Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What is a generous interpretation of the AAA mission statement change?

Like many science-oriented anthropologists, I was surprised, dismayed, even a little hurt by the news yesterday that the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association has struck the word "science" fully from its mission statement. Many people have already commented on the implications of this change, positively and negatively (links below). The negative comments relate to the perceived erasure of science and science-oriented anthropologists, the emphasis on public understanding and activism over scholarship, and criticism of becoming a field so interpretative as to no longer produce its own knowledge. Positive comments include promoting indigenous knowledge and keeping Western ways of thinking from having the most prized position in our theoretical toolbox. The comment threads at some sites have been volatile, with charges lobbed from both sides of the debate.

Criticisms of the mission statement changes

On my end, I do agree with the two largest criticisms of the mission statement change: a scholarly professional association's mission should be scholarly, and completely deleting the word science is not the right way to acknowledge the importance of respecting multiple ways of knowing. For the first, a scholarly professional association's mission should be to advance knowledge and research, because that is the first step to advancing understanding among scholars, practicing anthropologists, and layfolk. It should be clear that I take outreach very seriously, given this blog and my Twitter account: I reach a minimum of five hundred people a day on Twitter (not counting retweets, which lead to hundreds more), and usually around sixty or so with the blog, with plans to increase my bloggy presence in the near future. Yet this aspect of my identity as an anthropologist is not possible without the research that I do: in fact, most of the outreach I do is directly informed by my research because one of my missions is to advance a more anthropological understanding of female reproductive physiology, particularly to young women.

For the second issue, I don't think privileging other ways of knowing above science, by deleting it, is the way to go. I am a scientist, and yet my work is informed by feminist theory, and by an acknowledgement of the ways in which sexism has biased medical research on the female body. So I am often very critical of the performance and process of science. But I am not critical of the scientific method, and in fact believe that a thorough education in it, and truly internalizing its principles, lead to better scholarly research across all disciplines. At the same time, there are many instances where other ways of knowing are equally, or more important. Understanding the cultural and historical context of a population, analyzing literature and works of art, these are just a few of the ways in which science is potentially less useful, or at least only one of many frameworks through which one can test questions.

A completely relativistic perspective, that acknowledges and accepts all ways of knowing as equally valid, is dangerous, and yet this is what blogger Dooglas Carl appears to like about the mission statement change. I appreciate that the idea behind this is to be culturally sensitive, to acknowledge colonial influences and, frankly, cultural and physical genocide of many human populations.

When should we privilege science over other ways of knowing?

However, we need to be mindful of the times that science is, in fact, the most relevant way of knowing for a particular problem. There is a strong anti-science movement in the US that has taken two forms (with some interesting overlap, which for brevity's sake I'll ignore for now): the first is a rejection of science on religious grounds (creationism being the most notable example), the second is a rejection of science out of suspicion of science's bias and priorities (most of the anti-vaccination movement, and alternative medicine, fall under this category). When we say science is just one way of knowing, equal among others, that makes it possible to privilege religion as a way of knowing about the origin of life, and to make the incorrect claim that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in our already diluted K-12 science curriculum, even though the scientific method pretty rigorously rejects creationism and supports evolution.

The second form of the anti-science movement comes from a good place -- an interest in being critical, of acknowledging bias, of trying not to dominate over multiple ways of knowing, and an interest in not allowing for hasty treatment of symptoms without a greater understanding of long-term implications. But this view is ultimately flawed. When anti-vaxxers or proponents of alternative medicine want to replace evidence-based medicine with non-evidence based, non-empirically tested therapies (or worse, therapies that have been soundly rejected by the scientific method), it is replacing critical thinking with woo. This is where Orac has noted some interesting parallels between the anthropology/ science debate and the evidence-based medicine/ complementary alternative medicine debate.

