“Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry” is perhaps the best summary of Sapir’s approach to what would become known as the ‘culture and personality’ movement in anthropology. But this brief, rich, and intelligent essay is more then that. It is also a statement about the nature of culture, the role of human agency in culture, and the complex, differentiated nature of culture. It is a remarkable piece that demonstrates the incredible clarity and sophistication of Sapir’s thought.
In this SMOPS I’m very pleased to present “The Science of Culture,” an essay that Ruth Benedict published in 1929 and has languished unread since then. “Science of Culture” was significantly revised to become the first chapter of Patterns of Culture, so readers will be familiar with the ideas expressed in it. However, this original version is significantly different from that chapter, and works better as a standalone essay. It seems that every decade or so, anthropologists feel the need to write an essay to tell a general audience what our discipline’s main findings and beliefs are. This article, like Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” published 12 years earlier, is Benedict’s version of a popular account of the anthropological credo.
“The methods of ethnology” is among the two most taught and anthologized essay by Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, and I include it here to give you a sense of who Boas was and what he thought. Boas is famous for doing ethnography, not talking about it. As a result it is extremely difficult to find explicit theoretical statements from him regarding what anthropology is or should be. There are three main texts that represent Boas at his most explicit: “the study of geography” is Boas’s earliest and most general statement, followed by “limitations” in the 1890s. “Methods” was written in 1920, and represents Boas’s views at the time that he had finally achieved institutional dominance in anthropology.
This edition of “Configurations of Culture in North America” is the openest, freest, and shortest summary of Ruth Benedict’s 1934 classic Patterns of Culture available. In it, Benedict rehearses the same arguments — often with the same data — that we see in Patterns. I hope that it will introduce these arguments to readers who do not have the time (or money) to read Patterns, which is still under copyright (at least in the United States).
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series features Ruth Benedict’s “anthropology and the humanities.” This piece is the published version of the lecture Benedict delivered for her presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological association in 1947. In this piece, one of the last she wrote before she passed away, she argues that anthropologists can benefit from drawing on the methods of the humanities in addition to scientific methods. Benedict’s argument is worth examining in its own terms, but it is also worth reading between the lines of her essay. In making her case for the humanities, Benedict implicitly describes anthropology’s core values. This piece is valuable, then, not only for its argument about the humanities, but because it gives us a summary of what one of our foundational figures considered the essence of anthropology to be.
This week’s Savage Minds Occasional Paper (SMOPS) is Edward Sapir’s “Culture in the Melting-Pot”. In this brief piece, Sapir asks: What would it mean to have a uniquely, authentically American culture? One free from its roots in Europe and anchored in the lived reality of Americans? This is just as pressing a question when Edward Sapir addressed it in 1916 as it is in today’s era of reactionary conservatism. But in truth, the points raised in Sapir’s brief comment are relevant to any settler colony, and hence is of interest far beyond the United States.
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Edward Sapir’s essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” is worth reading for several reasons: it demonstrates the way anthropological theory can be applied to ethical issues; it exemplifies the way Boasians founded public anthropology by weighing in on the great issues of their day alongside cultural critics like Randolph Bourne or George Seldes; it gives us insights into the opinions of Boasians on cultural imperialism and the exploitation of labor; and above all, it presents us with a set of questions — and answers — that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.
This week’s SMOPS paper is Robert Lowie’s book Culture and Ethnology, which I have cut down to 19 pages. Robert Lowie was one of the most polemical of the Boasians — the phrase ‘attack dog’ has been used, I believe — and is remembered today for many things: his role in creating the Berkeley department of anthropology, his ethnography of the Crow, and his work on the nascent field of kinship studies. Undoubtedly, however, it Lowie’s defense of Boasian orthodoxy that stands out. In his book Primitive Society he forcefully repudiated the Victorian evolutionary theorists that Boas opposed, and towards the end of his life he sparred with Leslie White in the pages of American Anthropologist over the prospects of a revised evolutionary perspective. His undeservedly under-read The History of Ethnological Theory has moments that resemble some sort of Victorian Twitter flipout…
This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.
This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.
Last week, I posted the first Savage Minds Occasioal Paper (hereafter, “SMOP”) featuring Alfred Kroeber’s article “The Superorganic”. This week I bring you the second occasional paper, “Responses to ‘the superorganic’”, which features Sapir and Goldenweiser’s response to Kroeber. You can find it here:
Folks, today I am beginning something new: the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series. In it, I will present a series of open access, curated texts from the history of anthropological theory. I will keep going until I complete a free anthology suitable for classroom use, or until I get bored. If other minds want to publish in the series, then they can do so too — who knows what projects they may want to cook up…
Here’s a link to the first one: a version of Kroeber’s 1917 article “The Superorganic” that is half the size of the original essay, edited and with an introduction by yours truly. Please feel free to share widely!
Now to the meat of the paper itself: Alfred Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” is a classic of anthropological theory. Originally published in 1917 in American Anthropologist, the article drew important responses from Edward Sapir and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. Kroeber’s interest in the superorganic continued to develop in publications like Configurations of Cultural Growth. “The Superorganic” is central to understanding the thought of one of the founders of anthropology and indeed, the history of anthropological theory itself. And yet it is little read today. Why?