the two cultures revisited (ad nauseum)

A short while ago I attended one of a series of talks set up to create some dialogue between evolutionary and interpretive approaches in archaeology. I was only able to attend the last of the series, but others who attended earlier talks reported that the presentations themselves (one from each of the two “styles”) were interesting and informative, but that the discussions that took place afterwards, where, ostensibly, the dialogue was to get into full swing, were quite fraught, full of misunderstandings and tense “science versus post-modernism” exchanges.

Which is, as always, a shame. I think to most scientifically-minded archaeologists and anthropologists–indeed anyone in the social sciences who appreciates the scientific method–the lack of useful dialogue, collaboration, and proper communication with our colleagues who have other approaches is felt as a keen deficit. From afar, we can observe the wealth of rich material (dare I say “data”?) collected by social anthropologists (for instance). More importantly, we can observe their ability to contextualise, interpret and suggest new or alternative hypotheses for what we, with the necessity of abstract or simple models, are sometimes missing in our approaches.

However, after attending the last talk, I don’t think that they (“they” being in this case those in the social sciences who probably prefer the term humanities) really feel any keen need for such dialogue in the other direction. I could be (and would be delighted to be) very wrong about this. I got the sense of a lamentable misunderstanding how science as applied to human affairs. Misunderstanding the scientific method is of course a more general malady, from the sub-editors at the Evening Standard right on through to nutritionists with dodgy qualifications.

But at this talk there were some SHOCKERS.

During the post-presentation discussion, I jotted down some of the comments that really encapsulated this misunderstanding from the audience, who were, bear in mind, staff and students from the relevant departments.

One of the speakers had mentioned Boyd and Richerson’s concept of “content bias” as a way of explaining why some cultural proclivities are inherently appealing. To take a trivial example, a preference for orange juice might be more widespread than a preference for lemon juice, because humans, like other primates, like sweet foods rather than bitter. A comment from the audience was so plaintive that the impulse to say “there, there” was very strong:

“But, if I’m explaining X, I don’t want X to be just ‘content bias'”

The commenter then went on to say that her alternative explanation for X would take into the rich context of the cultural experience into account. My reaction to these sorts of objections to science are never very patient, because they seem to derive from the “special snowflake” school of thought, where all experience is unique, meaningful, and if at all possible, pretty. The objection seems to be that “your generalisation holds no individual significance for me/my subject matter, therefore I reject your method of reaching your generalisation”, or, more simply, “don’t like it, don’t want it.”

In a similar vein, another person stated that:

“Evolutionary accounts don’t take “what it means to be human” into consideration”

This is a combination of special snowflake thinking combined with the mistaken belief that evolutionary thinking necessarily entails some sort of determinism and rigid homogeneity. This is difficult. This is why popular evolutionary psychology (and human genetics) falls over, because it doesn’t explicitly show how evolution involves variation and flexibility and is not all about genetic determinism. Oh nature/nurture debate, you always rear your misshapen head.

And anyhow, what is this “what it means to be human” thing? It’s not like we all wake up each morning and have a little fret about whether that’s a human being staring back from the bathroom mirror.

Er, most of us.

Personally I find debates about human uniqueness really boring and think they smack of a sort of Great Chain of Being thinking. Leave it to artists and writers, they’re much better at capturing the human experience. 😉

And then, the misunderstanding that science is systematic, demonstrate by this gem in response to a perfectly reasonable graph of measurements:

“How can you be sure you’ve got the numbers right? That’s just as interpretive! (as interpretive archaeology)”

Um. Sadly, no-one administered the simple slap-down of handing the commenter a ruler and suggesting that if the numbers were wrong there was an instant paper in a respectable journal waiting to be written. But is it seriously so difficult to understand that science is self-correcting, and that is its beauty? But it is more likely that such comments come from a place of deep suspicion and derision, as well as ignorance, exemplified by:

“Well, it is all just scientifying and mystifying and it all just goes over the top of my head”

I must confess that I find some post-modernist writing mystifying, but I attribute that to different academic styles, and attempt to wrestle the meaning out of it rather than throw my hands up and damn the whole enterprise.

There were very few comments that questioned the interpretive approach, except on points of clarification. I leave the reasons for that to the reader as an exercise in the social niceties of academia.

Relatedly (yes, this is the post that never ends) I had an illuminating conversation a number of months ago, when I was writing up. I shared an office with another PhD student whose thesis was on material culture, loosely described as the anthropology of “things”. We were talking about the feeling that no matter what your topic, it always feels never-ending. For me, the never-ending feeling comes from two sources

(1) I could do this analysis better/add more data/run another test, or
(2) a new question arises from the results

For her, the never-ending feeling comes from

(1) not having a question to ask of the “data” in the first place, and
(2) even with a question, the mulitiplicity of theoretical approaches one can take in social anthropology means that none of them have any priority over the others… and so there is never a (valid) answer to the question anyhow.

