Starstruck at the SAAs

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about this year SAA conference, and I’ll get to more of them eventually. For now, this experience will have to suffice:

While at a Nat Geo reception, my friend pointed out Randall McGuire standing across the room. I had recently read his book review of Flannery and Marcus’ new tome on social inequality. As a marxist archaeologist, Randy didn’t exactly agree with all of their positions. Not only did he point out many of the inherent flaws of their approach, he was pretty funny in the process. In what could have been a harshly critical review, McGuire wrote tongue-and-cheek. I could almost hear him chuckling as I read.

Two issues in particular stood out. First, they assume that social inequality did not exist or existed in some fundamentally different way prior to early complex societies. Though the authors acknowledge inequality in age and gender in hunter-gatherer societies in the earlier chapters, they do little more to address this obvious criticism. Second, like many archaeologists, Flannery and Marcus use modern ethnographic examples. But their presentation of the “timeless ethnographic present” has obvious flaws; namely, that it doesn’t exist.

At any rate, when Randy walked by I had to introduce myself. I told him that I really enjoyed his review, and that I had sent it around to some of my friends on facebook. He was pleased to hear that it had gone viral (sort of). After a couple of minutes it was over. I should have taken a picture…

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NSF and Anthropology

Ryan at Savage Minds wrote about the House panel scrutiny of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences division of the NSF. His post is a nice summary of the proceedings and testimonies of witnesses. what I want to talk about here are two issues: Peter Wood, one of the testifying witnesses, and the public perception of Anthropology.

Peter Wood is the President of the National Association of Scholars, and apparently an anthropologist. Here are some of Wood’s suggestions for making cuts to the SBE from the Chronicle:

Pay attention to the rise of anti-scientific ideologies within SBE disciplines. In my field of anthropology, for example, the recent controversy over the attempt by the Executive Board of American Anthropological Association to jettison “science” from the AAA’s mission statement is a pertinent example. Should NSF fund “social science” research in fields that reject the paradigm of scientific investigation?

Cut funding for economics. Alternative funding for research in economics is abundant.

Cut funding for social-science dissertations. It is perfectly possible for graduate students to complete dissertations while supporting themselves.

Cut every program that is designed to advance women and minorities in the social sciences. Women and minorities are seldom disadvantaged in these fields, and anyway it isn’t the task of the National Science Foundation to engage in social policy.

I don’t agree with Wood’s characterization of the #AAAFail controversy, especially the notion that the AAA executive board attempted to “jettison” science from the mission statement. This portrayal is plain wrong. Furthermore, I don’t think Wood is the best spokesman for anthropology, let alone science. As an advocate for teaching intelligent design alongside evolution he himself is engaging in social policy and pushing an anti-scientific ideological agenda.

Anthropologists need to try harder to engage these issues publicly. The hype of the #AAAFail controversy resonates with people like Peter Wood, who is validating that hype to members of Congress. Wood and his colleagues are setting up a dangerous divide between ‘hard-science’ and ‘soft-science’ disciplines: where project funding is drawn on ideological lines; where science produces more legitimate, useful research than social science. His argument that funding should be cut to dissertation research, women, and minorities is based on this ideology, rather than actual inequalities between science and non-science fields.