Friday, December 24, 2010

A Call for Wisdom

As the year comes to a close it is time to reflect on the things that are the most meaningful in our lives. Family visits will be enjoyed and lots of food and beverages consumed--mmm good.  I really like pie and plan to have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between. I know it’s a binge but it’s that time of year and it’s been known to sustain life.

Along with these thoughts I felt a need to continue to ponder the Is-Anthropology-a-Science “shit storm” that has played out for several weeks.  The postmortems are still underway, here and here are examples.  Again, I don’t care what they call themselves.  I do care if the public’s perception of scholarship and research is devalued a little due to events such as this. One should never forget the social contract between scholars and the broader society. New understandings of it are here, here, and here

My perspective on this comes from many years studying American archaeologists, and by extension American Anthropologists.  For archaeologists I’ve described their power structures, critiqued their word games, and forecast the demise of their bread and butter, cultural resource management (see the list here).  I am also an avid reader across the sciences, American history, art history, and philosophy. As a sociologist of scholarship I am interested in the construction of knowledge. 

I’ve learned that Academic Tribes (here & here) are funny creatures. They act like families with their patriarchs and matriarchs, their crazy uncles, their spinster aunts, the kissing cousins, the identical twins, the fraternal twins, the step children, the step dads and moms, the bastards, the orphans, the abandoned and the adopted. They do their genealogies, worship their ancestors, and publish family histories, biographies and autobiographies.  They have family newsletters and every year they have family reunions. Internal feuds are common, sometimes leading to outcasts. And each generation has to prove something to their elders.  Academics are humans with all the vices and virtues that come with that label.

Somehow scholarship became the great quest for Truth.  Scientists and humanists seem to have bought into the quest. However, I don’t think it’s enough. What I want from scholars is Wisdom because it is greater than Truth.

I also know that sets up an apparent paradox. I ask for wisdom but I do not want anyone to seek it. Wisdom, like Truth, is not an end game.  You don’t find it.  It is something that just happens along the way of life.

However, there are guideposts that help judge the wisdom of ideas.  Knowledge that is profound, interesting, and exceptional will likely pass the evaluation. Call it pie.  

I don’t expect every researcher to give me pie; I know it will be a collective effort.
The pie doesn’t have to be useful to me, just to someone.
There is no rush.  Pie can be had at any time and is worth the wait.

Happy Holidays.


  1. I've read some of the articles linked here about the "Is-Anthropology-a-Science" debate and find it a bit more concerning than you do. Not that I care what anthropologists choose to call themselves, but the fact that they think it matters speaks volumes. Why the conniption over a simple common word? Well, someone once said "Words Matter". I guess they took him at his word, so to speak.

    The (so-called) scholars who pursued the mission statement change at AAA adhere to certain philosophical and/or political persuasions. Ostensibly, their goal is to refrain from applying a "Western construct" - scientific thinking - to the study of human culture. Doing so apparently results in value judgments being placed on Third World cultures, by scholars and the lay public alike. "Poor" valuations of these societies lead to their exploitation by others... blah blah blah. Typical post-modern blather that's absurd on face value.

    First the obvious. Less developed societies are at risk of exploitation by more developed societies, regardless of what scholars think or say about them. I know, Darwinism was adopted as a social theory and became a rationale for colonialism. But, post facto. By the time Darwin published his theory much of the Third World had already been pillaged by Europeans. Furthermore, Social Darwinism was easily discredited on scientific as well as moral grounds. Human societies have exploited each other for far longer than Darwin's theory or scientific thinking in general have been around.

    Second, scholars are not per se responsible for the social or political/economic ramifications of their theories. To believe otherwise is to fall into the trap of making scholarship pass a social litmus test. That's antithetical to science. It should be to cultural anthropology as well. After all, what's the difference between that and adopting a full blown Medieval mindset: knowledge that threatens the social order is heresy. Not much.

    Finally, it's not truth or wisdom or the best fit scientific model of nature that's all important. It's how we came to know what we know and how we can take what we know to the next level. The process is more important than any particular understanding we currently hold. By abjuring the use of the word "science" in the mission statement of the AAA, cultural anthropologists have chosen to discard a well validated approach to understanding humanity. Regardless of what they claim, they can't overtly use the scientific method to study culture and yet not call it science. I mean, they still believe in intellectual honesty don't they? Or is that an inconvenient Western construct as well?

  2. I don't get too upset over this issue because I've been around it for 30 years. This recent tiff is one of many before it. In some ways, its comical.

    Actually, I think American Anthropology should have been placed in the humanities as it started out as culture history; it could easily have been another type of historical endeavor. But that's not what happened.

    Part of the anti-colonial/anti-western values is that many anthropologists adopt a protective stance towards the people they study. "Don't use my information to hurt these people" type of stance.

    Much of that comes from the many years that the CIA and military recruited anthros to prepare culture studies.

    I also tend to think that those who are anti-science and are still social researchers tend to adopt a narrow view of science. The hypothetico-deductive model isn't really workable in ethnographic fieldwork, therefore cultural anthropology can't be science. That type of thinking.

    We live in an era of individualism, and idiosyncratic thinking has long been tolerated in AAA, so getting AAA members to agree on something is quite the challenge.

  3. Well said.

    I don't mind anthropologists seeking to protect the people they study. I wouldn't abandon science as part of that process.

    Humans are not mechanical systems. It's easy to become attached and protective to those you study. No different for physicians for example. Caring for patients is considered an art and a science, as most MD degrees explicitly note (as well as many state licenses to practice medicine).

    Individualism and idiosyncratic thinking are the heart and soul of many scholarly endeavors, including science. I think your point that many cultural anthropologists don't understand "science" while their biologic minded associates do is the crux of the problem. Still smacks of Medieval thinking to me.

    Merry Christmas

  4. Medievalism is alive and well in Romantic America--witches, ghosts, vampires, Goths, Dungeons and Dragons, etc. Machiavellian thought is commonplace.

    Human Terrain Teams. This is the kind of stuff that confuses, angers, or is paradoxical to anthropologists. Do you support the American agenda? or help the underdog? Or remain distant? Tough questions for many people that try to make a living as anthros.

    Merry Christmas

  5. "Do you support the American agenda? or help the underdog? Or remain distant?"

    Tough questions for everybody. But...

    I don't believe a lack of Human Terrain Teams ever prevented a war. Same for a deficit of psychologists, physicians, aid workers etc, the whole panoply of technicians involved in modern warfare/nation building. Countries go to war without these assets if they deem it necessary. And often, the alternative to nation building type warfare is genocide (cf., the Soviets in Afghanistan)

    Is "Western hegemonic science" part of the American agenda? The AAA appears to believe so. Odd that the Chinese, the former Soviets, and many Third World countries don't construe it that way. Of course, some of them have tried to ignore Western science, with disastrous results (cf., Lysenko in the USSR).

    Whether making war or helping the underdogs of the world, we ought use every advantage we have, everything we know. It's also a voluntary thing to be on a HTT. For American anthros to tell their often idiosyncratic/individualistic colleagues not to participate is a bit...hegemonic IMO.