Posted by: Johan Normark | December 10, 2010

Anthropology and science

For the past weeks or so my Mayanist colleagues of US descent have been upset by the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) decision to drop the word science from their long range plan. This decision has now reached New York Times as well. They write that “the decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.” The long-range plan has been “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” Now the purpose of AAA is to “advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

The decision to drop the word science is unfortunate and it is probably the result of it being associated with Western ideals and colonialism (at least according to postcolonial and postmodern anthropologists). This is disliked by many American anthropologists who focus on archaeology. I believe that this primarily is an American problem and perhaps in other countries where the archaeology is a sub discipline of anthropology. In Sweden, and Europe in general, archaeology is far more related to history and the humanities than to the social sciences. This difference, of course, has historical reasons since the American archaeologists primarily studied the “Other”, i.e. the Amerindian groups whereas Europeans studied their assumed historical ancestors.

In Sweden and Europe we have also a tension between “scientific” and “interpretative” archaeologists that mirrors the rift mentioned above. In my view, such a rift is unnecessary and simply mirrors dichotomized and arborescent thinking among both camps. I have absolutely no problem in combining palaeoclimatic data with studies of ethnicity. What mainly is needed is a return to ontological issues again. Cut down the hierarchical tree that separates the disciplines and use a flat ontology instead. And reintroduce science again. Erasing it is just contra productive in the long run.  


  1. Maybe they see it as a difference between “hard” versus “soft” sciences? Like physics versus psychology. Regardless, it’s too bad.

    • The anthropologists who disregard “science” probably do not just see it as an opposite between hard and soft sciences but either as a cultural/social construction or as a colonial practice that “overcodes” the indigenous accounts. I do understand and support that critique which my own writings on the 2012 circus testify (where I argue that 2012ers “colonize” the Maya). However, I still argue that even such critique is scientific. It is politically correct today to have such ideas but I’ll bet that future anthropologists will see this decision as just another reflection of the present era.

  2. “In my view, such a rift is unnecessary and simply mirrors dichotomized and arborescent thinking among both camps.”

    Exactly. To me, the whole rift is completely unnecessary. I never really understand why different “camps” feel the need to split off because…well…because some people look at humanity in different ways, from different perspectives? I don’t get it. I see no reason why different perspectives cannot be used side by side.

    • Anthropology is about studying different perspectives among humans in the first case. I simply see this decision as the end result of the “linguistic turn” in social sciences where everything is about discourse and social constructionism. Science is just another social construction, just like Maya cosmology, and creationism. This field has fallen into a social essentialism dominated by language. What is missed here is that anthropology itself and this linguistic turn are based in a Western discourse that also has affected indigenous groups.You cannot really take a position outside the field you criticize, the critique will always be a negative version of what you criticize. I believe one can easily combine genetic research, osteology, gender practices, postcolonial critique, etc. in the same kind of research. The main change that is needed, as I wrote above, is to find an ontology that allows for such different perspectives. The neorealist and speculative realist trends that I embrace make this possible. But then one need to focus on philosophical matters (and usually this is the “Western philosophical tradition” which this negative camp probably will reject).

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