Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Anthropology the SOFTEST Social Science?

I did a foolish thing last weekend. I performed a Google search on my new book — just to see if there were any references to it online that I hadn’t already seen. (Of course, I realize that the Web can be merciless on the thin-skinned, but most authors can sometimes be gluttons for such surefire cyberpunishment, pretending that the one gem they might unearth could ever outweigh the playa-hating hordes.)

I found quite a few references to the book, mostly in fairly obscure/specialty venues, the bulk of them positive. But I was blown away by one interesting dismissal of the work, a dismissal seemingly tethered (in the first instance) to my academic background as a cultural anthropologist. My training as an anthropologist was the first strike against me.

Why are people sometimes so dismissive of anthropology?

In the era of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, anthropologists were public intellectuals of the highest order. They wrote for popular magazines and challenged Americans’ too-quick assumptions about the hard-wired ‘nature’ of social life.

But that was then. Now, anthropologists seem mostly relegated to the very back of the line when it comes to assessments about the value of social-scientific attempts to make sense of contemporary issues.

For instance, there are so many anthropologists who study academic underachievement among Black and Latino students, people such as Signithia Fordham, Prudence Carter (a qualitative sociologist), Mica Pollack, and many, many others. They do in-depth, long-term ethnographic studies. They proffer compelling analyses that nuance discussions of academic underperformance, explaining when and why it happens (for instance, in specific types of schools with a particular demographic mix of students). They even write up their findings in accessible language, with an eye toward the interested audiences beyond their academic field. However, CNN’s recent “Black in America” segment on the issue chose to focus almost exclusively on the experimentalist work of an up-and-coming economist, Roland Fryer, with only the slightest nod to the legion of qualitative folks working in this area. What gives?

It is probably a combination of what people don’t like about anthropology and what they find most powerfully persuasive about the harder sciences.

Anthropology often gets characterized as a “postmodern” cesspool, a discipline that wallows in pseudo-theoretical (even literary) waters, embraces the most solipsistic form of navel-gawking introspection, and has recanted most of its earlier commitments to ‘objective’ outsiderism. At the same time, economists are thought to occupy a firmer space much closer to the normative benchmark that is the natural sciences, crunching numbers in ways that purport to eschew the ideologically-driven meanderings of those softer social sciences.

There is a general pecking order in the social sciences. We all know that. It moves from economics down through the likes of political science and psychology, finally landing in the realm of sociology and anthropology. The closer one gets to serious mathematics as constituitive of the center of the discipline’s exploits, the higher one’s salary, the less diverse one’s colleagues (in terms of categories such as race or gender), and the more powerful one’s academic department. There are exceptions to this formulation, but it holds true quite a bit of the time, no?

We all genuflect to the seemingly sanitized power of numerical calculation, even as we sometimes remind ourselves that researchers can ventriloquize numerical analyses (based on how they set up their research designs, word their questions, etc.), so as to make them sing any number of different ditties.

It is a commonsense colloquialism: Statistics lie. But we also think of them as the best chance we have at some kind of hard-and-fast access to social truth.

As an anthropologist who respects the beauty and elegance of mathematics, I just wish our everyday privileging of its explanatory powers left a tad more room at the table for differently pitched methodological attempts at truth-telling.

7 comments:

Dimitry said...

I sympathise with this post, black. Economists are the new academic fair-children, much like TV talking heads have replaced novelists. Too bad we're not working in the '50s, right?

Marc said...

Thanks for this post. I cosign the entire thing... You're a smart dude... for an anthropologist! :-D

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