Toward an Authentic Anthropology of Science

by Hugh M. Lewis


The informant told the Anthropologist, "it just ain't so."

And so the Anthropologist, from a careful translation of the notes, told the class, "It just isn't necessarily so."

And then a student, sitting in the back of the classroom, went home on vacation to report to her parents--"You know, my anthropology professor said that it's not necessarily just so."


Human reality always presents itself as is, full blown. In fact, it can be argued that all reality is human reality, that there can be no demonstrable reality outside of our human experience of it, and thus all reality is mediated and represented by our channels of experience.

Thus, human reality is universal and in the primacy of its experience, unitary and undifferentiated. It is the whole, and we cannot ever step beyond its boundaries or outside of our own experience of it. In this sense, human reality is like a cosmic egg, something that is self-contained, integral, unbroken, and complete. Logically we cannot escape this dilemma. Empirically, it constitutes the somewhat paradoxical ground of our anthropological science.

We regularly employ our anthropological science to analytically separate human reality into its different parts, in order to better reveal the internal dimensions and relations between its pieces. In linguistics, we use analytical categories like syntax, semantics, and pragmatics in order to usefully separate and define what seem to be important dimensions of our language structure, though in actuality our everyday speech always has these categories naturally synthesized into a single, coherent, holistic patterning. Similarly, students of culture conventionally carve up the cultural universe into its different aspects, traits, or students of society into its roles, institutions, relations and identities, though our experience of culture and social life always presents itself in a relatively undifferentiated phenomenological web of experience.

Our science is depends methodologically upon such analysis that seeks to separate the parts out and see how they are interrelated to form the whole. The pattern of organization by which the parts interrelated to constitute the life of the whole is what scientists refer to as the underlying structure. They seek to capture the principles of this underlying organizational structure, and its processes of functioning, change and development, as a set of general propositional statements that can then be applied experimentally to other, similar kinds of entities. It is on the basis of these inductively derived principles that science proposes hypothetical theories.

But our science is not just analytical in attempting to uncover the general patterning and process between the parts in the constitution of the whole. It becomes also necessarily synthetic in attempting to put back together the many parts into a new arrangement which is effective and vital or relevant in some way. Wresting out from the local patterning the general principles underlying the structure of the whole, science then moves on to apply those very principles in ways which are useful, in ways which lead to greater experimental understanding over the processes and patternings which result.


Whatever the criticism of Thomas Kuhn's seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1966) the strength and suggestiveness of its implications and conclusions for the social production and praxis of normal science remains to be fully reckoned with. Usually missing from critiques of his work are several important points that he makes about the structure of scientific praxis. These are:

1. Normal science is oriented towards rather specific puzzle-solving problems that have definite, correct solutions.

2. The social reproduction of science is based upon the training, orientation and transmission of central, important 'shared exemplars' which provide the basis for community organization, and which are both theoretically efficacious and methodologically heuristic. The concept of 'shared Exemplars' as it is used is inherently ambiguous, suggesting more than one possible meaning and having more than one set of implications for what constitutes a 'paradigm' of science, but it carries the overall suggestion of being a 'Gestalt' or general pattern or model about which a science defines itself.

3. Kuhn makes a case for a kind of relativity of knowledge which he holds to be embedded experientially at the level of perception itself, and which becomes encoded by the idiom of language that a theoretical orientation, and its set of Gestalts, entail. The community of scientists become divided into separate camps each speaking in its own idiom and each having its own way of seeing the world which is incommensurate with the other. An attempt is made to interpret or translate the new idiom in terms of the old, but such attempts are only partially successful and ultimately fail. What occurs is a 'Gestalt shift' as the new idiom, embedded as it is in a new gestalt organization, is better able to account for deviant phenomena which the old idiom proved unable to solve.

6. The new theory will successfully account not only for the anomalous phenomena which the old theory could not successful account for, but will also successfully incorporate the old theory in a parsimonious way as a 'limited case model.' The new theory can account for all the phenomena covered by the old theory, but the old theory cannot likewise account for the anomalous phenomena upon which the new theory is based.

