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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.

2012 in review

Happy New Year blog readers! The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog, check it out here:

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 95,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

AAA Seeks Professional Fellow

The AAA is hiring!

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is seeking to bring a post doc anthropologist on staff to lead its academic and practicing relations program. This is a two-year fellowship that will provide an opportunity for an anthropologist to work with AAA leadership and staff to conduct research, identify and develop new programs and services for members. Candidates should have a PhD in anthropology. The fellow will work at the offices of AAA located in the DC metropolitan area. Start date is fall 2012. Stipend is $50,000 per year plus benefits.

For more information on this fellowship opportunity go to http://careercenter.aaanet.org/jobs/4853112.32. To apply please send a cover letter and CV/resume to aaajobs@aaanet.org.

Where Do AAA Members Study?

18% of AAA Members have completed their member profile in the new AMS system.  Completed member profiles allow AAA members to find their colleagues by field of study, geographic area, language and much more. To get started, simply log in and edit the profile information sections on your My Information page.

Not a member? Join today!

From Labrador to Samoa: the Theory and Practice of Eleanor Burke Leacock

Have you read From Labrador to Samoa: the Theory and Practice of Eleanor Burke Leacock?

Edited by Constance R. Sutton, this book is published by the Association for Feminist Anthropology/American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the International Women’s Anthropology Conference, ©1993.

Order your print copy today from the AAA online store at a special member price of $7.50.

Archaeologists Rise Up Against “Heavy Metal”

 Our contenders in the ring of Diggergate’12 are…

Susan Gillespie, an American academic anthropologist and archaeologist, noted for her contributions to archaeological and ethnohistorical research on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, in particular the Aztec, Maya and Olmec.  This champion holds many titles: Associate Professor at the University of Florida, AAA Executive Board Member, 1990 Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Prize from the American Society for Ethnohistory and the 2002 Gordon R. Willey Prize.

Ric Savage, retired professional wrestler and history hobbyist, noted for his contributions in the independent wrestling circuits under the ring name “Heavy Metal”. Savage also hold titles: GAWF Southern Heavyweight Championship, two-time NCW World Tag Team Championship and two-time SWA World Heavyweight Champ.

The Play:
Savage’s new reality TV show, American Diggers, travels across the country digging up American treasure. In classic Heavy Metal fashion, Savage attempts to spike piledriver our nation’s history.

Bill Carter, journalist for The New York Times, interviews Gillespie as she speaks on behalf of her fellow members at AAA:

Our main issue is that these shows promote the destruction and selling of artifacts which are part of our cultural heritage and patrimony.

Savage’s Vice President for Development at Spike TV, Sharon Levy, replies with:

He has a right as an American citizen to do this…He’s not going anywhere he shouldn’t be. He’s not digging up the pyramids.

While Savage’s sunset flip might be one of his signature moves in wrestling, his unethical profiteering practices are not one for the books.

Read Carter’s article: TV Digs Will Harm Patrimony, Scholars Say

Special Note: *The great phrase DiggerGate’12 was started by our friends at The Wenner-Gren Foundation. Thanks!

New Search Features on AAA Website

When you head over to the AAA website, you’ll notice a few subtle changes that yield high rewards.

The first is that the search feature is now powered by Google. Website visitors now can find the content they are looking for quickly and with ease.

The second is the addition of a search feature that allows members to “search by name”. Gone are the days where you need to remember which e-mail address you used to create your log-in profile. Simply insert your name and this function will find it for you!

2011 AAA Blog In Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for our blog. Check out which posts were most popular, how our readers found us, where readers are from and much more!

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 95,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Petition to meet with Governor Scott

Recently, Governor Rick Scott of Florida was quoted in the Herald Tribune as saying that he wanted to devote state funding resources to encourage students to graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering and medical degrees, noting “the state doesn’t need any more anthropologists.”

We ask that you join this petition to have Gov. Scott meet with representatives from the Florida anthropology community as well as our colleagues in humanities and social sciences, who are also threatened by his comment about anthropologists.  The goal of the meeting would be to initiate a proactive dialogue about our particular diverse contributions to the scientific advancement, economy, and well-being of Florida. We will be collecting signatures for the next two weeks, and plan to submit our request on Monday, October 31.

Thank you for joining this petition, and helping us underscore the value of humanities-related and social science research and study not only in Florida, but nationwide.

To sign the petition, below, add your name to the reply box below along with any constructive comments you have for the Governor.

Thank you for joining our petition, and helping us underscore the value of humanities-related research and study not only in Florida, but nationwide.

Utilize the Free Speech Anthropology Forum to continue the discussion on this topic and follow the member coverage of Governor Rick Scott.

Be a AAA Leader – nomination deadline extended

AAA Nominations Committee is now seeking nominations for the open positions on the 2012 AAA ballot. AAA members should nominate themselves. This year there will be elections for 18 AAA board and committee positions. (For a complete list of the open positions, click here; for a description of AAA leadership positions, click here.) All nominations must be completed by Tuesday, October 11, 2011.This is your opportunity to take part in the shaping of the American Anthropological Association’s future.

Among scientific and scholarly associations, the AAA is unusual in having such an extensive system of elected committees and offices. For this degree of participatory self-governance to work well, it requires that AAA members be willing to stand as candidates and give generously of their time and energies. Please check out the vacancies, and if you feel moved to do so, please indicate your willingness to run by nominating yourself. When you participate, it is good for the association, good for you, and great for your vitae.

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