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Revision to AAA Long Range Plan

AAA President Virginia R Dominguez

The following is a letter from AAA President Virginia R Dominguez regarding the association’s long range plan.

Every so often an event or statement captures the attention of anthropologists on important issues for the profession, regardless of the intentions of those involved in sponsoring the event or formulating the statement. The past 10-12 days are an excellent example.

When such an issue presents itself, I hope we can use these moments of reflections and debate to strengthen our profession and our engagement with it.  I have long been interested in who we are, what work we do, and how our commonalities and differences (past and present) are all still anchored in our shared interest in humanity in all of its aspects and diversity.

I urge you to read the statement issued by the four AAA officers yesterday and posted on the AAA Home Page along with a direct link to the document that sparked the recent discussion and public debate.                                                

The document to which I refer is a revised AAA Long Range Plan. The plan, originally adopted and occasionally amended by the AAA Executive Board, is one element of the Board’s process of planning for the future, our use of resources, and our stewardship of the association. The AAA Executive Board uses it as it fulfills its legal duty to the AAA membership to plan for a sustainable future.

Upon reading the revised Long Range Plan, if you have suggestions to strengthen and improve it, I urge you to forward them to me at aaapresident@aaanet.org or post them here so that the AAA Executive Board can benefit from your wisdom and counsel.

29 Responses

  1. My biggest concern is that AAA has not issued an explanation for the changes to their statement. I am specifically talking about the reasons for entirely removing the word ‘science’ from your statement. I am not the only person concerned with this action and I feel the responsible thing for AAA to do is to issue a statement of explanation for the changes.

    Many of us are concerned that with AAA’s removal of the word ‘science’ that AAA also begins to erode the credibility of anthropologists. We are able to be the activists that we are because we work within science, not without science.

  2. “Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological,
    biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical,
    visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to
    further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the
    dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.”

    While much of the debate over the removal of “science” from the AAA’s description of anthropology has followed the familiar lines of the science versus humanity or science versus po-mo debates, I have been looking from this issue from another perspective, that of an anthropologist who has made a career in advertising, been active in the Democratic Party, and learned in both contexts the weakness of what I will call laundry-list communication. The second sentence of Section 1 is a classic example, a perfect illustration of what happens when committees attempt to satisfy a jumble of competing constituencies and lack the imagination to come up with a single, compelling message. The default is the laundry list. It includes something for everyone important enough to be seen as requiring conciliation. It satisfies no one. More important for PR purposes, it has zero or negative impact on anyone who is not already on board one of the wagons being circled.

    When I think of what got me into anthropology, it was a simple compelling message. This was the one academic discipline that proudly claimed to be not one or the other but both a science and a humanity, a uniquely liminal position from which humanity as a whole might be understood. There were also practical benefits. I could apply for grants from both NSF and NIH and also the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Add the appeal of exotic adventures in alien places. The image was irresistible.

    When I look at this statement I see a only a laundry list in which “public understanding of humanity in all its aspects” has all the appeal of a dead fish left too long before it is cooked. The omniscience it claims is ridiculous. There is no unique perspective to add particular interest. And were I in charge of funding or curriculum I would place my bets on people with a clearer sense of what they are trying to do. Looks like a disaster to me.

  3. Do I understand that you four have IMPOSED this change — or is this a proposal? If the former, shame on you.

    To the essence: Anthropology is multi-disciplined and some fields use “real” science: biology, geology, chemistry, physics, etc. How does it help “public understanding” to obscure this insight into the rigor of our discipline?

    The other fields, I thought, filtered their findings through “social science”, a term that is still not universally accepted by all. This is the real area that needs to be conveyed to the “public understanding”: that we need to be as objective as we can in our assessments of ourselves as humans and the ideas and mores by which we live and judge others.

    As a public school teacher, I designed a course for middle-school that tried to show how we evaluate data and try to understand implications, by designing and testing theories. I acknowledged the difficulties in subjecting human behavior to strict scientific testing — but urged my students to mirror the “scientific method” and to strive for objectivity.

