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AAA opens up the kinds of inquiry in its Long Range Plans

I love being part of the anthropological community in that there are always very active debates and eruptions on the nature of the field. The current eruption surrounds the replacement of the term science with that of public understanding in the AAA's Long Term Plan. The debate brings up painful memories of the divorce at Stanford when I was a graduate student circa 1997-1999. The department split into the Anthropological Sciences and the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. They are back together again, but I here it is not a good marriage. But anyway, here is my response to the flurry of emails about the change on the Anthrodesign Yahoo Group listserv.

The Psychology Today "article" reminds me that sometimes blogging is not the equivalent of journalism. The blog post is misleading and grossly unfair. The NYTimes article provides a somewhat more measured view, but it still frames the change as a negative "deepening rift." By replacing the word "science" with the term "public understanding" in its long-range plan, the AAAs is expanding its mission such that it no longer mandates a single form of knowledge production (e.g. science) but rather a uniform intention in terms of the outcomes of research. This is not the same as "ditching" science. There is nothing in the statement that says scientific inquiry cannot take place. I still assume that scientific inquiry has something to contribute to public understanding and will continue to do so. What perhaps the shift is indicating, which is causing the consternation, is that scientific inquiry is no longer the only privileged mode of knowledge production in anthropology, in which the change reflects merely the reality of the world today. 

I am currently reading the book, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhawia Smith (Zed Books: 1999). It should be required reading for anyone interested in this discussion. The relevant points from the book in relationship to the AAA's decision are how positivism, as part of scientific research, is interested in the "measurement of things" and the procedures of validity and reliability to guarantee their measurement (Smith 1999: 42). Epistomologically and ontologically, Smith argues that these processes, as embedded in research regardless of the specific discipline, inflicts violence on indigenous peoples because it set up "rules of classification, rules of framing (representation), and rules of practice (evaluation)" in which indigenous societies have been brought into the Western system of knowledge as inferior (Smith 1999: 43).

She notes that anthropology is the most hated of disciplines among indigenous peoples because of its theft of indigenous knowledge, artifacts, even bodies. This is in spite of the relationship indigenous communities may have with individual anthropologists. The AAA has made great efforts to engage indigenous peoples as active participants, not just subjects, of anthropological inquiry. The establishment of the Association of Indigenous Anthropologists section in the AAA in 2007 has been a major step.

Again, in my view, this change is not about excluding scientific inquiry, as sometimes you need to measure things depending on the kinds of questions you are asking, but rather about leaving an opening in the kinds of inquiry that takes place in the field as long as it addresses the main goal to "...advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects." I belive this is a positive direction for the field.



Advancing public understanding is fine goal to add to a mission statement. I have as yet heard no arguments against inclusion, and mostly favourable impressions. However, it is not a suitable sole or even main goal for either a discipline or for a professional association, and that is the crux of the situation. This was, in fact, the subject of the resolution passed by the Society for Anthropological Sciences, not to reinsert the word science, but to come up with a statement that promoted the interests of the association and its members, as well as greater public understanding. Reinsertion of 'science' in the statement together with 'humanities', 'literature' and 'art' might be one way of doing this for some of the membership, but is not the only way. However, whatever is stated needs to have shape and meaning. 'Knowledge discipline' just doesn't cut it - I don't understand it - why should the public.

There is no need to advance knowledge to increase public understanding - there is more than enough knowledge from anthropology that the public does not understand to last a century or more. Indeed, there is nothing in the mission statement about advancing knowledge at all, using any of the unstated alternative methods to science. Advancing public understanding is simply not ambitious enough to be a principle goal, nor does it require any form of anthropology or anthropologists, although anthropologists might be able to participate in this process, whatever it might be. And substituting 'public understanding' for 'solving human problems' is not an equitable exchange.

Likewise taking an unsound argument by Smith based on a rather tenuous conception of what science is, and juxtaposing this against anthropologists being unliked, as if it is the scientific ones who are unliked rather than the unethical ones, does not advance the argument.

I do not think that the AAA committee that made these changes had any real intent to act against the interests of those in the Association that value science. But when it is nearly impossible to figure out what the revised statement is for, it does act against not only their interests, but the interests of all anthropologists, and the public.

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