Anthropology as Science

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 9 Oct 1995 16:21:20 +0900

Matt Tomaso writes,

>>Since most of social and cultural anthropological and indeed
all of historical data are constructed from witnessing events
(ethnography) which are not replicable in any real sense, this
stricture seems to rule out the possibility of a science of
culture as well as any authenticity (in the scientific sense of
the word) for historical information not pertaining to
scientifically conducted experiments. If these were the
absolute and real standards applied by scientists (and I
include myself in that category) we'd have very little
acceptible foundations for our ideas and very little with which
to build theory. In fact, we would have very little at all.
Fortunately, this kind of restrictiveness, in my practice, are
only ideal models of how I think I ought to proceed. These are
not standards we can agree on.<<

Danny Yee comments that cosmology, geology, etc. are widely
regarded as sciences even though the events they describe--
e.g., the Big Bang, the rise of the Himalyas--are not replicable.
Yee himself subscribes to the notion that history is science.

Read goes into detail about how he himself makes a historical
judgment--assigning stone points to different cultures--in
scientific manner.

My reply is mainly to Tomaso, but includes the other
discussants as well.

Like Read, I am not so pessimistic as Matt about the
impossibility of replicating ethnographic data. For certain
stretches of space-time and appropriate levels of abstraction
replication is certainly possible.

Thus, in my own field, East Asian anthropology, if you wished
to replicate the peculiar experience of McCreery interviewing
a man named Lim in a town called Puli in central Taiwan,
circa 1970, that would, of course, be impossible. But a
generalization that, say, "Chinese place ancestor tablets on
the altars located against the back wall of the center-back
room in a traditional house" are supported numerous
observations by different observers in various parts of China
over a span of several hundred years. Scholars dependent on
secondary sources have many accounts to appeal to and could,
if they wished, still replicate the observation in thousands of
Chinese communities.

It is part of the charter mythology of social anthropology to
imagine the anthropologist as a pioneer going where no man
has gone before and returning home as the only one who can
then describe his unique findings. Among the strengths of the
pomo critique have been the observations that women as well
as men may go, that the places we go are typically inhabited
by people with views of their own, and that some care must be
taken to note the political and ideological axes ground in
choosing certain problems and attacking them in certain ways.
To this I would add that increasingly we all work in well-
trodden ground and our biases and enthusiasms can be
checked against what others have to say. Our judgments can
be, if we're careful, be far more solidly grounded that extreme
postmodernist critiques allow.

John McCreery