Those damn humanists

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Fri, 14 Oct 1994 15:28:43 EDT

As a student who is interested in teh humanistic approach to anthropology,
I found myself responding negatively to John Hart's observations on the
great split in anthropology, the "two moieties" theory of how the discipline
is constructed. First of all, I resented the implication that humanists are
to blame for the muddle because they're too damn relativistic and vague. Are
the scientific and humanistic approaches incompatible? NO!! Are human beings
so unimaginative that they cannot combine evidence and subjectivity? Several
fine scientists come to mind right away: Lynn Rogers the wildlife expert,
Albert Einstein and his ability to unlock the secrets of the universe *and*
comment on God's existence, 19th century geographer/explorer Captain Sir
Richard Francis Burton, who demanded solid evidence on his expeditions yet
translated Eastrn texts and cultures with a fine empathy and sophistication.
This "split" is as much a problem of individual worldview and the institution-
alization of anthropology than anything else; it is more often than not about
that humanistic concept called power relations, about the desire of some folks
for professional conformity. Seems to me that abuses of methodology and
perspective occur on *both* sides of the fence, and that neither perspective
is so pure or value free or relativistic that it could serve as some sort of
overarching paradigm. Mr. Hart suggests further fragmentation; why? We
already have dozens of units within AAA itself; it seems that we *need* a
common forum (or two) to continue the discussion of what anthropology "is,"
because to me that will be a conversation that never ends, at least not until
the last two anthros on earth suffle off their mortal coils. Kroeber and Boas
were having this conversation nearly a century ago, and even then they managed
to squelch some other schools of thought that are today thought of as to sub-
jective or unscientific. This should not be a conversation about who's right
or wrong, because it can't be. Pardon my humanism, but relatively speaking,
the problem is not humanism versus scientific thought, but individuals' con-
ceptions of how things "should be" that we are discussing here. A number of
scientific types have been deriding the Tedlocks for not being inclusive, but
what would they say if there were nine articles on radiocarbon dating or
forensic osteology in the first issue? Mr. Hart is right to say that
anthropology cannot be about everything, but neither should we be reduced to
discussing how different types of scholars can go their separate ways, esp.
when one implies that certain scholars have nowhere to go because they lack
"evidence." We need to frame the debate in a more constructive way that does
*not* separate one "type" of anthropologist from another, but creates, if not
common ground, at least a neutral zone for us to hash out our differences.

Best regards,

John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston