Anthropology, Social Science, and the March for Science

April 20, 2017

Andrew Tarter

Tarter

This post is presented in this week’s series recognizing Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.

Anthropology has an unusual relationship with science. As scientist and anthropologist H. Russell Bernard points out in the preamble to his now-canonized Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches:

With one foot planted squarely in the humanities and the other in the sciences, there has always been a certain tension in the discipline between those who would make anthropology a quantitative science and those whose goal it is to produce documents that convey the richness—indeed, the uniqueness—of human thought and experience. (2011: vii)

These tensions played out most famously in the so-called science wars but surfaced more recently in renewed controversy related to the 2011 striking of the word “science” from a long-term planning document of the American Anthropological Association (Boellstorff 2011) (the plan has since been amended to reintroduce the word).

Such tensions are not only limited to anthropology but engulf other social sciences as well. One recent blog post by a psychologist went so for as to advocate that social scientists refrain from participating in the March for Science planned for Earth Day 2017, because many people “have weaponized the social sciences for ideological warfare,” concluding:

Perhaps we would be better off sitting this one out and doing the slow but important work of reducing ideological bias in our research, fighting the tendency to weaponize social science for ideological and political purposes, and challenging the non-scientific and sometimes anti-science scholarship that is being sheltered within the academy. (Routledge 2017)

Some intersectional scholars are also calling for a boycott of the March for Science, arguing that important markers of identity (ethnicity, race, gender, etc.) are at best ignored, misrepresented, or erased in science as popularly practiced and at worse that science reproduces inequalities to the disadvantage and exclusion of underrepresented minorities and minority scientists. These sentiments have largely coalesced around tweets and posts by social scientists using the #MarginSci hashtag on social media.

Such binary, either/or framing and quibbling within the ivory tower is interesting but ultimately overlooks the contributions of diverse scholars that employ scientific methods, often in the study of issues at the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, and other identity markers, as well as their interactions with power.

Don’t get me wrong—science does deserve to be critiqued, both for internal biases and for exclusionary practices. But it is frightening to think that the logical extension of these views is a call for boycotting the March for Science rather than using the venue as an opportunity to advocate for these very changes.

There are even more frightening trends, particularly within the United States: consider that one spokesperson of the current US president speaks of “alternative facts” that suit the administration’s viewpoint. It seems that the notion of the “social construction of knowledge” à la Bruno Latour and other postmodern scholars have found traction within the current American political apparatus and broader segments of the American public that support the administration.

And then there is the ongoing suppression of science within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the many elected officials questioning the established science around global climate change, the rising claims of “fake news”—to name just a few examples of an overarching and disconcerting disregard for not only science but any sort of investigation that challenges the ideologies of those in power. What we are now witnessing is not a case of science ignoring, repressing, or excluding members of identity groups but instead a case of (conservative) identity politics trumping science, and to the detriment not only of underrepresented minorities but of all life on our entire planet.

Thankfully, anthropology continues to be a social science, and one that investigates topics ranging from identity to farming. Anthropologists and social scientists should be proud of the fact (yes, fact) that one of the co-founders and co-chairs of the March for Science, Valorie V. Aquino, is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, with subdisciplinary emphases in archaeology and geochemistry.

Science is alive and well in anthropology. Section 1 of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Statement of Purpose is clear: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” Furthermore, the AAA staunchly supports the March for Science. There is also the Society for Anthropological Sciences, a section of the AAA that holds separate annual meetings each year as SASci—an independent, nonprofit, scholarly, and educational association. These sentiments and support for social science are supported by even higher echelon umbrellas organizations such as the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Anthropologists and other social scientists should participate in the March for Science. Complacency based on a fear either that we are not rigorously scientific enough or that science is only in the service of the powerful at the expense of underrepresented minorities not only ignores volumes of research indicating otherwise but also leaves the current political powers that be free to run willy-nilly with “alternative facts” and identity-driven politics and policies.

Let’s raise our many diverse voices as anthropologists and speak with one voice, joining the voices of other social and natural scientists, in support of science. Support can range from attending any of the hundreds of satellite marches coordinated around the world to simply expressing your support to colleagues, friends, and family, in person or through social media.



Andrew Tarter
is a social scientist and studies human-environment interactions. Dr. Tarter is currently employed in Haiti, through the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, at the University of Florida, where he also received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology in 2015.



References

Bernard, H. Russell. 2011. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Lanham, MD: Altamira.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2011. “Three Comments on Anthropology and Science.” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 541–544.

Routledge, Clay. 2017. “Why Social Scientists Should Not Participate in the March for Science.” Quilette, 3 March. http://quillette.com/2017/03/03/why-social-scientists-should-not-participate-in-the-march-for-science.



Cite as: 
Tarter, Andrew. 2017. “Anthropology, Social Science, and the March for Science.” EnviroSociety, 20 April. www.envirosociety.org/2017/04/anthropology-social-science-and-the-march-for-science.

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