Theory and Method in Anthropology: a scientific and business model

Cross posted from the Anthropology group on LinkedIn.


One way to look at anthropology starts with the question, What would a science of humanity look like? It would, I am pretty sure, look a lot more like field geology as described by John McPhee in Annals of the Former World than classical mechanics. 

Another way to look at anthropology starts with the question, What have anthropologists actually contributed to the sum of human knowledge? Realistically speaking, we anthropologists' contributions to all sorts of scholarship has been the unanticipated. Somebody in another field has said, "Humans are (do, believe, feel) X," and the anthropologist says (a tip of the hat to Mary Douglas) "Not in Bongo-Bongo." Or, alternatively, "Not in the Hawthorne wiring room." We are the guys who notice things that others don't and throw monkey wrenches into others' arguments, forcing us all to rethink a bit. 

Another way to look at anthropology starts with the question, What do anthropologists have to sell to non-Academic employers in the public or private sector? To say that it is our theories (mostly derivative from other fields) or methods (half-baked when we try to do science, obscure when we try to do anything else) is ludicrous. Which brings me back to Tom Kelley. What IDEO looks for in an anthropologist isn't someone else who claims to know how to run a survey or focus group; plenty of folks can do that. And it isn't someone who pontificates learnedly about organizational structure; plenty of other folks can do that as well. It turns out to be pretty much what we have been good at all along, noticing things that others don't and throwing monkey wrenches into conventional wisdom, thus giving designers, theorists, managers and other hypothesis testers more work to do. 

Which brings me back to the top again. Envision a scientific anthropologist as a field geologist and what do you get. One, she actually knows a lot of science and can bring it to bear when trying to figure our why what she notices happens when and where she sees it. Two, most of what she does is, in fact, interpretation. Looking a lot of circumstantial evidence and trying to come up with compelling narratives to explain it. Three, once in a blue moon, she may have a big idea, something like plate tectonics. But is it really reasonable to expect every one of us to be able to come up with something like that? Four, the most useful normal science job we do is carefully mapping what people say and do and the settings in which they say and do it, looking for those bits that appear to contradict the theories that others construct and suggesting alternative lines of research that someone more expert in this or that technique might wish to pursue. 

To me, this account sounds like a pretty good deal with a modest chance of success and a lot of interesting work to do. I gave up wanting to be God and Know it All and Know it Now a long time ago.

Views: 96


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!


OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service