I think removing "science" from the mission of the American Anthropological Association leaves open the possibility of not discussing, creating and enforcing standards of evidence in our discipline. I think all anthropologists -- from those who are more humanistic to those who are social and life scientists -- have a lot to offer here. For instance, in my field I think there are two big theoretical conversations that need to happen, regarding the meaning of a biocultural perspective of anthropology, and anthropology's contribution to evolutionary medicine. Both of these issues are interdisciplinary, and I sometimes feel they lack theoretical depth because we are using these terms without thinking about them. Regarding evolutionary medicine, the Evolution and Diseases of Modern Environments Symposium last year, where a number of us were locked in rooms based on our sub-discipline and forced to workshop what we thought were the biggest questions, and biggest obstacles, was a defining moment for me. What would it look like to have a roomful of diverse anthropologists workshopping the meaning of anthropology over several days? I would want to be in that room.

A generous interpretation of the mission statement changes

I believe, as the AAA Executive Board has representation for biological anthropologists and archaeologists, that the board underestimated the repercussions of deleting the word "science" from the mission statement. I don't believe they were removing the word as a way to make a statement, or at least, not the statement that science-oriented anthropologists have no place in the AAA. I think it makes sense to assume the most generous interpretation, that they wanted to both be careful not to privilege the scientific method above other ways of knowing, when those other ways have something important to offer, and that they wanted to better reflect their activist and outreach missions. These are both laudable goals.

I would even add that it is important to be critical of the production and process of science. I would actually like to see this as part of the mission of the AAA, even as we reaffirm the commitment of a large number of the constituency to the scientific method. Another way in which the scientific method contributes to the goals of the AAA is that it is used to acknowledge variation and diminish the importance of, often even reject, Western medical models of health.

I think this is an opportunity for us to think together about how we can be scholars of anthropology, and implement our research in a way that helps eliminate sexism, racism and other oppressions.

Links (apologies if I've missed any; feel free to add yours in the comments)

Anthropology in Practice: Anthropology Just Says No to Science?

AAPA Bandit: The Place of Science in Anthropology and Cross-field Anthropology: Opportunities and Obstacles

Evolution Beach: Whither Anthropology as a Science?

Fetishes I Don't Get: No Science, Please. We're Anthropologists.

Great Lakes Ethnohistorian: What is the real concern about #AAAFail?

Neuroanthropology: Anthropology, Science and Public Understanding

Recycled Minds: Views from the ANTHill: Anthropology as Science

Respectful Insolence: Removing science from anthropology: parallels with medicine

Savage Minds: Why anthropology is 'true' even if it is not 'science'


  1. Kate, I really like your emphasis on how you can mix science and feminism. That's such an important point, and one largely overlooked in the debates. It is possible to have these approaches work together!

    In some ways, I see the debate hinging around "standards of evidence," and assumptions about that, so I think that's a great point. Your point about science offering a guide here is important - testing ideas, being systematic, and so forth.

    It's only recently that I've become aware of how much I can draw on ethnography to do science better, for example, by thinking differently about how the brain works, which can then lead to different theories and hypotheses. That's a more direct integration.

    I've also seen ethnography as a check on the abstract knowledge that science often aims for. To take a health example, epidemiologists crunch their numbers and then write their in their conclusions something like, these factors may represent such-and-such happening in the local population. Qualitative work can get us beyond that by providing a much better (even systematic!) understanding of these factors on the ground, as well as potentially others that can be very difficult to operationalize (power relations, history, etc.)

    Anyway, really liked your post!

  2. Thanks so much, Daniel! My approach and my research wouldn't work without feminism and my background in women's studies, as long ago as it was (my undergraduate degree was joint Bio Anthro/Women's Studies). And I know this is true in different ways for lots of biological anthropologists and other science-oriented anthro folk.

    I also really appreciate your point about qualitative work. I don't think the scientific method requires quantitative analysis, I think it is simply an approach that helps us generate ideas, questions and hypotheses, but that doesn't mean the methods always have to be, say, measuring hormone concentrations. In fact, I am in the process of getting IRB approval to do some focus groups with young women about their experiences with hormonal contraceptives, and that work will be a combination of surveys and gathering narratives. I'm really looking forward to the ways in which these narratives will augment the kinds of quantitative data I am trying to gather on how contraceptives impact adolescent physiology!

