Anthropology -- Science or Not

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An essay describing the debate of whether or not anthropology should be studied as a hard science.

Submitted: February 02, 2013

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Submitted: February 02, 2013

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Science or Not

It has long been said that the world works in mysterious ways. Yet, for over four hundred and fifty years, hard sciences such as astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry, have attempted to unravel the many natural wonders which were once thought to be unknowable. It can also be said that the peoples of the world also act in mysterious ways. Is there another hard science that can help understand and possibly even predict peoples’ actions? The answer to this question has been fiercely debated since the birth of anthropology. In this paper I will explain the origins of this dispute, present arguments on behalf of both sides, postulate my own opinion on the matter, and describe how Anthropology is one of the most unique schools of study.

The origin of the question of whether or not anthropology should be studied as a hard science has no clear and concise beginning. Instead, it must be understood through a series of ideas put forth by a number of theorists. The first hint of this debate comes from a French philosopher named Auguste Comte. He wrote a series of texts that suggest society passes through a series of three separate stages which have an end result of perfection; now known as positivism. Soon after, naturalist Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in which he describes his theory of natural selection. Although the two publications were in no way meant to be collective, they did seem to complement one another. At a time when the world was coming to accept the natural sciences, people began to expect that there must be a logical and sequential explanation for everything, even human actions.

Early Anthropologists adopted the theories of positivism and natural selection and began to construct models of how societies could evolve from primitive forms into ones that are more “civilized”. These early anthropologists such as E.B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, came to be known as Evolutionists.

Evolutionism was grounded in the idea that all societies progress through a series of stages; the first being savagery, the second being barbarianism, and the third being civilization. Every society begins as a savage nation. Then, by meeting a set of cultural achievements, it can progress up the latter towards civilization. These achievements that must be met include: inventions and discoveries, ideas of government, family organizations and concepts of property. These early ideas suggest that anthropology should be viewed as a natural science. To support their ideas they used terms found in other sciences such as uniformitarianism which states that the processes we see today are the same processes that have always occurred. This would mean that human progression is a sort of lineal evolution and that is a constant struggle within all societies.

Critiques of the evolutionary model came during the early twentieth century in the form of a new school of thought called historical particularism. This school was led by the father of American anthropology, Franz Boaz. He disagreed with Tylor and Morgan in that he believed evolutionism was looking at other cultures from the biased opinion that Europeans were already civilized. He also felt that each culture is unique to its own history and achievements and, therefore, its cultural progress cannot be calculated from a list of requirements. Followers of Boaz used extensive fieldwork studies to compile data from one single culture at a time. This information would then be used to describe the culture as it exists now instead of where it falls along a line of progression.

This, for all general purposes, marks the beginning of the debate. The original ideas in anthropology would view it as a concrete science, suggesting that there is a natural order to cultures and the way they operate. However, different methods of analyzing societies began to view them as interpretations instead of hard facts. Although this early form of evolutionism is largely not accepted nowadays, there are still much more modern ideas which suggest anthropology may be considered a hard science.

In the mid-nineteenth century there was a new school of thought introduced called neoevolutionism. With it came a more scientific approach to anthropological methods. Julian Steward proposed the idea of environmental determinism which suggests that all cultures are predetermined based on their surroundings. There was even a mathematical model brought to anthropology by Leslie White. He proposed that a group of peoples’ cultural evolution could be calculated by the amount of energy they could harness and put to work.

In opposition to these scientific approaches came the schools of symbolic and interpretive anthropology. Victor Turner led the idea of the symbolic approach. He suggested that symbols may have multiple meanings, depending on their context. This means that there is no real cut and dry explanation to any question. Clifford Geertz used interpretive methods to suggest that anthropologists should look at what the actions of a culture mean, rather than simply the actions themselves. He uses the term “thick description” to express the idea that there is a deeper meaning to a behavior.

In my opinion, there are far too many variables in human culture to suggest there may be some sort of scientific method for studying it. That is the beauty of being human. We have free will. There is no set pattern to humanity. Natural sciences use experiments and rigorous testing to produce the same outcome time and again. If anthropology was able to be studied as a hard science, then there would be way of predicting what cultures “should” be like elsewhere. This is simply not the case.

I would agree with Boaz that a certain culture must be viewed as unique and not be compared to any other. I agree with Geertz in that there are “thick descriptions” of human behaviors. We must interpret what cannot be seen. However, I also support Steward’s suggestion that a culture is highly influenced by its environment.

This begins to shed light on the characteristics that make anthropology so distinct from all other schools of thought. In most hard sciences, the scientific method is used to describe the different parts of the natural world. Anthropology is characterized as a holistic study of mankind; studying people at a cultural level, a biological level, a linguistic level and an archaeological level. If we study humans in such a wide variety of perspectives, how can we limit ourselves to a single scientific method? Anthropology is unique in that there is a multitude of ways to study a culture. Anthropologists should seamlessly cooperate and collaborate with other schools of thought. This is why I find Anthropology to be more of an art than a science.  

The debate has survived for over one hundred years and has no sign of an accord. However, most colleges do teach the discipline within the school of arts. Perhaps there may be a sort of agreement in the future which will separate Anthropology into both the arts and the sciences. Like Geography, we may find that some parts should be seen through the eyes of a scientist, such as archaeology and biological aspects, and other area should be viewed from an artist’s perspective, such as the cultural and linguistic branches.


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