The Chronicle Review

What if They Gave a Science War and Only One Side Came?

Ask the American Anthropological Association

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

January 09, 2011

In November the executive board of the American Anthropological Association, of which I am a member, met for one and a half days. In preparation for the meeting, we were expected to read a 250-page briefing book. About three pages of that 250-page book were taken up by what the meeting will now be remembered for: a revision of the association's statement on its long-range planning. We did not know it, but those three pages were to set off a short "science war" within anthropology. Now that tempers have died down, we can ask what the controversy shows about the force of the word "science" and about anthropology, a discipline that has always stood at the crossroads of science and the humanities.

Most of the 250 pages, and most of our time in the executive-board meeting, was given over to issues that many of us saw as more urgent than the long-range-planning statement: a detailed review of the association's budget in a time of national recession; a discussion of our publishing model in a context in which most of the association's journals operate at a loss and their content is increasingly available free via the Web; an analysis of our publishing partnership with Wiley-Blackwell; a briefing on the introduction of a multimillion-dollar computer program to facilitate the association's business; a conversation about recurrent issues in organizing the annual meeting and issues that had already arisen with regard to next year's meeting, in Montreal; a discussion of the search for a new editor of our flagship journal, American Anthropologist; a performance evaluation of the association's executive director and the staff he oversees; and a tricky discussion about whether, or how, to make available as an archival document a 10-year-old official report of the association's that had since been repudiated by the membership through a ballot.

At the end of the 12-hour meeting, in what seemed like routine business, we briefly discussed and approved two documents that had been revised by subcommittees of the executive board. (For the record, I was on neither one.) One was a statement called "What Is Anthropology?" It was intended to give an overview of our discipline to interested outsiders. The other was the AAA's statement on its long-range planning.

In view of the furor that has followed, it is important to note that the second sentence of the "What Is Anthropology?" statement, approved back-to-back with the long-range plan, reads as follows: "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." While the word "science" was front and center in that document, it was absent from the new long-range plan. That was a change from the former plan, which began, "The purposes of the association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archaeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists." In the process of making revisions, that sentence was replaced with, "The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research."

Within a few days, the executive board began receiving angry e-mails from self-identified scientific anthropologists who were irate about dropping the word "science" from the long-range plan. Some announced that they would be resigning from the association. Most had not seen the "What Is Anthropology?" statement, with its reference to science, and they were not mollified by protestations that science was implied by the new long-range plan's references to archaeology and biological anthropology. The word "science" had taken on a talismanic significance, and our critics wanted to see it in the long-range plan.

It was becoming clear, as a sympathetic colleague put it to me, that the executive board had "stepped in something it didn't mean to." The revisions had been intended to make the long-range plan more inclusive and to give an enlarged sense of the increasing body of research paradigms that anthropologists these days embrace. It had never occurred to the subcommittee rewriting the plan, or to the executive board, that the revised wording would be seen as excluding or attacking science.

The temperature of the debate rose when the news media began to report on it. Articles featured quotes from some anthropologists, speaking in the name of scientific objectivity, characterizing the process by which the new wording was adopted in ways that were often quite wide of the mark. A common theme was that the executive board had been overrun by postmodernist extremists on a vendetta against science. An article on the Web site Inside Higher Ed quoted an anthropology-department chair as saying that the change in wording reflected the power of "scholars who are actively hostile" to science. It also quoted a blog post on Psychology Today's site by Alice Dreger, a pundit and professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, who regularly comments on anthropology, attributing the new wording to "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing." Most bizarre was a posting: "No more science in our mission? Now the terrorists and Sarah Palin have both won. ... Welcome back to the middle ages."

By far the most inflammatory and inaccurate coverage was in The New York Times, by Nicholas Wade, a reporter who has also written a number of books popularizing evolutionary biology and anthropology. In one article, he traced the new wording of the long-range plan to "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." He, too, quoted an anthropology professor who saw behind the new language "the postmodernist critique of the authority of science" and denounced "so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with." (Yes, according to Wade's source, there are lemming anthropologists who want to do away with their own discipline.) In a follow-up article, Wade referred to a "longstanding cultural gap within the association between the evidence-based researchers, who include some social anthropologists, and those more interested in advocating for the rights of women or native peoples."

What is there to say about all this? First, to state the obvious, it is clear that the process of consultation between the executive board and some sections of the association did not work well. Unaware of concerns about the new wording, we did not discuss the excision of the word "science" when approving the document. Had we known the strength of feeling its removal would provoke, we surely would have retained it. As the AAA president, Virginia Dominguez, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made clear in a letter to association members in response to the controversy, and as the executive board further clarified in a subsequent press release, the wording of the long-range plan will be revised again, taking account of feedback from the membership. The word "science" will surely find its way back into our long-range plan.

