Is Anthropology a Science?

A longstanding debate in anthropological circles has become a hot and recent discussion on many science blogs, so hot that both the New York Times and Gawker have covered it. Basically, the debate is over whether anthropology – the diverse study of human beings – is a science or one of the humanities. Archeology, as taught in the Americas, is part of anthropology. Anthropology here is considered a four-part study, including the subfields of sociocultural anthropology, physical (or biological) anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archeology.

So when the American Anthropological Association (AAA) decided on November 20, 2010, to remove the word “science” from their long-term plan statement, they were also talking about us.

It occurs to me that this debate centers on whether as anthropologists our focus should be on human culture or human behavior. Human culture, as I define it, emphasizes the cultural traditions of a particular group, specific kinship relationships, specific religious rituals, what makes a particular group special, and so on. The study of human behavior, on the other hand, looks at what makes us similar: what physical limitations humans have that create behaviors, how those behaviors evolve, how we create language, what our livelihood options are and how we manage them.

On that basis, AAA may be drawing a line between sociocultural anthropology and the other three subfields. Okay, but it would be a shame if scholars saw this as a reason to restrict certain fields of knowledge to help understand human cultures, or human behaviors.

Final Result
Do I believe that anthropology is a science? Anthropology is the study of all things human, and as an anthropologist, I think that a way of “knowing” – what Stephen Jay Gould calls “non-overlapping mageteria” – of our field should not be ruled out. As an archaeologist, my responsibility is as much to the culture I study as to humanity in general. If being a scientist means I cannot include oral history in my research, or I must refuse to consider the cultural sensibilities of a particular group, I am against it. However, if not being a scientist means that I cannot investigate certain types of cultural behaviors because they might offend someone, I am also against that.

Are all anthropologists scientists? No. Are there scientific anthropologists? Absolutely. Does being a “scientist” rule out calling yourself an “anthropologist”? Heck, there are plenty of archaeologists who don’t believe archeology is a science – and to prove it, I’ve put together the Top Five Reasons why archeology is not a science.

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