    I cannot believe that we do “public understanding” a real service by omitting the word “science” from any statement of purpose. I agree whole-heartedly with the two comments already posted.

    Please desist — or make sure the Association membership has a chance to vote on this.

    • I would agree wholeheartedly with the tone and the substance of Robert Morgan’s comment on this question. As a cultural anthropologist I understand the academic context of discourse in which this proposed(?) change has developed, but for all the practical and intellectual reasons Morgan notes (at least for these) it seems that to eliminate the identification of a scientific aim toward objective understanding in the whole mix of our complex, multifaceted discipline, is a wrong turn in the making.

  4. “Science” in the English speaking world has an objectivizing undertone. An anthropology that considers its main goal to be the study of “objects” is a paradox when these “objects” are subjects. The roots of the debate reach back to the 19th century “explanation” vs. “understanding” divide in academic disciplines. Science pure and simple is not able to combine knowledge with recognition (in the philosophical sense) of an Other. Therefore, the move of the AAA Exec Board is entirely justifiable.

    On the other hand, removing goals such as “solving human problems” is a move towards that objectivist ideology which is abandoned by dropping “science” in some paragraphs. No academic discipline can position itself outside the world of power differentials and interests; that implies the ethical necessity of action where injustice is perceived and analyzed during academic work.

    Both changes should have been discussed before implementing them, obviously.

    • I completely disagree that “science pure and simple is not able to combine knowledge with recognition … of the Other” (RB 12/4/2010 10:56). Science is a social construction that transforms across time and space–there is nothing pure or simple about this. As a discipline, we are well positioned to challenge the current limits of Popper-fashioned science. I believe that we would serve the academic community and the public at-large much more effectively if we were to push the boundaries of science. To walk away from science would mean that we accept the current practices/meanings of science. I would prefer to stand and fight. I do not believe that the EB’s current change to the LRP serves the discipline or the public well.

  5. I just received a letter from AAA that was confusing when read out of context; it implied that membership were reacting to some textual changes in the “preamble” to a long-range planning document. On closer inspection, it appears to me that the current officers have made changes to the fundamental mission statement of the AAA. I see this as rather more significant, and something that should not be done lightly. Nevertheless, I would hate to see this degenerate into the age-old debate about whether American Anthropology is “science” or “humanities”. It is clearly both, and it clearly has always been so. I work on the “humanities” side of the discipline, so I am not defending the “science” side – but nor am I attacking it. Given my scholarly orientation, it would not irk me to lose” science” from the mission statement – but it does indeed irk me to see the laundry-list approach that has been taken in the proposed re-write. There is quite a bit more going on with their changes than merely the removal of the word “science” – they have also removed any reference to the use of anthropological knowledge to solve human problems. This bears explanation. I think the officers need to go back to the drawing board – I would urge them to drop their changes for now and use the original mission statement, and open a proper discussion on amending the mission statement in an appropriate way.

  6. “The AAA Executive Board uses it as it fulfills its legal duty to the AAA membership to plan for a sustainable future.”

    In what sense does the Executive Board believe this change in the mission statement is sustainable?

    What By-Laws govern the revision of the mission statement?

    What is the current membership of the Executive Board?

    This link is outdated:

    http://www.aaanet.org/about/Governance/Leadership/exec_board.cfm

    I would like to know who came up with this new statement. There is a disturbing lack of transparency here. Where is basic courtesy? Where is professionalism?

