The social sciences have long struggled with issues of defending their legitimacy as "science." It seems at present (late in the year 2000), that there is a widespread belief that social sciences generally (and anthropology being among the prime examples) is indeed, to use the highly technical, scientific term: "bullshit."

The more interesting question, though, may be to look at the science from an analytical point-of-view and ask "Why has it become bullshit?" Several contributing factors come to mind:

  1. History of the science. Early efforts to approach the study of human culture and social behavior in a scientific way got bogged down in the thorny thickets of observer bias and other pitfalls of less than scientific practice, of practitioners who brought their own prejudices to bear. Trying to keep social sciences scientific has been a fascinating, frustrating and difficult process.

    Work that was considered au courant in the 1920s is often viewed today as hopelessly biased on a nearly opposite trajectory from the one portrayed in crayz's write-up. Back then, one was more likely to see all manner of biased theories, most of which seem utterly self-evident crack-pottery today, presented as "science," complete with the aura of white lab coats, long needles and the scent of formaldehyde that the word "science" was supposed to conjure up in the minds of any responsible citizen of that era.

  2. The influence of Marxist social/behavioral theory and of Marxist-influenced academics and theorists prominent in the field. For many years, after the biases of status-quo white-boy perk defenders had been nailed, and rightly so, little was left to provide a foundation for a new attempt to define the science. Since "scientific marxism" had something of an open playing field at its disposal, with few competing frameworks able to gain much credence or enthusiasm, one finds that many unexamined marxist assumptions have crept into much of what now passes for social science. Some are useful.

I recall the comments of one of my early Chinese language teachers to the effect that "Marxism is a lousy economic theory, but provides an excellent descriptive framework for the other ills of societies that are structured around a largely open-market economic system." This was a man who escaped China during the turmoil of Japanese occupation, a distant cousin of Yuan Shikai (Republican China's first president and nearly its first emperor as well). A gentleman who had seen both Chinese and American cultural foibles at close range and had the age and wisdom to know that nothing is ever simple. A gentlemen the U.S. government frequently turned to for advice in interpreting the official language and jargon of various Chinese-led governments.

Perhaps the main exception to this trend would be in academic economics, where theorists have tried, largely on a very limited basis, to work out theories about how open markets tend to work, despite the intuitive feeling many have that they really shouldn't work that well, and the persistent feeling that they really work far better to the benefit of a select few than they do for the larger populace.

Sociology and anthropology, since they tend to examine less quantitatively measurable aspects of human well-being, also tend to ask many difficult-to-answer, hard-to-objectively-judge questions about the intangible aspects of our collective well-being. As such, a very easy place to get lost or side-tracked.

So, true, anthropology may well seem like bullshit, and it may in fact contain more than a smidgen of actual bullshit, but ask yourself as well: Is it possible that we wish to define it as bullshit even moreso than it is, because, in its present state, it challenges our complacency about living in a culture that values material markers of wealth and status above many of the things that those in "poorer" cultures have seen as core human values?

A ticklish meta-question remains: are we predisposed to see our particular society (and by this I am parochially referring only to "Western European-derived cultures of the U.S. and the developed nations of Western Europe)--do we see ourselves as "sicker" than it may in fact be, perhaps out of some pervasive sense of "guilt" or ambivalence about living in a culture that has produced such material wealth, without necessarily providing much in the the way of mental comfort, personal peace or social cohesiveness?

To respond briefly to dogboy's comments, my remarks were not intended as a criticism of these sciences, but as a vernacular commentary on what is a well-recognized (by social scientists themselves) aspect of social science, namely, how difficult it is (compared to the physical sciences, specifically) to maintain scientific rigor in these fields. If my tone or diction were interpreted as hostile to the claims the fields have to be called "science" perhaps some readings in recent psych research on the roots of depressive moods is in order? (I feel you may be "personalizing" over some of what I wrote. I could be mistaken.)

In any case, my sincere apology is offered. I sometimes forget how my sense of humor can be interpreted, absent the body language that helps convey its essential sympathy for our human-made dilemmas and quandaries, in this case, those difficulties we create in attempting to subject our own societies and behaviors to scientific study.


Responding further to dogboy's response to my response ;) See also: recursion...

I'm glad we can agree to disagree (civilly). It does seems to me a weak argument to associate social science with contemporary architecture, a profession that has largely fallen victim to some of the worst features of personality and PR-driven inanities known to (at least) the 20th century. I'll reserve judgement a while longer to see if it's on a recovery path -- speaking of the profession collectively, not on an individual basis. There are probably quite a few craftsmanlike architects doing some very good work at present. However, very few of them get any sort of attention or respect within the "brotherhood" of self-congratulatory crackpots who seem to dominate the world of relatively well-known architects.

And maybe that is part of the larger problem? As with architecture, in the social sciences a lay reader will tend to hear and read far more about those doing the most iffy work -- work that stirs some sort of controversy. Meanwhile, one rarely reads or remembers much about those researchers minding their knitting, making modest claims based on extensive research and a respect for the all-to-often ignored limitation of statistical methods, at least when used to make definitive claims and heavy generalizations.