Moving Anthropology Forward?


Anthropologist Daniel Lende has a fantastic post up at the Neuroanthropology blog discussing the recent controversy surrounding the American Anthropological Association’s decision to drop the word “science” from its long-range plan. I especially liked the way Daniel not only summarizes the controversy but also seeks to move the discussion forward into a space where practitioners can ask more positive, active and defining questions about what anthropology might be good for. Check it out below.

From Neuroanthropology:
A Vision of Anthropology Today – and Tomorrow
By Daniel Lende

“Anthropology isn’t in the crisis that parts of the media would have you believe, but it must do better, argue Adam Kuper and Jonathan Marks.”

So goes the tagline in the commentary Anthropologists Unite! by Kuper and Marks published in Nature yesterday. And quite a tag-team they make. Adam Kuper is a prominent social anthropologist in the United Kingdom, Jonathan Marks a prominent biological anthropologist in the United States.

Together they tackle the recent controversy over the American Anthropological Association dropping the word “science” from its long-range plan, and use the controversy as a platform to reflect on the past and the future of anthropology.
I will do the same. What has the AAA controversy shown us? And since the long-range plan proved divisive rather than inclusive, how can we create a compelling vision for moving forward as a field? Where do we go from here?
Read More @ PLOS Blogs

There is much to consider in Daniel’s vision but the following statements stand out to me as needing special attention:
  • “Anthropologists do seem to be searching for a new identity, something to lend us vision, a plan of action for the future.”
  • “Kuper and Marks propose ‘comparative science of humankind’ as the core identity for the field. ...a truly comparative science of human beings throughout their history, and all over the world…requires more interdisciplinary team research in anthropology.”
  • “…whatever human nature may be, it clearly takes a variety of local forms, and is in constant flux.”
  • “Anthropologists do share a great common cause. They would agree that anyone who makes claims about human nature must learn a lot of ethnography.”
  • “Only a handful still try to understand the origins and possible connections between biological, social and cultural forms, or to debate the relative significance of history and microevolution in specific, well-documented instances. This is a great pity, and not only because the silence of anthropologists has left the field to blockbusting books by amateurs that are long on speculation and short on reliable information.”
  • “…if anthropology is really going to be the study of people, grounded in both science and humanities, then the humanities needs to be part of how we understand ourselves.”
  • “James Clifford, in his proposal for “the greater humanities,” synthesizes four important things that the humanistic approach provides… the 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.”
  • “…anthropologists as ‘living at the border zone in intellectual life between science, social science and humanities.’”
And, finally, Daniel quotes Hugh Gusterson writing: 
In my experience, younger cultural anthropologists tend to describe themselves as pragmatists, and they see the debates in the 1980s and 1990s about “writing culture” and the politics of knowledge, which were so formative for an older generation, as a part of the discipline’s history they have assimilated and are moving beyond.
That has certainly been my experience and I think the new generations of anthropologists are uniquely poised to reorganize the discipline and begin deploying much more sophisticated blends of science, cultural theory and philosophy than have hitherto been practiced. Anthropology is unique in that is has already been a bridge between the humanities and the sciences for quite some time. And yet very few truly comprehensive visions of the human condition get written by actual anthropologists.

What I would really like to see is the development of teams of anthropologists, each with particular sub-specialties and local in-depth knowledge, collaborating to design more robust, complex and multi-dimensional models of human behavior and social life. The ethical and practical benefits of such projects would be immense. In the last instance, of course, anthropology will be exactly whatever its practitioners decide to make it.

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