Why Socio-Cultural Anthropology Can Still Be Scientific

The purpose of anthropology is to contribute to a [progressively] better understanding of humanity. Anthropologists achieve this goal through the use of the following methodological cycle: making observations; examining data in to generate hypotheses; testing hypotheses and rejecting those that fail; using “valid” conclusions about a particular data set to construct more generalized theories; reformulating these broader theories as hypotheses which can be tested in other contexts; and submitting conclusions to peer review. In short, anthropologists subscribe to the scientific method.

Unfortunately, a large, frequently vociferous segment of sociocultural anthropologists no longer accept this idea of what anthropology aims to accomplish and how anthropologists are to attain their goals. According to postmodern anthropologists, a scientific socio-cultural anthropology is a chimera, foisted upon unwitting individuals who are too brainwashed to recognize the invisible hand of “the system.” Scientific anthropology is really no more than a handmaiden to Western imperialism and the capitalist ‘urge’ to justify exploitation of the Other. Science is just another type of story (and a capitalist one at that), no “better than, and indeed possibly inferior to, the indigenous explanatory systems in other cultures” (Barrett 1996). And since science is just another “way of knowing,” the claim that scientific investigations will produce progressively better knowledge is fallacious. In this sense, the traditional aim of sociocultural anthropology is no longer tenable.

Perhaps I am no more than a child of the “Western Rationalistic Tradition.” As far as I can see, the postmodern approach makes anthropology the study of anthropologists, dedicated to compiling a database of practitioners’ experiences, liberally spiced with the views of their informants. It does not aim to “better” our understanding of the human condition, because postmodern anthropologists eschew the use of scientific principles to critically examine and synthesize the riot of subjective data they collect. In fact, the only purpose information gathered in the field does seem to serve is to form a platform from which these scholars may launch a campaign to remake the world as they believe it should be.

Obviously, I have no sympathy for this postmodern reformulation, and I intend to show that these so-called challenges pose no real threat to the use of science in ethnographic research. The scientific method is both the “best way of knowing” and the one most likely to help anthropologists achieve their goals.

The Question of Reality
According to the postmodernists, there is no such thing as an objective reality. Basing their position on the ideas of Saussure and Wittgenstein, they assert that meaningful thinking is predicated upon the structure of language, and accordingly, “the limits of language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstien 1972, quoted in Kuznar 1997). Since language varies across cultures, social contexts, and even between individuals, it follows that experience is subjective. In fact, researchers such as Graham Watson claim that, “accounts are not interpretations superimposed upon a preexisting reality; they make it what it is” (Watson 1991, quoted in Kuznar 1997). Reality, then, does not exist outside the realm of social consensus.

The question of whether or not reality truly exists has a long history in philosophy, and I am content to leave this debate to the realm of metaphysics (where it belongs). Even if there is no empirical world outside my own linguistically structured perceptions, most people operate as though such a world exists so I’ll “run with that” (Dr. Durrenberger, 11/7/01). If postmodernists wish to transform a difference in metaphysical assumptions into a challenge to science, then they must prepare to have their hypotheses tested. And when this assertion that “reality is defined by language and social consensus” is reformulated into a testable hypothesis, a recent anthropological study conducted by practice theorist John Gatewood provides contradictory evidence. Gatewood worked as an Alaskan purse seiner for several seasons to gain a better understanding of how human knowledge is produced by and impinges on human action. What he found was that not all “one’s actions are represented verbally, outwardly or inwardly. Rather, one experiences visual imagery and muscular-tensions appropriate to certain actions, but one can only grope for words to express these inner-thought feelings” (Gatewood 1988). Eventually, he built up a repertoire of labels and expressions which allowed him to convey some sense of his experience when he writes or speaks about seining. Yet these culturally constituted names never adequately express how he feels and how he knows what to do while actually engaged in this work. Gatewood’s study underscores two major flaws in the postmodernist argument against an objective realty. First, language cannot constitute the boundaries of experience. Some experiences are simply not amenable to linguistic representation. Secondly, reality is not constrained by social consensus, for Gatewood found that cultural representations of purse seining often do not completely capture how the work is perceived and practiced by the individual.

The Trickledown Effect
The death of reality in postmodern theory has produced a battery of auxiliary assertions about how anthropology is conducted and why science can no longer be the centerpiece of anthropological practice. I shall present a summary of what I believe are some of the more “absurd” challenges to scientific anthropology, as well as a scientific rejoinder.

