Anthropology - science & politics

The Seattle Times has a piece titled Anthropology: the great divide. Here's the essential bit:

At the extremes, one school of thought insinuates dark, possibly racist intentions of scientists under sway of their Eurocentric biases, linear thinking and arrogance in their dealings with modern tribes. The other school is dismissive of the slaves to political correctness and their warm and fuzzy research -- or, as one physical anthropologist smirked to another: "What do you think? Are cultural anthropologists scientists?"
On one side were cultural and social anthropologists, generally humanists interested in interpreting living cultures. On the other side were anthropologists who used more traditional scientific methods to study the role of human evolution in culture.

Myself, I can usually talk to physical (biological) anthropologists and make myself understood. Many of these people simply consider themselves biologists who just happen to study humans. Since the focus of this blog tends toward human genetics obviously many of the papers have biological anthropologists on their author lists, and I often link to John Hawks, a physical anthropologist.

On the other hand many (though not all) from a cultural anthropological perspective are almost unintelligible; and I really don't know where they get the "facts" that they repeat to me on occasion. There is no intersection between the discourses. I do on occasion read cultural anthropology which takes a fine-granted and critical perspective on a particular people and decomposes elements from a million perspectives as well as attempting to correct for their own biases. Though the prose is often tortured with superfluous jargon (in my opinion) there is value in this sort of interpretation. For me the problem is that there is no positive analysis and organization of the material to precede the critique, the critique is all that exists. This is like having a finely honed DNA repair mechanism, but no DNA!

Additionally, I think there is an element of self-contradiction in the stance of many cultural anthropologists who would eschew the label 'scientist.' On the one hand they accept multiple truths and come close to asserting the unintelligibility of alternative discourses and cultural frames, but they place themselves in the god-like position of interpreting these other cultures from their own frame. I feel for all their the premises which they promote in regards to the distinctiveness of various cultures, their assertions about the opaqueness of communication across the chasm of perspective undermines any attempts they are making to translate and comprehend another culture. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

In contrast, taking a less empathetic but more scientific perspective which at least strives for objectivity offers the hope that general abstract principles can emerge. In other words, models through which we an sift the mountain of data. Not respecting as sacred or valuable in and of itself a cultural tradition may lack sensitivity, but at least it allows one to gather data, proceed with analysis and increase the body of knowledge, without the crushing overhead of recursive critique. This is why I lean toward the naturalistic tradition in cultural anthropology, which is itself a minority subculture. The aims are grand and it is quite likely that the tools are not up to the task, but though the works of anthropologists in this tradition are filled with technical terms from many disciplines (cognitive science & evolutionary biology in particular), looking up these terms actually adds value in terms of comprehending what they are saying, instead of adding another layer of inscrutability.

Of course you may think I'm being quite hard on the standard American cultural anthropologist or someone trained in that tradition. Sure, I am, but mostly because I wish cultural anthropologists would just become literary or cultural critics, because that is what their tools are appropriate for. Cultural anthropologists who I have encountered seem stuck in a stance of agnosticism on all generalizations or factual assertions about particular cultures, simultaneous with a host of assertions which they themselves make, generally colored by their own political views. This tiresome self-contradictory dance is neither enlightening nor entertaining.

Note: Some of the stereotypes of cultural anthropologist above are much more applicable toward the American academic context from what I gather.


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Even literary criticism would benefit from quantitative and scientific perspectives. The tools we have are pretty crude right now, but there is good work out there from Miller, Dissananayake, Simonton, Murray, Galenson etc. And, of course, there isn't much better writing on the arts in the past 20 years than Steven Pinker's chapter in The Blank Slate.

Indeed, one such study I've wanted to do was a neurobiological analysis of the works of Dostoevsky, in regards to his epilepsy and approach to religion. I tend to think "The Idiot" is an excellent work to approach from that angle.

By Spike Gomes (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

one such study I've wanted to do was a neurobiological analysis of the works of Dostoevsky

Well then, it seems you have a bit of a problem, as Dostoevsky's works have neither a biology nor a neurology.