  7. Dear Dr. Dominguez:
    As a 35 year-long member of the AAA and a former Program Editor for the Archaeology Division (2002-2006) who worked my tail off to keep archaeologists coming to the AAA meetings, it is stunning that you would think that this tepid statement is an adequate response to the outrage many of us feel.
    The AAA Executive Board’s actions are widely perceived as an act of domination by one branch of socio-cultural anthropology, an action that implicitly excludes archaeology, biological anthropology, and other scientific branches of anthropology. To suggest that our collective outrage was somehow “generated” by the recent news reports is simply an act of self-willed blindness to the implications of your actions.
    It is inconceivable that you would suggest that you are fulfilling a “legal duty” to “plan for a sustainable future” for the AAA, when in fact your actions may have doomed it irrevocably.
    If the AAA has decided to become the “American Sociocultural Anthropological Association,” then fine: just tell us and we can take our membership dollars elsewhere. If not, then you should do the following:
    1) The AAA Executive Board should revise their amendments to the Mission Statement in the next 30 days. If the cannot bring themselves to do this, then they should a) reinstate the previous Mission Statement, and b) then collectively resign and call for new elections.
    2) The AAA Executive Board should expand the allocation of sessions to the Archaeology Division, the Biological Anthropology Section, the Society for Anthropological Sciences, and other “science-oriented” sections. The vast majority of the sections within the AAA are, in fact, comprised of sociocultural anthropologists (e.g., the Anthropology of Europe section). A simple allocation of slots based on membership selects against archaeology, biological anthropology and other “under-represented” groups. Think of it as the AAA’s version of affirmative action.

    Jerry D. Moore, Ph.D., RPA
    Professor
    Department of Anthropology
    California State University Dominguez Hills

    • Dear Dr. Moore,

      Please don’t blame this unfortunate decision by the Executive Board on the assumption that the four members are all sociocultural anthropologists, and so are not scientists.

      I am a sociocultural anthropologist, and am a scientist. I am just as surprised and concerned about this divorcing of the discipline from an overt connection to rigorous investigative methods as I believe you are.

      Shannon May

      • Dear Shannon,
        I am the last person to assume that sociocultural anthropologists are not scientists. Nor am I insisting that all anthropological inquiry be “scientific.” I am a firm believer in Eric Wolf’s charcterizaton of anthropology as “the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of the sciences.” It is exactly this multi-sided view of the human condition that I want to see maintained. The Executive Committee’s decision–whatever their personal research interests and approaches may be–weakens that multi-dimensional perspective.
        Thank you for your comment.
        Jerry Moore

  8. Two thoughts, one strategic, one conceptual. The first is that we cannot afford to undermine anthropology or any of its sub-disciplines at a time when obtaining funding for any research other than that positioned as ‘science’ is extraordinarily difficult. The so-called ‘humanities’ have long been devalued (compare the salaries new literature professors receive versus those in chemistry or engineering). The social sciences are somewhere in the middle, with an economic hierarchy favoring economists (since related to business departments, which also garner high institutional resources) over anthropologists and sociologists. And as we also know, some legislators are attempting to do away with any governmental funding of social science research (such as by the NSF).

    As a discipline we need to shore up public perceptions (including those of legislators and administrators) of our work any way we can if we are to have some hope of continuing institutional support and obtaining research grants. In the current socio-economic climate, that means continuing to emphasize ‘science’ whenever describing our discipline, even though many of us are not hypothesis-testing or running double-blind clinical trials.

    Which brings me to the second thought, which is that as anthropologists we should hesitate to concede to only one definition of ‘science’ when we know there are many epistemologies that involve systematic, empirical observations, logical reasoning, and generalizations. As a medical anthropologist, I am particularly interested in studying the varieties of sciences developed in different societies and through history, whether or not they would be classed as ‘science’ by, say, a physicist in the U.S. in 2010. The internal divisiveness in our discipline might be somewhat mitigated by accepting that there are multiple ‘scientific’ methods of data collection as well as different approaches to interpreting and analyzing data, whether qualitative or quantitative, material or ideational. I try to keep up with new research in physical anthropology and archaeology, linguistics and cultural anthropology because it does all contribute to understanding ‘humanity’ and sends my own research down new paths.

  9. These are my reactions, as posted on my blog, “Publishing Archaeology” :

    I find five problems with the proposed changes in wording:

    1. The term science should not be removed from AAA planning documents. If the AAA wants to be pluralistic and add interpretivist approaches in addition to science, that’s fine. But many of us do social science, and many of us do biological science. For us, the concept of science is at the heart of our intellectual pursuits and it is part of our professional and personal identities.