5. Kuhn's principle of achieved rather than immanent progress in the development of science is central to his notion of paradigmatic revolutions. Achieved progress is only measurable in hindsight indexed by the improved resolution of the new Gestalt to better account for natural phenomena and to resolve the puzzles which science poses.


Since the publication of this seminal work in the history and philosophy of science, a great deal of debate has been sparked in the social sciences over their paradigmatic status and over the general applicability of this model, not only to the natural sciences, but to the social sciences as well. Kuhn himself alludes to the pre-paradigmatic status of the social sciences that have not yet coalesced under the aegis of a single ground, a foundational, textbook theory which all members of the community are agreed upon. According to Kuhn, the mark of the pre-paradigmatic period of a science is the divisive nature of its community, unable to come to terms about the basic, foundational issues of the field. It is as if the social sciences, sociology, psychology or anthropology, are yet awaiting its own general Copernican, Newtonian or Darwinian theory. Because such a pre-paradigmatic science cannot coalesce upon a shared foundation, it cannot settle into a normal paradigmatic period of puzzle-solving activity which will lead to the uncovering of anomalous phenomena not sufficiently amenable to the normal Gestalt.

It is likely that if the social sciences are to be considered as yet pre-paradigmatic, then its ability to come to rest upon a common ground will not be determined by competitive exclusion in the academic market place, or by the politicking of departmental and sub-disciplinary factions who promote their own agenda at the expense of other possible orientations. The ability of social sciences to become scientifically paradigmatic will also not be achieved by the application of fundamentally philosophical or ideological principles and programs which presuppose some kind of covering law model that is borrowed from a half-baked philosophy of science. The philosophy of science is not scientific production or praxis, and the criterion that determines the value of the former are not the basis of the validity for the latter. Nor will the paradigmatic unity of the social sciences be achieved by the somewhat analogical adoption of general theoretical models borrowed from other scientific disciplines, whether this is Evolutionary Biology, Information Theory or Ecology.

If and when the social sciences achieve paradigmatic progress, then it will be on the basis of general theoretical models which are derived from the phenomenal patternings of the field of study itself, and its success or failure will be measured by its ability to account for a diverse range of phenomenon in a relatively axiomatic, parsimonious way, and to heuristically solve the puzzles that the science can then pose on the basis of its model. In other words, it is likely that the orienting theory which will render the social sciences fully paradigmatic is most likely to be specific to the field of inquiry itself, and not derived on the basis of some other model of another field of inquiry. Just as Newtonian physics could not have predicated or predicted Darwinian Evolution, it is likely that a paradigm creating theory of the Social Sciences will not be predicated upon a revised model of Darwinian Evolution.

Similarly, the theoretical problematics of forging a foundational, paradigm theory for the social sciences cannot be reduced to a language problem which then demands etic/emic distinctions, positivistic equivalences between the word and the thing, the signifier and the signified, or a fact-based, logically ordered system of operationalization. Rather, it is likely that greater idiomatic coherence of the jargon of the field will be the result, and not the principle causal factor for, the paradigmatic unification of the field. The theory itself will provide the terminological, and hence perceptual and conceptual coherence, which such paradigmatic unity seems to require.

Critics of the application of the paradigm model to the social sciences emphasis the intrinsically non-paradigmatic character of the social sciences versus the natural sciences. This distinction follows the traditional divide between the sciences and the humanities. If the social sciences are so called, rather than identifying themselves with the humanities, then has been an attempt to position itself closer to the sciences that have more prestige value and more success in the modern world than the humanities, and is likely a reflection of the inherent, underlying status ambiguity of the social sciences that seem to be inter-positionally situated between the Sciences and the humanities.