1. Since reality is subjective, a person’s observations and conclusions are always colored by the researcher’s theoretical position (which determines the type of data recorded – the old “facts are theory laden” conundrum) and social background; social and political developments within the larger society; intellectual developments in the wider culture (esp. that of the researcher); the influence and interests of different factions in the studied society; and the social structure of academia (Salzman 2000). According to postmodernists, the inherent subjectivity of all observations and conclusions necessarily entails that science is no longer possible because the scientific method is said to be based upon the assumption that objectivity is possible.

Rejoinder: Subjectivity is not anathema to science, nor does it preclude the construction of a progressively better understanding of humanity. Science does not claim that absolute truths about objective reality can be discovered. Science only asserts that better, less biased approximations of reality can be generated through testing and the maintenance of a constant skepticism in relation to all theories about the world. Moreover, the scientific method was especially designed to take into account the fact that:

“Human error, wish-fulfillment, duplicity, dishonesty, and weakness would commonly distort research findings. The scientific requirements that the procedures of all studies must be specified in detail so that others could repeat them, and the actual replication of findings by scientists in other venues, were established to minimize the distorting effects of human subjectivity and moral weakness in the quest for knowledge” (Salzman 2000).

2. Postmodernists advocate epistemological relativism. Their position is premised upon two major assumptions: 1) language determines how people perceive and respond to their social and natural environment, and 2) cultural diversity is so extensive that every culture is not only unique, but “in a fundamental senseâÂ?¦incommensurate with any other” (Spiro 1991). This emphasis on the cultural determination of a person’s social and psychological features, as well as the denial of any cross-cultural universals, poses a great challenge to the possibility of a scientific anthropology. It suggests that anthropologists will be unable to ever truly “understand” or represent the lives of the people they study (unless they are conducting ethnographic research “at home”). Moreover, any attempt to discern cross-cultural regularities or formulate general theories of culture is a foolish endeavor, for “the pluralism of cultures precludes the establishment of classes or types” (Spiro 1991).

Since “truth, like beauty, is [therefore] in the eyes of the beholder,” all ethnographic explanations and anthropological theories are predicated upon the cultural milieu in which the anthropologist was raised and now lives. Consequently, postmodernists also assert that there is no way to evaluate competing claims about observed phenomena or assess the validity of a theory. They propose that theories should be submitted to ‘deconstruction.’ Anthropological work is not examined to determine whether it accurately represents and predicts real world phenomena; instead, it is analyzed in terms of the way social position, research strategies, observational tools and methods, and larger academic trends have led the ethnographer to ‘see’ the world in a certain way. Evaluation is to be focused not on what an ethnographer’s work tells us about a culture, but on why the ethnographer’s representation took the form that it did.

Rejoinder: Cultural determinism is not a new idea in anthropology: researchers have long recognized that culture plays an important role in shaping how people in a particular society interact with one another and view their world. Earlier anthropologists, however, also accepted the “psychic unity of mankind.” They did not perceive cultural diversity as being so absolute that no cross-cultural similarities exist, or that people from one culture are fundamentally incapable of understanding the members of a different culture.

As a biological anthropologist, I find any other position untenable. Humans are 99.8% genetically homologous, and recent research from the fields of molecular genetics, evolutionary biology and psychology has repeatedly demonstrated that every person’s biological and cognitive features bear the imprint of our species’ common evolutionary history. As a result, an individual’s social and psychological features are not completely culturally determined. Forces other than culture (e.g. ecology, subsistence practices) also impact how people behave and how they perceive their world, because these social and environmental forces impinge upon universal biological needs, or they are processed through pan-human cognitive structures. This is not to claim that all societies (or even all individuals) will respond to similar environmental pressures in exactly the same way. Human behavioral plasticity necessarily entails cultural diversity. However, the range of cultural adaptive responses is finite. Human thought and action are subject to certain cognitive and biological constraints.

The foregoing observations support the conclusion that a scientific anthropology is possible. Anthropologists are capable of understanding the people they study because not all human behavior and perception is culturally determined, nor are all cultures so dissimilar as to be incomprehensible to outsiders. The existence of certain psycho-biological constraints on cultural variation also implies that cross-cultural regularities in certain adaptive features do exist (as functionally equivalent responses to similar social/natural environmental pressures), can be compared, and are amenable to the formulation of cross-cultural generalizations and theories. Consequently, the validity of different ethnographic descriptions and theories of culture can be critically evaluated based upon the degree to which such explanations correspond to an observable, knowable reality.

