Often defined broadly as the study of humankind, the discipline of anthropology is concerned with the origin, evolution, behavior and nature of humans, as well as their present-day physical and behavioral diversity. Anthropological research, which extends to all regions of the world and all time periods, is strongly comparative in its approach and is guided by the belief that important insights about human nature and behavior can be revealed through cross-cultural comparisons, as well as through comparison with non-human animal species. Ideally, anthropological research relies on the design of appropriate methods, the systematic collection of data, and the objective interpretation of results.
Yes, science does matter in anthropology. Science teaches us how to formulate questions, how to go about investigating a topic or problem systematically, and how to interpret the results generated by our research. By guiding the development of appropriate methods and the (more or less) objective interpretation of results, a scientific approach increases the likelihood that anthropological research will generate worthwhile results that are taken seriously by both scholars and the public. Ultimately, sound anthropological research leads not only to a better understanding of human behavior (which itself points to ways of improving the lives of human beings), but also to the rejection of long-held negative assumptions about human physical and behavioral diversity (thus helping to redress injustices and counter instances of marginalization and exploitation). Having said this, it is also important to recognize that with such opportunities also comes the possibility that science may not be able to answer all of our questions, or that the results of scientific research may on occasion generate further harm.
In this course unit, we examine the central role that science (and the scientific approach) plays in anthropology. This is in large part achieved through discussions of a range of illustrative examples that address topics of interest to anthropologists: human evolution,marriage, gender roles, violence, culture contact and globalization, language, race, religion, and even similarities and differences between humans and other animal species. Having recognized the role that a scientific approach plays in anthropology, we must also consider the way(s) in which anthropology differs from – and is similar to – the so-called hard sciences. Note that the 'anthropological' topics listed above are also addressed by a number of other disciplines (albeit in different ways), such as biology, physiology, economics, sociology, psychology, primatology, and religious studies. For this reason, it is important to recognize that anthropology does not exist independently from other disciplines. Expect to cross those disciplinary boundaries on a regular basis.
The time is short to answer the core question “Why does science
matter?” and its reframing in terms of our content “Why does psychological
science matter?” We shall center our readings and discussions on several of the
traditional sub-disciplines of psychology. But given the highly
interdisciplinary nature of modern psychological science, this approach shall
not be narrow.
We are a curious species, some more so than others. This
curiosity has led us to develop all manner of explanations for our own
experience in the world around us. We all have naïve theories about the
physical world and our own behavior, emotions, and thinking. In some cases
these naïve theories are sufficient to partially understand our experience. Our
naive theory of gravity provides us with the expectation that when we drop our
IPad it will fall to the ground. But this naïve understanding of gravity is not
adequate to plan the trajectory of a space vehicle designed to explore the
outer limits of our solar system. Similarly, our naïve understandings regarding
human behavior, thinking, and emotions (called folk psychology) may be adequate
for some level of functioning. But the problems that confront our species today
require a qualitative advance in our understanding of the human species and its
functioning. Human beings are now clearly the dominant force for change on
earth. We must gain a more accurate understanding of our species as forces of
change in order to deal effectively with problems. Science provides the tools
for such an advance. (It is often the will to use this improved understanding
that appears to be the major problem.) Psychological science should challenge
your everyday explanations through its reliance on sophisticated methods that
demand clear thinking and above all, empirical evidence. Science is a
cumulative social effort to expand and refine our knowledge of reality over
which we, as a species, have an ever-increasing impact. Psychological science
can provide us with evidentiary knowledge as to how we live our lives, function
in social groups, manipulate our environment, make moral decisions, spend our
money, etc. Science may not give us the explanations we wish. I quote Carl Sagan here and hope by the end
you will embrace some of the basics of scientific thinking.
Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a
way of thinking. This is central to its success.
Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry
alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between
no-holds-barred openness to new ideas,
however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything—new
ideas and established
wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of
most specific goals in this unit therefore become an understanding of both the
content and method of scientific psychology. Because you will get credit for
PSYC 101 for taking this unit, we will explore the research in a variety of
areas studied by psychology. By exploring these specific areas of
investigation, we will also attempt to determine how knowledge derived from
psychological research can be used. An effort will be made to demonstrate how
psychological science has evolved. Finally, I intend to enjoy this class, work
hard, and learn from it. It is my hope that you will have the same objectives.
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