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Isn’t anthropology a science?

Debate puts in check the fundaments of the subject

ISABEL FALLEIROSThe American Anthropological Association (AAA) has recently made a slight adjustment to the text of one of its main documents. Though small, this change caused a lot of repercussion, because “science” was the main word that was removed. For the layperson, the subject was published in an article in the New York Times on December 9, entitled: Is Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift. The “statement” referred to is the association’s long term plan of intention. Previously, it stated that the entity’s objective was to “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” Now it states that the “purposes of the association should be the promotion of the advance of public understanding of humanity in all its aspects.” In another two parts of the text the word ?science? was removed. It remains, however, in other important AAA documents, such as its statement of principles.

According to Nicholas Wade, the New York Times reporter, the decision was the outcome of longstanding tension between two approaches, one linked to those disciplines more often identified as having a scientific tradition, such as archeology and physical anthropology, the other focused on studies of race, ethnicity and gender, which “see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.” The AAA chair, Virginia Dominguez, from the University of Illinois, said to the newspaper that the word “science” was removed because the association’s governing board tried to include those anthropologists who do not regard their work as being part of the scientific field.

Days later, the AAA reacted officially to the published news, with a direct reference to the New York Times, saying the coverage “has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology.” The statement continues: “On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research”.

In this same statement, the AAA mentions part of a document approved at the same meeting that decided to change the text of the long-term plan. This document is called “What is anthropology?” and it says the following: “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. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.”

“Despite these clarifications, it is significant that the New York Times reacted as it did and that many people voiced their thoughts,” says Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, a professor of social anthropology from the National Museum/UFRJ and vice-chairman of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology (ABA). “Anthropology was constructed by means of a dialogue with cultural otherness, through a complex web of hypotheses, models and interpretations. It is merely an added movement of this constitutive tension that AAA should describe its task as ‘to advance public understanding of humankind’.” Duarte observes that the expressions introduced in the document use the verb to advance, which is related to the progress of knowledge, being “absolutely typical of the Enlightenment project and therefore scientific. Thus, there isn’t much to worry about,” he comments.

ISABEL FALLEIROSWithin the AAA, however, an alarm bell rang. Peter Peregrine, a professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and chair of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, which is affiliated to the AAA, sent an e-mail to all the association’s members asking that they voice their opinion for or against the change in the document’s wording, which, in his view, might come to undermine the bases of American anthropology. Peregrine ascribed the changes to two influences on the subject. One concerned the “critical anthropologists,” those who view anthropological science as a tool of colonialism. The other concerned “post-modern” thinking, which, according to Peregrine, challenges the authority of science and for this reason is equivalent to creationism, in that it “that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought.”

However, for the time being, nothing points toward a trend to set aside consensual procedures. “The debate regarding the methods, the fieldwork, the concepts, etc. is conducted within the scientific field. Nobody has proposed, so far, that anthropology should leave this field,” says Paula Montero, from the University of São Paulo, who is the deputy-coordinator of the office of the scientific director of FAPESP. “The American debate consists of proposing that anthropology should be linked to policy, which is entirely different.” Regarding the terms of the new statement, which talk about “to advance public understanding of humankind” she reacts as follows: “Public understanding occurs through conflict and debate. It isn’t anthropology that can do this, because it’s not a religion. However, there are a number of corners of the anthropological field that ascribe themselves to the advocacy of truth and to missions of salvation.”

“The debate is on the wrong track when it leads to ideological postures or reduces anthropology to humanitarian activities,”  the professor adds. Of course, even science has an ethical basis. Nevertheless, it is part of the scientific work to make it explicit and to control its effects upon results. “Research on human groups is indefectibly linked to the dignity of these groups,” adds the anthropologist. “Ethical fundaments are invariably present. There is no health discipline, for example, that does not imply the protection of human life. This does not eliminate its scientific nature.”

The “mission of salvation” is an objective that, in the discussion under way in the United States, is ascribed principally to the “critical anthropologists.” According to Duarte, they form an “exclusively American line of thinking that has an explicit militant component.” For the anthropologist, this group adopts “a protestant vision of redeeming the human condition in the world. It denounces the supposedly neutral character of science, but this does not mean that it does not comply with scientific protocols.”