I asked if that were not inherently frustrating. She replied that it isn’t – it is fun, but it is not satisfying. And I think in that answer lies much of the tension between different approaches in the social sciences, because science is nothing if not satisfying, even when it is decidedly not fun.

I will write about the concept of “fun” in academic work at some other point in time.


6 responses to “the two cultures revisited (ad nauseum)

  1. “Well, it is all just scientifying and mystifying and it all just goes over the top of my head”

    Oh, puhlease! I can’t bear it when academics themselves indulge in anti-intellectual moaning. Complaining about another discipline’s terminology is not a good way to advertise one’s own mental acuity to others. Of course, it’s no more impressive to bury one’s ideas beneath a steaming pile of jargon. Communication takes good-faith effort on both sides, surely.

    I’d have thought that at such a gathering, you’d all take as a given the fact that each side has its own obfuscating jargon — and then (a) agree to limit jargon whilst discussing matters with one another and (b) make every effort to provide/digest definitions for the few, necessary specialist terms that can’t be eliminated on either side.

    But then I’m not a great fan of specialist terminology that cannot be defined except in relation to a nest of other arcane terms. I imagine that each side in this particular exchange claims to have derived its terminology in the service of analytical precision, but don’t we all suspect that most jargon (in any discipline, including our own) is mostly a value-added gloss meant to cloak the weaker bits of analysis in a paper and impress readers at first-rate journals?

    I will be quiet now.

  2. Okay, I won’t be quiet yet…

    I hope it’s clear that I was reacting to the voice you quoted and not to your post itself. You’d think I could at least be clear whilst delivering a sermon on clarity! (sigh)

  3. The special snowflake example is kind of interesting. In a way what we have here is competing aesthetics – minimalists versus efflorists (I made that up – maximalists? flower lovers?). The minimalists like to strip phenomena back to their bare essentials, to the core process or cause. And this is what leads to charges of lack of agency, humanity etc. because what is often presented is an interesting phenomena reduced to a mundanity (e.g. Baby Names = Random Drift). This minimalism is also aestheticised – as ‘elegant’, and the more simple the mathematical equation the better (although the more maths the better). They consider this to be ‘pretty’.

    The Efforists aren’t interested in the cause of the pattern, they want to know about the many forms of its expression: Baby Names! why do Black Americans invent names more frequently than Whites? What’s the experience of having a weird name? How come some names have Taboos. etc. etc. They want to understand the floral. They find this pretty.

    The danger is when these aesthetics are considered to be in competition, or are presented as an either/or choice. And as much as Social Anth folks are guilty of rejecting the more mathematical approaches out of hand, the Science folks are guilty of overselling the explanatory value of their work. I don’t see how we can do without either.

    As for the PhD student studying the anthropology of things – I am not sure it is fair to use the ravings of a confused soul in the middle of Dissertation-Torment as an example of the anything goes nature of social Anth. She may not know what question to ask and what aproach to take, but that is quite probably because she chose something ‘pretty’ to research and then went “ummm…ok…how?” (As opposed to finding a problem than then looking for an instatiation that might cast light on the issue) If anything that is a problem with the way in which these different approaches are taught. Which is probabaly another post altogether…

  4. Hi TT:

    I don’t see how we can do without either.

    Precisely.What I’m trying to get across here is that the reactions of many of the commenters at this seminar were very much tinged with an accusation that any sort of scientific simplification was personally/morally/ethically (call it what you will) unpleasant. This is very different to the interdisciplinary acceptance that different disciplines have different ways of doing that can all contribute to the larger picture.

    It is interesting that you use the term “overselling”. It’s a common frustration that in order to communicate science one has to simplify and “amp up” the implications or otherwise of a piece of research. Although, to be fair, I suspect the vast amount of this overselling process is done by media relations offices and journalists. I say interesting because while many simplifying claims might be oversold for their audience, the scientific investigators behind the work are usually always the first to step up with caveats, exceptions, and pleas for contextualising. That we are accused of somehow being blind to complexity just because we often use simple models is Annoying Misconception #419 🙂

    I take issue with your characterisation of my colleague, by the way. I think some of our clearest thoughts and reflections on what we’re doing come at the writing-up process!

  5. Wordwise:

    Is there a distinction between “technical vocabulary” on the one hand and jargon on the other? One thing I notice is that in many cases, when I am writing, there is no other word aside from the specialist term (and I may end up using it over and over). Whereas I tend to think of jargon as specialist terms that could (with a modicum of effort) be expressed in plain language.

    Am curious!

  6. I have ceased to be amazed, but remain dismayed, at the tendency of people who don’t like sciencificationism to view science as an arcane world of technicians and automatons. You know, devoid of imagination and stuff. Rubbish, but popular rubbish.
    I’m much more dismayed at the failure to win people over to seeing the world through a scientific lens, or at least to see the value of science as a lens through which you could *choose* to see the world…
    Whose failure is this? Hey, I think we all share in that one.

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