    2. The AAA focus on research, and scholarship should not be changed to an exclusive focus on the advancement of “public understanding.” Public outreach is important and should continue to be stressed, but not at the expense of research and scholarship.

    3. The concern of the AAA should not be changed from a focus on the four subdisciplines of anthropology (ethnology, archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology) to understanding “humankind in all its aspects.” The AAA should not be hegemonic and try to co-opt all social sciences and all human-related biological sciences (and perhaps all the humanities as well). The AAA should focus on anthropology as normally construed in the United States (the list of the subdisciplines does a good job of this).**

    4. The extended list of topics included in the purview of the AAA should not be changed from the list of the four traditional subdisciplines** to an expanded list consisting of three subdisciplines plus seven branches of the fourth subdiscipline (ethnology).

    5. The use of anthropology “to solve human problems” should not be removed from t statement.

    ** NOTE: I am amenable to adding applied anthropology as a fifth subdiscipline.

    Michael E. Smith
    Professor of Anthropology
    School of Human Evolution & Social Change
    Arizona State University

  10. Although it is tucked away in the Long Range Plan, the Executive Committee, in effect, has amended the AAA Mission Statement which can only be done through a vote of the membership. This is clearly indicated on the current Mission Statement that was “amended in 1983″ and the process for amendment is stipulated in the AAA By-laws. The AAA Executive Committee has over-stepped their authority in this matter.

  11. Science or scientific should be reinserted in the document. At a minimum, Section 1 could read “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance THE SCIENTIFIC AND public understanding of humankind …”

    Accept John McCreary’s insightful comment and eliminate the “laundry list.”

    “Public is a contemporary buzzword that may not endure. In addition, so-called “public anthropology” is a part of what applied anthropologists, in academe and elsewhere, have been doing for decades.”

  12. Criticism is easy, finding solutions is difficult. Over the past eight years the Society for Anthropological Sciences has endeavored to find a way for science to co-exist with the many other approaches that now comprise anthropology. The Board’s actions are another reminder that our endeavor is far from over.

    It is no secret that power within the AAA is measured in numbers. If you support the idea that scientific approaches should continue to play an important role in anthropology, I urge you to join the Society for Anthropological Sciences either now or when you renew your membership. It’s only $10 (most of which is used to support student prizes and travel subsidies), and every addition to our member roles will strengthen our ability to work towards a time when science has broad support within the AAA.

    –Peter Peregrine, President
    Society for Anthropological Sciences

  13. I strongly agree with Michael Smith’s comments: “science” should not be dropped from the mission statement, nor should reference to “the use of anthropology to solve human problems.” Expanding the list of the traditional four fields opens a Pandora’s Box — where do you stop? I’m also concerned about prioritizing the mission for “public understanding,” important as it is, over research and scholarship.

    Finally. can somebody please explain what is the status of these changes? Is this a fait accompli or a proposal?

    Catherine J. Allen

    Professor of Anthropology
    The George Washington University
    Washington, D.C.

  14. This is a divisive and unnecessary move that I fear will only create challenges for those of us who seek funding from sources such as NSF or NIH or who work in 4 subfield departments. Although I am a cultural anthropologist, I see no reason that we have to extricate science from our discipline. Do we wish to further delegitimize our discipline among policymakers and those with resources? If so, perhaps this is exactly the right direction to go.

  15. Thank you to Jerry D. Moore: the issue should be “who is to make these group-idenity” changes. I hope the Group of Four will draw back — and claim a success in putting the issue on the table.

    And again thanks to Prof Moore for reminding us of Eric Wolf’s definition (Dec 5 comment above) — what a wonderful pragmatic way to begin a real discussion. Combat will only divide — and obscure the real dilemma facing us: in anthropology, science and the arts-humanities must somehow illuminate each other — but with the emphasis on obtaining an objectivity, no matter how difficult when we ourselves are the subjects.

