Anthropology, science and the challenge of subjectivity

My (somewhat limited) experience teaching anthropology (particularly ecological anthropology) has left me somewhat flabbergasted as to what is taught at universities about science.

Basically, a common claim is that anthropology cannot be a science (unfortunately, not only prevalent among students as we will see) because anthropologists are people with intentions studying other people, also with intentions.

A prevalent misconception is that because anthropologists are individuals shaped by personal histories and backgrounds that shape what they are interested in studying (true), the truth or validity of any claim (dare I say, interpretation?) they come up with are relative to that specific person, i.e. subjective (not true).

As science explicitly strives towards objectivity, anthropology thus becomes something else entirely by definition.

This post is my attempt at collating arguments against this notion and hopefully show that if subjectivity represents a challenge for anthropology, it is of little significance or impact on anthropology’s status as a scientific discipline.

A short personal history

My point of departure lies with my favourite anthropologist, Robin Fox.

When I discovered his writings, during my undergraduate studies, anthropology was steeped in an anti-scientific and relativistic stance that almost drove me away from the field.

I particularly remember one book that became the symbol for all that was wrong with anthropology at the time: Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography by James Clifford & George E. Marcus.

I still have nightmares of reducing everything to texts and embracing the notion that there is no difference between ethnography and novels because anthropologists’ writes fiction (from the introduction in the same book: Introduction: Partial Truths by James Clifford.

In contrast, Robin Fox’s writings resonated well with a disillusioned anthropologist in training because he passionately argued that, contrary to the current prevailing opinion, anthropology could, and should, be a science.

Unfortunately, the permeating anti-scientific stance suffusing anthropology at the time seems to have become the mainstream view (the American Anthropological Association has for example decided to strike all mention of “science” from the language of the  mission statement, read more here).

Anthropology as moral models

In 1995 Roy D’Andrade wrote an excellent article Moral Models in Anthropology in Current Anthropology that tried to take a stance against the trend of transforming anthropology from an objective science towards an anthropology based on moral models.

The goal of an objective science is to generate descriptions and explanations that are both testable and replicable.

Another anthropologist, J. Tim O’Meara (in the paper Anthropology as empirical science published in American Anthropologist) describes science as :

“the systematic description and classification of objects, events, and processes, and the explanation of those events and processes by theories that employ lawful regularities, all of the descriptions and explanatory statements employed being testable against publicly observable data”

In contrast, the aim of the moral model is to assign what is good and bad.

The moral model in anthropology thus posits that anthropologists should stop trying to develop objective explanations for human life and instead focus on making the world better for the disenchanted masses.

A noble aim indeed, but as D’Andrade points out, wouldn’t helping the powerless be facilitated by objectively knowing what is at fault?

As for who won the debate, in an interview from 2014, D’Andrade said

“I believed that after the kerfuffle that people would get back to asking, ‘How do you know something is true or not?’ But in the end, the moral model swept the country and cultural anthropology stopped being anything that a self-respecting social scientist would call a science” (read the whole story here).

In the final chapter of The Challenge of Anthropology: Old Encounters and New Excursions (called “Anthropology and the Teddy Bear’s Picnic”), Robin Fox provides a compelling reason as to why the anti-scientific point of view seem to have prevailed:

“graduate students seem relieved to be told that all knowledge is gender or class or culture relative (as though this were somehow a new idea!), and that science as we know it is a male white European enterprise and so tainted and of no more value than magical incantations. This appeals to the lazy, and graduate students seem to get lazier and lazier. It’s far easier just to spout opinions (and any opinion is as good as any other) than to get down to the hard business of science”

The end product is that it is legitimate for anthropologists, like Jean and John Comaroff to state absurdities like

“if they [theories/abstractions] were held to the demands of empiricist validation, or subjected to the blinding lights of western science, some of the most enduring insights of modernist social thought would not pass muster” (from Ethnography on an akward scale: Postcolonial anthropology and the violence of abstraction).

In the absence of the scientific method, this statement begs the question as to how one can evaluates what constitutes as “enduring insights”?

Now, anthropologists have had a long tradition in denying the scientific enterprise as being worthwhile.

Edmund Leach, for example, has argued rather strongly against anthropologists’ claiming that their work should be considered scientific.

O’Meara argues in Anthropology as empirical science that Leach “[…] denies the “underlying assumption that the ethnographic ‘facts’ recorded by anthropological observers in the field have some kind of objective reality,” claiming instead that ‘the data which derive from fieldwork are subjective not objective” (p. 355).

One of the problems being scientific seem thus to rest on the inherent subjectivity of anthropology.

The challenge of subjectivity

The supposedly distinctive and distinguishing properties of the social sciences as a subjective rather than an objective endeavour was eloquently summarized by Ernst Nagel in the book The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation.

the categories of description and explanation in the social sciences are held to be radically “subjective,” so that these disciplines are forced to rely on “non-objective” techniques of inquiry. The social scientist must therefore “interpret” the materials of his study by imaginatively identifying himself with the actors in social processes, viewing the situations they face as the actors themselves view them, and constructing “models of motivation” in which springs of action and commitments to various values are imputed to these human agents. The social scientist is able to do these things, only because he is himself an active agent in social processes, and can therefore understand in the light of his own “subjective” experiences the “internal meanings” of social actions. A purely “objective” or “behavioristic” social science is in consequence held to be a vain hope; for to exclude on principle every vestige of subjective, motivational interpretation from the study of human affairs is in effect to eliminate from such study the consideration of every genuine social  fact (p. 484).

Or to put it bluntly, objectivity is limited because we cannot directly observe our neighbours’ thought, motives and emotions (from Anthropology as empirical science).

