Three Things to Know about Anthropology

Does all science happen in a laboratory? Does every experiment need to be perfectly replicable? Or is science bigger than the images we see of it in the media?

1) Anthropology Is a Science

Laboratory
On a social level, science is measured by its props.

On a social level, science is measured by its props (beakers, lab coats, and the periodic table) and not by the core intellectual developments that set it apart from alchemy: information sharing and the scientific method.

I took a lot of lab classes in college — including physics, chemistry, and biology. When we were learning to do “science” in a lab, we were usually spending our time repeating experiments that have been done before, like the Milliken Oil Drop Experiment. In fact, the basic assumption is that we need to be able to do the exact same experiment again, and get the same results. That’s what leads to “scientific” truth, right?

As it turns out, in the “real” world many experiments can’t be replicated exactly. That’s one thing that makes bench science different from other aspects of scientific research. But as part of our culture, we use the word “science” casually, often not distinguishing “using techniques like the ones I learned in science class in middle school” from using the scientific method.

It has been argued that research done “in the field” can’t be replicated. That I, as a researcher, can’t perform the same research twice if my research involves going and interviewing people, living among them, and seeking to understand them.

But while “replicability” is a neat tool for research, replication really means that the underlying assumptions of the theory are tested across multiple times and places so that we control for extra variables that are not readily apparent. And yes, that can be done in the social sciences.

2) Anthropological Theory Has Advanced

"Totem" Pole at UBC Museum of Anthropology
They’re called “crest poles” now. The originals serve a similar function to a heraldic crest.

When having lay conversations about anthropology, it’s common for people to already know many of the theories that are over a hundred years old. People are often familiar with the underlying assumptions of E. B. Tylor (like evolutionary ideas about the development of religion) even if they don’t know his name.

Many don’t know that Tylor was one of the founders of the field of anthropology, but people often have at least a grasp on his ideas. What’s less well known is that since Tylor’s time, we’ve been researching and refining those ideas. His ideas aren’t gone so much as they’ve been changed, corrected, and critiqued so much they hardly resemble what they started as.

It’s like Sigmund Freud’s work relative to psychology; hardly anyone working in psychology uses Freud for much of anything anymore. Serious scientists don’t talk about the Id, Ego, and Superego. While psychology has moved on, these ideas still resonate in our culture. Further, some of the things Freud proposed (the subconscious and the effects of childhood on later life, for instance) have simply become part of culture.

3) Fieldwork Is the Least of What We Do

Latin dictionary
Fieldwork, like labwork, is glamorous — but only one small step in the scientific process.

Anthropological fieldwork is, let’s face it, exciting. No, it’s not as exciting as the travels of Indiana Jones, but traveling to distant lands, or at least into foreign scenarios (even if we find them just down the street) has a certain charm.

The part that rarely makes it into stories is the endless hours of research that take place before and after the fieldwork. We imagine anthropologists living in a dim hut in exotic lands, but we don’t think of the days and weeks transcribing notes, or the dialectic conversations and publications as researchers discuss the implications of their data with one another.

In other words, we might imagine studying musty tomes to ferret out hidden aspects of humanity, but we rarely consider the fact that our duty as scientists is to write those musty tomes.

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