Well, Whaddayaknow? A Discourse on Discourse or Why Can’t Anthropologists Get Along?

Tonight’s Family Fun Time is a comment I made on an article I found on Inside Higher Ed. In a general way it tries to ask the question, “Why don’t some anthropologists get anthropologists from one of the other four-fields. I’m copying it here ’cause no one’s gonna read it where I put it. And. I know that you’re dying to know what the subversive archaeologist has to say about communication between those who’d call themselves ‘humanists’ and the ones that would prefer to be called ‘scientists.’ Have fun!

I applaud your crusade to make anthropological writing more ‘accessible’ to a wider audience within and without the anthropological community. I’m an anthropologist with expertise in biological anthropology and anthropological archaeology. I’m something of an anomaly. I’ve been influenced by died-in-the-wool Cultural Materialists, ecological anthropologists, and strict adaptationists. I’ve also found fertile research avenues in what some have called contextual archaeology—an archaeology that acknowledges people as agents of cultural change, and the symbolic meanings with which we humans imbue what we think, eat, and make [and much, much, more].

Were I to have tried dejargonizing what I’ve just written, imagine how many words I would have needed in addition to those I’ve already put down.

Like I said, I’m all in favour of writing clearly—there’s too little of it as I’ve found in that past couple of years, reading across disciplines, and the four fields. However, I think this article points up a fundamental schism of interpretation and political stance that exists in American [i.e. four-fields anthropology]. Within American anthropology archaeologists and bioanthropolists as a rule have nothing to do with their social/cultural siblings. That’s the best explanation I can make as to the inability for half the anthropologists to misunderstand, or to treat the discourse of the other group as fluff—and for the ‘ascientific’ ones despise the others for their ‘scientism.’ From early on in an anthropologist’s education these days, either you decide you’re not ‘doing’ science, or ‘science’ is all that you’re doing. Because of that profound discord, I believe that neither side learns how to ‘read’ what the others are saying. aware of what the other is trying to say in publications. I think the four-field approach is fine, it’s the people that are the problem!

I think I can shed some light on this schism, and perhaps begin to bridge the theoretical gulf.

Most of my contemporaries will remember Thomas Kuhn’s sociological exposure of disciplinary paradigms. And, no doubt, they will have heard of the two theories of knowledge propounded by Logical Positivists [alternatively, Logical Empiricists] like Carl Hempel and the other Karl, Popper. These are the bright lights who thought that all scientific knowledge needed to be of the sort, “If A, then B.” That views of science has dominated theories of scientific knowledge for time out of mind. It’s only been in the past half century or so that more nuanced theories of knowledge have arisen, and will one day soon displace the strict empiricist account of science’s success.

Scientific Realism, so called, better explains the success of science than did empiricism of any kind. Not because it prescribes a different ‘scientic method,’ more because it de-scribes the success of science without relying on the philosophically hobbled empiricist screed.

Notice that I use the term ‘empiricism.’ You should not confuse that with ‘empirical,’ which is the realm in which science exists and upon which it depends to advance scientific knowledge.

I strongly believe that the “schism” between the two anthropological factions is the result of the hangover of logical positivism. Most archaeologists and biological anthropologists are enculturated to view social and cultural anthropology as un-empirical fluff. In a similar vein, the social and cultural anthropologists view archaeologists and biological anthropologists as scientistic, or worse. What I’m calling the Schism exists because both camps are still leaning on a theory of knowledge that can be dismissed with a simple example. [Forgive me, this is a little simplistic. But it is very useful example, and it stands up very well as an exemplum of the way that Scientific Realism exposes the gaping epistemological holes in empiricism.]

Logical Empiricists like Hempel and Popper believed that you could only make ‘real’ scientific knowledge by ‘observing.’ Since we know, for example, that we can’t [very well] observe the thought process, theories of mind were ruled out in the positivist view of science. [This, I believe, is why it became commonplace in psychology to seek operational definitions of mental processes that could then be observed scientifically. But that’s another discussion.]

Alison Wylie has pointed out the incommensurability inherent in most archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists cleaving to an empiricist theory of knowledge. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! Those two of the four fields make knowledge that they think is sure and certain, because they’ve addressed their subject matter scientifically [i.e. as good logical positivists]. But, if you’ll remember what I said a moment ago, Empiricism ruled out the possibility of making ‘scientific’ knowledge of such unobservables as ‘the mind.’ So, ask yourself, “What do archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists seek to ‘know’?” They seek, and succeed in, making knowledge of a phenomenon that literally does not exist! The past! That is so far outside of the Logical Positivist’s view of science, it’s not even funny. But it does point up the efficacy of realist theories of science to demonstrate that not all scientific knowledge can be accounted for by empiricism.

More recent philosophy of science does very well, thank you, without the stringent constraints placed on knowledge by the Logical Positivists. And the more ‘science’-y of the four fields should take note.

I know I’ve prattled on way too far. But, please allow me to address the schism from the social and cultural anthropologist’s side.

It seems to me that so-called post-modern anthropology suffers in the minds of archaeologists and biological anthropologists because the only theory of scientific knowledge they’ve ever known is the very same Empiricism that rules out the quest undertaken by the other two, ’scientistic’ fields. As such, it’s understandable that post-modern anthropologists would attack ‘science,’ as such, represented by Logical Positivism. Much social and cultural anthropology in the present day is all about going beyond merely observing and describing cultures, and seek to interpret human actions. And they’ve been damned successful, thank you very much. But, again, this sort of endeavour is ruled out as scientific, on a Logical Positivist account. It’s no wonder the social and cultural anthropologists don’t want to be tarred with the same brush.

However, as Alison Wylie has taught us, social and cultural anthropologists don’t make stuff up! Most social and cultural anthropology takes place in the empirical realm, using empirical evidence gathered largely in ignorance of a view of science that acknowledges their contribution as empirical, and thus, scientific. And radical post-modern anthropologists who say anything goes and shooting themselves in their collective foot by asking everyone else to accept their anthropological theory as the way it is. If anything goes, why should we pay any attention to them at all?

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