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On aspiring to an anthropology that draws knowledge from a range of sciences.

In the late 1960s a new democratic socialist political movement emerged in my home country of Canada, amidst tumultuous social and political change: The Waffle, so named, it was said, because given the choice of waffling to the left or waffling to the right, the movement would always choose the former. As I assume the presidency of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS) in these similarly troubled times, I hope to draw on a parallel impulse. We might waffle in many directions, but given the choice, we should choose to waffle toward science.

Science is not truth; it is, or ought to be at its best, filled with epistemic struggle, with nonunilinear but directional potential—an aspiration. And so we waffle, not because we are apathetic, but because we aspire toward being less wrong than our predecessors. We open ourselves to new methods, new forms of data, new frameworks for testing hypotheses. We should do this not out of belief that, to riff off of Gordon Willey and Philip Phillips’s claim about archaeology, “anthropology is science or it is nothing.” Rather, we share a common conviction that the range of epistemologies, concepts, and methods we bring to the table have enormous value for all anthropology—and indeed all scholarship, humanistic, scientific, both, neither.

What SAS cannot endorse is a stance committed to quarrelling with those who choose not to see science as central to anthropology. Fighting rearguard actions against spectral enemies can be emotionally rewarding, especially when they’re not there to yell back. But no one cares if a postmodernist was mean to you in 1997. In my own area of cognitively oriented linguistic anthropology, for instance, there exists a foundational myth of anthropology as the vanished vertex in the hexagon diagramming the six founding fields of cognitive science. But it does no good to bemoan the situation and cry out for a return to an earlier age, which was in any event a mythical one, at a time when our students need jobs and good training across multiple methods. This kind of forever war dooms us to the dustbin of irrelevancy to which we fear others have consigned us.

I aspire to an anthropological discipline that draws wisdom from a broad range of sciences, one that settles itself within a family of environmental, evolutionary, cognitive, comparative, computational, and mathematical approaches.

Practically every North American anthropology student, to this day, is exposed to the aphorism, attributed to Alfred Louis Kroeber and more commonly cited through Eric Wolf, that anthropology is “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” But what on earth does that mean, practically speaking, other than as a mission statement for a discipline in search of a mission? Does it leave us in a state of permanent liminality—a sort of broker between C. P. Snow’s (1961) mythical “Two Cultures”? Should it be taken as a fictive taxonomy with two pairs of subfields, two scientific (archaeology and biological), two humanistic (cultural and linguistic)? Or, most troubling of all, is it mere signalling in an environment where most anthropologists are in fact humanistic, but where a nod to STEM supremacy matters a great deal to funders?

None of these seem satisfactory to me. Instead, I aspire to an anthropological discipline that draws wisdom from a broad range of sciences, one that settles itself within a family of environmental, evolutionary, cognitive, comparative, computational, and mathematical approaches. Indeed, anthropology is not even one science, and as my predecessors have often reminded me, the very name of SAS endorses sciences, in the plural. We know that these skills and conceptual frameworks are valued by our students and the wide range of employers who hire them. Now what are we doing to share these ideas with, and collaborate with, anthropologists who haven’t yet considered their value? Nurturing the kinds of social networks that we could be instrumental in forming—ones with strong ties or weak ones, both across disciplines and within anthropology—is why I stay with SAS, even when I could waffle elsewhere.

A wealth of empirical research shows that cognitive diversity in any institution has epistemic benefits. This is no defense of wild-eyed relativism or “viewpoint diversity,” in which every good idea must be balanced by an equally bad one. But it should lead us to a recognition, to which most anthropologists pay lip service even if we do not embody it in our practice, that the breadth of our discipline is a strength. That diversity should be seen in who we hire and who we train—thinking about race, gender, and class, and what departments we draw new faculty from. But it should also reflect what we train our students to do, how we encourage them to think, and what we hire faculty to teach them in the first place. As the discipline that ought to be—but often is not—best equipped to tolerate epistemic difference, those of us who are scientists in anthropology are best equipped to waffle toward our colleagues, who sometimes still need convincing that such difference should be valued in the first place.

We do so because we are charged with helping find solutions to central, even existential, human problems in this century: massive inequality, racial injustice, violence and genocide, environmental catastrophe, threats to health. Scientific anthropologies are no more suffused with the errors of the past, no more subject to the charge of being the “handmaiden of colonialism,” than any other kind of anthropology. We have always stood ready to take on challenges faced by the problems of the day. And there is so much fantastic work being done, as my ever-growing and waiting-to-be read collection of PDFs indicates. We have a seat at the table; now let us use our voices effectively. And when we waffle, let us waffle boldly.

Authors

Stephen Chrisomalis

Stephen Chrisomalis is professor of anthropology at Wayne State University and the incoming president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences (2021–2023).

Cite as

Chrisomalis, Stephen. 2021. “Waffling Toward Science.” Anthropology News website, December 10, 2021.

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