Thing We Wish We Knew in First Year : Art/Science Debate

AnthropOLOGY. It is the ‘ology’ that often misleads those unfamiliar with anthropology to assume that it is a science. It is indeed a social science, but the degree to which it can be considered truly scientific has long been a subject of debate, mostly within the discipline itself.

This is the art/science debate, in which some use the data-collection, theory-based analysis and systematic ordering of the world within anthropology to argue that it is a science, and others use the intimacy of participant observation, literary description and subjectivity of it all to call it an art. While it would seemingly make sense to just decide that anthropology is perhaps both a bit art and and a bit science, there are important political and ethical implications to which side one approaches the discipline with, in theory and in practice.

There are prominent anthropologists on both sides of the debate, and sometimes their arguments are published side by side, like with this Harris and Geertz debate (Endicott and Welsch 2005). Marvin Harris argued that anthropology should be used to discover ‘verifiable laws’ of culture, like a scientific method, through his theory of cultural materialism (an evolutionary model). Geertz conversely says that anthropology is about creating deeper interpretations of culture, and that it should not be concerned with proving or disproving things. The politics of these different viewpoints become clear when observing a cultural setting; will you look at a scenario as something in which evolutionary functions of cultural forms can be identified, or will you prioritise the investigation of meaning and symbolism? As a researcher, are you a scientist seeking to prove objective fact? Or are you a glorified tourist armed with critical theory?

I would personally take pride in embodying the latter, but how you interpret the scope of anthropology is, as always and wonderfully, entirely up to you.


Endicott, K.M. and Welsch R.L. (2005), Taking sides: clashing views on controversial issues in Anthropology (third edition) Iowa: McGraw Hill, issue 9, pp. 168-191.

6 thoughts on “Thing We Wish We Knew in First Year : Art/Science Debate”

  1. […] In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article). […]


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