This is not to say that scientific anthropologists are not concerned with ” the ideological [and social] milieu in which a certain research is carried on and on which particular ideas and concepts arose” (i.e. the context of discovery) (Kaplan & Manners 1972). They recognize that theories and ethnographic descriptions are influenced by how the researcher perceives the empirical phenomena under observation. Indeed, it is for this reason that anthropologists working according to the scientific method place a premium upon accountability (how observations were collected), reproducibility, reporting potential sources of bias, and making results public (open to peer review). However, scientific anthropologists insist that a particular ethnography or theory be analyzed according to two main criteria: 1) whether the theory is verifiable and supported by empirical data, and 2) whether the theory is fruitful (i.e. “leads the ethnographer to construct a rich, informative, rewarding ethnography” and the generalization of new hypothesis and ideas). Assessment in science focuses upon the context of justification.

Indeed, it is precisely this emphasis upon testing the fit between a particular theory or ethnographic representation, and the empirical phenomena it seeks to explain, that makes science a better way of knowing. In a sense, the positivist epistemology encompasses all other epistemologies. Science does not ‘care’ where a hypothesis comes from, so long as the data and observations upon which it rests can be operationalized in a testable, measurable manner (Dr. Durrenberger, 11/07/01 discussion).

3. Progressively better knowledge being a delusion, reality having ceased to exist, and evaluation of competing theories having been rendered impossible, the purpose of anthropology cannot be, for epistemological reasons, to create a science of humanity. Instead, anthropologists must focus their attention upon the “concrete realization of a dialectical and emancipatory praxis” (i.e. to improve peoples’ lives) (Salzman 2000). Anthropology is no longer concerned with a better understanding of the human condition. Rather, an ethical, political anthropology aims at a betterment of the human condition.

Rejoinder: There are a number of flaws in this position, not the least of which is that an ethical anthropology directly contradicts postmodernists’ assertions that reality is subjective, as well as their emphasis upon polyvocality. If postmodernists truly subscribe to these views, then they should be moral relativists. Instead, they go to the opposite extreme and demand that their interpretations of the world are the only correct ones. A telling example of this fallacious imposition of the ethnographer’s morals on an observed culture comes from the “denunciation of gender roles [ in many Muslim societies] that do not conform to Western ideas of gender equality” (Salzman 2000). According to some feminist anthropologists, when a Muslim woman claims to wear a veil voluntarily, her statement simply reflects how the andocentric society in which she lives has caused her to develop a ” false consciousness.”

Scientific anthropologists adopt an apolitical stance, and their doing so underscores one of the most critical distinctions between science and metaphysics (or, politics). Scientists premise their conclusions on empirical facts. If observations made in the real world do not support a particular theory or cultural description, then researchers must accept that their ideas are false. An ethically and politically oriented anthropologist makes no such distinction. They predicate their arguments upon their own authority (the very same authority these postmodernists also reject), and theories or ideas about the ‘way things are’ are held despite contradictory data. An ethical anthropology asserts that it has a monopoly on The Truth, thereby embracing the very stance which it wrongly attributes to scientific research.

Lest the apolitical stance of scientific anthropology be construed as moral relativism, I hasten to add that scientific anthropologists have not forsaken the humanism that is at the very center of the discipline. Anthropologists must be prepared to oppose the use of their findings by non-professionals (e.g. politicians) who hope to exploit certain societies or oppress a particular gender, ethnic, religious or political group. Ethnographers can also use their investigations to suggest certain political, technological and/or social changes that might improve people’s lives. In every case, however, scientists must predicate their ethical stance upon empirical data, not impose it in spite of the empirical data.

I have demonstrated why a scientific anthropology is both possible, and the epistemology that researchers must adopt if their goal is to explore and understand humanity. With regards to postmodern anthropology, I have adopted the position, so eloquently summarized by Melvin Spiro, that “that which is true about postmodern subjectivity – and for that matter postmodernism in general – is not new, and what is new, for the most part, is not true” (ibid. 1995). At the same time, I admit that there has been reason for criticism, even if the critics lose sight of the cause for their discontent. Science is not without its weaknesses, but most of these are less a result of flaws in the positivist epistemology than a product of a less than perfect adherence to the scientific method.