In contrast, Nagel argues that knowledge, whether they concern everyday things or the more specific domains investigated by both natural and social scientists, is not about

  • having sensations or feelings.
  • identifying oneself in some indescribable way with the object under study.

We can know that a person lamenting loudly and hanging his head after running a marathon (and coming in last!) is both tired and disappointed without having to experience it ourselves or by creating the same feelings in ourselves.

In other words, it is possible to infer what our fellow humans’ private thoughts and feelings are by observing their behaviour as well as paying attention to what they are saying.

According to Anthropology as empirical science, it is exactly public thoughts and actions that form the basis of the data for an empirical social science.

The empirical data can first be used to generate and then control our inferences pertaining to subjective or otherwise unobservable aspects of human life.

When we generate and control our inferences we utilize the same logical methods for generating hypotheses and testing that natural scientists use when making inferences about the existence of gravitation, subatomic particles and other unobservable aspects of the physical world:

In the search for knowledge, the limits of objectivity are characteristic of human beings as observers, rather than the things we observe. Therefore, the recognized limits to objectivity do not require separate methods of inquiry into physical and social phenomena (Anthropology as empirical science, p. 356).

Origins versus validation

Shortly put, the fact that social scientists, in contrast with scientists studying lifeless objects, can project themselves, through compassionate imagination, into the phenomena one wish to understand is only relevant as far as it pertains to the origins of the explanation and has nothing to with the validity of the explanation.

Conflating the two, i.e. origins with validation, is at the heart of epistemic relativism that seems to be so popular.

In anthropology, Robin Fox argues in The Challenge of Anthropology: Old Encounters and New Excursions that part of the problem is that the traditional anthropological value relativism has been extend to encompass cognitive relativism.

Value relativism contains the classic anthropological axiom that each culture must be judged on its own terms.

Cognitive relativism, in contrast, indicates, erroneously, that one culture’s categories are just as valid as another (because we are all so differently constituted that we experience the world differently).

The fact of the matter is that even though what a scientist decide to study is relative to interest, class, race, gender, religion, … (insert as appropriate),  the truth or validity of his or her statements are not.

This is a logical distinction that was called context of discovery and context of justification by the physicist Hans Reichenbach.

Context of discovery refers to how a scientist’s idea has come to be. It refers to the social, historical, mental, psychological context under which a specific hypothesis or idea came about.

These factors are irrelevant for the justification of the hypothesis or idea, the essential concern is whether it is true or not.

It is in principle irrelevant if Einstein was a man, crazy, drunk, dreaming etc. when he first thought up the theory of relativity (context of discovery), the main thing is whether it is true or not (context of justification), which only can be decided by testing the theory against empirical data (see Kaplan and Manners book Culture theory for more information).

To reiterate, while the generation of hypotheses is relative to context (gender, interest etc.), the truth value of the generated propositions are not.

Thus, the scientist’s ability to feel empathy with individuals in specific social situations can be important from a heuristic point of view, and then especially with regards to the formation of appropriate hypotheses that can explain the situations.

Nevertheless, the ability to empathise or identify with other actors does not alone constitute knowledge.

The fact that such identification is possible does not negate the necessity of objective evidence, evaluated on the basis of logical principles common for all controlled investigations, which might or might not support the hypotheses and/or explanations (The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation).

The challenge of subjectivity can be viewed in in light of what Joseph Carrol term the ‘Truistic/Radical Shuffle’ in the book Evolution and literary theory.

The ‘Truistic/Radical Shuffle’ is characterised by

the blending or shifting back and forth between statements that are, on the one hand radically absurd and, on the other hand, blandly truistic. By finding a level of generality in which the two kinds of statement merge into each other, rhetoricians can use radical absurdity to invest truism with the delusory appearance of substantive argument and can use truism to invest radical absurdity with that of cogency

The truistic argument is that experience is subjective while the radical (dare I say absurd?) argument is that objectivity – understood as generating testable propositions – is thus impossible.

The different meanings of ‘method’

In fact, the argument against objectivity is logically flawed because it confounds the meaning of the word method. Bernard  wrote in the paper Methods Belong to All of Us  that method has at least three meanings:

First, method refers to epistemology, to sets of assumption about how we acquire knowledge […] Second, method, refers to strategic approaches to the accumulation of actual data [e.g. experiment versus observation] […] And third, method refers to techniques or sets of techniques for collecting and analysing data [e.g. interviews, participant observation].

In other words the meaning of method as a technique of obtaining data (which is limitless) and method as a set of assumptions about how we generate knowledge (epistemology) is different.

Importantly, a difference in techniques of obtaining data doesn’t necessarily imply that the underlying epistemic principles have to differ.

For example, while the methods used for collecting data on plants, planets, stones, animals and humans might all be different, what do not differ are the underlying necessary epistemological principles of objectivity and testing.

Science as a mode of knowing

Science is thus a mode of knowing that transcends contexts, whether they are cultural, historical etc.

In fact, according to Robin Fox, Karl Popper has argued that our perception of the world and our decision-making work on the basic principles of hypothesis testing and refutation (Conjectures and Confrontations).

Science as mode of knowing is thus an extension of basic human cognitive principles (it is difficult to think how it could be any different in terms of our evolutionary history: hypothesis testing and refutation has an obvious survival value, whimsical relativism not so much).

The stakes are high because in the end, it is all about whether we want to be believed or not. I would like to (again) quote Robin Fox:

If you wish to be believed you must accept the burden of falsifiability. You must accept that your statements are hypotheses that are in principle subject to refutation. If you refuse to accept this burden, on any grounds whatsoever, then there is no reason why we should pay any further attention to anything you say, since you could just as well utter complete nonsense or gibberish; it would make no difference (Conjectures and Confrontations, 182).

Further Reading


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