The AAA Does Away With Science, Seriously

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is a strange organization. I often wonder how it operates, but then I realize I don’t even wanna know because there’s often no real logic to their madness. Take into consideration these cases:

Case 1: About 4 years ago the AAA decided to close access to almost all their journals, directly against the Federal Research Publication Access Act. This spurned a lot of discussion regarding ownership of publication, author’s rights and the AAA’s motivation behind it. Most of us wondered how could the AAA, who didn’t fund the research, produce the data, and write up the analysis, close off the information to the world? Here was a bit of my outcry over the matter, archived by afarensis in June of 2006,

“The hypocrisy that surrounds the AAA when it begged for anthropologists to protest to the US government to not cut funding but their recent resiliency to not give back is outstanding in this matter. I don’t get why the AAA won’t open their eyes and see that this form of publishing helps to ensure long-term access to scholarly articles. Unlike articles that are licensed in traditional article databases, like their closed AnthroSource, public libraries and institutions of the people (like universities) can create local copies and repositories of these resources. People, by working together to make repositories of open access literature, can ensure continued access to these scholarly publications into the distant future.”

From this idiocy, a nice project spun off but hasn’t in my opinion been a viable alternative. Unfortunate.

Case 2: Once upon a time the AAA was an organization that scoffed at social media and Web 2.0, specifically blogs. It’s hard to dig up exact references since many links have died… But I do distinctly remember them issuing a statement saying blogs are useless forms of communication, with a little wink wink nod nod to this said blog.

When they redesigned their homepage a couple of years ago, they deployed several blogs. They even sent me emails asking for link exchange. Sure people are allowed to change their minds, but I wondered what’s with the change in heart? Suffice to say, I didn’t add them back.

Case 3: The AAA just had their annual meeting and yes, everyone’s reporting that decided to do away with science. It’s true, Peter Wood of the Chronicle, writes on them actively deciding to nix science out of the Mission Statement. I’ve copied and pasted the presumed edits to the mission statement he provided below the read more link.  Another related decision made is defining the role of AAA, away from ethnography and scientific experiments and observations to anecdotal and subjective journalism… Again without ethnology and ethnography — what is cultural anthropology?

Alice Dreger of Fetishes I Don’t Get, writes on some of the anger she experienced from other scientific anthropologists,

“The primatologist Sarah Hrdy (a member of the National Academy of Sciences) wrote, “My reaction is one of dismay-actually, even more visceral and stronger than that-albeit not surprise.” The scientists I talked to want to know (as I do) exactly what is the AAA Executive Board’s justification for all this. They are confused about whether they should bother to fight, or just give up and depart the AAA already.”

The Society for Anthropological Sciences, a division of the AAA, objected to these changes, I am sure most do. I don’t understand why this change is being done. In a time and age when we need to strive to objective data to make informed decisions, this organization is moving away from that, and consciously. Why?

Could it because anthropology is largely not considered a science outside of the discipline — so the AAA chooses embrace what most think of us?

Again it is hard to get into the minds of such a dysfunctional organization. They seem to never make the right decision. An analogy that works in my mind is the AAA is to anthropologists as the Clerical Theocracy of the Islamic Republic are to Iranian population. As many governments help make decisions to move forward and advance their society, both the AAA and the mullahs regress their organizations further back in time.

Here is the marked-up copy of the mission statement showing the deletions crossed out and the additions bolded:

Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. through This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, ethnological, 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. and its use to solve human problems.

Section 2. To advance the science of anthropology the public understanding of humankind, the Association shall: Foster and support the development of special anthropological societies organized on a regional or functional basis; Publish and promote the publication of anthropological monographs and journals; Encourage anthropological teaching, research, and practice; act to coordinate activities of members of the Association with those of other organizations concerned with anthropology, and maintain effective liaison with related sciences knowledge disciplines and their organizations.

Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall, in addition to those activities described under Section 2: Take action on behalf of the entire profession and integrate the professional activities of anthropologists in the special aspects of the science; and promote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.

14 thoughts on “The AAA Does Away With Science, Seriously

    1. I wholeheartedly agree.

      Many universities have split departments, between anthropologists who want to do science and others who don’t. I’ve always had mixed feelings about that, but I now think that is the right thing to do.

      Problem is which faction owns the term — anthropology, the science of humankind?

    2. Maybe it’s time for anthropologists to CHANGE the AAA. I
      encourage anthropologists to get involved and turn it into a better
      association. If there are so many complaints, then why isn’t anyone
      DOING something about it!

  1. This is a travesty, but not terribly surprising. Some cultural anthropologists object to being called “scientists” and prefer to be called “humanists”. Roll in some post-modern irrationality, and presto — the science of humankind becomes the “knowledge discipline” [gag me with a spoon] of humankind (and wherein “knowledge” now includes revealed wisdom, hallucinations and intense pondering of the umbilicus). It’s institutionalized PC rubbish, and it’s no wonder that biological anthropologists now regard AAA as irrelevant.

