Three Styles in the History of Anthropology

Three Styles in the History of Anthropology

Anthropology has an unhealthy relationship to its past. Approaches range from highly fetishized, almost ritual reading of sacralized texts like The Gift and The Nuer to intense, context-free denunciations of past practitioners based on their race, gender, and emplacement in nineteenth century. In fact, perhaps the most common relationship anthropologists have to their history is ignorance. Anthropologists often have little sense of what the discipline has achieved (or not achieved) in the past, and famously reinvent the fundamental insights of their discipline, claiming novelty for their ‘innovation’.

The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro équipe in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, this period of French ethnology is rarely taught in American classrooms.

Why is it that anthropology is this way when other disciplines aren’t (aren’t they)? There are many causes, I’m sure, but here I want to focus on one: The disjunction between the curriculum we use to teach the history of our discipline, the informal oral history which we tell ourselves, and the actual research by historians into our discipline. Let me take each of these in turn.

First, there is ‘curricular history of anthropolgy’. These are the textbooks, anthologies, syllabi, and other materials designed to teach the discipline’s history. I’m glad all this material exists, but its challenging to use it for teaching. First, there is not very much of it. Potted histories for students like Anthropology and Anthropologists and The Rise of Anthropological Theory are from 1983 and 1968 respectively. In general, the curricular narrative tends to stop in the 1980s, with a grand battle between idealist/culturalists and the materialists/political economists. In some versions of this story these two sides are synthesized somehow, then globalization starts, and the story peters out…

This isn’t to say that theory readers haven’t been updated since then, but many of the updates seemed tacked-on, and lack a coherent narrative. Or, alternately, the narrative they offer turns to Foucault and other theorists, not actual anthropology. I’ve always felt this might have something to do with a baby boomer aversion to being pinned down. Whatever the case, the 1980s were a long time ago now, and almost half of the discipline’s history is only vaguely covered by much of this material.

Disciplinary histories of anthropology, the second sort of history I’ll talk about here, are much more connected than curricular history. Because they circulate informally and are often salacious, they are not ‘transparent’ and ‘discoverable’. They are also less teachable, since they are somewhat protean and don’t divide the discipline up into discrete, teachable periods and schools. I feel like most anthropologists have a timeline in their head of what happened in the 1980s, which involves postmodernism in 1986, Appadurai in 1991, Gupta and Ferguson in 1997, and so forth. But it lacks the clean boxes and diagrams of teaching materials… which may actually be a good thing now that I think about it…

The big problem with disciplinary history is that it might not actually be true. It is impressionistic and reflects personal experience. Stories too good to be true become true, while the voices of those you didn’t go to gradaute school are excluded. The entire thing just gets very parochial.

Finally, our third group is the scholarly history of anthropology. Admittedly, there’s some overlap here with disciplinary history, since many historians of anthropology are just anthropologists with too much time on their hands. But there is a large body of work published by people who specialize in this area, and do original archival work. I think here of the History of Anthropology series by the University of Nebraska press, for instance, or Wisconin’s older, ground-breaking series on the history of anthropology. This is specialist work that sheds new light on the past.

The problem is that this work is not taken up by disciplinary and curricular histories. People teaching theory courses — or designing curriculum for them — don’t take the time to read the Cora DuBois biography before teaching a class on culture and personality. And the scholarly historians themselves have done little to synthesize the work they’ve undertaken. There is a good why: the history of anthropology is very scantily covered, and so much work remains to be done. Just think of all the anthropologist who lack a full-length biography: We have half biographies of Boas and Malinowski, and no full-length biographies of Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and many others. Historians of anthropology are busy just trying to get some coverage of the whole field.

The result of all this is a strange situation: the story that anthropology professors tell themselves about the discipline is not well-informed by the work of actual historians. Nor, strangely, is it what we teach our students, especially undergraduates. There’s got to be a way to connect what experts know to our own self-understanding, and then getting that in the classroom. The solution to all this, I think, is a mid-level history of anthropology which reads the specialist work and attempts to connect it with the current issues in our profession. Ever since George Stocking’s “On The Limits of ‘Presentism’ and ‘Historicism'” essay, ‘presentism’, or building a usable past for the present, has gotten a bad name. But it may be that now, half a century later, we are ready to move beyond this problematic dichotomy. A ‘whig history’ of the discipline, one which is inclusive and self-confident, could be just what we need.

2 Replies to “Three Styles in the History of Anthropology”

  1. It seems to me that the best histories are plural and diverse. Kuklick (ed. 2008) A New History of Anthropology is really interesting, as is Barth, Gingrich, Parkin, and Silverman (2005) One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French, and American Anthropology. In a number of ways they offer histories quite different from those you mention (Kuper, Harris, Stocking). The books seem to do okay for undergrads, too.

  2. Perhaps this is not a problem unique to anthropology. Shlomo Sand, in his recently translated Twilight of History writes, “Few ‘pure’ historians have taken the trouble to formulate theories on the historiographical discipline itself…This should hardly be surprising: very few great writers have been at the same time good literary critics. In both cases, in literature as well as in history, the writing…seems to require far more in the way of creative imagination, rhetorical talent and ability to memorize, than it does in the way of systemic reflection.” This is of course no excuse for the professional historians, but maybe a reason to let the anthros themselves off the hook.

    By the way: “The big problem with disciplinary history is that it might not actually be true. It is impressionistic and reflects personal experience.” Is history true? Or is it always a story we tell ourselves, no matter impressionistic of personal experience or dusty archival materials that we interpret according to our own sense of narrative possibility? Recommend Sand’s book for a thoughtful exploration of this topic.