lemming watch

Check out these edits to the mission statement proposed by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (HT: SS). Goodbye “science”! And, goodbye the use of anthropology “to solve human problems.” In its place: a whole lot of “understanding.”

Says a former NSF program officer for anthropology: “another step in the conversion of Anthropology from a social science into an esoteric branch of journalism.” (see blog here)

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

12 thoughts on “lemming watch”

  1. I don’t understand what “the public understanding of human kind” means. Do they mean an understanding that one attempts to make publicly accessible? Or is anthropology now the study of conventional wisdom? The wording is terrible, seems to imply the latter, and is thereby very worrying.

    As for “science” — I think you and I might differ and how vehemently we object to sociology (lemmings) not being a “science.” I guess it depends on what you mean. My aim in life is not to be like a natural scientist, because I think the phenomena we deal with are often quite unlike the phenomena they deal with. So in that sense, saying that sociology isn’t really a science seems to acknowledge the obvious to me.

    But I’d be outraged if we stopped being empirical. That’s a line in the sand I would draw. So maybe we basically agree.

    As for the piece in psychology today: I find the smugness a little hard to stomach. For a “scientific” approach, it’s actually incredibly sloppy, trite, and self-importantly smug.


    1. Yeah, I’m not endorsing the Psych Today post, for the smugness reasons you mention. I thought the quote was compelling because it came from someone who had been responsible for getting funding for anthro research from NSF, which has, you know, that S in the middle. My inclination is to think that if work approaches its subject matter in a way that actively disavows a scientific attitude toward their materials, that work should not be eligible for NSF funding. (Unless it is science studies.)

      I do think this move is emblematic of the shrinking of anthropology away from being intellectually relevant, as much for the removal of the part in the statement about “solving human problems” as the removal of “science.” They can insert the word “public” into the statement all they want, but they also need to give the public a reason to pay attention.


      1. I think we’re basically in agreement. From a distance I have sensed that Anthropology has increasingly become a theoretical discipline, and in many instances, given up on fieldwork. That willful abandonment of the empirical world is what worries me the most about this. “Science”? I don’t care. But how you can understand human kind without empirical work is beyond me. That’s why I don’t do philosophy.

        PS: I have a guess: “human kind” instead of “humanity” because of the presumed gendered quality of “huMANity”.


  2. It all seems a bit like a tempest in a teapot – how much does it really matter what the mission statement of the AAA is? There remain LOTS of anthropologists who do natural-science-ish work (e.g., archaeology, evolutionary anthro, etc.), and modes of knowledge are contested there, as they are (and should be more) in sociology. I think the greater fragmentation of anthropology as compared to sociology means: (a) the scientists in anthro don’t listen to the theorists as much; and (b) the theorists are more “extreme” in their theoretical commitments than in sociology, where theorists and empiricists talk to one another more, which keeps the theorists less radical and the empiricists more theoretical. (That’s just my pet theory.)


  3. “the theorists are more “extreme” in their theoretical commitments than in sociology, where theorists and empiricists talk to one another more…”

    They do?



      1. My experience after attending two sociology higher education institution is this: theorists and empiricists keep pretty much to themselves. In the first school I went to, being a theorist was cooler than being an empiricist, and in the other one it was the other way around. Dialogue between the two camps was nil.


  4. As a lurking reader, and anthropologist, I don’t think the analysis about the problem being a gulf between theory and empiricists is correct. The gulf is more between groups with both different theoretical and empirical practices. While there is some shared theory, it is often limited.

    To give you a taste for the divide: I believe many, perhaps even most, anthropologists would not classify their work as “empirical”. That particular term is often interpreted as too much a part of a legacy of overly reductionist technocrats. There is great pride among some of their ability to develop ways of knowing without the baggage of science.
    However, I think the work of many of these critics of empiricism probably do work which would fit your definition of empirical.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.