A Footnote to the Anthropology Debate

As noted in my December 1 essay here, Rigoberta’s Revenge, the American Anthropological Association stuck a stick in a hornet’s nest with its recent decision to remove the word “science” from its long range planning document.
Stung by the resulting swarm of criticism, the AAA’s four officer’s have now issued a statement claiming the entire brouhaha is a tempest in a teapot, “amped up by blog headline editors” who have blown a simple editorial change out of all proportion. The critics, in short, simply didn’t understand. When the AAA’s Executive Board “specified, concretized, and enlarged its operational roadmap for investing the Association’s resources towards a sustainable future” (where is the academic prose police when you need it?), it had no intention of restructuring the epistemological foundations of the field.
In my essay I quoted “the amusement” of one the critics at what he called

the irony that a set of cultural anthropologists did not anticipate the power of naming and referencing a particular cultural construction. They did not recognize that the word “science” might be loaded, or come with particular associations? Then why go through the exercise of deleting it?

The AAA’s leaders seem to have taken at least that criticism seriously. “We believe,” their statement says,

that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings.

Excuse me for interjecting a term often associated with science, but the truth here still seems elusive. Assuming for the sake of argument that “the term ‘science'” is the symbol at issue, was its shaman-like power somehow ignored by the anthropologists on the Executive Board when they unceremoniously tossed it overboard? Or could these anthropologists possibly be contrasting symbols with reality (oops, another hegemonic, western, scientific term)? If so, then what they are saying is that the Executive Board’s critics, also anthropologists, leapt to the erroneous conclusion that a minor editorial decision — deleting what after all is only a word — was symbolic of an attack on science itself.
Perhaps the inability to get to the bottom of this intricate, highly charged tribal controversy reveals the limits of anthropology as a discipline, whether scientific or cultural.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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