Saturday, May 8, 2010

On anthropology and ecology

I interviewed a few friends for an anthropology paper I wrote last quarter, and a couple of them have asked to read the final draft. The first who read it was quite impressed, but ended the conversation with "But, I always think that you're a scientist!"
Annoyed, I replied with my usual riposte: "I am a scientist. I'm a social scientist."
He countered his statement: "Oh, I meant a real scientist."

This frustrates me. The social sciences have gotten a rep as being full of "and how does that make you feel?" conclusions, and anthropology is especially prone to this. No one stands up for our discipline, either.

I think this needs to change. I think anthropology got kind of scared, honestly. The social sciences were used to justify a lot of really awful things in the past, like social Darwinism (hint: Darwin never said "Survival of the fittest".) and the Nazi genocide of pretty much everyone who wasn't Aryan. We got scared and shut up because we realized how powerful our words are, so we're scared to say anything that could cause more trouble, pain, or even death.

I understand this, and I agree with this. But times are changing. We live in a global village, but the problem is, we don't speak the same language, literally or culturally. I think that, as we come into contact more and more with other people who aren't Westernized, the social sciences, the study of these people and of us, is going to be more and more useful as a translator. If we don't understand other cultures, how can we urge them to conserve wildlife? Imposing our worldview on them doesn't create any change, it just creates resentment.

I'll be posting in more detail from my conservation bio class about a park called Amboseli in Kenya which has successfully used anthropology to create change. But this rant is about my discipline, and how the social sciences get pretty well dissed. I know we're a young science. Physics has been around for hundreds of years. Actual scientific study of humanity, society, and culture has only begun to form in the last hundred, and true scientific method in the last fifty.

 I can't get discouraged, though. My work needs to be meaningful, and I think the best thing we, as social scientists, can do is to remember to be careful. Learn from our history and mistakes, and act as guides when we can. Science alone is heartless and only interested in how things function. It's the social sciences which situate it in context, put the human back into the machine. 

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