Is Anthropology a Science?

Buffalo Jump Diorama at the Museum of Natural History
Buffalo Jump Diorama at the Museum of Natural History. Kio Stark

A long-standing debate in anthropological circles has become a recent and white-hot discussion on many science blogs--so hot both the New York Times and Gawker have covered it. Basically, the debate is about whether anthropology--the diverse study of human beings--is a science or a humanity. Archaeology, as it is taught in the Americas, is part of anthropology. Anthropology here is considered a four-part study, including the subfields of sociocultural anthropology, physical (or biological) anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology.

So when the American Anthropological Association (AAA) decided on November 20, 2010, to take the word "science" out of its long-range plan statement, they were talking about us, too.

It occurs to me that this debate centers on whether as anthropologists, our focus should be on human culture or on human behavior. Human culture, as I define it, emphasizes the cultural traditions of a particular group, specific kinship relationships, specific religious rituals, what makes a particular group special, and so forth. The study of human behavior, on the other hand, looks at what makes us similar: what physical limitations humans have that create behaviors, how those behaviors evolved, how we create language, what our subsistence choices are and how we deal with them.

On that basis, it's possible that the AAA is drawing a line between sociocultural anthropology and the other three subfields. That's fine: but it would be too bad if scholars saw this as a reason to restrict certain realms of knowledge to help understand human cultures--or human behaviors either one.

Bottom Line

Do I think anthropology is a science? Anthropology is the study of all things human, and as an anthropologist, I believe you shouldn't rule out one form of "knowing"--what Stephen Jay Gould calls "non-overlapping magesteria") from our field. As an archaeologist, my responsibility is both to the culture I study and to humanity at large. If being a scientist means I cannot include oral history in my investigations, or I must refuse to consider the cultural sensibilities of a particular group, I'm against it. If, however, not being a scientist means I can't investigate certain kinds of cultural behaviors because they might offend someone, I'm against that too.

Are all anthropologists scientists? No. Are any anthropologists scientists? Absolutely. Does being a "scientist" rule out calling yourself an "anthropologist"? Heck, there are plenty of archaeologists who don't think archaeology is a science: and to prove it, I've assembled the Top Five Reasons Archaeology is Not a Science.

I'm an archaeologist, and an anthropologist, and a scientist. Of course! I study humans: what else can I be