    It's for reasons like those you and I just named that I don't want to abandon a four field approach to anthropology, even when I sometimes feel like some of us are speaking totally different languages.

    Thanks again for writing and sharing some of your thoughts.

  3. I especially like the point you make in the final paragraph of your "When should we privilege science" segment--that the tension between scientific and non-scientific approaches to the same questions at least has the potential to encourage careful reflection, as a discipline, about what each of many perspectives has to offer (or doesn't). To the degree that this tension makes us self-critical, it is an important and fundamental strength of anthropology as a discipline. So, perhaps it would be best to continue to explicitly recognize both science and other ways of knowing, so that exactly what these different ways of knowing have to offer continues to be explicitly contested.

  4. Yes, exactly Stephanie! Thanks for adding your thoughts here, I really appreciate them. I think being more explicit, as you say, might bring the tensions between different anthropologies into the public, and might lead to better collegiality and more careful reflection. When you read the posts and comment threads after the mission statement snafu, there are lots of folks on both "sides" of this debate who have horror stories of someone on the other side being dismissive or nasty towards their work. I know it's happened to me a number of times. If we are more up front I think we can challenge each other in ways that are more productive than to point and yell "sociobiologist" or "fluff-head!"

  5. Kate, thank you for a thoughtful piece. I really agree that science generates a standard that permits interdisciplinary consultation. And I worry that the EB is pulling us away from this sort of consultation with this statement. The people who have had the most profound on me as a professional have straddled disciplines, encouraging me to look for ways to strengthen my ethnographies and increase their application. Yours is a balanced discussion—thank you!

  6. Thanks Kate - I really appreciate being pointed to the Respectful Insolence post that explored the parallels between this debate and the issue of "Western" medicine v. complementary and alternative medicine. These discussions have really provided a useful frame for me to dissect what's troubling about a "all ways of knowing are equally valid" philosophy.

    As I mentioned on my blog, my training in cultural anthropology is embarrassingly minimal, as was the level of friendly interaction between the bio/arch folks on one side and the sociocultural folks on the other in my graduate program. It's no wonder these tensions erupt when the very institutions self-charged with training "four fields" anthropologists do very little to fulfill that mission. I attended several sessions at AAA that were outside of my realm but they gave me so much to think about in relation to my work. That pushing of boundaries is where inspiration comes from - that's certainly been the case as I've explored the basic science and biomedical literatures as they pertains to my interests. Similarly, I'm excited about the new insights I'm gaining through what is at this point a cursory exploration of medical and cultural anthropology and ethnographies of birth practices. I was sort of humming with a sense of discovery after the AAA meeting and enthusiastically talking it up with my bio friends - the very people who dismiss AAA as being irrelevant - which made the new wording such a blow.

  7. Krystal and Julienne -- thanks for writing. Krystal, I do wish more people used the scientific method, simply as a way to order their thinking and test their ideas, even if ultimately they do not use it in their research. I think it's a great structuring tool and does give a common place to talk.

    Julienne, yes, I thought Orac's post was fantastic and identified exactly where I am uncomfortable with all ways of knowing having equal weight without being interrogated. I am hoping Dooglas Carl's post was more of a straw-person argument and that most people wouldn't want to just accept or believe in all opinions as a way to value the person or population with the opinion. But I just read a pretty astonishing piece called "Rigoberta's Revenge: on the Implosion of Anthropology" that makes me wonder.

    I want to be pushed, I want to interact with lots of different thinkers and theoretical frameworks. I find medical anthropology extremely useful and I use a medical anthro textbook as part of my evolutionary medicine course. I want to remain critical of the process and production of science. But yes, many people in bio dismiss AAA (full disclosure: I haven't gone to the meetings since 2007) and I wonder if it's because the rejection of bias in science often feels, to bio folks, like both a rejection of scientists and of the scientific method. The mission statement changes only strengthen that feeling, regardless of intent, which again, I'm pretty sure was to be more inclusive, not less.