    Full disclosure: Myself, if I participated in such an undertaking, I would want to know why we dropped the promising seeds of Leslie White. But I do not raise this at this point: first we should establish the process for any discussion — and peer review of the membership. At least, that is what I see as the most promising way to a working hypothesis and theory of anthropology.

  16. I find it troubling that the way the economy is hurting graduate students and new PhDs could not somehow find its way in these revisions. Funny where the priorities are, eh? Aren’t these individuals the future of the discipline? Should not they have a voice in the long range vision of the association! Incredible! Oh, but don’t worry, we’ll all pull ourselves up from our bootstraps eventually and become the unwitting promulgators of the very same neoliberal ideology that so many of us criticize. All us unemployed PhDs will just make the sacrifices we must make, right? Of course, the AAA can’t solve this crises, but it can acknowledge the problem as an incredible threat to the existence of the discipline…far more threatening than our public outreach/etc. How?

    1) Devoting an issue of AN to this, filled with horror stories.

    2) Open up letters to AN to talk about this problem.

    3) Issue a formal statement discouraging exploitative and ridiculous applications, such as grad transcripts, letters of rec., etc. FOR THE FIRST STAGE OF THE APPLICATION PROCESS.

    4) Issue a statement encouraging more generalized postdocs over highly specialized ones

    5) etc.

  17. Maintaining “science” as a defining term for anthropology would have been much more inclusive than even the long list of subfields supplied by the Committee. Science is a research method that can be applied to any content. It refers to careful research methodology, a questioning of one’s assumptions (including assumptions of objectivity) and providing supporting evidence for conclusions or insights developed during research. The term does not limit the content of research – my own dissertation on dancing and culture was funded by NSF! Those who consider science a colonial project may be unaware that the history of science goes back much earlier than European expansion.

  18. [...] Don’t Get at Psychology Today. There is also a letter from AAA president, Virginia Dominguez here and you can find the full text of the planning document here. The primary concern has centered on [...]

  19. I applaud the changes to the long range plan. It is a mistake to read the change as “anti-science.” Not all anthropologists identify themselves as scientists, we all should know that. One of anthropology’s greatest strengths is its inclusiveness and its ability to serve as a site of mediation between the natural sciences and the humanities (to paraphrase Jon Marks in his facetiously titled and very relevant WHY I AM NOT A SCIENTIST). The differences among anthropologists are in many ways greater than among other disciplines. That makes our work challenging and it must make coming up with a long range plan especially challenging. But the breadth of diversity of anthropology is what draws many of us to it. Keep up the good work, Exec. Board. May we all prove up to the task of working across subfields and the contested territory between the natural sciences and the humanities.

  20. As the person sitting in the Archaeology seat, I would like to make an effort to clarify the thinking of those of us on the Executive Board who voted on these changes to the Long Range Plan (not the Mission Statement, which is unaffected and can only be altered by a vote of the membership).
    I am an archaeologist who considers herself more a scientist than a humanist (altho historical archaeology can hover in both camps), and I did not
    notice the absence of the word science in this document but was focusing on the fact that this was a much better and more coherent statement than the last one in the Long Range Plan. As well, since there is absolutely no sense on the EB that science is not part of what we do, I assumed that we were being inclusive. Personally I am sorry that I did not read the document closely enuf to notice the omission,
    I would urge everyone to go to the AAA website
    and read (under About AAA) the statement “what is anthropology”. It was passed at the same meeting by the same Board and clearly includes science in all aspects. I assure you that the Board is in no way trying to dismiss scientific parts of anthropology and there will be a re-statement soon of a modified LRP.
    All that being said it is a fact that AAA has lost many archaeologists which while I understand, makes me and others in the AD unhappy. And the fewer of us there are, the less relevant the AAA meetings will be. So please consider staying in the pond and trying to make AAA what we want it to be.

