Is Anthropology a Science?

Today another professor was chatting with me and said that cultural anthropology is not a science. As I normally do when I hear this, I casually replied, “sure it is.”  And then again when it was challenged. And again. The convo continued for a bit but moved on….. until…. 7 hours later I get an email with only a link: “Settling the Debate: Is Anthropology a Science?”  Aside from being an overly simplistic discussion of the AAA’s removal of science from the long term plan, I though it missed some good points that bounce around my head.  So I typed some quick thoughts and sent a reply.

It’s an overly simplistic piece and I don’t agree with the main argument: “It occurs to me that this debate centers on whether as anthropologists, our focus should be on human culture or on human behavior.”  That’s just silly.  But I do agree with “If being a scientist means I cannot include oral history in my investigations, or I must refuse to consider the cultural sensibilities of a particular group, I’m against it.” In my view, science does not come from the type of data, but from the method.

Some anthros are more humanistic in their approach, some are more scientific, and most blend these perspectives in the search for empirical understanding. But to say that by using feminist theory, political economy, or any humanistic theory to enhance science means that scientific research is not being conducted is just silly reductionism that takes the discipline nowhere.

If we are indeed a discipline that values transdisciplinary approaches to understanding the world around us we need to stop using arbitrary, reactionary, and often binary statements like “science or not science” or “qualitative and quantitative” and instead focus on how incorporating humanistic or scientific approaches can inform the other perspective in the pursuit of knowledge.

As an aside, conducting true transdisciplinary research (vs. disciplinary or interdisciplinary, for example) is incredibly difficult and requires respect for different fields, respect for different methods, different interpretations, and different evidences…. all of which takes time. This is a challenge, I might guess, because universities ask us to narrowly define our areas of expertise. So my thought is this: before we can start working on big transdisciplinary research projects we have to start with really small ones so we can form those relationships and foster respect for different knowledges. Eventually, I might hope, we won’t jump and say “you are/not a scientist” but “how would you approach this question with me, and why would you do it the way you do?”


ps – I’m watching Master and Commander for what has to be the 20th time. It’s terribly [sic], I know, but I dig it. Do you have any favorite sailing/navy/nautical movies?

But hey, I like discussing this topic so I thought I would open it up.  What do you think (and not about my movie choices)? Maybe the WWU Anthropology Club could turn this into a discussion series? Hint hint.

Is Anthropology a Science?