Science is a loaded term and concept. How it should be understood and contextualized is science in itself. Should it be empirical, replicable, and useful? I do not wonder why Stephen Hawking has yet to receive a Nobel. If Europe's CERN completes and succeeds replicating "Big Bang" on earth and finds energy uses for it, scientists like Hawking will, maybe, get their medals. Astronomy will be respected as science, and astronomers will stop calling themselves astrophysicists just so they will sound as scientists away from the esoteric history of astronomy, which, a long time ago, was tied to star-gazing,moon-observing, and astrology.

The goal of science is to find universals, so the workings of the physical universe will not be alien to us. Because of those universals, our lives are comfortable and easy to live. Thus my definition of science is utilitarian. A biologist studying the farm toads in Florida that have feminized sex organs is not studying them for the heck of it or for his intellectual pleasure. He wants to find out how environmental pollution has caused such sexual feminization and what will be its effects on humans and their reproductive systems. A physicist studying optics does not study waves, lights, and colors because they are beautiful or amazing. He wants to maximize their technological uses in our daily lives.

Now, is anthropology science? I cannot answer that. Is anthropology useful? That I can answer. Most of the time, anthropology, particularly social/cultural anthropology, is not useful. Anthropologists study for the sake of studying and think for the sake of thinking. So what if Mauss or Turner or Geertz was wrong? What can it do to alleviate the suffering and ignorance of humans? So what if Foucault, Bourdieu, or Derrida was right? What does postmodernizing the world or our worldview do to our civilization? The way anthropology has been generally practiced is really no different to critical and philosophical studies. Just check the OAC seminars and discussions.

Primatologists study non-human primates but refrain from comparing their findings to what are observed among humans. Jane Goodal did observe grief, rape, assault, murder, infanticide, suicide among chimps, but has she helped us understand the same phenomena in human societies, considering chimps are our closest primate relatives? Archaeologists dig and analyze artifacts to reconstruct the past, even though what we really need is to understand the present so we can prepare for the future. So what if early Filipinos buried their dead in earthen jars? What does it have to do to their current burial rituals and practices? How can it solve the burial space problems in Filipino cemeteries? It is fine to study the past but it should be connected to the present.

Not all anthropologists do useless things. In my country, for example, forensic anthropologists investigate and solve crimes and some even work for human rights organizations. Archaeologists do environmental impact assessment and become environmentalists. In America, there are archaeologists like Rathje, who studies contemporary artifacts and materials like garbage to give light to how we consume products and dispose our wastes that are important in waste management and recycling. A professor from Arizona had been a visiting archaeologist in my former university to study the contemporary household tools and implements of the Igorots. His works can help designers conceptualize functionality and sustainability, the current design trends.

I do not dismiss all works of social/cultural anthropologists as useless. Applied, development, economic, and medical anthropologists, almost all the time, come up with useful studies relevant to pressing human conditions. A professor in my country who teaches sex and culture maps out the spread of HIV virus by studying sexual behaviors," rituals" such as sexual baptism or first male "devirginization," concepts of sexual time and space, sex in the workplace, and occupational sexual hazards among prostitutes, seamen, and domestic helpers. He uses anthropology as a tool for epidemiology and social medicine. He also teaches in several medical colleges.

I know it is hard to universalize culture, but I believe anthropologists can use ethnography and other anthropological tools to solve contemporary problems in a society or a culture. It is useless to study African myths and rituals, if we cannot offer solutions to human sacrifice still done today for business, health, and belief in places like Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria. Has anthropologists done something to solve the burning of "witches," the killing of albinos, and the raping of babies as AIDS cure? Has anthropology alleviated human suffering or has it been complacent generally? Anthropologists need to assess their relevance and the tangible applicability of their discipline.

If we are only good in "intellectual masturbation," anthropology is not science but a discipline no different to philosophical, historical, literary, and humanistic studies. Why call it science when it cannot do, all the time, what physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, technology, and engineering can-- consistency, empiricism, replicability, utility, and applicability? Ethnography is enough to study what is real and true, what is empirical and logical, and what is observable and replicable in a society or a culture. It is even easier for anthropologists because their task is not to find universals since culture is society or community-specific. All they need to do is to be current, useful, and relevant for their discipline to be a science that consistently, logically, and objectively works.

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Comment by M Izabel on December 16, 2010 at 11:49pm

Nutritional anthropologists have studied why obesity is, generally, not a problem in Asia, but their views are not put side-by-side with those of nutritionists.  I suspect because they don't offer concrete steps to address the problem.  They only describe Asian eating habits, diets, and lifestyle.  It is just unthinkable why anthropologists shy away from being troubleshooters when in fact their understanding of a certain socio-cultural problem is fundamental and foundational.  Instead of writing multiple volumes about globalism and capitalism, has economic anthropologists offered a plan to manage the risk and prevent the pitfalls of rapid culture change?  As I said, it seems medical anthropologists connected to medical institutions are the only anthropologists who do evidence-based and problem-and-solution-centered anthropology.


Here's an example how a medical anthropologist appropriates and negotiates medical myths as placebo in allopathic medicine:


Another one on traditional healing practices as appropriate remedies for stress management and relief and for psychotherapy.


I wonder if my professor was able to do all these out-of-the-box anthropological appropriations, negotiation and solutions because he was a veterinarian first before he became a medical anthropologist.  When he suggested to the government that herbal medicines should be studied scientifically and made as substitutes for expensive medicines sold in pharmacies, he was not theorizing or expressing his opinion.  When he said traditional birthing midwives should be trained how to hygienically deliver babies and act as substitute for doctors, he was trying to solve the medical problems of the people in communities not reached by doctors.  His kind of anthropology is what I have envisioned and hoped.


Comment by M Izabel on December 7, 2010 at 1:16am
Maybe, just maybe, instead of critiquing Mauss, we can find something universal in the phenomenon of gift, and map or dissect the role of giving in corruption, bribery, corporate lobbying, and pork barrel. If anthropology can do just that, we will find the relevance of anthropology as science.


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