My History of Anthropology Syllabus

My History of Anthropology Syllabus

This semester I taught ANTH 490, the History of Anthropology. It is a required class for our majors and is sort of a ‘capstone’ for their anthropology experience, despite the fact that we have a three field department and I only cover sociocultural anthropology. This was my first time teaching the course, and I wanted to give the students a sense of the anthropological canon reformed — something that had both classic readings but also presented previously excluded or marginal voices as the canon. So what did I teach and how did I teach it? For a ridiculously long discussion, read on!

Without further ado, here is the reading list:

Rex’s History of Anthropology Syllabus, Fall 2017

The hisory of anthropology tends to be taught in three ways: First, some teach it stretching back to Herodotus, treating Marco Polo and other Western travel narratives as ‘anthropology’. I’m not a big fan of this framing because it’s an anachronistic attempt to legitimate our discipline with a ‘Western tradition’ which I’m not a big fan of. Second, some start in 1859, with Darwin, Spencer, Morgan, Tyler, etc. I didn’t start here because 1) these people were not anthropologists in a strict sense 2) its 2017, and reaching back this far just doesn’t make sense and 3) Mauss, Malinowski, and Boas all explicitly saw themselves as part of a movement to replace this older work. Of course, they scandolously overplayed their radicallness of their break and they had much in common with earlier thinkers. Still, I prefer the third option, which is starting after WWI. With Argonauts in 1922, Le Don in 1925, and the first wave of Boasian textbooks and popularizations in the 1920s as well, starting in the 20th century just made sense.

Secondly, for students in contemporary Hawai‘i who just barely remember 9/11, midcentury mainland culture seems incredibly exotic, and nineteenth century European social theory is another planet. So to try to get students into the headspace of the anthropologists we were reading, I tried to play the favorite kind of music for the anthropologist in question. Some anthropologists had biographers who could tell me what their favorite music was. For instance, playing a saucy tango for Malinowski helps explain a lot about the guy. Other people had musical tastes that were totally obscure. No one who studied Mauss could tell me what sort of music he enjoyed listening to. I could also just email more recent anthropologists and ask the what sort of music they liked to listen to, although that met with mixed success. Others presented unexpected challenges. Ruth Benedict’s biographer, for instance, pointed out to me that Benedict was not really that into to music due to her being deaf. Sometimes I stretched a bit — playing the Ave Verum Corpus of Byrd for the session on Mary Douglas, or taking 15 minutes out of the lecture on Trouillot to show and discuss Katherine Dunham.

Finally, this syllabus was an experiment for me. I wanted to do a couple of things with it: First, I wanted to model a more usable past for contemporary anthropology. So Hurston was featured prominently, played off of Du Bois. We didn’t learn about Boas, but about Hunt and Boas thanks to the the fantastic new work by them done by Isaiah Wilner. Second, I wanted to point out great stories and personalities in the history of anthropology, as well as unusual juxtapositions. The fathers of Talal Asad and Siegfried Nadel both were from the same area of the Ukraine, and both went on to study the Sudan, but Asad was instrumental in questioning the influences of colonialism in anthropology, while Nadel rounded up informants with the help of a police squad. Also, lecturing on the upper Nile led to a discussion of the upcoming Black Panther movie (Wakanda is not that far from where Nadel worked) and afrofuturism. There’s nothing like exposing students to Sun Ra for the first time to help them when they’re drifting off half way through a lecture. Finally, I wanted to avoid some canonical figures. I did Benedict and not Mead and — gasp! — Gluckman and not Evans-Pritchard.

There were a lot of failures on the syllabus. I’ll never teach Myth and Meaning again. I should put Evans-Pritchard and Mead back in. I need to clean up where some of the background context goes in some of the lectures. But overall I’m pretty happy with how this turns out, and I’m looking forward to honing it as I teach it in the future. That said, I’m sure someone in the Internet thinks I’m wrong so… let me know what you think!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

4 Replies to “My History of Anthropology Syllabus”

  1. I was just wondering if you discussed the alternative chronologies/ancestries at all in your course? I’m not an anthropologist and haven’t read anything on your list but some of those titles in the last section (as well as the section title) seem like maybe they do that.

    I remember I took a medieval history course once and in the last week we discussed whether or not there is such a thing as the “medieval period”. This included a generalised discussion on periodisation in the first place but also different start and end dates used by different scholars. It seems to me that this sort of exercise is valuable particularly for the way in which it offers a springboard for thinking about the course on a wider scale, which largely explains my curiosity as to whether or not you’re already doing this or something similar.

  2. “Its 2017, and reaching back this far just doesn’t make sense.” This is just awful. What are the foundations of the discipline?
    Also, move beyond the term “western tradition.” People made important contributions. What does it matter of they were “Western”, or lived before Anthropology departments formally existed? You should have a better understanding of history to teach such a course.

  3. Harry: In general anthropology has been around so briefly that I don’t think there are chronological periods in its thought which can be deconstructed the way ‘the medieval period’ or ‘the enlightenment’ can be. Mostly I tried to contextualize the discipline in the history of the 20th century. I think one thing about the 20th century is that with the wars etc. it falls into some pretty clearly definable periods. I guess I didn’t really question those, though.

    DS: That’s a good question — what are the foundations of the discipline? I’d be interested in hearing what you think. One thing I did in this class was to define anthropology very strictly in terms of its institutionalization as an academic discipline. This involves paying attention to anthropology’s interlocutors in the field (that’s why I included Hunt), as well as the role that unis in the empire played — Khartoum, Sydney, S. Africa. I ultimately didn’t cover people like Manuel Gamio or Fei Xiaotong, unfortunately. But I tried to focus on a history of anthropology as a discipline with a specific intellectual thrust and political economy, not a general impulse in human history to think about humanity.

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