Forgetting Gabriel Tarde

(This guest post comes from Matt Watson, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Texas Tech University. He’s developing these ideas in a book manuscript titled Reading Latour’s Cosmopolitics: Ontology, Ecology, Love. Descriptions of his research and publications are available at Feel free to send thoughts, corrections, objections, specific compliments, or notes (love or ransom) to -R )

As Rex recently pointed out, Durkheim’s elder and rival Gabriel Tarde is experiencing a “reinvention” or “revival” at the hands of Bruno Latour and assorted posthumanist authors. They’re studiously reworking Tarde’s ambitious argument that invention, imitation, and opposition are the elementary forms of social life (human, animal, and other). Of these three elements, Tarde most thoroughly explored imitation. A now-established trope among neo-Tardians is that Durkheim’s success in securing sociology’s autonomy as a discipline relegated Tarde’s “microsociology” (as Gilles Deleuze called it) to the margins of the human sciences. Contributors to the edited volume, The Social after Gabriel Tarde, assert that anthropologists haven’t worked through Tarde’s ideas. The editor, Matei Candea, states, “Until recently…Tarde was almost entirely absent from anthropology, with the notable exception of the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” It might come as a surprise, then, that in 1964 Margaret Mead could write, “Since Tarde’s original publication, the idea of imitation has been worked to the bone.” What on Earth could Mead have meant? Wasn’t Tarde forgotten?

The short answer is no.

Many early U.S. anthropologists, and particularly students of Franz Boas, read, discussed, and were impacted by Tarde. It’s true that Tarde had less influence in England, though George Stocking does quote Bronislaw Malinowski describing Tarde as “the starting point of the most important investigations in Social Psychology.” Boas was even more committed to some of Tarde’s ideas. Before the publication of Elsie Clews Parsons’ translation, he referenced Lois de l’imitation in his 1894 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and his 1899 report on fieldwork in British Columbia (both reprinted in Stocking’s A Franz Boas Reader). In his discussion of Boas’s place in anthropology, Alfred Kroeber noted that his mentor “was definitely influenced by Tarde’s Lois de l’imitation.” Robert Lowie put it even more forcefully in his 1937 History of Ethnological Theory: “[Lois de l’imitation] profoundly impressed Boas and, through him, dozens of anthropologists in the United States.” How many dozens were there in 1937?

Through Boas and Parsons, Tarde’s concept of imitation pervasively shaped early anthropological work. Admittedly, neither scholar frequently references Tarde. But Boas, particularly, invokes him in key passages. He likens the invention and dissemination of northwest coast traditions born out of ritual fasting and hallucination to phenomena discussed by Tarde and by Swiss ethnologist and linguist Otto Stoll. And in the AAAS address, later revised and included in The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas argues that all humans, regardless of their society’s complexity, are influenced by zeitgeists produced by imitative acts:

Unconscious and conscious imitation are factors influencing civilized society, not less than primitive society, as has been shown by G. Tarde, who has proved that primitive man and civilized man as well, imitates not such actions only as are useful, and for the imitation of which logical causes may be given, but also others for the adoption or preservation of which no logical reasons can be assigned.

Tarde’s concept of imitation fit cleanly into Boas’s understanding of social groups as contingent accretions of cultural elements acquired through innovation and diffusion. Tarde also resisted moral judgments based on social evolutionist frameworks. Ultimately, it’s difficult to say how much Boas’s subtle and supple historicist theorization of cultural processes owes to Tarde. But it probably owes quite a lot.

Like Tarde, Boas and the early “Boasians” shared skepticism toward the Comtean emphasis on general sociological laws that guided Durkheim. But they were not a unified bunch. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they didn’t all accept Tarde’s ideas with equal fervor. In fact, in The Sun Dance of the Plains Indians, Leslie Spier (whom Stocking classifies as a “strict” Boasian) notes, “[Tarde’s thesis] that imitation…proceeds by the acquisition of the ideas, wants, and sentiments before the means of objectifying and satisfying them are duplicated…is at variance with the facts in the case of the sun dance.”

Spier’s account shows how his “strict” Boasianism was a commitment to empirical work questioning the grand sociological and psychological syntheses of the nineteenth century, including that of Tarde. In the same vein, Parsons opened her 1919 address as the retiring president of the American Folk-Lore Society (after several years of collaboration with Boas) by noting how the paucity of ethnological data available to Tarde limited his ability to explain why imitation succeeds or fails.

In his introduction to a collection of Tarde’s essays, sociologist Terry Clark suggests that Tarde’s influence faded because it “could provide stimulation both for partisans of cultural diffusion and those of independent invention in the debate that so divided anthropologists between the wars.” More broadly, U.S. anthropology’s (temporary?) turn away from Boasian principles after World War II left Tarde’s ideas in the unsteady hands of sociologists and economists concerned with the diffusion of innovations.

So, decades before posthumanism, Tarde had, indeed, been worked to the bone. Though Latour and Boas read Tarde in some tellingly different ways, Boasian concerns with innovation, diffusion, and personality have risen again in research on science, networks, and affect. Perhaps Tarde’s theory of imitation wasn’t so much forgotten as normalized or (to borrow a term from Latour) blackboxed. I imagine that, sooner or later, we’ll “forget” Tarde once more. I hope that when we “remember” him the next time, we’ll remember Boas and company alongside.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “Forgetting Gabriel Tarde

  1. Matt, having never read Tarde, I wonder if you could help get me oriented by giving me an idea of whether the following quote from Boas’s Alskan needlecases piece is in line or at variance with Tarde’s concept of imitation?

    I believe a considerable amount of other evidence can be brought forward sustaining the point of view that I have tried to develop, namely, that decorative forms may be largely explained as results of the play of the imagination under the restricting influence of a fixed conventional style.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mateo. To offer a bit more context, Spier supports the claim that the case of the sun dance among the Cheyenne and Arapaho is “at variance” with Tarde’s concept because he shows that their respective organizing ideas only make sense against their cultural backdrops, whereas objects or ritualized actions diffuse quite smoothly. It’s an argument consistent with what Kroeber, Bateson, and Benedict would come to call “configurations” or “patterns” of culture. The Boas piece that you point to, on the other hand, seems to be concerned much more narrowly with creativity, innovation, and imagination in the development of artistic motifs. His emphasis there on “psychic processes” (well before personality studies) and the inadequacy of more formal, top-down arguments for conventionalism or evolution of motifs does seem consistent with Tarde (though, importantly, it’s much more situated and empirical).

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