  2. Honestly, I don’t see the problem. It doesn’t say anthropology is NOT a science, it just doesn’t highlight it AS a science. After what, 50 years of back-and-forth between scientific and humanistic approaches to our discipline, that seems more or less fair: we cannot and will not ever resolve that tension, it’s pretty much integral to any field that includes tibias and vocal timbres and Tintoretto and Timorese colonial resistance. It seems to me that science is still a part of our “understanding of humankind” but deprivileging it *as* our understanding of humankind opens up a wider range of forms of understanding than *just* science..

    (That said, I’ve always been a little disappointed at how *narrowly* science is defined in relation to human behavior. I don’t see any reason why “humanistic” approaches and, indeed, the dreaded “post-modern” theory, are seen as opposed to science — they still depend on empirical observation, whether of behavior or texts, and they still depend on the use of that observation to provide evidence to support a hypothesis. But given the narrow way “science” is used, both within and outside the discipline, removing it from our self-description seems perfectly justified.)

    (That said, I have no idea what the political factors behind the scene were. Seems odd that this wouldn’t have been a major order of business at the AAAs last month and that we’re only really hearing about it now.)

  3. I think we all agree that increasing “public understanding of humankind” is a worthy, if broadly defined, goal. Although, to achieve this goal, we must simultaneously improve public understanding of science. Replacing the word “sciences” with the vague term “knowledge disciplines” does little to advance either goal. I see nothing wrong with AAA using a broad, inclusive definition of anthropology, but that definition should INCLUDE science.

  4. I for one am not completely surprised with this decision, seeing how the AAA focuses and comprised of cultural anthropologists that mostly does not employ scientific methods to their study. I was reluctant and ended up not joining AAA because I felt like the scientific anthropologists are like the bastard child.

    I don’t know what’s the implication of the adjustment is but I think a /facepalm is in order.

  5. It seems to be a form of political-correctness. Don’t offend anyone with the answers, even if they are fact.

    Or…. make it up as you go to keep everyone happy all the time.

  6. I’ve taken two back-to-back trips over the past month: one to the AAA meetings in New Orleans, the other to Argentina to visit, among other things, various museums and museum-like sites (such as a Guarani village near Iguazu waterfalls) of ethnology/natural history. I go to the AAA meetings every year, and this time around it struck me again as a kind of “museum of anthropologists” who locked themselves into a narcissistic vision of humanitarianism (apparently, the collective abnegation of the myth of the noble savage comes at a price whereby the rejector becomes the embodied version of the rejected myth). But, then, as the readers of this blog know(https://anthropology.net/2008/05/12/the-genius-of-kinship-human-kinship-systems-and-the-search-for-human-origins/), I believe that anthroscientists have messed up human origins research pretty badly. And the reason for this, again, lies in the power of myths that makes highly specialized academic scientists pawns in the hands of more systematically organized cultural schemata (e.g., late medieval-early modern Old World vs. the New World distinction, the philosophical predisposition to seek ancient truth in fossils and lithics, etc.) So, I think that both cultural anthropologists and anthroscientists are equally wrong in some of their fundamental assumptions. As an anthropologist of both four-field and constructivist training, I think it perfectly natural for a discipline to span tibia and apartheid (because the world is that interconnected) but I also think that any arrogant dismissal of either constructivism or the scientific method leads to the progressive decay of the meaning of the word “anthropology” in both cultural and biological camps.

  7. In addition to “science”, the deletion of “ethnological” seems possibly relevant to figuring out what AAA leaders are up to. Could this be an attempt to focus cultural anthropology on the past, preferably as distant as possible? At the same time, by removing “science”, de-legitimize the in the minds of the general public? That is, since it is no longer a science based on observation, etc, it is merely interpretation, and not based on any rigorous analysis.

    Disclaimer – I’m not involved in anthropology academically.

  8. This is not limited to Anthropology. Somehow, scientific organizations have been infiltrated by those who see political ends more important than scientific ends. Resignations from the official organizations in Physics (Hal Lewis of UC Santa Barbara resigned last month) are going on now because of the global warming controversy, in which many physicists see an astonishing lack of rigor. Truth has become secondary to politics. Science was the last bastion.

  9. In my opinion, if an anthropological study follows the scientific method, it is scientific. If it doesn’t, it is pseudoscience, it does not contribute to knowledge or understanding of anything and should be completely ignored. As a part of this discussion, I would like to suggest the addition of references to science and the scientific method to the “about” section of anthropology.net.

  10. ‘Science gets a taste of its own medicine’ (sorry, horrible pun and cliche intended)? Although the omission of the word ‘science’ is both comical and gutsy on behalf of the AAA, the AAA seems to be simply mirroring the rhetoric and actions of ‘science’ in American culture.

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