Tag Archives: History of Anthropology

“I know of Malinowski’s despotism”: Mauss to Radcliffe-Brown

The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives.  It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.

And they all knew each other.

Consider Mauss’s correspondence with Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheimians both, their theoretical interests allied them against Malinowski. Mauss’s withering, gallic trashing of Malinowski may have more to do with placating Radcliffe-Brown than it does genuine animus. But it also reflects so much else that academia still has: A concern with funding, grudging respect for publication history, trash-talking about a rival’s advising style. It’s all there.

I know of Malinowski’s despotism. Rockefeller’s weakness with regard to him is probably the cause of his success. The weakness, due to the age and the elegance of the other English, those in London as well as those of Cambridge and Oxford, leave the field in England free for him; but you may be sure, even the young whom he protects know how to judge him. There are dynasties that do not last. His big work on magic and agriculture will surely be a very good exposition of the facts. This is what he excels at. And the subventions from Rockefeller for a whole army of stooges which he has had at his disposal will certainly have allowed him to have done something definitive. Only, alongside it there will be a very poor theory of the magical nature of this essential thing. At last he is going to write a great book on his functionalist theory of society and family organization. Here his theoretical weakness and his total lack of learning will make itself still more obvious.

This little glimpse into history is just one of the many open access publications on the history of our discipline that are out there. In addition to the newly-revived History of Anthropology Newsletter there are also the many excerpts and memorial over at the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Thanks to them for making this small, wonderful, slightly terribly little bit of historical kvetching accessible to all!

Malinowski and Hats

The alternate title for this post was going to be “Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas walk into a bar…”. This is a little autobiographical passage from pages 46-48 of History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture: Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser. In it, Lesser (a vastly under-read and under-appreciated author) describes what it was like to be a graduate student in the 1920s. It’s a fun little vignette that says something about the limits of functionalism… and academic networking! I’ve condensed this account down a good deal — if you’d like to see the full version, check out the book. 

I first met both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in 1926 or 1927. It was the first occasion of their both being in New York at the same time. Pliny Earle Goddard was very anxious to have Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski meet Boas. He believed they would both discover that Boas was driving at the same thing they were driving at, that there really weren’t any fundamental conflicts. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were invited to what was a large living room in Ruth Bunzel’s parents’ apartment, somewhere near Riverside Drive. There were only about ten of us: six graduate students, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas.

When the time seemed right, Goddard invited Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown to say something. Radcliffe-Brown started off by giving extemporaneously a fifteen minute exposition of what he considered to be the meaning of meaning. It was, from a verbal standpoint a beautiful performance. Boas simply looked at Goddard, and looked at Radcliffe-Brown, and nodded his head. And that was all. Then Goddard turned to Malinowski and asked him if he wanted to say anything, and Malinowski gave an exposition of his concept of functionalism. After he got through with his fifteen minutes, Goddard turned to Boas, expecting him to say something… and then there was utter silence.

After the silence had gone on for as long as I could stand it, I asked a question. I was scare to death, of course. I asked Malinowski if he meant it when he said that every thing, every item in culture, had a vital function. He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “In the back of my hat here’s a little bow which is sewn on to where the seam comes. Now if you go to a store and try to buy a hat, you’ll find it has a little bow on it.” I asked him what its function was. The binding of the hat is sewn together at the back end very tightly; the bow doesn’t hold anything. If it isnt’ there, nothing will happen. And yet if you should happen to buy such a hat in a store, and it didn’t have the bow, the salesman would say, “wait a minute, I’ll have the bow put on.” But what function does it have? Well, Malinowski looked at me and said, “Well….” He thought first of course that maybe it held the hat together, and I showed him it didn’t. So then he said, “Well, maybe it’s decorative.” I said, “How? You can’t even see it.” We went on like this, for some time, but he finally said, “Oh, I’m interested in important matters.” He simply dropped it.

Now, where did I get this item? I happened to be indexing the first forty volumes of the Journal of American Folklore – that’s how I was earning my way through Columbia, for fifty cents an hour. If you start trying to index a thing like that believe me, as you go through a volume it becomes damned boring. So every once in a while, you say: “Oh, what the hell, at fifty cents an hour I’ll read a paper.”

There were several papers by a man named Garrick Mallery. He was an American ethnologist, and he was particularly interested in survivals. In regard to the hat bow, his explanation was that this was a survival of something which had once been more functional. At the back end of the hat ribbons were attached, and one wore the hat with ribbon streamers; style had gradually dictated that these become smaller and smaller, until they were finally stuck up inside the hat, and disappeared into the bow. So much for hats and Malinowski.


Anthropology and the MacArthurs

The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes. Continue reading

Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, and Generational Change in Anthropology

(update: I incorrectly spelled  ‘Tedlock’ in the title of this post when it first went lived. This has now been corrected. Apologies.) 