Second, neither the public nor anthropology was well served by news-media accounts that presented the new wording of the long-range plan as the work of postmodernist extremists, or that mischaracterized anthropology as divided between those who adhere to the scientific method and those preoccupied with the politics of race and gender or with activist advocacy.

Far from being a cabal of postmodern insurgents, the executive board, which approved the long-range plan unanimously, included three archaeologists and three practicing anthropologists. (Practicing anthropologists, until recently known as applied anthropologists, use their training as the basis for social interventions, and tend to be oriented toward broadly predicting the outcomes of such interventions.) The supposed schism between archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and positivist cultural anthropologists on one side and radically relativist cultural anthropologists on the other turns out to be more complicated.

As for the alleged divide between "evidence based" and "activist" anthropologists, plenty of anthropologists who write critically about race and gender do so within a "scientific" framework, and many anthropologists who advocate for indigenous or underprivileged peoples claim science as the ground for their authority to speak. For example, those who speak up for indigenous peoples' being damaged by climate change do so on the basis of empirical studies of such peoples' ecological settings, and it would be bizarre to think that those anthropologists have any interest in undermining the science that allows us to understand climate change. Similarly, anthropologists concerned with race and gender often use scientific methods, broadly construed, to demonstrate inequities in income, access to housing, education, health care, and so on.

But perhaps the most serious misrepresentation in news-media coverage of this affair was the depiction of cultural anthropology as overrun by "postmodern fluff-heads" on a crusade against science. In the mid-1990s, when the "science wars" were at their height, and you had to be either for or against Foucault, there might have been some truth in such a characterization. Those were the years when it was fashionable to talk about "the social construction of scientific knowledge." As a sign of the times, the Stanford University anthropology department split into two departments, one of anthropological sciences and one of sociocultural anthropology.

But times have changed. The two Stanford departments have remarried; the French anthropologist Bruno Latour, high priest of the "social construction of science" school, has long since published an anguished article in Critical Inquiry—"Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern"—worrying about the tacit complicity between "postmodernist" social thought and oil companies seeking to deny the reality of climate change.

In my experience, younger cultural anthropologists tend to describe themselves as pragmatists, and they see the debates in the 1980s and 1990s about "writing culture" and the politics of knowledge, which were so formative for an older generation, as a part of the discipline's history they have assimilated and are moving beyond. While the self-identified scientific anthropologists were filling my inbox with angry messages about the hegemony of antiscientific postmodernists, many anthropologists who use French critical theory in their work also e-mailed me to ask if the word "science" could not be restored, given its importance to colleagues. It is important to note that throughout this whole episode of e-mails, blogs, and news-media coverage, not a single anthropologist whom I am aware of insisted that the word "science" should stay excised.

Let me close by observing two ironies. The first is that the scientific anthropologists seem, more than they might want to admit, to have internalized aspects of the postmodernist point of view. One of the essential insights in Foucault's work was that the words we use have the power to shape reality. Race and gender activists likewise attach great importance to language; hence all the energy they have put into contesting the use of exclusionary pronouns and racial epithets and critiquing mass-media representations of women and minorities. Discourse matters, they have taught us. In pitching their discipline into a fight over whether or not a particular word, "science," is used in a planning document, the scientific anthropologists seem to have accepted a core part of the postmodernist and activist sensibility—the preoccupation with representation and the formative power of words.

Second, at just the moment that scientific anthropologists were pressing the fight about the long-range plan, a little video went viral of Rep. Adrian Smith, Republican of Nebraska, inviting ordinary Americans to join him in hunting down grants in the National Science Foundation's budget that waste taxpayer money. By inviting citizens to circumvent and cancel the system of peer review that has anchored the NSF since its inception, Smith implicitly negated the regard for expertise that undergirds both scientific and humanistic knowledge. It is Smith and his cohort, not the residual influence of Foucault, that represent the real danger to scientific research. And I fear that Smith may be quite happy to use some of the recent misleading rhetoric about postmodernism in anthropology to further his cause.

In the end, after the word "science" is restored to the planning document, one can only hope that scientific and humanistic anthropologists can make common cause against the real danger to our fractious, untidy, and glorious discipline that the distinguished anthropologist Eric Wolf once aptly described as "the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences." E pluribus unum.

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University and a member of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association.