What is the real concern about #AAAFail?

Right now there are lots of anthropologists discussing the new long range plan developed by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association (Thanks Terry for posting the first link on the issue to catch my attention) .  The AAA is the national organization for anthropologists in the United States of America, and they held their national meeting just a few weeks ago.

From what I’ve read on the interwebs, the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS)has been discussing their concerns about the changes in the AAA long range plan (LRP) since the meeting, and sent an e-mail out to SAS members encouraging them to contact the AAA about concerns over the removal of the word ‘science’ from the LRP (you can see the changes made to the LRP at Recycled Minds).  Earlier today this led to an article on InsideHigherEd.com entitled ‘Anthropology without Science’. The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article a few hours ago entitled ‘Anthropologists debate whether ‘science’ is part of their mission‘ (thank you for the more reasonable title, CHE). This article discusses the various reasons members of the Society for Anthropological Sciences are concerned that the LRP was changed without notice to the membership. While some are concerned about the fact that the word science was removed from the mission in the LRP, others are concerned about a shift in focus from representing Anthropologists’ concerns to doing public outreach.  I’d like to look at each of these issues.

Does the word Science need to be in the mission of the AAA?

First of all, the change in wording has been done in the mission of the LTP, not the Statement of Purpose of the AAA.  However, the wording in these statements was identical until two weeks ago, so it is almost a moot point. Changing one implies changes will be attempted in the other.

Let us compare the Mission Statements of several professional science associations, to see how they define themselves and their goals (the link to the page with the mission statement is posted above each statement).

American Anthropological Association:

  • 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.”

American Sociological Association

  • Serving Sociologists in Their Work
  • Advancing Sociology as a Science and Profession
  • Promoting the Contributions and Use of Sociology to Society

American Economic Association

  1. The encouragement of economic research, especially the historical and statistical study of the actual conditions of industrial life.
  2. The issue of publications on economic subjects.
  3. The encouragement of perfect freedom of economic discussion. The Association as such will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.

Association of American Geographers

  • The Association of American Geographers (AAG) is a nonprofit scientific and educational society founded in 1904. For 100 years the AAG has contributed to the advancement of geography. Its members from more than 60 countries share interests in the theory, methods, and practice of geography, which they cultivate through the AAG’s Annual Meeting, two scholarly journals (Annals of the Association of American Geographers and The Professional Geographer), and the monthly AAG Newsletter.

Geological Society of America

  • GSA’s mission is to be a leader in advancing the geosciences, enhancing the professional growth of its members, and promoting the geosciences in the service to humankind and stewardship of the Earth.

American Chemical Society

  • “To advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.”

American Physical Society

  • Be the leading voice for physics and an authoritative source of physics information for the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity;
  • Provide effective programs in support of the physics community and the conduct of physics;
  • Collaborate with national scientific societies for the advancement of science, science education and the science community;
  • Cooperate with international physics societies to promote physics, to support physicists worldwide and to foster international collaboration;
  • Promote an active, engaged and diverse membership, and support the activities of its units and members.

It is some of the social sciences that include ‘science’ in the descriptions of their fields, as if they feel the need to define the fact that they are sciences.  Hard sciences do not question the fact that their disciplines are sciences.  Personally, I don’t think that anthropology should have to defend its identification as a science.  It is a social science. At many universities there is a College or Division of Social Sciences, and that is where you find anthropology. Perhaps this recognition of the Social Sciences as a cohesive group of disciplines that use the scientific method to study humanity is more recent than the origin of our disciplines? I don’t know much about the history of academic institutions, so I can’t say. I don’t believe that we should need to justify that anthropology is a science in our Mission Statement.  I DO believe, however, that the website of the AAA should clearly state that Anthropology is a social science in its definition of anthropology, rather than saying social science is one of the places we “draw our knowledge” from.

Should the mission of the AAA be to “advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects”?

To me, this is the real issue to be debated. Previously, the LRP said the mission of the AAA was 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.”

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

This new statement shifts the focus to public outreach, while at the same time deleting the information about the reasons why anthropological research is beneficial to society (solving real-world problems).  Considering how many anthropologists do applied research these days, and how many anthropologists work outside of academia now, this is particularly surprising to me. Additionally, by removing the word anthropology from the first sentence and replacing it with humankind, the statement fundamentally shifts the outreach from teaching people about our field and how we do our research to the people we are working with and the cultures we are studying. Both are important – shouldn’t our professional organization promote both?

If you look at the mission statements of the other professional societies, the only one that does NOT put the advancement of scholarly research and their members first is the American Physical Society.  They also explicitly state the goals of advancing information about physics, it is for “the advancement of physics and the benefit of humanity.” The AAA LRP Mission says no such thing. My reason for joining the AAA was not to teach non-anthropologists about humankind.  I joined because I wanted to be part of a network of anthropologists that facilitated my communication with other scholars and spoke up for us when universities tried to remove our programs or funding sources tried to stop supporting us.  I joined because I wanted to part of an organization that taught others about what anthropology is and what it does – so that students entering university will have HEARD of anthropology when they show up on campus, and so that political leaders will have some appreciation for the value of our research when a relevant piece of legislation crosses his/her desk. The wording of the new LRP mission statement currently makes me feel like an afterthought, and causes me to be concerned about what the society actually plans to spend its time doing in the coming years.

I really don’t think the AAA was trying to ‘remove science’ when they made these changes - the statement still talks about biological anthropology and archaeology, which use all sorts of scientific methods, and many cultural anthropologists I know are very scientific in their work.  And I think all of the uproar about the removal of one word, particularly from people who only read the InsideHigherEd blog and not the original document, is akin to interpreting an archaeological site from one unprovenienced artifact; we all know that context matters. And we know that even when you do have the full document (or, say, feature excavation data) – we still were not there when the features or documents were created, and we can’t know what the creators were thinking about when they decided to make them; all we see is the result.  I DO see problems in this statement and I definitely believe the organization needs to have some dialogue about this.  But lets not all make assumptions about what led to this document and raise up the anti-science cry until we have actually talked about it.

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2 Responses to What is the real concern about #AAAFail?

  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

  2. Pingback: Anthropology Is Not a Science « Gambler's House

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