Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What was it that Mark Twain said about being dead?

Sigh. I found this article, "Anthropology without Science," a bit overheated and under-informing, for the reasons that Hugh Gusterson (a cultural anthropologist on the AAA's executive board) writes in a comment to this posting:

I notice that the article does not tell the readers what the new wording is and how it differs from the old wording. (What sort of journalism is that?) Maybe we could dial down the temperature a little if people saw the two sets of wording. The old wording said "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." The new wording says, "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."

I grow weary of that old chestnut about science being thrown under the bus of post-modernism. Reading the old versus the new wording, I think the change in orientation seems to be from promoting anthropology-as-a-science (i.e., discipline building, professionalizing, and claiming authoritative knowledge) to promoting the science itself - that is, the research and knowledge itself. It is about anthropologists as a group needing to communicate better what we do and how we think in terms that can be apprehended more easily as relevant to broader publics.

Which I think ought to start with the publics within the discipline. Frankly, I think the subfields are not only not particularly good at communicating with the oft-cited man / woman on the street, but they are pretty bad at communicating with each other. Obviously, there are individuals who are exceptions - primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's work on allomothering is read not only widely across anthropology, but also in other disciplines.

In general, however, archaeologists seem really to write and talk only to each other, and cultural anthropologists the same.

Frankly, I am a little tired of that other old chestnut that the four fields are drifting further apart and the discipline has no direction and so on. I mean, there is disarray also in economics, which as a science really ought to be feeling dismal right now...

Also, I think we ought to give more attention to where we can see communication and collaboration across the four fields - for example, on themes like water, climate change, extinction, and species. In fact, I went to an esp. interesting "experimental" panel (or "innovent") on multispecies called "Swarm." It featured anthros from the four fields, plus coordinated exhibits at art galleries, which engage yet another public. I missed them, but read more at Savage Minds.

'Nuff said :)

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