The Role and Use of Science in Anthropology

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The Role and Use of Science in Anthropology
Cassandra Schumacher
2014 Dean’s Writing Prize for Anthropology
SUNY Oswego
The field wide debate over the role and use of science in the study of Anthropology
seems rather ironic, especially as it was initially raised at the American Anthropological
Association’s 2010 annual meeting (Peregrine et al. 2012: 593). The irony lies within the origin
of anthropology in it was created as a scientific way to study mankind. When Franz Boas
founded American anthropology, he did so with the intent that anthropology would be a
systematic, scientific means of studying mankind (Peregrine et al. 2012: 595). There was a
balance of both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis that demanded scientific
study to organize and order the methodologies (Peregrine et al. 2012: 595). That said, the debate
over the role of science in anthropology is a valid one, if for no other reason than to remind
members in the field of anthropology what the significance of their work and study is.
Anthropology is the systemic, scientific study of how humans survive, live, and exist within their
societies and the world at large. To ignore the science within anthropology is to ignore large
portions of human existence and human life.
While the use of science may not always be apparent within the anthropological field, it
is important to remind anthropologist that scientific ideology is ever present within the field. The
University of California’s Yolanda T. Moses raises the point that “science and the scientific
method is a particular way of looking at existential phenomena to make sense of it” (Peregrine et
al. 2012: 593). Anthropology uses the scientific method to understand human phenomena and to
organize information in a way that is useful and helps expand understanding within the field.
Even in very ethnographic, emic studies, anthropologists are relying upon the scientific method
to organize and structure their studies. Beginning with a hypothesis and research question alone
help mark ethnographic study with a scientific methodology. While the data may be somewhat
subjective in ethnographic study because the anthropologist is the interpreter of the culture, the
study’s structure and ideology are completely scientific. The goal in any ethnography is to
observe phenomena in an attempt to understand the human practice. The methods involve
finding a research topic and forming a research question. From there, the anthropologist
researches the question through a literature review and forms a hypothesis. That hypothesis is
tested through experimentation (which in some studies takes the form of ethnography). The data
that results from the study is analyzed and reported to the rest of the community through a
published paper or ethnography. Anthropology is inherently scientific through methodology even
in the least scientific settings because it depends upon the scientific method for order and
Furthermore, Anthropology is not solely one methodology used to study just one field.
The study of humans and the nature of anthropology demands a varied set of tools and
methodologies to successfully study the subject matter because humans are such complex
creatures. Anthropology demands holism. To remove science from anthropology is to remove the
core features of holistic study. As the goal of anthropology is to study humans from every
possible angle and through every possible method, holistic study requires science. Removing
science from the study of humankind removes necessary elements of human study. Holism has
led to a four subfield approach within in the field and some of those subfields require direct uses
of science. In the subfields of archaeology and biological anthropology, science is a necessary
component to ensure validity of the findings. Paleoarchaeology depends upon the use of
evolutionary evidence and theory to comprehend the evolution of the human species as well as to
understand how evolution has altered the skeletons of hominid ancestors up until the modern
human. Archaeology depends upon the systematic study and data collection of artifacts, features,
and ecofacts to understand the roles they played within human lives. In order to determine that
information, the field uses standing bodies of scientific knowledge, such as dating techniques, in
order to successfully study sites of human occupation. In a subfield like biological anthropology,
anthropologist look directly at how human biology is influenced by culture and the environment
to understand the roles that both play within human existence. When Hampshire college’s Alan
Goodman examines human tooth enamel to develop understanding about the early life stresses
and stresses on the human body, he is not practicing ethnography, he is scientifically and
systematically assessing the teeth for data just as an anatomist or biologist would (Peregrine et al.
2012: 594). The study of human kind relies upon more than just studying behavior. There are
biological components to human existence that require the use of science and scientific study to
understand the greater picture of human life.
The human condition is more than just culture, and anthropology is more than just
observing human phenomena. The complexity of the relationship humans have with the natural
world goes far deeper than just nature and nurture (Peregrine et al. 2012: 594). The human world
influences the natural world by changing the environment to suit the human needs. Biology on
the other hand influences how humans interact and develop within that world. To be able to
understand this complex reflexive relationship between biology and culture, anthropologists
must first be able to use science and biological information. Anthropology requires an strong
understanding of science and social science and how the two work together and seperately,
essentially it requires anthropology.
Presumably one of the concerns in relation to a scientific study of humans is dependent
upon the idea that human systems are complex and varied making repeatable scientific evidence
not always possible. Alan Goodman addresses this problem by noting how important context is
when understanding human phenomena and that anthropological science stresses “embracing of
site specificity, the importance of context, the importance of multiple sources of information and
evidence, and what we find out when we listen to and observe real people in real places living
their complex lives” (Peregrine et al. 2012: 595). Goodman claims that anthropological science
should be used as a model for other scientific fields for that vary reason, and he is not incorrect
in his urgings (Peregrine et al. 2012: 595). Anthropology uses science to enhance the humanities
and the humanities to enhance the sciences; this is necessary in order to study a species as
complex as humans are. The problem with avoiding the scientific elements of human nature and
phenomena is that it simplifies a complex species. Humans are not simple; they are unfailingly
complex. The integrated nature of culture requires a careful study of both the small details that
are culturally specific to over arching trends that cross cultural boundaries such as biological
components. Being able to understand the complexity of the human condition is made easier by
careful systematic study such as that which used in the natural sciences. Rather than hide from
the complexity, anthropologists look to understand humans from the biological level to the
cultural overarching norms. Science helps simplify the complexity of humanity into smaller
understandable subfields because it allows for division and specialization within one field while
still working toward a common goal: understanding human kind. The knowledge shared between
the subfields is what makes anthropology uniquely successful as a field. The humanities and the
natural sciences are used simultaneously to reach greater understanding about human kind.
The field of anthropology is a complex field of study that uses both the sciences and
humanities to understand human phenomena. Both qualitative and quantitative study methods are
used because human systems and cultures are complex and need to be studied in multiple ways
in order to be understood. Attempting to remove the use of science from anthropology would
stripe the field of its unique holistic methodology that makes the field successful. While such
studies as ethnography may not always appear to be as empirical and scientific as the forensic
anthropologist studying the human skeleton, both fields, in fact all of the subfields of
anthropology, rely upon the scientific method to organize and validate their data and studies.
Some subfields, such as archaeology and biological anthropology, draw more heavily from the
natural sciences and their methodologies, but all four of the subfields use scientific methods and
ideology in some way just as they all draw from the humanities. To remove science from
anthropology is to stripe the field of its holism and attempts to simplify the complexity of human
study. Anthropology is as closely tied to science as nature is tied to nurture; to remove one from
the other is to ignore the very goal of the field: studying and understanding humans in every
possible way.
Work Cited
Peregrine, Peter, et al. “What is Science in Anthropology?” American Anthropologist 114, no. 4
(2012): 593-597.

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