Common Misperceptions About (or In) Anthropology

Chad Orzel over at Uncommon Principles has assigned more home work. He wants to know your least favorite misconceptions about your field. When I signed up with ScienceBlogs I didn’t realize there were going to be mid=terms!
My first annoying misconception actually concerns the uncertainty pricnciple. You see it is often invoked, within the field of cultural anthropology, as a criticism of field work – usually by those with post modernist leanings. People argue that the observer has unknowable effects on the observed, consequently any attempt at scientific analysis is tossed out the window. It is undeniable that the observer has effects on the observed. There have been a number of cases where an informan tries to use the relationship with the ethnographer to elevate their social status, for example, but the PoMo abandonment of science has led them into a bit of a rut.
My second annoying misconception is the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” syndrome. In this misconception folks watch the above named movie and think it is actually reflective of what archaeologists do (I can’t refrain from noting that Dembski and other ID proponents have a severe case of this syndrome). One symptom of this syndrome is the perception that any large, pointy bit of rock is an arrowhead…
My third annoying misconception is the “there are no transitional fossils” misconception, also known as the “Lucy was an ape” misconception…

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10 Responses

  1. When I signed up with ScienceBlogs I didn’t realize there were going to be mid=terms!
    What can I say? I’m teaching a homework-heavy class this term, and it just bleeds over…

  2. One symptom of this syndrome is the perception that any large, pointy bit of rock is an arrowhead…
    Next you’ll be telling us that any random rounded rock about the size of a softball isn’t a hammer…

  3. tim, i’m a big fan of bio anthropology, john hawks, but it seems that anthropology as become stuck in a recursive self-analysis phase. i mean, i think the stuff at savage minds is what people think of today when they think of anthropology (i like kerim, but i still haven’t noticed them getting a bio anthro person on board like he said they were trying to last spring).

  4. Chad – So if I get a good grade on my homework do I get to be a TA? Is there a stipend involved?
    Dave – Now you are catching on.
    razib – I’m not familiar with Savage Minds so I can’t speak to it. But, I was recently reading an article about ecological anthropology in Current Anthropology. One section contained a critique of the work of Lee and Devore among the !Kung and Vayda in New Guinea. One of the things the struck me was how totally lacking in historical context the critique was. Those two studies may seem to be based on simplistic assumptions now, but at the time no one was really trying that kind of ecological analysis. Now I have been away from anthropology for about five years (part of the reason for starting the blog was to get back into it) but I am struck at the historical disconnect I am seeing – especially in cultural anthro. so, yeah, I agree that it is becoming addicted to recursive self-analysis…

  5. Well, I’ve done a little dirt archeology and I must confess that there is some Indiana Jones in every field archeologist I have ever met. The best ones are the ones that can rise above all that and understand that you can’t record the discovery of a wall with only one stone in a row. At Tell Gezer under Dever and Seger we needed to have two stones in a row before we could call it a wall. And even then, we wrote the words “possible wall” on the locus tag and in our daybooks. As to sharp stones being arrowheads, it was more likely that we would call sharp stones scythe blades, even if they turned out to just sharp stones.

  6. Duane – Yeah, granted but when they are doing actual fieldwork they tend to behave themselves (to the extent they are capable anyway). I guess the arrowhead remark was a bit projectile pointocentric. It was kind of fresh because I recently watched a show on Mississipian culture, during the course of which, the host picked up a projectile point almost as big as his hand and said “Wow, what a beautiful arrowhead”. Thanks for the link by the way.

  7. Interpretation of archeological evidence has moved a little beyond this, but there was a time when anything that could not otherwise be explained was called a cult object. Now that is what I call “gods in the gaps.” There is even a famous case in which some more or less round, elongated objects were thought to be phalluses. Then some joyless geologist sectioned them, studied them under a microscope and did a few other tests and, lo and behold, they turned out to be calciumized human feces. Going back and looking at the daybooks and drawings it became clear that the archeologists had excavated a latrine not a cultic treasure horde.

  8. I guess the archaeologists missed all that “For a good time call Tiamat” grafitti, eh!

  9. misconceptions from within the field (bioanthropology): that studying dead hominids or living monkeys is somehow different from studying other dead or living mammals. I started outside bioanth in undergrad, moved out of bioanth after my master’s. As far as I’m concerned, the separation is an artifical one from mammalogy, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology
    misconceptions from outside: That we’re all like Jane Goodall and Franz de Waal, touchy-feely people who play in the wild all day (granted, Goodall did do some real science when she was younger). And that the hominid lineage is a ladder from a chimp-like Lucy to modern humans, rather than a formerly bushy lineage with only a solitary surviving species.
    misconceptions from population genetecists: that since genes are the method of hereditary transmission, they are the unit of selection. That they are therefore the only thing that needs to be studied in order to understand evolutionary process. I’d invite them to read Sewall Wright and Theodosius Dhobzansky.

  10. Misconceptions in evolutionary biology

    Chad Orzel is asking about misconceptions in science that irritate. Evolgen and Afarensis have chimed in. My problem is not an misconception, it is a pet peeve. As I’ve noted before, random genetic drift is a catchall explanation for everything….

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