Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened

Ps.xhwsxbbt.170x170-75The American Anthropological Association at its annual meeting dropped the word “science” from its long-range plan. Daniel Lende, over at Neuroanthropology, discusses the change:

Nicholas Wade in the NY Times article Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift has brought the controversy over the American Anthropological Association dropping “science” from its long-range plan back into the public eye.

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.

I already covered the controversy in my post Anthropology, Science and Public Understanding, where I also provide an up-to-date list of reactions to the controversy – including reactions to Wade’s NYT article. So look there for my points about the changes in the AAA long-range plan and the different takes anthropologists have had. Because today I want to provide a more accurate recounting of the controversy than Wade presents, and also defend anthropology.

Why Did the Controversy Explode? An Internal Process Gone Public

Nicholas Wade paints the explosion in light of the “bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist.”

This is not an apt reading of what actually happened. The issues that prompted this debate are both more mundane and more central to the present state of anthropology than some “tribal warfare” trope. Indeed, in the more than 50 reactions to the AAA decision, the el Dorado controversy has been a minor sidenote, when mentioned at all.

The blow-up over the dropping of “science” began as a two-step process: (1) a new document created through an internal process became public, and (2) initial reactions on the Internet fueled a broader controversy through polarizing takes on the meaning of that document.

Also see this statement from the AAA.

[H/t: Linta Varghese]