Afternoon Inqueery

AI: Activism and Social Justice

My boyfriend is taking a class in applied anthropology this semester (a class I took a couple of years ago). Part of the course structure is working on practicum exercises as the class progresses, culminating in a professional portfolio meant to help students connect their non-academic interests with their education and training in anthropology. One of the practicum exercises is meant to get students thinking about the politics of applying anthropology.

There’s a real tension in anthropology between those who actively advocate for social justice on behalf of their informants and those who let that be a by-product of their work (but not something they actively attempt to bring about). It seems to me that this tension also exists in the skeptical and scientific communities.

The common wisdom in these communities seems to be that being political or advocating for social justice is somehow non-scientific and biased, and that any science that is used for these means is inherently subjective and prejudicial. I beg to differ because I think that science can be really useful in getting at the real (and not perceived) causes of social injustice.

How do you define activism? Social justice? What do these things mean to you? Do you feel science and skepticism has a place in social justice movements? What about the role of social justice in science and skepticism?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 3pm ET.

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Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

1 Comment

  1. February 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm —

    I see activism as any steps I take to advocate for a position, whether it’s talking to friends and family directly, writing my government representatives, signing petitions or attending gatherings.

    Social justice has to do with the way in which society as a whole treats it’s members. In the USA, because of our democratic republic, government policy has a lot to do with it. The ultimate goal is for society to treat it’s members with respect and equality, that there are neither favored nor un-favored groups.

    Science and skepticism certainly DO have a role to play, not least of which because they have an epistemological role to play. They guide what it is that we know more reliably than ‘gut’ feeling, or revealed truths. The later might be a way to guide inquiry, but alone they provide the most flimsy of knowledge. Skeptical methodological naturalism has been, and I expect will continue to be, the best way to gain proper knowledge of physical reality.

    If we toss them out, then we are admitting that knowledge is not needed to advance our positions, and we do it as a matter of faith rather than knowledge, and I refuse to accept that. A just society will operate in the physical world on physical actors, and for that we need physical knowledge.

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