Turning Anthropology from Science into Political Activism

Beginning in the 1960s, a movement developed in academia with the aim of transforming scholarly pursuits into instruments of social change. It was motivated by intellectually fashionable ideas, such as Marxism and feminism, and by a trendy antipathy towards Western Civilization in general. Eventually it overwhelmed the humanities and deeply affected the social sciences.

The impact of the movement on my field, anthropology, was varied, since anthropology, with its four sub-disciplines, spans the range of scholarly activity from the physical sciences through the social sciences to the humanities. Three of those sub-disciplines (archeology, physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology) have remained mostly unscathed by the efforts to transform anthropology into another politically correct university outpost.

But the largest of the four, sociocultural anthropology (the study of social and cultural variation around the world), has been greatly distorted. It has been redefined from a science to an instrument of political ideology.

It is very revealing that in 2010, the executive committee of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the discipline’s major professional organization, dropped the word “science” from its mission statement, and elsewhere. Since then the organization has focused on trendy issues such as the environment, violence, climate change, race, etc.

The AAA now wants “to help solve problems” rather than to understand and explain reality. Different sections have appeared within the AAA reflecting radical politics, such as the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Association for Queer Anthropology (their designation), and other internal organizations that are highly politicized. Committees expend much energy on political issues and the formation of task forces like the Global Climate Task Force and the Task Force on Race and Racism.

One element in politicized anthropology is the repudiation of the West’s colonial past. Western expansion, as seen from this perspective, was not a phase in history, similar in many respects to the phenomenon of cyclical empires that goes back to the beginning of civilization, but rather an abiding sin for which activist anthropologists have vowed to make amends.

One of them is UC Berkeley professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has often called for the redefinition of anthropology from an academic discipline to what she calls “forensic” anthropology. (See, e.g. her essay “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology” in the June 1995 issue of Current Anthropology.) What she means by that is that anthropology should move from objective scientific analysis to activism, with a focus on the “crimes” committed by earlier anthropologists.

In her view, anthropologists should stop trying to be objective observers of reality and instead become “witnesses” who “name the wrongs” that have been done to the peoples who have been studied. 

This view is a continuation of the “Noble Savage” myth that arose among Western elites in the eighteenth century, most famously expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This narrative holds that the original state of nature was one of peace, harmony and perfect ecological balance. It was a primeval paradise, a secular Eden. Therefore, competition, strife, crime, social disharmony, and warfare so often seen among native peoples around the world and described by anthropologists must have been caused by the intrusive and disruptive forces of Western Civilization.

In order to protect and propagate that narrative, activists have attempted to expunge the anthropological literature of inconvenient facts, either by denying them or by casting aspersions on those who report them.

The record shows ample evidence that contradicts the Noble Savage myth: cases of earlier competition for resources and resulting bloodshed, numerous incidents of raids, warfare, massacres of men, women, and children, slavery, cannibalism, etc. None of that was introduced into the imagined paradise of the Noble Savage by the evil intrusion of the West. They were features common to the human species from its earliest days. But the activists want to stop such research and sweep that which has already been done down the memory hole. Their political agenda is more important.

Another area of controversy is how much of human behavior is genetically based and how much is based purely on upbringing and historical factors—the old “nature versus nurture” controversy. This question is complicated and deserves careful analysis and the strict verification of claims, since any apparently “scientific” justification for racial stereotyping is to be avoided. For we know how scientific ideas in the past have been distorted and used for ideological, economic and political purposes. 

Rather than leaving the study of possible biological links with human behavior open, subjecting claims in that regard to rigorous scrutiny, activist anthropology regards any mention of such a link on any level as a heresy that must be extirpated.

A prominent example of this is the nasty treatment of University of Missouri anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon at the hands of the politicized AAA. Chagnon is well known for his long-term study of the Yanomamö, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon jungle. Such little-contacted societies had all but disappeared when Chagnon first made contact and he had the opportunity to live among them and describe their Stone Age way of life.

What Chagnon saw and described was an endemic pattern of warfare. There was no competition for resources that might explain that pattern, and contact with the world was so minimal that outside influences could not account for it. On the basis of his observations and native testimony, the reason they waged war, Chagnon stated, was to acquire women and to retaliate for previous raids.

To the activists, Chagnon’s findings were heresy. He had not only refuted the Noble Savage myth, but had also taken seriously the proposition that violence might have a biological basis.  Because of his stature in the profession, Chagnon had to be discredited.

This process began at the 1976 AAA meetings where he was vilified, and the invective of “racism” and even “Nazi” were used—the kind of language the left invariably uses to shut down debate. At later meetings, activists said that Chagnon had “lied” about warfare among the indigenous peoples, that he had paid the Yanomamo to kill so he’d have material for his book and films, that he believed in eugenics, and that he supported Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political views. 

Wild and inflammatory charges against him were based only on a sensational book by a journalist, but the AAA caved in and convened a task force to investigate. That task force began in 2002 but took until 2005 to repudiate the charges. The chair admitted that the journalist’s book was “a piece of sleaze,” but she said that the AAA would have looked “cowardly” if it hadn’t done something.

The issue was pretty much forgotten until 2013 when Chagnon published his book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes: The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. It placed on record only one, although the most spectacular, incident in the decline of anthropology as a profession.

There is hope for anthropology. I am optimistic that it will join other social science disciplines in receiving a life-giving jolt of intellectual energy, a wonderful development we see on display at the Heterodox Academy site. The evidence-based sub-disciplines—physical anthropology and archeology, as well as much of linguistic anthropology—continue as before, and a section within the AAA, the Society for Scientific Anthropology, continues the traditional scientific approach.

It is also possible that the militant, politicized faction may run out of steam as sociocultural anthropology further retreats into its own, ever-narrower sphere of self-interest and inanity, ignoring the basic questions that called the science into existence in the first place.

Woody Allen, who has a sharp eye for trends and a witty way of exploiting them, shows the lead character in his recent film Blue Jasmine on a flight to San Francisco, talking to herself out loud. To emphasize the flakiness of the character, he has her say in her monologue, addressed to no one, that she majored in anthropology.