Sunday, March 16, 2014

Is Anthropology a method or a science?

In a recent discussion about the central focus of anthropology, what distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines, an argument was made that we do have a central theoretical focus. In fact, the argument goes, that theory is based on the fact that we are holistic and yet culturally relative. We are, in this formulation, the combination and contradiction of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures - Science vs Humanities. This approach, which goes back at least to Boas, is proposed to be the anthropological method.

 I agree that we have a central methodology. It is a methodology that in many ways also reflects our underlying philosophy of science and the nature of things -- that is, the objective (etic) observation of the world and the subjective (emic) nature of the observing instrument -- the anthropologist. We incorporate a "quantum" perspective which recognizes the fact that the observer IS part of the system being observed and thereby influences the observation -- i.e. creates a degree of uncertainty.

But a methodology is not a theory or explanation. It is only a process which without direction and purpose is like the mouse running on the wheel in its cage. Good exercise going nowhere. Theory is by its very nature "inductive" speculations based on deductive analysis of the observations made of nature. Induction is the "If, then" statement where the "if" statement is based on a known set of data, and the "then" statement is a generalization of that data into an unknown future event or situation. Deduction is tautological. It too is a set of "If, then" statements. However, these statement are known facts and relationships from which a new or previously unknown fact is "deduced" If A = C, and B = C, then A = B.

As "natural history" anthropology is a deductive science. But as an predictive science and an applied science, an inductive science. That is, in the former case we report what we see and then analysis it to see more detail in the facts we already have. In the latter case, we detect patterns from past observations and hypothesize or predict future outcomes based on the correlations found between variables from past observations, e.g. what the population of X will be in ten years based on the population rate for the past 30 years..

Inductive models or theories point out problems for study and to validate observed patterns or to disprove the pattern. Anthropology today, especially ethnography, does not seem to have an inductive focus -- a set of principles or correlations that drive the research or analysis. Instead we seem to be happy pursuing our own idiosyncratic emic agendas -- "description and deductions" based on a sample of one at one moment in time and space.

My personal bias in this regard is the broad generalized question of the human condition and what we can infer about it based on a 150 or more years of anthropological research. Some might say anthropology is the study of "culture" (e.g. Leslie White, Tylor, Kroeber) which is phenomenon oriented, while others might say anthropology is the study of mankind ( or pc "humankind") which is species (biologically) oriented.

In this regard, the concept "meme" or "trait" or any other term that one chooses that distinguishes the physical "gene" concept from the ideational "superorganic" concept presents us with an interesting and promising why to inductively test propositions that relate directly structure and dynamics of "culture" on one hand, and on the other to the "tipping" point between Hominid to Homo (Human like animal to the self aware Human animal).

Finally, those who question the validity of Memetics argue that it "is not a theory by any reasonable definition thereof. More a model, and a rather questionable one to anyone who has studied semiotic"

First, anthropology is not semiotics, although semiotics has much to contribute to anthropology. Second, "meme" is a theoretical concept, the same way the Higgs Particle is/was a theoretical concept, it is not a fact. As a theoretical concept it calls for an inductive approach.

The "meme" provides a basis for directing research by focusing on creating hypotheses to prove or disprove its existence. And if "meme" is not the right concept, the question still exists, how did man or culture become what it is and what it means to be human? Unless, of course, you accept the orthodoxy of the breath of life and the apple in the Garden of Eden.But then we have ceded a scientific approach to the study of culture and humanity to a religious orthodoxy.

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