Saturday, November 29, 2008

Anthropology - Field Divided Against Itself

The field of anthropology is dividing into two different fields it seems, social and evolutionary. This could be a good thing in the long term.

This article is from the Times Higher Education blog.

The great divide

20 November 2008

The discipline of anthropology has split firmly into two factions - social anthropologists and evolutionary anthropologists. Hannah Fearn asks whether or not the warring sides can be reconciled

Renowned anthropologist Eric Wolf once described his discipline as "the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences".

Perhaps he was attempting to capture the uniqueness of a subject that can talk to both academic camps but, by the time he died in 1999, his words articulated the growing split within the discipline.

Today, anthropology is at war with itself. The discipline has divided into two schools of thought - the social anthropologists and the evolutionary anthropologists. The schism between the two is simple but deeply ingrained. Academics in the subject clearly align themselves with one side or the other; once that choice is made it defines their career.

The division lies in the question of whether or not anthropology is a science, and if it accepts that Darwinian evolutionary theory guides research into human behaviour and the development of societies.

On one side are the evolutionary anthropologists. "(They believe) our behaviour is based on things that we did to find mates in our years of evolution," says Alex Bentley, a lecturer in anthropology at Durham University. "Then we have the social anthropologists. Some of them really strongly reject this kind of thinking. They consider it reductionist. They are focused on the specifics of culture."

Put crudely, social anthropologists describe and compare the development of human cultures and societies, while evolutionary anthropologists seek to explain it by reference to our biological evolution. The two sides of the one discipline are struggling to unite.

"They just do not see eye to eye. They don't see anything the same way," says Bentley. "It can be very difficult. In some departments they hardly speak. Professionally there is almost no overlap. One is more descriptive and the other is more analytical. It's a very clear dividing line in many departments. It often causes a lot of acrimony."

This division dates back to the 1970s, when eminent American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon (now retired emeritus professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara) presented his work on the Yanomami tribes of Venezuela in the context of evolutionary biology.

At first, evolutionary anthropologists were considered the mavericks of the discipline and regarded with both amusement and disdain. But the popularity of the subdiscipline has grown over the decades, and universities now face a challenge in keeping their anthropology departments operating civilly. The divisions within the subject are even guiding the hiring process, with many recruiters ensuring a balance of interests when hiring new staff.

"(Departments) might say: 'We'll have a social anthropologist this time but next time we can have a biological anthropologist.' It's that much out in the open," continues Bentley. Even undergraduates are forced to select one route of study or another from the outset. The effect on the subject is obvious: "While the two sides aren't communicating (the discipline) is not working as efficiently as it could," Bentley concludes.

Although the debate may be hosted within academe, there is nothing considered about the war of words exchanged between the two camps. Today's anthropologists are certainly not afraid of a bit of mud-slinging.

"A lot of anthropologists are interpretivists; they are interpreting what they see. They're not working within the framework of the scientific method," says Ruth Mace, professor of evolutionary anthropology at University College London. "That's all well and good, but why should we be more interested in one person's interpretation over someone else's interpretation unless we have got some commonly accepted grounds for testing competing hypotheses?"

For Mace, the debate over whether to work within the "scientific method" is holding anthropology back. "If you're interested in making formal hypotheses about why people do what they do, we have to test those hypotheses," she says. "I'm a scientist - that's what I do. I think that evolutionary theory provides a very real framework for trying to understand that. If a discipline isn't saying anything that is of interest to any other discipline then that is a problem. The scientific method is a common currency across all scientific disciplines, most of the social sciences included. In that way, disciplines can speak to each other."

Mace believes that cultural anthropology is still very dominant, and that trying to work as an evolutionary anthropologist is difficult within a British university. "It's unfortunate that the discipline's divided," she says. "It's difficult to do science in a non-science department."

But Tim Ingold, chair of social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, finds this view hard to accept. He says it is the biological anthropologists' refusal to compromise that is at the root of the split.

Read the whole article.

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