Studying Dostoevsky's neurobiology, or what historical evidence remains of it, and speculating as to how it influenced his works, might be very fruitful.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink


Ouch, thank you, that's what I actually meant. If I could edit it I'd shove the word "perspective" in there, though the image of me attaching electrodes to a copy of The Brothers Karamazov or pilfering the grave of old Fyodor for his skull does have a certain demented charm to it. I blame it on posting before consuming the days ration of caffiene.

By Spike Gomes (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

It's not true that the typical cultural anthropologist in North America is a humanist, if that term has any meaning. They're just a bunch of academic social-climbers and hangers-on, exactly like the typical crit theory and lit crit people you mention. We're not talking Kant or T.S. Eliot here. Posing the divide as the difference between scientists vs. humanists is their way of making themselves seem relevant to anyone rather than no one.

This is another instance of how unstable excellence in the arts & humanities is, while excellence in the sciences is stable. Wacko ideas in science are corrected, improved on, or discarded before too long, and we learn more and more despite the morons. But when some humanists mutate into the prankster type, they easily invade and destroy the population of thoughtful humanists, and the whole system crashes catastrophically. Look how soon it took the entirety of Western artistic creation and criticism to descend into meaninglessness -- about 2 to 3 generations at most.

You see that also when the Mongols destroyed Central Asian culture, especially Persia -- up to the present-day, they've recovered much more in the pure and applied sciences than in the arts and humanities.

It's ironic, since the popular view is that scientists are more conservative and artists more experimental. That may be true for the personalities of individuals, but the "personalities" of the whole system are the opposite. Which times and places produced the greatest works of art? The ones where manners and respect for (if not slavish devotion to) convention were accepted. That's why France has dominated so much of the arts and humanities.

Even those of us trained in American cultural anthropology are serious about anthropology being a comprehensive, integrated, scientific understanding of humans--which is why we tend to resist Stanford-style solutions to the humanity/science, idiography/nomothetism, interpretation/explanation dichotomy that is at the core of the discipline.

Rather than slink off to cultural studies' hall of mirrors, some of us try to stay engaged with the Naturwissenschaftliche side of the discipline. We pay attention to pertinent developments in psychology, paleontology, ecology, and genetics to be able to indicate to our students exactly how feedback between environment, genes, and culture makes us human--even if we don't consider culture a simple reflex of genes or neurons in action. We try to develop more robust, sophisticated toolkits to generate the best data possible (see any of Russ Bernard's methods handbooks for evidence of just how scientific even participant-observation can be), though our field-based research is necessarily different from the lab sciences to which you and your readers often have allegiances. And we plague ourselves with the kinds of self-critical questions (What are we doing? How can we do better? Where do the data lead?) that are designed to be self-correcting in the best scientific sense.

But even the most hard-science anthropologists can't escape one critical epistemological and ethical complication: we are studying our own kind. We are studying creatures, in their own element and often on their own terms, who are studying us right back, whose attempts to understand us directly affect our attempts to understand them.

Do as detailed a naturalistic study of humans as you can manage...say, the cultural ecology of molecular geneticists. Observe their behavior, question them, form hypotheses that you can test, propose explanations for their behavior, compare them to other human groups. If you don't deal with meaning (e.g., what genes mean to your subjects, what you as researcher mean to your subjects, what "science" means to both of you, and how those meanings guide everyone's behavior), can you say with any confidence that you have a solid explanation of your subjects?

Skepticism of anthropological humanism's excesses and eccentricities is totally appropriate, even salutary. There is a voluminous self-critical literature if you care to consult it. But to develop the hard-science subfields without engaging any of the interpretive approaches is to destroy the integrative potential of anthropological holism--and to betray the complexity of humankind.

Physical anthropology and cultural/social anthropology have very little to do with each other, in my opinion. Us Europeans look at the US departmental structure with incomprehension. Ancient hominids cannot be understood through participant observation of modern people.

I'm an archaeologist working mainly with the Dark Ages and the Viking Period. Past societies, like everything that has happened in the world, are of course open to scientific inquiry. But due to our organisational proximity to aesthetic disciplines such as lit-crit, our subject has been poisoned by a lot of muddled thinking and jargon that really has nothing to do with science. The worst strain of this taint is of course post-modernist hyper-relativism, which is thankfully out of fashion now.