," she told The Chronicle. "They don't understand we're doing solid science."

"I've known forever that people hate me in my own tribe," she continued. The award suggests, she added, that her colleagues have come to accept her. "But, clearly, some haven't."

At the award ceremony, Ms. Fisher sounded a gracious note. She said she is not called by news-media outlets 20 times each week because journalists want to speak to her particularly.

"What they're looking for," she said, "is the deep, solid anthropological perspective, the anthropological way of seeing."