A priori theoretical assumptions do, at times, direct anthropologists’ research, causing practitioners to ignore or reinterpret empirical evidence that does not to their expectations about what should be observed. However, inaccurate ideas and theories are inevitably discarded. Nor is the replacement of old theories, and even whole research strategies, capricious. New theories must meet several criteria in order to serve as replacements, and because these requirements are so exacting, the result is a progressively better understanding of the world. In order to demonstrate how this process takes place, I will discuss these issues within the context of recent shifts in the anthropological concept of primitive war, recorded in Lawrence H. Keeley’s book, War Before Civilization:

The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
Historically, anthropological theories about primitive war have fluctuated between two extremes. Rousseau’s image of the “Noble Savage” has inspired ethnographers and archaeologists to see non-state societies as full of “natural flower children.” For these peaceful primitive groups, war is an anomalous event which, when it does occur, is conducted in a highly ritualized fashion. By contrast, the Hobbesian view of primitive life as “nasty, brutish and short” is predicated upon the idea that the natural state of relations is one of conflict. According to this theory, warfare is frequent and pervasive in non-state societies because they lack a strong central government to impose law and force individuals to resolve conflict peacefully.

Until the 20th century, most anthropologists embraced the latter view, a position which “coincidentally” lent an aura of justification to European and American colonialism and imperialism. Beginning in the 20th century, however, ethnographers stopped relying on the reports of missionaries, travelers, and colonial administrators for data on primitive societies. Instead, anthropologists themselves went into the field to collect information through participant-observation. Personal contact with the subjects of their studies led them to start questioning their previous ideas about primitive life. And, following the carnage and atrocities of World Wars I and II, researchers increasingly tended to “see” in non-state societies a peaceful existence and lack of the brutality which seemed to typify civilized life.

The result was what Keeley calls the “myth of the pacified past,” a paradigm which, for most of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, dominated ethnographic and archaeological theories about warfare in non-state societies. In his introduction, Keeley illustrates how this myth directed scientific research, drawing upon his own experiences as an archaeologist. First, he relates the difficulties he had securing research funds from the National Science Foundation to conduct excavations at Darion, a Neolithic European settlement. In his initial grant proposals, he described the ditch-palisade enclosing the site as a “fortification.” His applications were denied. Only when he omitted the “f-word,” referring to the structure as an “enclosure,” was he awarded the necessary funds to initiate work. His second “tale” relates to work he did in the Maya area while still a graduate student. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Keeley was so “inculcated” with the notion that the Classic Maya city-states had enjoyed a peaceful coexistence that he wrote his senior thesis about the lack of evidence form militarism among the Maya. When confronted with evidence that contradicted this representation, he was “willing to dismiss this data as either unrepresentative, ambiguous, or insignificant” (ibid. 1996).

Keeley’s reconstruction of how a view of the “pacified past” came to dominate anthropologists’ ideas poignantly demonstrates the truth that scientific anthropological investigations are embedded in larger social, academic, and historical processes that influence what gets studied, why, and how data are interpreted. The willingness of archaeologists to redefine, dismiss, or reinterpret evidence in order to support their theoretical presuppositions seems to confirm the Duhem-Quine Thesis about science. According to Quinne (whose ideas constitute the “strong” version of this thesis), there is no boundary between science and metaphysics because scientists can “always salvage a theory contradicted by empirical data by making an adjustment somewhere in the system” (Kuznar 1996). Since any statement can be revised it is impossible to use refutation and falsification in order to distinguish valid theories from invalid ones. Progress becomes impossible.

Keeley draws a different lesson from anthropologists’ willingness to revise their ideas about the conduct and extent of warfare in non-state societies. He describes how archaeologists and ethnographers in the latter half of the 20th century collected more and more evidence that challenged their assumption that warfare in non-state societies is infrequent and not particularly deadly. As a result, anthropologists now accept that primitive warfare is more frequent and savage than civilized (state) warfare; that it is initiated for the same reasons as civilized warfare; and that primitive military strategies are just as effective as those employed by state societies. Keeley feels this gradual shift reflects the importance of a scientific approach to anthropological research:

“While anthropologists’ artificial pacification of the past can be traced to the values and attitudes characteristic of their culture and era, what saves scientific propositions from being mere intellectual fashions is their ability to withstand testing and critical evidence. The concepts of the pacified past are wrong not because they are fashionable or biased, but because they are incompatible with most relevant archaeological and ethnographic data” (ibid. 1996)

The changes which mark theories on primitive warfare provide a good example of the model of cumulative scientific progress outlined in Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was interested in analyzing the events which precipitate and typify paradigm shifts in science, and he emphasized two important aspects of this process. First, the new paradigm must account not only for the evidence which first caused investigators to question the old research program. The new paradigm must also account for all the data which had been explained under the old. Secondly, there must be some resistance to the shift from researchers because this “guarantees that scientists will not be too lightly distracted and that the anomalies which lead to paradigm change will penetrate existing knowledge to the core” (Kuhn 1970, in Kuznar 1997).

