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Anthropology, Science, and Relativism

Posted December 13, 2010 by daniel.lende in Critique, Culture, Society


Anthropology violates the common assumption that science and humanities are two different beasts,
best kept in separate cages. Bring them together, and you’re going to get a cage fight, the 800 pound
accumulated knowledge gorilla against the artistic dancing butterfly/stinging bee metaphor.

Anthropology has had its share of cage fights in recent decades. The latest is the controversy over the
American Anthropological Association removing the word “science” from its long-range plan. As Peter
Peregrine wrote, this “issue has touched a raw nerve” in the discipline. Given the amount of media
coverage, blog posts, comments, and email the controversy has generated, I’d say he’s right.

But I believe anthropologists should take heart. The controversy has not been the replaying of the
biological determinism/post-modernism debates that started in the 1970s and lasted through the 1990s.
It has not been a repeat of the disputes over Napoleon Chagnon, The Darkness in El Dorado book, and
the subsequent AAA investigations and retractions.

Two things stand out from the debate online: (1) continued reaffirmation of science as part of
anthropology, coupled with other forms of scholarship, and (2) the sense of moving forward, of not
repeating the mistakes of the past while building on our unique strengths. Anthropology has shown itself
to be a different discipline than the one characterized in the popular media. A better discipline.

So, why the disparaging remarks about anthropology that have appeared online? One answer is that
the controversy has played into deep tensions in American society over science, political advocacy, and
truth. Another answer is how the media spins things today, creating oppositions and inflammatory
headlines, in conjunction with that part of online culture that delights in flame wars and divisive opinions.

But I also believe it is hard for others to grasp why it is so important for anthropologists to bring together
science and humanities, to couple systematic evidence and relativism as we study the human condition.
Cage fights might make good spectator sport. But they don’t make good research.

The View from Outside

Fluff-heads, pseudoscience, disgust, vomit. The terms used to characterize the controversy from the
outside have been harsh. They have been dismissive of anthropology, particularly of cultural
anthropology. In those posts and subsequent comments, science is privileged and important, and the
implicit or explicit contrast is often some version of the “other” – primitives with superstitious beliefs,
individuals advocating for indigenous knowledge as a valid way of knowing, and in a prominent
example, “members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as
advocates for native peoples or human rights.”

One obvious issue is people’s own difficulties in dealing with difference – we reject it, we stigmatize it,
we discriminate against it. Science and civilization on one side, the barbarians and natives on the other.
And as happens, people of color, women, local minorities, and less developed countries often get
thrown into that other side.

Here is one example, a comment on an early post that defended the validity of indigenous ways of

Do you really believe that the local belief that Krakatoa was the home of a fire-breathing god
who showed his wrath by destroying much of the locality with thousands of its inhabitants is as
valid as modern scientific understanding of the origins of volcanoes?

The first thing to say is no, the anthropologist in question doesn’t believe in promoting superstition over
science. As Dooglas Carl wrote in his own comment, “I consider myself an applied medical
anthropologist, and I utilize a theoretically-informed scientific approach to my anthropological research.”

He then goes to indicate how his research has changed his own views on knowledge:

My work with indigenous populations has allowed me to witness different ways of approaching
and knowing about the world around us, ways that have not arisen out of the Western scientific
g , y
worldview, yet have also been successful in maintaining human populations.

In contrast to this position, there has been a wave of titles like“Anthropology without Science” and “Hold
the Science, Says Anthropology Society.” The authors then go onto assert that the American
Anthropological Association is rejecting science and thus falling back on subjective knowledge, opinion,
and superstition. It is not true, as the AAAs recent statement on What Is Anthropology? shows.

But the fight over different ways of knowing, particularly the validity of forms of understanding besides
science, has been a clear line of demarcation. How dare anthropologists assert such a thing?

Let us return to the post by Dooglas Carl, and the quote that really made some people angry:

For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to
maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to
plague the discipline.

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and
approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of
their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science”
over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working
with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change.

Here is a recent reaction to that quote:

I assume you’re back now that you’ve cleaned up after vomiting? This is fundamentally Another
Way of “Knowing.” There’s really not much that can be said here.

Why do people get so upset here? Is it because cultural anthropologists consistently deliver a “gale-
force blast of obscurantism”? To outsiders, words like “colonizing, privileging, superior positionality” can
do that. Communicating clearly how we understand indigenous knowledge to be valid and showing how
science has been part of the colonial enterprise should be front-and-center when we make these types
of arguments

But the basic points raised in this section – of us vs. them and science vs. superstition – illustrate how
people interpret and react to our work. As anthropologists, we have not done a good enough job
reacting to these dynamics, even though we’re well positioned to do so. We’re too busy focusing on the
internal debates, the turmoil in the field. We need to do better at promoting public understanding. We
need to explain why anthropologists focus on “us and them” and on “science and other ways of

Us and Them

I will try to do so by explaining why Dooglas Carl’s statement on the validity of other ways of knowing is
not controversial within anthropology. For our research, adopting a position of relativity – of us and them
– is actually all-important in how we do good scholarship.

