George Walford: Sciences

Distinguished by precision: After saying that the Keynesians believed themselves to have grasped the principles of controlling the economy, Jane Jacobs goes on to add that they: ‘concentrated on creating a science of fiscal intervention – a real science, like chemistry or physics, in which one can count on precise, quantifiable interventions yielding predictable, quantifiable results.’ (Cities & the Wealth of Nations, 17).

Napoleon Chagnon brings out the distinction between natural and social sciences: ‘Anthropology as a science differs radically from, let us say, chemistry or genetics. Our subject-matter is made essentially of the same kind of stuff as the observer – the ‘subject-matter’ itself has hopes, fears, desires and emotions. It is easy to identify with people and become intimate with them; a chemist or geneticist cannot have much empathy for carbon or the genes that determine eye color.’ [1]

If so, can anthropology, sociology and the social studies claim to rank as sciences in the same sense as chemistry or genetics? The term implies a detached objectivity likely to be lacking when it is easy for the investigators to identify with their subject-matter. In the s.i. scheme of things this feature reveals social studies as more sophisticated and intellectually advanced (and consequently more difficult) than the physical and biological sciences.

S.i. locates anthropology on a higher (and therefore less thickly inhabited) level than law, physics, art or accountancy; it also points out that power goes mainly with numbers, so that anthropology will exercise less influence than these other studies. We can now claim the support of Clifford Geertz, a prominent anthropologist, for this conclusion. Anthropology Today [2] reports him holding that ‘compared with law, physics, music or cost accounting (!) anthropology is a relatively minor social institution.’ (The reporter, an anthropologist himself, describes the claim as ‘typically ironic.’ That looks like defensiveness.

[1] Chagnon, N. 1983 Yanomamo, the fierce people NY, 191.
[2] Anthropology Today Volume 10 No.3 June 94,4.

from Ideological Commentary 64, June 1994.