According to Miriam Pillar Grossi, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, the former chair of ABA, who did her post-doctoral studies at the University of California in Berkeley, the entire discussion is heavily tied to the specific characteristics of American anthropology. “It makes sense in the United States because there, anthropological education takes place across what they refer to as the four fields: the cultural one, the archeological one, the physical and biological one and the linguistic one,” she says. In Brazil, anthropology has always been cultural and there has never been any tension, such as that identified by the New York Times in the United States, between the faction to which the archeologists belong and that which includes the ethnologists.

Miriam Pillar Grossi also comments that in Brazil, the discussion about whether or not anthropology is a science “does not apply” for another important reason: almost all anthropology here is conducted by universities. It is only recently that the work of anthropologists in other contexts, such as in NGOs, became significant. “The current modus operandi of anthropological practice is strongly acknowledged by the research institutes. Anthropology is legitimized and recognized in this dialogue with other fields and is regarded as being a science, just as much as mathematics, among other reasons because the debate about subjectivity is also entering these fields that had previously regarded science in an entirely positivistic manner.”

ISABEL FALLEIROSAccording to the New York Times, the divide reflected in the recent AAA changes reached a critical point with the publication, slightly over 10 years ago, of the book Darkness in Eldorado, by the journalist Patrick Tierney (in Brazil, the Ediouro publishing house released this in 2002 under the name Trevas no Eldorado). The accusations voiced by Tierney against the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon were considered by part of the AAA members as the damaging consequences of a “scientific” notion of anthropology. The procedures of this alleged line of anthropology were claimed to be intrinsically bound to a colonialist and ethnocentric posture, leading to the mistreatment of native peoples.

“The debate that accuses anthropology of being a colonization tool dates back to the 1960’s and is tied to political movement for the de-colonization of Africa and Asia,” says Paula Montero. “Academic anthropology had to rethink its assumptions and theories: the functionalist models lost their explanatory capabilities and the circumstances surrounding field research and ethnographic writing changed profoundly. However, anthropology did this in order to continue to be a science. The criticism of Chagnon in this context (regardless of whether he did or did not do what they said he did) is perforce associated with science and domination. Therefore, the argument here is to put an end to science.

In the book Tierney accuses Chagnon, among other things, of having caused a measles outbreak among the Ianomani Indians and of having induced members of the tribe to stage rituals. Chagnon’s studies among the Ianomani of Brazil and Venezuela, described in the book The fierce people, from 1964, had been regarded as classic until then. “I disagree with the interpretation that Chagnon’s activities among the Ianomani represent classical anthropology, regarded as “scientific” by the American critics,” says Miriam Pillar Grossi. “The anthropology classics remain up-to-date to this day. It’s not an issue of outdated anthropology, but of ethics.” Duarte adds: “Anthropologists from any line, scientifically inclined or otherwise, can engage in poor ethical conduct.”

As for the “post-modern” ones, they are what in Brazil is usually referred to as the “post-structuralist inclination of the human sciences.” “She discusses the classic paradigm of [Bronislaw] Malinowski [Polish anthropologist,1884-1942], which assumes a certain realism in anthropological description,” says Paula Montero. “The new paradigm favors the discursive nature of reality.” “In the United States, it looked like a highly novel view and it caused a range of criticism of the traditional practice,” says Miriam Pillar Grossi. “In Brazil, the questioning of the thought patterns of others has already been at play for a long time.”

If one disregards the contingency issues, an epistemological discussion remains. It has quite old roots and calls for a more in-depth debate of the very concepts that are at play, in addition to historical prospection. “Putting into question anthropology’s status as a science assumes that one knows, without a shadow of a doubt, what science is and what are the criteria for a practice to aspire to science status,” says Marcio Goldman, from the National Museum/UFRJ. “However, the discrepancies among the different conceptions of science are as major as the discrepancies among the different conceptions of anthropology.”

Paula Montero argues against Goldman. “Of course there’s a debate about anthropology’s methods and approaches, but I totally disagree that one doesn’t know what science is and what the criteria are. If there were no consensus regarding this, there’d be no mature academic disciplinary field with a broad understanding about the rules whereby it operates. The author is confusing discrepancies of approach with being or not being a science. Well, discrepancies and argument are part of the field of science.”