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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Forbes Magazine, November 27, 2000
Source URL: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2000/1127/6614086a.html

The Science of Self-Preservation

Dan Seligman

WHAT ARE THE ECONOMIC prospects for the soft sciences? Those can be somewhat loosely defined as fields--like anthropology, psychology and sociology--in which there is quite a parade of scientific method but a shortage of patents or other evidence of practical results. There is a persuasive case to be made that the social sciences are in desperate shape. And yet a survey of the evidence leads one to the conclusion that a powerful instinct for self-preservation will see them through to another century.

Bearish case: The science of anthropology is, in the words of some renowned scholars participating in a Web-based discussion group on human biodiversity, "dying a lingering death." The more I follow their reasoning, the more it seems likely that parallel statements can be made about psychology and sociology. Mainstream social science--or at least organized social science--really does look to be in trouble.

The trouble comes from two directions. First, organized anthropology, psychology and sociology keep looking more and more ridiculous as they plunge deeper into political correctness--the major sickness being complained about in the aforementioned discussion group. But they also look ridiculous when they try to deal with their professions' practical problems, and especially the problem of how in hell are you supposed to make any serious money with Ph.D.s in these degrees. Am I supposed to take seriously that wishful thinking on the Web site of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) about how the discipline is a hot new degree and corporate America is panting to hire anthropology majors, and how "anthropologist Katherine Burr, chief executive of the Hanseatic Group, an investment company, was among the first to predict the 1998 Asian financial crisis [and] as a result, her investors made profits while the clients of other money managers lost out"?

And you thought the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997.

In recent weeks Topic A for anybody concerned about the woes of social science has been the strange saga of the Yanomamö Indians, a tribe in the Brazilian rain forest, and the anthropological expedition that studied them some years back. It appears that the tribe suffered from a measles epidemic about the time they were being visited by Napoleon Chagnon, a respected French anthropologist, and a colleague of his named James Neel. According to an upcoming book by journalist Patrick Tierney (already serialized in The New Yorker) called Darkness in El Dorado, the anthropologists were genocidal monsters. Tierney says that they deliberately created the deadly measles epidemic as part of some kind of bizarre eugenics experiment.

The story was a worldwide media sensation for a month or so, with hundreds of anthropologists publicly joining in denunciations of Chagnon and Neel, some comparing the two to Nazi Josef Mengele. But by early November Tierney's story line was unraveling--in part because it had been established that the virus in question could not have spread measles contagiously, also because there was nothing in the alleged perpetrators' history to suggest an interest in eugenics, and in any case no reason to think a eugenicist would be especially hostile to the Yanomamö tribe.

Two points about this remarkable episode: First, the credulous reaction of so many anthropologists bespeaks a mind-set aching for activist causes. Second, the accompanying dialog within the fraternity made it clear that anthropology today is defined as an activist profession. All too typical was the formulation by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a University of California (Berkeley) anthropologist who was asked by the New York Times for comment on the Chagnon-Neel controversy and went on to state that the core task of the discipline today is not just studying local traditions but "critiquing globalization."

Indeed. Sprawling all over the AAA Web site today are the organization's position statements on issues that have only the most tenuous connection to anthropology--statements about gay rights, violence against women, hate crimes--but just come naturally to political activists. Rational underpinning to all this: If anthropologists run out of Stone Age tribes to investigate, they will at least have some political hot buttons with which to attract undergrads to their courses.

On to the American Psychological Association (APA) and American Sociological Association (ASA), two groups of which an old friend and Harvard eminence I dare not name recently remarked: "People become sociologists because they hate society, and they become psychologists because they hate themselves"--a thought that may or may not be related to the two symbiotically related themes both groups keep pitching at you: (1) Our discipline is becoming more and more relevant to the needs of business and society, and (2) just in case businesspeople fail to notice this, we need heavy doses of activism to get their attention.

What will psychology contribute to the new world? Russ Newman, the APA's executive director for practice, sees psychology as "a preeminent profession within the Internet culture," where people will need help in the new ways of relating to one another. At the same time, he avers, the shrinks are needed to deal with all the "loneliness, depression and disconnection resulting from Internet use." In the traditional corporate sector, an APA publication tells us, psychology is needed to help prevent workplace violence--"a promising new niche for practitioners." Also nicheworthy is the prevention of employee absences: A recent APA study, centered on a large corporation, finds that "60% of employee absences were due to psychological problems." Like, one assumes, the angst associated with getting out of bed in the morning.