If these propositions represented the entirety of Kuhn’s thesis, it would be difficult to understand why his work is so often cited by those who assert that scientific progress is impossible. Yet, Kuhn also claims that new paradigms don’t replace old ones simply because they do a better job of explaining all the available data. The old paradigm and its successor are “incompatible and incommensurable [because they] entail different phenomena and different ways of studying them” (Kuznar 1997). This aspect of the process by which old paradigms are replaced is well illustrated in Keeley’s discussion of how the very concept of war was redefined when anthropologists discarded the “pacified past” paradigm. Anthropologists working under the auspices of the old research strategy operationalized “warfare” based on features which define modern warfare: huge battles, long campaigns, and extensive tactical planning. Under the new paradigm, by contrast, war has been redefined to include small raids and ambushes (the most frequent type of combat in non-state societies). The two paradigms, therefore, are based upon two different concepts of what war is.

Keeley sees the shift in ideas about primitive warfare as progress, and his reasons for doing so provide the perfect refutation to those who see in Kuhn’s thesis the ultimate repudiation to the possibility of cumulative progress in scientific knowledge. The old definition of war was not completely discarded; it was merely restricted in its application to the type of warfare waged by state societies. The new, broader definition-one that defines combat as taking place through battles, massacres, raids and ambushes-is predicated upon a progressively better understanding of how the social, political, and economic structure of a society determines the type of war it wages. Anthropologists have come to recognize that a definition of war based only on the features of combat characteristic of one type of society is not applicable to all others. Non-state societies don’t have the population sizes, strong centralized political hierarchies, or economic surpluses to conduct long campaigns or wage huge battles. Instead, they use strategies commensurate with their own level of social, economic, and political complexity. The shift in anthropological theories about primitive warfare reflects this better understanding.

Keeley’s book provides an example of how the scientific approach leads to the progressive improvement of anthropological knowledge. It also provides “empirical corroboration” for my argument that a scientific sociocultural anthropology is truly possible.

I admit the practice of science is not without its flaws, and postmodern anthropologists have, if nothing else, renewed our awareness of the limits of scientific explanation. At the same time, I believe that their criticisms pose no real challenge to the possibility and superiority of a scientific epistemology. Indeed, their so-called challenges have either already been anticipated in the structure of the scientific method, are themselves problematic, or stand outside the realm of scientific investigation.

In my humble but “biased” opinion, a scientific approach to anthropological research is not only still possible-it also remains the best means by which anthropologists can attain their central goal: not an absolute but a progressively better understanding of humanity.

References Cited:

1. Barrett SR (1996). Anthropology: A Student’s Guide to Theory and Method. Toronto, Toronto University Press

2. Paul Durrenberger, class discussions 11/07/01

3. Gatewood, JB. 1985. “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” in Directions in Cognitive Anthropology, edited by JWD Dougherty. Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press

4. Kaplan D and RA Manners (1972). Culture Theory. Waveland Press Inc., Prospect Heights, IL

5. Keeley LH (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press, Oxford

6. Kuznar LA (1997). Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA

7. Salzman, PC. 2000. Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory. Waveland Press Inc., Prospect Heights, IL

8. Spiro MA (1991). Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ

9. Spiro MA (1995). What is New About Postmodern Subjectivity. Paper for AAA symposium on “Postmodern and Psychological Anthropology”

Science and Socio-cultural Anthropology:
When Constructing a Better Body of Knowledge about Humanity is the Goal
Abigail Viall, 12/5/01

WARNING: This is a highly reflexive, author-saturated fiction about why I believe socio-cultural anthropology can be scientific. It does not “represent” anything. Rather, it is a (morally charged) story about why postmodernists’ challenges to the possibility (and superiority) of scientific anthropology are both uniformed and irrelevant. I fully acknowledge that my views are colored by my being a middle-class, white, Western female. I also admit that I was raised to value a rational, methodological approach to problems, and that I am pursuing my doctorates degree in an Anthropology Department with “scientific sympathies.”

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