I work on addiction, and have done a lot of this research in Colombia. Like Dooglas and his work with
indigenous populations, my work in Colombia helped me understand my core research problem better.
Colombia offered me a way to think about substance use and abuse outside the prominent “disease”
model in the United States. Drug abuse was characterized there as “wanting more and more,” and
model in the United States. Drug abuse was characterized there as wanting more and more, and
included in a range of vices. This cultural view is actually closer to a lot of what neuroscience is now
revealing about addiction. I was able to start doing work in neuroanthropology because my time in
Colombia showed me other ways to think about substance use and abuse. This ethnographic work
helped me be a better scientist.

Anthropology also uses critical thinking to examine societal assumptions about people perceived as
different. For example, there is a prominent ideology in the United States that races are biological, and
certain races are physically superior or inferior to other races. Decades of anthropological research
have shown that races are a bad scientific concept – there is no consistent set of biological differences
in the “races” we identify socially. More recently, anthropological research shows how discrimination
generates biological effects, like stress and hypertension, and this discrimination is based on the
perception of skin color. Moreover, the effects of discrimination can vary by genetic differences within
our socially defined races – some people, because of their genetic make-up, react more strongly to
social discrimination than others.

Without critical thinking about the concept of race, none of this excellent research would have been
done. And today, the United States medical establishment – a bastion of science – is at the forefront of
pushing race-based medicine, based on the idea of distinct biological differences between races.
Research alone is not enough to overturn ideas about race. Critical interrogation of biomedicine,
advancing public understanding of the realities of race, and political action are all part of how we can
get good science to be part of how we work as a society.


But to really understand what Dooglas Carl is saying, it is important to grasp relativism more directly.
The easiest way is by analogy. Isaac Newton developed a linear, determinist physics which still serves
us well today, but which also does not help us explain core aspects of the universe that surrounds us.
Albert Einstein introduced a revolution in physics through his idea of relativity.

Relativity has two major impacts. First, it changed the idea of “timeless laws” at the heart of the
Enlightenment. “For example, it overturned the concept of motion from Newton’s day, into all motion is
relative. Time was no longer uniform and absolute.” Much of social science still searches for uniform
laws that apply across human societies. Franz Boas, a student of physics and founding anthropologist
in the United States, introduced the study of society based on the history of that society. It was a relative
approach to the study of humankind.

Second, relativity radically challenged the notion of the impartial, outside observer. First, the frame of
reference of the observer mattered in being able to compare results. If two observers are moving
relative to each other, their different motions shape how they observe the same event. Moreover, in
quantum mechanisms, the actions of the observer are seen to shape the outcome of observations. The
observation itself helps determine what actually happens.

Anthropology embraced this view earlier than any other social science discipline. Around the same time
as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski was creating the core research technique of participant
observation. Unlike previous “armchair” anthropology, where researchers got data from afar and
assembled it to fit their own theories, participant observation required spending time with the people one
was studying, and placed emphasis on getting their perspective on their lives. No longer was it just the
outsider’s perspective.
To understand human society, it is imperative to recognize that we are already located within society.
Just like in modern physics, our observations are relative, and help shape what is actually observed.
Moreover, our frame of reference is based on our own movement, our own individual motion.
Anthropologists’ main solution to this problem is to encourage reflexivity, an examination of our frame of
reference in relation to what we are studying and our own personal and professional histories.

But there is one stark difference between modern physics and modern anthropology. In physics,
observations are still done in only one universe. In anthropology, we study multiple societies, both past
and present. We have to take relativity one step further.

Anthropology does this by encouraging the researcher to grasp the viewpoint of the other, and to
assume that that viewpoint is as valid as the observer’s viewpoint. We are not observing events, like
physicists do. We are observing other people. And per relativity, their perspectives help shape what is
observed. They see us as much as we see them.

If we dismiss their viewpoint, if we say indigenous knowledge is not as valid as science, then we have
undercut our own ability as good researchers.

This is a basic point in anthropology. If we want to do good science, we have to be relative. A core part
of relativity is accepting the validity of other viewpoints.

Relativity and Action

Recent anthropological work has extended this basic view to encompass human action, and not just
observation and research. Obviously people do much more than sit around observing each other. We
do things, and we often do things to our benefit and the detriment of others. We use ideas and power to
advance our own position, and to undercut others. If we dismiss indigenous ways of knowledge as
superstition, then we have undercut them. If we advance ideas about race as biology, then we have
reinforced social inequality. We don’t just observe. We discriminate.

The method of relative observation and the recognition of inequality and discrimination often conflict.
This conflict is a core debate in anthropology today. Do we engage in activism, bringing to light this
discrimination? Do we insist on advancing good science through our methods? Can we do both at
once? These are questions the field is asking itself.

But anthropologists like Dooglas Carl start from the core method. They assume the validity of other
ways of knowing, because that is part of what doing good anthropology is. Carl then proposes that this
core method be part of the vision of anthropology, part of its long-term plan. We already do good
science, as he says. But do we have to privilege it vis-à-vis the people with whom we work to actually
do good science? The answer is surely no. We can value science and we can value indigenous

For our research, we have to embrace the idea of relativity. We deal in human difference and human
history, in multiple languages and in interpreting a one-time fossil record of our own evolution. Many
people want to fall back on science vs. superstition and us vs. them. It might help them make sense of
the world. But to really make sense of the world, anthropologists know we have to embrace relativity.
Eight hundred pounds of evidence has to also float and sting.