    • Nancy, this is helpful insight into the process by which the long-range plan was generated. I admit that I’m surprised to learn that the omission of “science” was not noticeable since the new plan clearly seems to be a re-write of the opening to the mission statement. I can only assume that the members of the executive committee did not also have the mission statement on hand for a comparison (?).

  21. It is sad to find American anthropology engaging in its own version of a culture war, over the use or non-use of a word that is being fetishized. “Science” is a word with multi-faceted meanings, hardly more precise in English than its counterparts in other languages (perhaps in some ways less). Anthropologists may have their own varied reasons for identifying or not identifying with it, and it would seem to me that the AAA Executive Board has formulated a long-range plan where just about everybody active in the discipline as such – academic, professional or otherwise engaged; “scientific” or “non-scientific” – should be able to find some point of attachment, without being alienated by any other part of it.

    A plan is a plan. Its primary aim, it would appear, is to identify the direction of future endeavors. In a rather volatile period in the environment of the discipline, it is surely desirable that the AAA has a coherent, updated and concrete view of its aims, not least in public life. An argument over what is and is not science in anthropology may be a little out of place in this context. But in any case, as human life is complex and diverse, the scope of anthropology would seem to require a pluralistic view of ways of building knowledge and understanding. A modest suggestion: perhaps the officers of the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, or some other relevant combination of organizations under the AAA umbrella, could come together to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to sort out what could be an appropriate understanding of science (or, if necessary, alternative but co-existing understandings), and to define its uses as well as its possible limits in the pursuit of knowledge within anthropological fields? For one thing, this could result in illuminating teaching materials; and for another, it could take us away from a situation where to the public eye, anthropologists might seem to be their own worst enemies.

  22. Anthropology has always had both scientific and humanistic agendas, and needs to keep both of them–explicitly. The Mission Statement needs to be revised to include both.
    The claim that “science” is somehow one thing, and that it “objectivizes,” is appalling. As a lifelong student of ethnoscience–sciences across cultures–I can testify that every society has science in the normal sense of the word, i.e. the search for useful and verifiable knowledge. No philosopher of science and probably no working scientist accepts the cartoon versions of science that have apparently led to excluding it from the AAA statement.
    The bottom line is: Are we going to abandon the search to “solve human problems”? If so, we don’t need science. If not, we need both science and humanities, and we need to keep the word “science” and the phrase about solving human problems in the AAA mission statement.
    If AAA does NOT care any longer about human problems, it really is time to start another anthropological association, more expressly devoted to such concerns.

  23. If the AAA Executive Board’s perspective is accurately represented by the statement “What is Anthropology?,” then why wouldn’t they change the language in the Long Range Plan (in turn borrowed from the AAA Mission Statement) to 1) accurately mirror their intents in “What is Anthropology?” and 2) retain the language of the AAA Mission Statement?

  24. I have just come across something James Fernandez wrote in 1991 that I think beautifully explains why we need to make room for science and humanities in anthropology:

    Though [different discourses] are a challenge to the coherence of anthropology as a discipline – a discipline … that in its receptivity to all things human casts a very wide disciplinary net – they can also be fruitful differences. For, on the one hand, anthropological poetics challenges the dehumanization that lies in the reductionist tendencies of scientific formalization, while, on the other hand, scientific formalization forestalls the excessively extravagant and freewheeling intuitive interpretations that are a tendency in poetic approaches. Rather than producing “incoherence” within anthropology, therefore, the pronounced differences between symbolic or poetic approaches on the one hand and cognitive approaches on the other can … be mutually enriching. It is anthropology’s virtue, in short, not to be all things to all people but rather to recognize the great complexity of the human condition and to insist persistently on a continuing dialogue or dialectic within the discipline as regards what it is to be human. That dialogue or dialectic [is] motivated by the sense that no one method or point of view can embody all one needs to know about the about the human condition … [Fernandez 1991:13].

    From: Fernandez, James W. 1991 Introduction: Confluents of Inquiry. In Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. 1-13. Stanford, CA: Stanford U. Press.

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