Is Anthropology a Science?

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Volunteer forensic anthropologist Alexis Boutinn from Sonoma State University, investigates bones found by California National Guardsmen among fire-devastated homes on October 15, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.

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Is anthropology a science or one of the humanities? That's a long-running debate in anthropological circles with a complex answer. That's in part because anthropology is a large umbrella term covering four major subdisciplines (cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics); and because science is a loaded term that can be interpreted as exclusionary. A study is not science unless you are trying to resolve a testable hypothesis, or so it has been defined. 

Key Takeaways: Is Anthropology a Science?

  • Anthropology is a large umbrella term including four fields: linguistics, archaeology, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology.
  • Modern research methods more commonly include testable hypotheses than they do in the past.
  • All forms of the discipline continue to include aspects of non-testable investigations.
  • Anthropology today stands at the conjunction of science and the humanities.

Why the Debate Arose

In 2010, the debate in anthropology bled out to the world (reported in both Gawker and The New York Times) in general because of a word change in the purpose statement of the long-range plans of the leading anthropological society in the United States, the American Anthropological Association

In 2009, the statement read in part: 

"The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects." (AAA Long-Range Plan, Feb 13, 2009)

In 2010 the sentence was changed in part to: 

"The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects." (AAA Long-Range Plan, Dec 10, 2010)

and the officers of the AAA commented that they altered the wording "to address the changing composition of the profession and the needs of the AAA membership..." replacing the word science with "a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains."

Partly because of the media attention, the membership responded to the changes, and, by the end of 2011, the AAA had put back the word "science" and added the following verbiage which still stands in their current long-range plans statement:

The strength of Anthropology lies in its distinctive position at the nexus of the sciences and humanities, its global perspective, its attention to the past and the present, and its commitment to both research and practice. (AAA Long-Range Plan, Oct 14, 2011)

Defining Science and Humanity

In 2010, the debate in anthropology was just the most visible of a cultural divide among scholars in pedagogy, a seemingly sharp and impassible split that existed between the humanities and science. 

Traditionally, the main difference is that humanities, or so says the Oxford English Dictionary, are based on the interpretation of texts and artifacts, rather than experimental or quantitative methods. By contrast, sciences deal with demonstrated truths which are systematically classified and follow general laws, found by the scientific method and incorporating falsifiable hypotheses. Modern methods of research today often do both, bringing analytical methods into what was once purely humanities; and human behavioral aspects into what was once purely science.

A Hierarchy of Sciences

French philosopher and science historian Auguste Comte (1798–1857) started down this path by suggesting that the different scientific disciplines could be sorted out systematically in a Hierarchy of Science (HoS) in terms of their complexity and generality of their subject of study.

Comte ranked sciences in descending order of complexity as measured on different levels of empiricism. 

  1. celestial physics (such as astronomy)
  2. terrestrial physics (physics and chemistry) 
  3. organic physics (biology)
  4. social physics (sociology

Twenty-first-century researchers seem to agree that there is at least an understood "hierarchy of science," that scientific research falls into three broad categories: 

  • Physical science 
  • Biological science
  • Social science

These categories are based on the perceived "hardness" of the research–the extent to which research questions are based on data and theories as opposed to non-cognitive factors.

Finding Today's Hierarchy of Science

Several scholars have tried to find out how those categories are separated and whether there is any definition of "science" that excludes, say, the study of history, from being a science. 

That's funny–in both the peculiar and humorous sense–because no matter how empirical a study into such categories is, the results can only be based on human opinions. In other words, there's no hard-wired hierarchy of science, no underlying mathematical rule that sorts scholarly fields into buckets that aren't culturally derived. 

Statistician Daniele Fanelli gave it a shot in 2010, when he studied a large sample of published research in the three HoS categories, looking for papers that declared they had tested a hypothesis and reported a positive result. His theory was that the probability of a paper to report a positive result–that is to say, to prove a hypothesis was true–depends on 

  • Whether the tested hypothesis is true or false;
  • The logical/methodological rigor with which it is linked to empirical predictions and tested; and 
  • The statistical power to detect the predicted pattern.

What he found was that fields that fall into the perceived "social science" bucket indeed were statistically more likely to find a positive result: BUT it a matter of degree, rather than a clearly defined cut-off point. 

Is Anthropology a Science?

In today's world, research fields–certainly anthropology and likely other fields as well–are so cross-disciplinary, so nuanced and so interwoven as to be resistant to breaking down into neat categories. Each form of anthropology can be defined as a science or a humanity: linguistics that of language and its structure; cultural anthropology as that of human society and culture and its development; physical anthropology as that of humans as a biological species; and archaeology as the remains and monuments of the past.

All of these fields cross over and discuss cultural aspects that may be unprovable hypotheses: the questions addressed include how do humans use language and artifacts, how do humans adapt to climate and evolutionary changes.

The inescapable conclusion is that anthropology as a research field, perhaps just as acutely as any other field, stands at the intersection of the humanities and science. Sometimes it's one, sometimes the other, sometimes, and maybe at the best of times, it's both. If a label stops you from doing research, don't use it.

Sources and Further Reading

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Is Anthropology a Science?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, October 29). Is Anthropology a Science? Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Is Anthropology a Science?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).