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RS26 - Is Anthropology Still a Science?

Release date: January 16, 2011

In a recent article in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade reported that the American Anthropological Association had decided “to strip the word ‘science’ from a statement of its long-range plan.” Is this just a reflection of the long standing division between physical and cultural anthropology or is there more here? The revised statement says that “the purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects,” a wording that opens the possibility for cultural anthropologists to engage in public advocacy on behalf of cultures they are studying. So, what kind of discipline is  anthropology, after all? And, more broadly, should scientists cross the line from research into public advocacy?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "Stories of Your Life: and Others"
              "... pure idea porn ..."

Massimo's pick: The New York Times' "There Goes the Sun"

Reader Comments (7)

This was a nice job. As an anthropologist (an archaeologist kind of anthropologist) , I have to admit I steeled myself before listening to this one--I was sure I was in for a post-modernists vs. scientists parody. I thought the reaction to the proposed AAA changes was ridiculous, and the NYT article a failure of journalism. The AAA statement simply acknowledges that anthropology isn't all science and flags a shift from P.R. ("advance anthropology as the science") to public education ("advance public understanding of humankind"). No matter how I try, I have a hard time getting a call to public advocacy out of the new statement. That said, using this tempest-in-a-teapot as a springboard to discussion of more interesting topics (e.g., science and advocacy, what counts as valid knowledge, the politics of science, social science as science) is a good use of it.

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarkW

I think that one of the problems with the question in the first place is that anthropology is really a myriad of loosley connected disciplins. As mentioned in the episode, in some places archeology, cultural anthropology and biological anthropology are separate academic departments. With the increase interdisciplinary work the divergence just increases. Even the gold standard of doing a field work in some remote tribe, which was what united anthropologists isn't true anymore.

January 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGil

Great podcast, except Massimo took Douglas Adam's invention of the Babelfish to prove the opposite of what Adams did with it. Far from proving the existence of God, the Babel fish caused God to "vanish in a puff of logical inconsistency". I like that conclusion much better than Massimo's :)

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterufo

ufo -- Actually, both are true! The Babel fish proved the existence of God, which then caused God to vanish. Because "With proof there can be no faith, and without faith, I am nothing!"

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

@MarkW -- Yes, fair point. The debate sparked by the AAA changes is more of the real target of analysis than the changes themselves.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

Sorry Julia, your examples about linguistics were awful. The question "when did culture X developed language" is a nonsensical question. And questions about how related langauges are ARE scientific question studied with scientific methods.

Seems like Anthropology will split into two separate disciplines. Social/Cultural Anthropology will mover towards Sociology. Biological/Physical Anthropology will move towards Archaeology.
February 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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