In discussing yesterday's post on the American Anthropological Association's removal of (the word) science from its long-range plan, several commenters were puzzled or skeptical about the foundations of the debate. One wrote:
The depiction of the different sides – both in the NYT article, the earlier Higher Ed article, and by many of the proponents – strike me as utter nonsense. Despite working in the field, I've yet to meet one of these anti-science cultural anthropologists.
And another wrote:
I can't quite grasp an academic yet non-scientific way to study these things.
It may help to recognize that the "anti-science cultural anthropologists" have traditionally framed their views as an opposition to "positivism".
In fact, this discussion has been going on since before anthropology existed as an academic discipline, with "positivist" becoming a term of opprobrium early on. J.S. Mill wrote in "Auguste Comte and Positivism" (1865):
[T]hough the mode of thought expressed by the terms Positive and Positivism is widely spread, the words themselves are, as usual, better known through the enemies of that mode of thinking than through its friends; and more than one thinker who never called himself or his opinions by those appellations, and carefully guarded himself against being confounded with those who did, finds himself, sometimes to his displeasure, though generally by a tolerably correct instinct, classed with Positivists, and assailed as a Positivist.
It's easy to find social scientists who identify themselves frankly as anti-positivists, from Marx to Habermas.
For the contemporary critique of positivism in anthropology, see e.g. Paul B. Roscoe, "The perils of positivism in Cultural Anthropology", American Anthropologist 1995:
OVER THE LAST TWO decades, a widespread conviction seems to have emerged that positivism is an intellectual conceit cultural anthropology can no longer afford. The target of relentlessly withering commentary, its program has focused the fire of disciplinary disenchantment with the post-Enlightenment project, and its perceived failings have provided a rallying point around which the identities of interpretive, deconstructive, and postmodern movements have formed. […]
The core of anthropology's image of positivism is what sometimes is called the "received model" of natural science: a set of philosophical or epistemological conceptions about the nature of the universe, the place of humans in it, and the specific (scientific) means by which "objective" or "true" knowledge of it is, or can be, generated. This positivistic model is said to predicate the existence of an "objective" reality independent of human perception and interpretation; it asserts the ability of humans to perceive, via the sensory organs, cognitively and linguistically unmediated aspects of this reality (facts); and it aims to construct a "perfectly impersonal or objective," "value-free," cognitive representation (or "mental map") of reality as a whole (theories).
The critique is taken further in Murray Wax, "On Negating Positivism: An Anthropological Dialectic", American Anthropologist, 1997. His abstract:
Continuing a discussion initiated by Paul Roscoe in the pages of this journal, this essay situates positivism as a social and philosophic movement adversarily responding to the "negative dialectic" of 18th- and 19th-century critical philosophy. Notably, positivistic ideologies and practices have been manifest in cultural anthropology, linguistic analysis without "meaning," and "the new archaeology." Because funding agencies have accepted the positivistic claim that it embodies "the scientific method," interpretivists and other dissidents have had to become "rice positivists," while graduate programs have required that research be fitted into a scenario of "hypothesis testing" of "theoretical problems."
In the body of the paper, Wax explains what he means by "rice positivist":
… it is hermeneutics or interpretivism that has replaced critical theory as the adversary of positivism in the late 20th century.
Despite the ideological fervor, it is not immediately evident who is doing what in actual practice […] What does remain troublesome is the normative quality of the positivistic ethos that dominates the major agencies funding anthropological inquiry. Since researchers need funding, they are driven to adopt the rhetoric and mindset of the dispensers. (In missionary discourse, they become "rice positivists.") "Applicants" (supplicants) are confronted with schedules whose headings conjure a fictive future of positivistic research: background (theories), problem, hypotheses, methods, measurements, data analysis, conclusions—in sum, the ideological rhetoric of natural science research within the positivistic mode. For natural scientists, the rhetoric is a convenient game its veterans can work retrospectively, offering to study the problems they have already resolved. But for anthropological fieldworkers, the application schedule can become an exercise in fantasy and falsification.
