Science Wars? Anthropologists Debate Whether Science Is Central to Their Discipline

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a deeply interesting feature up today about the stirrings of disciplinary controversy within the American Association of Anthropology.  No doubt this will raise once again a decades-old distracting debate over the so-called Science Wars.  (Read some of my thoughts on this perceived division and follow a link to a great resource on the topic.)  From the Chronicle article:


Is anthropology a science? Is it a coherent discipline at all?

Those questions are as old as the field itself. They were taken up by Franz Boas in a 1904 lecture and by Clifford Geertz in a 2002 essay.

This month those old questions have resurfaced in a familiar context: the structure and purpose of the American Anthropological Association. At the association's annual meeting, in New Orleans, its executive board adopted a long-range planning document that removes the word "science" at several points from the description of the association's mission. Where the old language had defined the association's purpose as advancing "the science of anthropology," the new document says that the association will advance "the public understanding of humankind."

Those might not sound like fighting words, but the new language has drawn sharp criticism from some scholars, most notably the leaders of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, an eight-year-old group that exists both as a section of the anthropology association and as an independent scholarly organization. The new document has been debated on a number of blogs this week, including at The Chronicle.

"The discipline needs a forum that can bring all of the subfields together," says Peter N. Peregrine, a professor of anthropology at Lawrence University and president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. But the AAA is failing to play that role, Mr. Peregrine believes, as its conferences and journals have become more heavily dominated by cultural anthropologists. Archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and linguistic anthropologists—in other words, the anthropologists who are more likely to identify themselves as scientists—have retreated, little by little, into their own specialized associations.

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