Anthropology is being taught at more schools and colleges, yet students and parents still find it difficult to determine whether Anthropology is a science. Puzzled, they often wonder, “What, then, could it be if Anthropology is not a branch of science?” The truth is, Anthropology is a malleable discipline. There are anthropologists who rely greatly on the scientific method, and there are also those who dare to go beyond this method—often relying on practices such as interpretation, empathy, thick description and other techniques.
What Makes Anthropology Malleable?
Anthropology is malleable because its concerns are extremely broad. For instance, sub-disciplines such as Physical Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, and Forensic Anthropology draw especially heavily from the the anatomical sciences, and indeed from other natural sciences. These sub-disciplines focus almost exclusively on the physical and biological characteristics of humans. On the other hand, sub-disciplines such as Social/Cultural Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, or Anthropology of Science focus on the sociocultural cues, norms, rules, and practices that characterize a given community, as well as the ways in which the community relates to macro cultures. In fact, one of the key aims of this form of Anthropology is to supply a comprehensive, yet inclusive, definition of culture. Notably, Anthropology of Science, a rather new branch, aims to critically examine the ways in which the scientific community functions—that is, how the community’s values, interests, and preferences dictate what can be considered valid, scientific knowledge. In short, the branch focuses on the social aspects that enable scientific knowledge-making.
How to Differentiate
As one can clearly see, we can differentiate the branches of Anthropology that rely heavily (if not solely) on the scientific method from those that do not by focusing on the concerns of these branches. That is, the former set of branches largely deals with tangible things (such as the human body, artefacts, etc.), whereas the latter deals with intangible things (such as culture). This is not to imply that anthropologists who focus on culture do not rely on the scientific method. In fact, some anthropologists argue that all branches of Anthropology must be based only on the scientific method. In other words, they claim that culture—and indeed other such intangible things—should also be examined only via the scientific method.
Culture, the Scientific Method, and Thick Description
Should anthropologists rely solely on the scientific method, even to study culture—that intangible, diverse thing? What other methods are there, and why are these preferred by cultural anthropologists? As mentioned above, cultural anthropologists also use thick description to present their ethnographic findings. Thick description requires context, and plenty of it. In other words, it is not enough for an anthropologist to simply record a community’s cultural practices. She must also necessarily explain what these practices mean to members of the community, what they derive out of these practices, and the significance of these practices. In effect, the anthropologist must be able to describe to an outsider the meaning a community ascribes to its cultural practices. To do so, the anthropologist must also forge a bond with the community she is studying.
Cultural Anthropology today focuses on presenting people’s own views of their culture. This is a recent, yet very important, development. The absence of people’s own views results in one-sided, prejudiced ethnographies. The scientific method is undoubtedly useful. Yet, to insist on using only the scientific method is to insist on presenting only an incomplete picture—one we can call “thin description.” For instance, a survey or a purely quantitative study of people’s opinion is less informative than a study that marries these with thick description. That is, through thick description, the anthropologist can contextualize people’s opinion; without context and interpretation, the study would merely be of numerical significance.
This is not to discredit the scientific method—more accurately, this is not to suggest that surveys and quantitative approaches are useless to the anthropologist. To be sure, these are important, and sometimes even necessary, tools. Yet, they cannot be the only tools employed in an anthropological study.
Making the Call
So, if you are keen about Anthropology, try to identify what it is that really interests you. If you’re interested in the different ways in which people seek or make meaning, or the ways in which culture influences individuals and vice versa, Cultural Anthropology may be what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you’re interested in the physical characteristics of the human body, the ways in which lifestyles shape these characteristics, and so on, Physical or Forensic Anthropology may be your discipline. Remember: there is no hierarchy here; whether you rely on the scientific method or active modes of interpretation, what really matters is the earnestness with which you undertake your research. Finally, to answer parents’ question—Anthropology is not only a science but also a salient Humanities discipline. Moreover, nothing is off topic for the anthropologist. As studies in the field of Anthropology of Science show, even science is open to critical anthropological inquiry. It is one of the very few disciplines that critically studies and questions scientific paradigms. For this reason, Anthropology is also a revolutionary discipline.