Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Make Strange Familiar Evidence

Cathy Willermet, Sang-Hee Lee

For almost 30 years, anthropology has been undergoing its own culture wars. Anthropologists don’t know what to do with biological anthropologists as recent as 2010. Biological anthropologists are sometimes asked to choose a side between being a scientist and an anthropologist. I started out my own career feeling more aligned with biological scientists than with my fellow anthropologists. A generation later, I now understand what should have been obvious all along: science is a sociocultural activity insofar as scientists are humans. It took me a whole generation to come to understand and acknowledge this. Science versus anthropology is an unjustified dichotomy.

There is a timely lively back and forth all taking place on the internet, across venues of the traditional academia, public academia  and social media. The topics, the nuances, the charges are not new, but rather a new version of the old. I can trace it back to C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. Surely there are colleagues with a deeper well of wisdom who can trace the genealogy much farther than the prehistoric 1960s.

What started all this, this time around, is the charge of “scientism” which Nathaniel Comfort defined as “the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems” in his essay in Nature. Perusing the passionate responses that ensued, I believe his writing must have pushed buttons for many who see nothing wrong with having science occupy the privileged position of being the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems; and see everything wrong with calling out its social and political context.

I am embarrassed. The jeering and snarky put-downs that chastise historians who “historicize everything” and mock “other ways of knowing” as “navel-gazing” are strangely familiar. I am embarrassed because I recognize my own self in graduate school, almost 30 years ago.

In our volume, Cathy and I reflect that the “steadfast obsession with the scientific approach that characterized biological anthropology, like no other subfield in American anthropology, is in fact a response to mask the dark history surrounding its birth”. Obsession with a particular kind of science shielded our field from asking critical questions. We can no longer afford to pretend not to notice. We probe the very foundations that we safely took, that gave us a false sense of protection from asking uncomfortable questions about the political and historical contexts that form our data, that threaten to make our data impure.

Concepts such as explicit and implicit biases, privileges, and power can be strange from the tradition of scientific objectivity. We argue that we move forward by making those very strange concepts familiar. The contributors of our volume interweave our past and present, and point to the future of biological anthropology. We critically examine our familiar thinking. We creatively evaluate our evidence and analytical techniques. By doing so, we believe we endorse the current trend in our field in inviting new perspectives and voices. We do not shy away from questioning our basic assumptions about our research questions. We offer to go forward, critically.

Evaluating Evidence in Biological Anthropology Edited by Cathy Willermet , Sang-Hee Leeby

Evaluating Evidence in Biological Anthropology Edited by Cathy Willermet , Sang-Hee Leeby

About The Authors

Cathy Willermet

Cathy Willermet is Professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University and Research Associate at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico....

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Sang-Hee Lee

Sang-Hee Lee is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Riverside, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Her book Close ...

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