There’s been a flurry of activity in the past few days reacting to the American Anthropological Association‘s removal of the word “science” from its mission statement. I’m not an anthropologist myself, but my perspective is that this change is appropriate to how the discipline has developed and what it currently is. Whether or not anthropology was ever “really” a science (and it’s important to note that the common cultural understanding of the words “anthropology” and “science” has changed quite a lot over the past century), it is today not a science in any common sense of the word.
The traditional “four-field” division of anthropology into sociocultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics was in my view never more than an historical accident, and these “subdisciplines” have never had a whole lot in common other than the vague concept of “culture” tying them loosely together. I think people who have been saying that sociocultural anthropology, with its increasing tendency toward more humanistic and less scientific methods, has becoming increasingly hegemonic within the discipline are correct, and that this is not really a problem. To an increasing extent, anthropology today just is sociocultural anthropology, and as trends within sociocultural anthropology cause it to move away from the other subfields the most natural result is for the increasingly disjointed discipline to break up. The more “scientific” subfields could easily just become separate disciplines. Linguistics did this decades ago as part of the major shift in the discipline inaugurated by Chomsky’s theories in the late 1950s, and the few linguists who are still associated with anthropology departments generally practice a type of linguistics more in line with anthropology than is typical of most linguists. Archaeology, in particular, could easily do the same thing. There are already independent archaeology departments at BU and Simon Fraser, and the establishment of new departments at other universities is quite conceivable and would, I think, be a good thing for the discipline of archaeology, which I don’t think has much of a connection to the discipline of anthropology these days. Archaeologists like Mike Smith are up in arms about this change and some are even threatening to leave the AAA over it, which I think is all to the good. If archaeologists feel anthropology is no longer scientific enough for them, they should leave anthropology and set out on their own. Then we can have a discussion over the separate and, to me, more interesting question of whether archaeology is a science.
Physical anthropology, the most scientific of the subfields, is a trickier case since there are no independent departments (as far as I know) and the word “anthropology” is right there in the name, but some sort of closer affiliation to biology or human physiology programs would make sense, and I can also conceive of new departments of primatology or some such being established, which would also take care of the odd and (to me) rather disconcerting fact that much of the research done in physical anthropology is actually not about humans at all but about other primates.
The new mission statement not only gets rid of the word “science” but also downplays the four-field concept, instead referring to a variety of research approaches, some associated with completely separate disciplines such as economics and history. To the extent that research from these perspectives, as well as from the perspectives of the traditional anthropological subfields, intersects with research in sociocultural anthropology, it makes sense to consider them part of the mission of anthropology as a discipline. There is no longer much reason to privilege the anthropological portions of certain disciplines as subfields of anthropology while leaving research within other disciplines that may be equally anthropological isolated from anthropology as a discipline.
Now, as it happens I’m not actually all that interested in the sorts of things sociocultural anthropologists have been doing recently, so if the discipline does start to formally dissolve the way I’ve sketched out here I probably will not be keeping a close eye on developments within the remnants of anthropology. Instead, as with other disciplines with which I have no particular connection, I will deal with it only as it intersects the subjects that I am interested in. But that’s okay with me.