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Anthropology is Not Science

December 16, 2010

I took a course in anthropology when I was a college undergraduate. There were two things of note in this course. The first was that anthropology was very boring; so much so, that I hadn't given anthropology a second thought until reading about the American Anthropological Association in recent news. The other notable thing about the course was a book we were assigned to read. The book was "The Tiwi of North Australia."[1] If the purpose of that book was to reveal that the customs of some people are very strange, it wasn't necessary. I had learned that while growing up in a multi-cultural neighborhood. My assessment of anthropology was that it was just a lot of words strung together, much like a novel; and the topic had no relevance at all to my future profession or lifestyle. Anthropology certainly wasn't a science. How do I know? I'm a scientist.

It's not that books like "The Tiwi" aren't worthwhile in some respect. They're entertaining, just like a novel is entertaining. With a suitable change of venue and a change of some names, they could become screenplays for Star Trek. You can imagine the Enterprise visiting the planet, Lithos, where the crew encounters a Stone Age culture. Their customs seem strange to the humans, and there's probably some scene that degrades women. "Curious," notes Spock. Doctor McCoy argues that it isn't right to impose our values on this culture; in fact, the Prime Directive forbids it. There's a scene in which Captain Kirk is saved from a bear by the tribal chieftain, who scares the bear away rather than killing it. The chieftain gives a speech about how the bear can't be blamed for its actions. Nature made it a carnivore, so it isn't right to kill it for acting as nature intended. Kirk is suitably chastened, and he has something to think about while alone in his cabin after Yeoman Janice Rand has returned to her own cabin for the night.

Australian aborigine

An Australian aborigine
(possibly Tiwi).

Anthropology was in the news because of a recent controversy among members of the American Anthropological Association as to whether anthropology is a science. Apparently, the Association's governing board decided that anthropology isn't strictly a scientific discipline.[2-6] This upset some of the membership. After all, white coats still have a cachet of respectability in the public mind, Climategate notwithstanding.

The executive board of the American Anthropological Association announced at the recent annual meeting of the Association (New Orleans, November 20, 2010) that it had taken the word, "science," out of its long-range plan. The long-range plan was last revised quite a while ago, in 1983.[2] In one place, the long-range plan stated that the Association's mission was "to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects." This was revised to read "...to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects." The argument for doing this was for the Association to be more inclusive of non-scientists. In my mind, it's just an admission that there was not much science there in the first place. However, the Association has a "statement of purpose" that describes anthropology as a science, and that hasn't been changed. Some have ascribed the change in the wording of the long-range plan as a political act by groups within the Association that dismiss the authority of science, somewhat like an anthropological "creationist" movement. It makes me happy that I'm ensconced in my ivory tower out of canon range.

Alice Dreger, Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University, made this comment in Psychology Today's blog:[5]
"Given the history of the AAA in the last forty years, it is possible that no one in the AAA executive offices uses the word "science," no less practices it."
Dreeger was somewhat more vocal in an earlier blog,[6] where she wrote about "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing." These would be the anthropological "creationists." However, in that same blog she argued that there is science in some parts of anthropology, but scientists have been quitting the AAA for many years.


  1. Charles William Merton Hart, Arnold R. Pilling and Jane C. Goodale, "The Tiwi of North Australia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)," Cengage Learning; 3 Fac Sub edition (August 1987), 179 pages (via Amazon).
  2. Daniel Lende, "Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened," PLOS Blogs, December 10, 2010.
  3. Nicholas Wade, "Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift," New York Times, December 9, 2010.
  4. Daniel Lende, "What Is Anthropology? The AAA Statement," PLOS Blogs, December 11, 2010.
  5. Alice Dreger, "The Remains of the AAA - What is the American Anthropological Association thinking in purging science?" Psychology Today Blogs, December 1, 2010.
  6. Alice Dreger, "No Science, Please. We're Anthropologists - The American Anthropological Association officially moves to ditch science" Psychology Today Blogs, November 25, 2010.

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Linked Keywords: Anthropology; American Anthropological Association; Tiwi people; scientist; Star Trek; Enterprise; Stone Age; Spock; Doctor McCoy; Prime Directive; Captain Kirk; bear; tribal chieftain; nature; carnivore; Yeoman Janice Rand; Australian aborigine; white coat; Climategate; New Orleans; humankind; political; creationist; ivory tower; Alice Dreger; Clinical Medical; Humanities; Bioethics; Northwestern University; Psychology Today; The Tiwi of North Australia.