These more humanistic scholars emphasize the distinction between "Naturwissenschaften" on the one hand and "Geisteswissenschaften" on the other. Scientific positivism fails in the social sciences because it fails to adequately take into account its own hermeneutic horizons of its inter-subjective language. In the social sciences humankind is both its own subject and object of inquiry. The cosmographical patterning of human and social phenomena in the social science fields are held to be so complex and multiply determined that single, simple models are bound to be inadequate, that no final covering law model can be non-ideologically invoked, and any unifying theory accounting for such a wide range and complexity of relations is bound to be metaphysical rather than strictly scientific, and hence the provenience of philosophy rather than general science. Social science, rather than being strictly paradigmatic as with the physical sciences, is rather socially constructed science. The best examples of the social construction of the social sciences can be found in the fields of economics which, whether in the guise of classical economics or of Marxist political economy, makes the claim of being the most 'objective' of the social sciences, and yet completely fail to step beyond the purview of its own hermeneutical horizon or ideologically self-serving circle.

Radical critics of the social sciences reject the idea of a science of human social reality altogether, and would identify the social sciences as straying from the fold of the traditional humanities. According to this vision of social sciences, the field is text-producing and discourse centered, but is inherently non-progressive. If there is any advancement of social science theory at all, then it is on the basis of a kind of critical triangulation of insights provided by the enumeration of multifaceted insights. The conduct of the social sciences is as much an aesthetic exercise for its own sake as it is a knowledge-producing field of inquiry, done for the insights it provides into human reality than for any final solution to its problematics. The number of alternative theories explaining any given patterning in human reality is potentially boundless, and ultimately, there are no non-subjective criteria for determining which theory is better or more valid than another.

A more sophisticated, sensitive and possibly more realistic position neither accepts or rejects either extreme out of hand. While it acknowledges the more socially contrived and constructive nature of knowledge in the social sciences, a thesis which Kuhnian paradigmatics actually extends to the natural sciences, it also does not completely reject the possibility or plausibility of some kind of paradigmatic basis of unity for the social sciences, a unity which is of necessity grounded in the empiricism, however limited, and in the anti-ethnocentrism, or non-ideological-status, however culturally constrained, of these fields. Such a compromise position sees the social sciences as occupying a "Third Culture" the region of which is between the sciences and the humanities. Its inherently ambiguous inter-positionality is not a bane, but a boon to the social sciences, and is a reflection of its distinctive character.

It is not satisfying to view the social sciences as either a strict science nor as a stray from the humanities. From this viewpoint, the social sciences are likely to be quasi-paradigmatic rather than pre-paradigmatic or un-paradigmatic. An alternative, rather eclectic view is that the social sciences are poly-paradigmatic and encompass of diverse variety of sub-disciplinary paradigms which are not so much competing for the same region of mind as they are mutually constitutive of this region. A textbook like unity of the sub-disciplines is possible, but this unity is likely to be superficial, partial and incompletely satisfying. The proto-paradigm that emerges is likely to be a composite mosaic, a collage of perspectives, rather than a single, integrated point of view that subsumes other points of view. The unity achieved will not be the puzzle solving multiplication of uniformity implied by a paradigmatic prescription, but rather a kind of paradox resolving organization of diversity that manages to juggle and synthetically incorporate a rather disparate set of points of view. The kind of patterning described by this quasi-paradigmatic unification of the social sciences constitutes a complex kind of social dialectics whose patterning and progress is emergent and elaborating. Old theories and frameworks fall by the wayside as inadequate or fundamentally erroneous, followed by new directions of movement and interest which in turn eventually grow old and no longer satisfying. Old ideas and themes often become revitalized in a new way, free of the implicit presumptions and biased entailments of their previous, outmoded guise. New orientations are never complete or final, and always have their own tacit biases and hidden weaknesses, but constitute partial improvements over older, outmoded frameworks. In a more gradual and less precise way, a foundational structure for social sciences is laid.

This Third Culture orientation for the social sciences has several corollary implications. First, it is likely that both the natural sciences and the purer humanities also are dialectical in a similar way and the social paradigmatic structure of scientific revolutions explicated by Kuhn are actually the dialectical patterning of the sciences. What separates the sciences from the humanities, and the social sciences from either, are not the paradigmatic dialectics itself, so much as the foundational possibilities which such dialectics entail for inherently different domains of knowledge, the structural design of the dialectics varies between these basic disciplinary orientations, and thus result in different generic possibilities of model construction for each, and the relational criteria integrating ideas in each of the areas of inquiry. Hence a skyscraper will not stand on a foundation of earth, and a foundation of reinforced concrete will crack beneath a mountain of sand and stone. Science constructs skyscrapers, and the humanities make mountains out of molehills.

