From Science through Art to Literary and Discursive Interpretation: Rethinking Anthropology from Its Classical to Contemporary Trajectory

By Islam, Saiful | Asian Social Science, September 2013 | Go to article overview

From Science through Art to Literary and Discursive Interpretation: Rethinking Anthropology from Its Classical to Contemporary Trajectory


Islam, Saiful, Asian Social Science


Abstract

The emergence of anthropology as a separate discipline in the Enlightenment saw an attempt to establish this subject matter as a discipline of natural sciences. Functionalism, structuralism and structural-functionalism were some of the earlier rigorous theoretical frameworks for the scientific classification of anthropology. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, interpretives and postmodernists fervently opposed earlier claims that anthropology should be made a science, and critically raised questions of truth and objectivity in science. These theorists argued that anthropology is not an objective science; rather, they considered ethnographic data "text" that should be subjectively read, explained and interpreted. Questions of whether anthropology should be considered science or art, whether it is interpretive and discursive (as argued by the postmodernists) and whether it is a matter of universal law-making theory or more of a hermeneutic and humanistic discourse, are still very alive in and fundamental to anthropological literature. This article confronts these questions, examining the trajectory of anthropology from its classical to contemporary context.

Keywords: anthropology, anthropological theories, positivist vs. postmodern ethnography, interpretive and discursive anthropology

1. Introduction

The debate over whether anthropology should be considered a discipline of science, art, or anything else, is as old as the field of anthropology itself. Although the issue seems dated and gallons of ink have already been put into this matter, I add a few drops to consider its contemporary significance. Many founding anthropologists were inclined to label anthropology a scientific discipline, whereas others, in more recent times, have simply argued that the discipline of anthropology is more similar to humanistic or literary criticism. The latter group, led predominantly by Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, Michelle Foucault and James Clifford, argued that anthropologists produce new genres, and the ethnography they write closely matches with fiction and Verstehen. Anthropologists produce a reconstruction of their own habitus, influenced by their acquired schemata, emotional responses, dispositions and tastes. Such ethnography may not qualify as the product of natural-scientific knowledge. By revisiting the trajectory of anthropology from its classical to contemporary period, this paper examines whether anthropology can be considered a discipline similar to science, art or anything else. Before entering into this debate, it is necessary to revisit the basic nature and characterization of science to better examine the nature of anthropology against scientific facts and values.

2. What Is Science?

According to Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, science is defined as "Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied". In this definition, three factors are identified as essential characteristics of scientific exploration: (a) observation; (b) study; and (c) experimentation. Such a definition of science is very broad and inclusive, and, to be more precise, it can be said that science is the process of searching for fundamental and universal principles that govern the causes and effects of universal phenomena.

One fundamental requirement of scientific research is that the evidences used to claim and validate facts are empirical, so that ideas generated from research can be defended. Here, the empirical requirement refers to the background information used to support a theory, which must come from hands-on experience and be inspected and evaluated by other observers. Only evidences that meet such criteria can be considered scientific fact (Lavenda & Schultz, 2000, 187). Scientific investigation has thus always stressed the importance of empirical research and hands-on collection of reliable information, which are preferred to speculative information unsupported by direct observation. …

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