More on #AAAfail

The AAA’s removal of science from the rhetoric of its statement of purpose has made the internet angry. For a bunch of links to smart people’s discussion of the issue, please see this post at Neuroanthropology. If you want to know what I think, read on!

Old Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists; including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

New Wording:

“The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

Above is the old statement of purpose followed by the new. Having ruminated on the issue a bit, what most troubles me is that the new statement seems calibrated to make a divided field even more divided. As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a long-standing gap between the methodologies of biological and archaeological anthropologists and social anthropologists. However, there aren’t many of the former camp that don’t recognize the value of relativism and reflexivity, just as few of the latter camp who outright dismiss statistics and hard data. However, instead of encouraging communication across this shared ground, the new statement divvies up the classic four fields approach (archaeology, biology, ethnography and linguistics) used in the original statement into ten categories. The implication is that Anthropologists should continue to narrow their focus rather than collaborate.

If the discipline is to have any meaning in the future, collaboration will be the key. At present, the lack of intra-disciplinary understanding of very basic concepts is, frankly, appalling. Even at my superhappyinterdisciplinaryliberalarts school, most many students specializing in social anthropology had little grasp of the fundamentals of evolution, and more than once I found myself debating with people who thought that biological evolution was, by definition, linear and progressive. Rest assured, I probably annoyed my share of social anthropologists by misunderstanding their field, as well.

Before I ride off into the sunset on my horse of academic harmony, let me reiterate that I think the new AAA statement is inexcusably dismissive of biological and archaeological Anthropologists. Tellingly, six of the seven new categories are aspects of social anthropology/ethnography, with no like divisions of archaeology, biology and linguistics. Certainly the distinctions between primatology, hominid paleoecology and skeletal pathology are just as meaningful as the divisions between political, historical and economic social anthropology? Furthermore, it must be reiterated that abandoning scientific analysis will only hurt the perceived legitimacy of anthropology in both the academic and public spheres.

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