• 2016 AA Editor Search
  • Open Anthropology
  • Latest AAA Podcast

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 16,727 other followers

Science, Advocacy and Anthropology

By Leith Mullings, Monica Heller, Ed Liebow and Alan Goodman


Do you remember the arcade game ‘Whack-a-Mole’? Plastic animals pop up at random from their holes in a table’s surface. The player bashes them back into their holes with a rubber mallet. As the pace picks up, initial delight is replaced by a growing sense of futility. Every time a mole is whacked back into its hole, another pops up somewhere else. The debate about whether science and advocacy are inimical is starting to feel like this.

It has popped up again in this week’s New York Times Magazine in reference to our discipline, anthropology. Contrary to some loudly voiced claims, both advocacy and science are (and long have been) at the core of our discipline. At the same time, of course, both continually raise important ethical questions requiring continued conversation, examination and debate; indeed, the American Anthropological Association recently approved a new statement on professional responsibilities. They both also require a commitment to good scholarship, and to lively but civil scholarly debate, in which arguments are considered persuasive because of a consistent body of evidence whose reliability and validity inspire confidence, not because of exceptional circumstances presented in a made-for-the-movies sensational fashion. (see also Professor Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Noble Savages).

Let us use the problem of ‘race’ to illustrate the complex relationship between what counts as good or bad science, and significance of advocacy in anthropology. Our modern discipline’s origins are derived directly from an uncritical acceptance of, as well as a critical response to overt 19th and early 20th century ‘scientific racism.’ ‘Science’ legitimated prejudice and bigotry, holding that races were genetically separate and hierarchically ranked, and thus rationalizing slavery, Jim Crow laws and even genocide. And lest we think that ‘scientific racism’ is some archaic relic that was driven out of the public conversation, one need only consult the more recent arguments of authors such as Herrnstein, Murray, Rushton, Jensen, and Lynn.

In an attempt to bring sounder evidence to the debate, our Association’s current Race Project draws from all fields of anthropology and provides a modern, and eminently scholarly, understanding of race, casting a critical eye on race and racism through the lenses of history, science, and lived experience. The project, and the book that accompanies it, RACE: Are We So Different?, is also a form of advocacy, raising public awareness about how human variation differs from the popular, and sometimes even academic, notions of race. It argues, specifically, that 1) race is a recent human invention, 2) popular ideas about race emerge from history and culture, not biology, and 3) race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.

The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises.
We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.

Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and President of the AAA.

Monica Heller is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and Vice President and President-Elect of the AAA.

Ed Liebow is the Executive Director of the AAA.

Alan Goodman is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College, and a Past President of the AAA.

3 Responses

  1. [...] Science, Advocacy and Anthropology, Monica Heller Leith Mullings, Ed Liebow and Alan Goodman The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises. We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good. [...]

  2. It is quite clear that advocacy vs science dichotomies are overdrawn. Napoleon Chagnon has repeatedly argued that he doesn’t support ‘advocacy’ in anthropology, but scientific rigor. others, often outside the universities or secure with tenure, have taken the opposite view. This has proven controversial in Chagnon’s case (see recent New York Time bio articles and responses). But the reality, at least in the academic world I live in, is that many people working on justice or environmental issues are simultaneously scientifc researchers and advocates. Sometimes advocacy is politely labeled ‘engagement’, as at my Research 1 university. This is also argued in a forthcoming book on political ecology that I am finishing editing, with case studies- publish, teach, and work as an advocate. All are posssible. The question for a profession is whether they can get both research and advocacy recognized as valid parts of academic work in universities. This is hard. Especially in pre-tenure situations in North America (the rest of the world does not have tenure, so the need to demonstrate research publications and grants above all else is less vital to remaining in employment).

  3. [...] Originally posted at the American Anthropological Association [...]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,727 other followers

%d bloggers like this: