Clashing Views in Anthropology

The issue that is examined in this paper is whether or not cultural anthropology should stop trying to model itself as a science.  In their writings on this subject, Goertz says, “yes,” whereas Carneiro answers, “no.”  Goertz believes that anthropology should look for deeper meanings of cultural events by using thick description.  It should not try to “prove or disprove scientific laws”(Goertz 1973 p.238).  Carneiro, however, says that “anthropology has always been and should continue to be a science that attempts to explain sociocultural phenomena in terms of causes and effects rather than merely interpret them” (ibid.).

Until the 1960s, anthropologists tried to locate regular patterns and relationships between different situations in any local cultural settings.  However, much of the data obtained in this manner is not easily quantifiable or replicated.  Consequently, questions have been raised as to whether cultural anthropology is really a science or whether it should be part of the humanities as are philosophy and history.  Furthermore, if cultural anthropology is to be classified as a science, the question arises as to what kind of science it should be.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, cultural anthropology was for the most part considered to be a natural science with an extension of biology.

Beginning in the 1920s, cultural anthropologists became more interested in what people thought than what they did.  Methods of testing were borrowed from psychology “to get inside the heads of the people they studied.  Clifford Goertz’s ‘interpretive anthropology’grew out of this interest in cultural differences in thought worlds” (ibid.).  Moving forward to the 1970s, Robert Carneiro led a‘movement’ to classify anthropological research as a science.

Carneiro says that postmodernists pose an even greater threat to anthropology being considered a science than do humanists.  The latter say that Anthropology cannot be treated as a social science..  They claim that human behavior is too complex for any regular patterns of behavior or laws.  Postmodernists can point to ethnography as a hindrance to have anthropology considered a science because they round things off thereby not necessarily allowing all of the voices to be heard.  As a result anthropology has been given a place in literature—in the fiction section. Postmodernists  are ambivalent about truth and, basically, accept what anyone says is true..  Carneiro is, however, not too worried about postmodernism, believing that it will gradually fall by the wayside and be replaced by more productive forms of inquiry.

In the section of this article that asks if there is room for common ground, the last paragraph on page 262 makes that seem a somewhat remote possibility since it tells the reader of a widening rift between the members of the American Anthropological Association to the extent that even The New York Times reported on it.  This was likely brought about to a large degree by the Association removing the word, “science” from its mission statement.  In view of this it does not seem that anthropology is trying to make itself a science, which is one reason that I side with Carneiro who has made some noteworthy points.  In one instance Carneiro takes a look at science versus humanism by using the distinction between science and art.  He points out that while both deal with experience, they approach it differently.  Art is enjoyed and celebrated, which is great; but celebration is not part of science.  Goertz points out that the subject matter of anthropology does not lend itself to cause and effect research.  Goertz himself says that scientists should give up any attempts at positivist science but should interpret cultures in the form of “thick descriptions.”



Goertz, C.  Thick Description:  Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture in The interpretation of culture:  Selected essays. (Basic Books, 1973).

Carneiro, R. L. Godzilla Meets New Age Anthropology:  Facing the postmodernist challenge to a science of culture.  EUROPEA (1995).