Anthropology Associations’ Pivot to Social-Justice Model of Academic Inquiry Is Anti-Science
Anthropology was once a noble academic discipline, dedicated to the scientific exploration of human societies in all their ethnic, linguistic, institutional, and cultural diversity. The anthropologist’s role was to study people whose social relationships—both to each other and to outsiders—are grounded in customs and values unfamiliar to us. Study, not judge. Indeed, Canada’s fervent embrace of multiculturalism was a policy outcome of that academic model.
But today, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropological Society (CASCA) have wholeheartedly pivoted to a social-justice model of academic inquiry. In this model, admissibility of research is based on its estimated value to the advancement of specific “oppressed” group interests. North American anthropology associations are particularly fixated on two perceived victim collectives: Palestinians and transwomen.
In 2016, an AAA resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions was narrowly defeated, but in July of this year the same resolution passed with a solid majority. The resolution falsely identifies Israel as “an apartheid regime,” accusing Israel’s academic institutions of being “complicit” in oppression because they provide “research and development of military and surveillance technologies used against Palestinians.”
A condemnation of the resolution signed by 100 education, civil rights, and religious groups stated that such a resolution “would be contradicting the fundamental principles of academic freedom, the pursuit of knowledge, and the open exchange of ideas,” and furthermore “create an unwelcoming and unsafe environment for Jewish students and faculty.”
The resolution is an illustration of the Manichean worldview inherent amongst progressive academics. The chosen oppressed group is entirely innocent by virtue of its perceived powerlessness, and the alleged oppressor group entirely evil by virtue of its perceived power. Any attempt to dissent from the ukase or bring nuance to the discussion is interpreted as harmful to the chosen victims. In the case of the AAA’s rabid anti-Zionism, increased antisemitism on campuses rife with anti-Israel activism is justified as collateral damage in the movement to abrogate Israel’s legitimacy.
The same paradigm is evident in AAA/CASCA’s zealous genuflection to radical gender ideology. Here, the alleged human right of access to women’s spaces by males identifying as female, and concern for the alleged harms done to them by dissent from their convictions and demands, necessarily trump demonstrable harms to women forced to share their intimate spaces with natal males or compete against them in sport. Research that exposes those harms must be suppressed in the name of gender justice.
Thus, AAA and CASCA have ruled that biological sex is no longer a scientifically admissible variable in anthropological research. That, distilled, was the message sent, without prior warning, in a joint Sept. 25 letter to six women scholars scheduled for participation in AAA/CASCA’s 23rd annual conference, to be held Nov 15-19 in Toronto, to explain the cancellation of their panel discussion. The discussion, titled “Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby: Why Biological Sex Remains a Necessary Analytic Category in Anthropology,” was accepted in July without demur, but then rejected “at the request of numerous members,” the letter said. The diverse panel included three different fields of anthropology and anthropologists from four countries.
In their letter, the two association presidents alleged that the panel’s topic conflicted with their “values,” and eroded the program’s “scientific integrity.” They alleged that the panelists’ ideas “were advanced in such a way as to cause harm to [trans] members … as well as the community at large.”
My goodness, harm to the entire community? What ideas were these women proposing to disseminate, so dangerous as to evoke a vow from the AAA/CASCA to “undertake a major review of the processes associated with vetting sessions at our annual meetings”?
Perhaps the AAA’s and CASCA’s high dudgeon has to do with the over-arching theme of the panel: radical gender ideology’s erasure of women as a biological category. The theme reflects the “lived experience” of the panel’s lead organizer, Kathleen Lowrey. Lowrey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, also served until 2020 as her department’s associate chair for undergraduate programs. She was asked to resign from the latter post following anonymous complaints to the university’s “office of safe disclosure and human rights,” as well as to the dean of students. At issue was her “gender critical” perspective—namely, her conviction that where the sex-based rights of biological women collide with asserted rights of transwomen, biological women’s rights must prevail for the sake of their safety, privacy, and right to a level playing field. (She refused to resign; a labour arbitrage decision sided with the university; an appeal hearing is scheduled for Nov. 8.)
Lowrey wrote the panel’s description, which affirms in part: “Contesting the transition from sex to gender in anthropological scholarship deserves much more critical consideration than it has hitherto received in major disciplinary fora like AAA/CASCA.” I suppose that might be offensive to gender ideologues, who believe—against all evidence—that sex is as fluid as gender.
And it’s no stretch to believe that trans-identifying members would be offended by panelist Elizabeth Weiss, a forensic anthropologist, whose thesis, “No Bones about It: Skeletons are Binary; People May Not Be,” argues for the need to ensure that skeletal finds are “identified by both their biological sex and their gender identity.” It’s even conceivable they would take umbrage at Québécois Michèle Sirois’ ethnographic account of the ways in which the surrogacy industry exploits women (because transwomen can’t get pregnant).
But how would any of these talks harm “the community at large”? The association presidents apparently believe that their values must be the values of all but hateful MAGA-hat-wearing deplorables. But there is no evidence to suggest that ordinary people feel “harmed” by the reality that there are two biological sexes, or would feel harmed by anything the panelists had to say. In fact, growing “parents’ rights” movements in both the United States and Canada testify to widespread concerns about the ideology that guided the AAA/CASCA cancellation.
In their response to the AAA/CASCA letter, the panelists state that the “decision to anathematize our panel looks very much like an anti-science response to a politicized lobbying campaign” and a “profound betrayal” of anthropology’s commitment to “advancing human understanding.”
Kathleen Lowrey told me: “The AAA and CASCA are attempting furiously to pretend interesting things about humans are not interesting, and that if you insist on being interested in the wrong things you can't come inside their clubhouse. … It's a weird time to be an anthropologist.”
No doubt. “Weird” is what happens when a relative handful of ideologues is invited to colonize the institutions of formerly respectable scientific domains. They mutate into special-interest bully pulpits with academic characteristics.