Leaving aside the question of whether there can be any objective reality independent of human perception and interpretion, as of 1997 Wax saw the positivists as dominating his field methodologically through a system of "Lordship and Bondage in Funding Agencies":
Positivism presents itself as the apostle of the scientific method; there can be no other possible strategy or method of investigation. Not too long ago, the anthropological representative to the National Science Foundation announced that she was using the influence and resources of her position in order to make anthropologists more scientific in their work. A similar hortatory phrasing has long distinguished one of the American Association for the Advancement of Science prizes.
He felt that the same positivist hegemonism characterized the field's publication outlets:
Professional refereed journals have been following the same path. By their criteria, an essay in cultural anthropology (or social science) was supposed to mimic the presumed style of articles in the journals of natural science: theory, problem, hypotheses, methods, data, analysis, conclusion.
(As an outsider reading the social science literature in the mid-90s, I perceived a different reality, but whatever…)
He notes — and applauds — the existence of widespread and deeply-felt anti-positivist feelings:
When funding agencies so utilize their powers as to impose a particular paradigm of anthropological investigation, and when applicants dissent from the paradigm and believe their efforts are being misdirected and possibly even impressed within an unethical mode, then there is likely to be a vehement rejection.
And he suggests that this reaction was winning some battles within the field:
The recent transformation in form and content of the American Anthropologist has elicited some irate responses. From the tenor of their letters to the Anthropology Newsletter, I would identify the critics as imbued with the positivist ethos. For them, the transformation was not an informed choice among alternatives each worthy of consideration; it was a betrayal of the scientific status of anthropology.
Thirteen years later, in its most recent issue, the American Anthropologist has published an interesting discussion under the title “In Focus: (Not) The End of Anthropology, Again? Some Thoughts on Disciplinary Futures”. As an outsider, my impression from reading this discussion is that the battle described by Roscoe and Wax is over. The "anti-positivists" have essentially exterminated their enemies within socio-cultural anthropology (though perhaps not within the funding agencies), and are now concerned with other issues, as discussed by Andre Gingrich in his contribution "Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology's Present and Its Transnational Potential":
[P]hilosophy has lost its former hegemony as a metascience of sciences. There is no need for anthropologists to go shopping in the next philosophical supermarket. Instead, we could continue to try out these fragments of philosophical epistemologies that we have already acquired, after putting them into shape for own purposes, to see how they work in our anthropological practice. […]
In the process, we will sooner or later notice that all these diverse philosophical fragments in anthropology's current epistemological activities have one common denominator: they are all derived from a common Euro-American epistemological legacy, as several authors have pointed out (see, e.g., Godelier 2009; Jain 1977). It will also be important to move beyond that legacy as an exclusive source of epistemological inspiration, while anthropology develops further into its transnational era. We all know that there are also other epistemological legacies, whether they are Indian, African, Buddhist, or indigenous (Gingrich 2009).
So, in addition to reinforcing our epistemological and practical resistance against "unequal interdisciplinary exchange relations" across national boundaries, moving beyond the narrow boundaries of Euro-American epistemological legacies represents a second major task for the next phases of sociocultural anthropology's complicated transition process. Breaking up and leaving behind the enduring Euro-American epistemological monopoly in our field certainly is a task of transnational and global dimensions—and perhaps the most important one of all. Among other exciting sources of inspiration, such as the philosophical legacies of Asia or Africa, this may in fact also imply a thorough reconsideration of sociocultural anthropology's own, vastly rich fieldwork records. They certainly include a multitude of contextualized popular epistemologies that emerged outside of, and against, the monopoly of Euro-American reasoning.
I conclude — again as an outsider — that the current argument within the American Anthropological Association pits the socio-cultural anthropologists and their project to "break up and leave behind the enduring Euro-American epistemological monopoly", which presumably includes all of "science" whether "positivist" or not, against the various other species of anthropologist (archeologists, biologists, and so on) who are somewhat more reluctant to move beyond these "narrow boundaries".
[Update — For a rational (and funny) perspective on intra-disciplinary arguments about the philosophy of rational investigation, see Geoffrey Pullum's 1983 essay "The revenge of the methodological moaners". A similar idea, I think, was behind something that I heard Jim McCawley say on several occasions: "When a linguist starts talking about the philosophy of science, you should put your hand on your wallet."]