The dialectics of inquiry and discourse falls upon a continuum ranging between polar extremes based upon the pattern-recognition nature of the knowledge of a discipline and the structure of incorporation of ideas by other ideas. In the pure sciences, new gestalts incorporate and adequately account for old gestalts in a way that is relatively complete and correct. In the humanities, new points of view fail at best only partially incorporate older ideas, but rather tend to displace these ideas. Progress is rather an additive and cumulative process of accretion of new ideas to old, where as in the sciences progress is measured by the incorporation of old ideas by new ones, and by the discounting of erroneous ideas. In the social sciences, incorporation takes place, but never so completely as with the harder sciences.

It is in the shared ground between the sciences and the social sciences, and between the social sciences and the humanities, that we must focus our attention. The common attributes which the social science disciplines share with the natural sciences tends to set it apart from the humanities, and the common attributes which it shares with the humanities tends to distinguish it from the sciences. On the dialectical continuum, the classification of science, social science and the humanities is in part polythetic as well as prototypical in identity. We must also look for those traits that are prototypically social science, which distinguish it from either the natural sciences or the humanities.

What the social sciences share with the physical sciences and which separates it from the humanities is its definite empiricism, its qualified objectivism and its naturalistic orientation. For purposes of scientific inquiry the social sciences typically adopt an empirical, objective and naturalistic attitude toward the phenomena it seeks to describe and understand. Its empiricism, objectiveness and naturalism are not separate, but are mutual related facets of the same general orientation toward the world it seeks to understand. Critiques of the social sciences fail in not taking into account the empirical orientation of these fields. But its empiricism is not an unconstrained kind of empiricism. It is a relative and conventionally constrained attitude, whereas the social sciences are, ideally at least, absolutely and non-arbitrarily constrained. It is constrained by the very facets that it shares with the humanities, facets that the humanities incorporate more completely as forms of rationalism, subjectiveness and culturalism versus naturalism. Pure humanities tend towards being almost absolutely arbitrary in its constraint. It posits as a priori rational, ideologically constructed points of view or rational frameworks. The subjectivism of the humanities is evident in its unrestrained reflexiveness and apperceptive, metaphorical metalogicalness.

Now the features prototypical of social sciences becomes more clearly evident when it is configured on the dialectical continuum between the sciences and the humanities. The point of departure it shares with the science is its inherently 'non-ideological' claims to knowledge. Its point of departure it shares with the humanities is in its own critico-reflexive recognition of its own ideological subjectiveness and arbitrariness. Science differs from all other forms of human knowledge on the basis to its claim to a non-ideological status of understanding. Of course, this status is never unequivocal or without final uncertainty. This non-ideological status is demonstrated on the basis of its puzzle-solving success, its capacity to predictably and correctly resolve a wide range of diverse and specific problems. Implicit in this claim to non-ideological ontology is the general openness of its knowledge, that it must be public knowledge that is capable of being communicated to others who may not exist within the purview of one's own collective representations or belief. This tacit assumption of science is particularly relevant for the social sciences in which many theories are often invisibly based upon hidden ethnocentric presumptions or otherwise unwarranted biases. The criteria for its openness or general communicability is that it is based upon some set of measures or standards which are readily available or replicable by others who may be removed from the immediate context. In such a way the theory can be empirically demonstrated or replicated by a form of first-hand evidentiary witnessing by others. The notion of shared exemplars arises out of this form of evidentiary witnessing.

No scientific theory, then, can be seen to gain immediate or completely unconditional acknowledgement--its success comes after its proposed recognition, as the result of its ability to generate these Shared exemplars as demonstrative cases of its validity. In other words, the success of a theory is determined after the fact of its repeated demonstration, on the basis of whether it works or not in solving the problems it poses for science. There is another spin-off to this argument that is directly related to the purported non-ideological status of such theory--this is the test of non-tautological or independent verification. Independent verification occurs externally to the theory, and its terminological domain itself, after the fact of its proposition, in contexts which are historically unrelated to those in which the theory is created or defined, by people who are relatively neutral or do not have an established commitment to the success or failure of the theory. Especially in the social science, such independent verification is sometimes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate. Though the theory may generate consequent solutions, its validity must be founded initially upon its capacity to resolve a problem that was posed before or independently of the theory itself.

