Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anthropology, Economics & the Practitioner’s Role

Earlier this year Anthropologists had a debate about the status of Anthropology as a science (here for a summary).  Now, economists are having one too.  Here is a list of statements; the comments are good too:

The topic comes up regularly in economics; here are some older ones:

I find all of this rather silly, especially from people who are well educated and have prestigious awards such as the Nobel Prize.

Other than Roth above, don’t people of this caliper understand the basics of classification?  When you define something, you are doing simple sorting.  Some things go into Box A and some things don’t go into Box A because of how Box A is defined.  If your standard for science is Physics then only Physics goes in the box called science.  Nothing else qualifies.

Trying to argue that there are degrees of science-ness just muddles the discussion, as in hard vs. soft science, pure vs. less-pure science, & proper vs. less proper.  These distinctions are childish, like fifth graders at recess:  I dare ya to be a soft scientist… no, I double dare ya…

There is no wisdom in these conversations.

For many, the claim to be a scientist has become political posturing or advocacy for special interest groups, or perhaps even for themselves as they think it will make them better positioned during upcoming budget cuts or grant awarding.

If we really need science in our lives then I recommend that it be defined broadly such that the usual and accustomed suspects are put into the box.  Since we typically divide professions, and thus occupations and job postings, by subject matter (physics, chemistry, biology, economics, etc) then those subjects that have been traditionally viewed as science can continue the claim as long as they meet simple criteria.

Science is the systematic and comparative study of observable phenomena.
1. Systematic means having a widely accepted set of methods and standards that are used to study events and phenomena.
2. Comparative in that the results of numerous singular studies are used to make generalized explanatory and/or interpretive summations.
3. Observable in that one can witness directly or indirectly-via-tools an event or phenomenon, and, observations can be used to reasonably infer the presence of something not observable (no one sees gravity or magnetism; we infer them by observing their regular and recurring affects).

Most professions that have traditionally been classified as a science will qualify because they meet 1, 2 & 3.

Historians aren’t scientists because they do particularistic studies; from what I’ve seen, comparative history is not strong; they don’t do #2.  Chefs aren’t scientists because they, too, likely don’t do much of #2.  However, “culinary science” is “the science and technology behind meal planning, preparation, processing, and service for a global consuming public” here.  A chef makes food.  Culinary science is integrated, matrixed, into business models by those trying to operate restaurants as profitable businesses. 

Science isn’t just for academics looking for Truth.  Most of it is used by corporations to make a buck and by governments trying to regulate or manage something. In most cases, science is a means to an end; it generally is not an end unto itself.

Back in the days of strong modernity, ca. 1920-1975, science was mostly segmented and rigid.  By that I mean biologists did biology, chemists did chemistry, and “interdisciplinary work” was generally frowned upon.  In today’s post modernity the work environment-outside of academia-is just the opposite.  Segmentation has been replaced by integration; rigidity by flexibility.  In the federal government most biologists have to know something about archaeology and air pollutants. Environmental planning tries to be holistic, not segmented, and resource management plans are “Integrated”.  Segmented academia is looking more archaic every day.

Instead of debating whether a profession is science or not I suggest people focus on what roles people have and when is it appropriate to say that someone’s role is “scientist”.

Roles (in no particular order of significance):
1. Scientist:  a person who regularly does research that meets the definition of science given above.  If you are not doing scientific research then you are not a scientist. They are producers of science. 
2. Technician: a person who gathers scientific data and may conduct initial analyses’.  They are typically well trained in scientific methods and techniques, and may have good understandings of theoretical issues.  Examples:  x ray techs, engineering techs, geo technical specialists, and the popular science folks as seen on MythBusters.  
3. Teacher: a person who regularly teaches.  Teachers of science can also be scientists if they are also actively doing research.  Most high school science teachers only teach; some professors are also scientists.
4. Professional/Practitioner :  A person who does not do research but uses a body of scientific knowledge  to solve problems and set policy (e.g. physicians, engineers, corporate executives, consultants, government employees). They are consumers of science. 

I am an Anthropological archaeologist by training but I do “cultural resource management” for a federal agency.  That is, I ensure that my agency complies with federal laws about historic preservation, which is a part of the overall environmental compliance sector.  While I know that some federal archaeologists have done science, as a federal employee, I have never been able to do it.  In fact, most of my job is about the avoidance of doing archaeological science.  I am a practitioner.

Let me elaborate.  Coming this week there will be an archaeological study done in Oregon sponsored by my agency.  Federal environmental specialists, state environmental specialists, environmental and archaeological consultants, and I have planned the study.  The purpose of it is to determine the presence/absence of archaeological sites within a defined number of rangeland acres, approximately 1100, that may become developed.  The study is a survey not an excavation. The actual work will be done by archaeological consultants supported by archaeological technicians.  The purpose of the study is to provide descriptive data such that federal bureaucrats can make decisions about land use.  It is also being done under the umbrella of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and will become a component of that assessment.

The result of this archaeological survey will be a technical report, a singular study.  There is no intention of doing any comparisons, there are no hypotheses to be tested, and there will be no attempts at determining ancient land use patterns.  In this specific case, science is not required to meet the needs of making land use decisions related to historic preservation.   My final involvement is to ensure that the technical study does meet certain minimum standards.  Having a solid background in archaeological science helps me in determining the quality of technical reports.  Most technical studies produce average reports and few are excellent.  I accept average or better and reject crap.

Most American archaeologists are practitioners or technicians who produce or consume technical reports.  Their work falls short of being classed as science.  The conditions in which they work rarely compels them to do the comparative work that is typically viewed as “science”.  In the last ten years, I have done archaeological science twice [1] and both those projects were done as a volunteer, on my own free time.  Also, there is nothing bad or wrong about producing or consuming technical reports.  Archaeological science cannot be done without good technical reports. 

Returning to the econ debate, those folks make an interesting analogy:  economics is like engineering.  Obviously, this analogy is emphasizing the practitioner role of economics. They can’t see that because their scientism obscures their ability to distinguish the role of scientist from practitioner, producer from consumer.  I guess they like the idea because they believe they are engineering the economy and society.   They are holding onto what’s left of modernism.  I suspect that a lot of economists are practitioners & technicians who don't get to do science. 

To me the word engineer brings up other images.  I am reminded that ‘waste engineers’ used to be called garbage men, and, in some parts of this world, archaeologists are thought of as waste engineers.  

I am not a waste engineer.

1. These two studies:
Moore, L. E. and Gwen J. Hurst
2005   Medicine for the Troops: Glass from a Civil War Encampment in Centreville, Virginia. Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia 60(3): 150-176.
Moore, L. E. and Richard Busch
2003   The Hogback Valley and Its Relation to Denver Area Prehistory. Southwestern Lore 69(3): 1-25. 

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