This criteria carries with it the presumption of a universal homogeneity of hidden structure, and with it certain implications about the constancy of physical absolutes--of time, space, substance, and even human perception. It is these very presumptions which violate the principle of the scientific reality of human reality, and which it is this principle which links science to the humanities upon a dialectical continuum of relative knowledge. What science seeks are general axiomatic principles that account for a wide range of phenomena, but not for universal principles. All such propositions are by definition incomplete and partial, subject to verification or eventual falsification by the demonstration of counter-factual or anomalous evidence. If scientific truth were by definition absolute and universally truth, rather than contingent and relative, then it would have no need for improvement, for progress or for independent demonstration. Only knowledge that is ideological can make such universal presumptions, whether they are verified or not.

It is these criteria, above any others which have been proffered by philosophers of science, which serves to distinguish science or science-like understanding from any other kind of knowledge. It can be seen that the sciences and the humanities, existing along the same dialectical continuum, differ more in matters of relative degree than in kind. The traditional distinction between Naturwissenschaften/Geisteswissenschaften, as also the etic/emic and subject/object dichotomies often encountered to distinguish the sciences from the humanities, are in a sense spurious dichotomies that emphases the differences of extreme, ideal types, and which cover over the similarities of the middle ground.

We must inquire, then, into what distinguishes the social sciences as independent of the natural sciences and of the humanities, or, in other words, those characteristics which are prototypically social scientific and that serve to identify it as a field of inquiry separate from either the natural sciences or the humanities. Like the sciences, it attempts to be empirical, objective and non-ideological. Like the humanities, it takes as its central problematic the understanding of human reality, including the subjective, ideological and constructive components of this reality. But for the social sciences, human reality is not the starting point as it is for the humanities, it is the endpoint. It is not enough for the social sciences to be a poem, a story or a myth, though it may be poetic, narrative or mythical, it must also strive towards empirical objectiveness of meaning.

There are certain definite characteristics that standout as prototypical of the social sciences--these are: 1) Its use of statistical correspondences and correlations, 2) Its dependence upon materially substantive datum, whether continuous or discontinuous, which are subject to independent manipulation, 3) Its use of diagrammatic representations which purport to represent or cognitively map significant variable or simplified structures isomorphic with the patterning of phenomenological experience, 4) Its use of prose narrative which is formally propositional and coherent from the standpoint of symbolic logic, and 5) Its hermeneutic/critical dependence upon printed or inscribed textual records or primary documents that serve as the principle means of reporting and referencing its results.

The relative and highly tenable nature of each of these criteria may be criticized. What is counted statistically and what is ignored is often a purely subjective decision of the encoder, acts that seem substantively real to the observe may have a different significance for the performer (a blink may not be a wink, and even a tool may have been just an object of art), superficial and oversimplified diagrammatic representations may obscure more structure than they reveal, or falsify more than they demonstrate, the logic structure of the descriptive narrative may always be subject to alternative interpretation, correct propositions may rest on false but hidden premises and explicit and correct premises may generate false but implicit conclusions, and the authority of written words may only be apparent rather than actual, while oral discourse, while ephemeral in its mode of broadcast transmission, may actually be more authentic. But given these sobering insights into the limits of our social scientific praxis, we must not thereby discount the overall relative reliability or validity of such praxis when it is honestly and seriously conducted, or prematurely dismiss its general accountability in its description or explanation of human reality.

Not all social science texts must contain all of these elements in order to be good social science. Texts may have all of these and yet be poor science, and texts may have few if any of these elements of design and still be scientifically superb. Texts may fall way to the humanistic end of the dialectical continuum, having no ostensible resemblance to science, and yet reveal generally valid facets of the human experience. Social science can be aesthetically pleasing and still remain good science.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05