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of obituaries lately. Between Elizabeth Colson, Edie Turner, and Anthony Wallace and Raymond Smith, I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the past. Now, in close succession, we have also lost Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. It’s sad to record these passings, but I take some consolation in the fact that the people we remember have been so productive and matter so much to the people who mourn them — the world is richer for them having been in it. But in remembering these two today, I also want to talk briefly about how our discipline is changing, and what these demographic shifts might signal for anthropology’s future.

Continue reading

Vale Elizabeth Colson

When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.

Continue reading

Vale Edith Turner

Edith Turner — Edie as she was universally known — passed away on 18 June 2016. Perhaps the quickest and least accurate way to describe Edie is “Victor Turner’s wife”. But her importance in anthropology is pretty much totally erased by that description. Edie was a tremendous influence on Vic, and all of his work should be read with the recognition that there is a silent second author on the piece: Edie. But even reducing Edie to merely a co-author of some of the most important anthropology ever written doesn’t do her justice. Edie outlived Vic by 33 years, producing her own brand of anthropology with flair and originality. Edie produced around five books between Vic’s death and her passing — that is to say, after she was sixty-two years old, an age when most people are on the verge of retirement! In them, she crafted an audacious, unapologetic anthropology of religion that parted ways with secularism, science, and over-seriousness… and never looked back.

Continue reading

With ‘Cold War Anthropology’ David Price brings his trilogy on anthropology and American power to a powerful conclusion

Price, David H. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Duke University Press. 

A few years ago, I had a chance to have lunch with David Price and some other people at the AAA meetings. Back then, he struck me as exactly like the kind of person you’d expect to be a professor at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. Which is exactly what he is. Graying beard, laid back manner. I couldn’t see his feet but if he was wearing Birkenstocks, I wouldn’t be surprised. But beneath this amiable exterior is one of America’s most impressive historians of anthropology, a radical thinker and untiring author whose relentlessly probes the dark corners of our discipline’s history. In the course of twelve years Price has written three books which have helped redefine anthropology’s understanding of itself. And now, with Cold War Anthropology, Price brings his massive, precedent-make (and -busting) history of anthropology and American power to a close. It’s a defining moment in the history of anthropology, and deserves wide attention.

Continue reading

Grad school has always sucked: “I am sorry to be so discouraging, but the truth requires it”

This is the start of a new series in the history of anthropology where I will document the way that grad school in anthropology has always sucked, there have never been jobs, and it is crazy to expect to make a living off of it. The reason is not neoliberalism, Obama, or anything else — or at least, these are not the only reasons grad school in anthropology has sucked. It is important to understand that wide variety of reasons that grad school has sucked, and the diverse methods by which people have grappled with this fact.

But my point here is not to produce another piece of quit lit. Rather, I want to add some historical depth to our sense of the chronic problems that academic anthropologists face. Anthropology, perhaps more than any other social science, has been deeply affected by the baby boom. Even today, we still live in a world where senior professors imagine there are as many job openings now as there were in 1965. We need a more expansive imagination of the challenges anthropologists have faced over the years. And, most importantly, we need to remember that there are many successful, happy survivors.  Continue reading

Vale Jack Goody

Keith Hart recently announced on social media that Jack Goody passed away. He was just a few days before his 96th birthday. Goody had a long and productive life and was a model of the successful anthropologist: Born in England at the end of the one world war, he spent much of the second as a prisoner of war. After the war he joined the anthropology program at Cambridge, where he was a junior partner to Edmund Leach and Meyer Fortes. He ended up becoming the William Wyse Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge, taking up the mantle from Fortes, who was the first person to capture Cambridge for social anthropology. Given his institutional centrality, it’s not surprising that Goody is remembered by British anthropologists. But he deserves to be remembered by American ones — and by everyone, really — both for being a role model of successful scholarship and an indirect influence on authors we read today, such as David Grabber and Tanya Li.

Continue reading

Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography (book review)

Thomas Hylland Eriksen. 2015. Fredrick Barth: An Intellectual Biography. London: Pluto Press.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen has a well-earned reputation for writing good, short books on large, intractable topics. His introduction to anthropology, history of the discipline, and books on globalization and ethnicity and nationalism have given the Norwegian anthropologist an international profile. We ran a preview of Eriksen’s new book on SM a while back (and have mentioned Barth more than once). So does Eriksen’s biography of Norway’s Greatest Anthropologist live up to the hype? Yes. But interestingly enough, in reading it you come to appreciate the author of the biography slightly more than you do its subject.

Continue reading

Watching and wondering: What we can learn from Fredrik Barth

(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)

On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.

That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.

Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.

Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating. Continue reading

Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford: Open Access and Relevant

This week’s open access spotlight falls on the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. A while ago I gave mad shouts out to Cambridge Anthropology when it was resurrected and published by Berghahn.  So it seems only fair to showcase the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (JASO) for making the decision to stay small, home-brewed, and open.

It can be a bit confusing navigating around JASO’s site, but it’s definitely worth your while. Their latest issue is on sexual harassment in the field, a topic that has been the topic of increasing attention in the blogosphere and and the discipline more widely. On this score, JASO couldn’t be more relevant to what’s going on in anthropology today.

As someone interested in the history of anthropology, however, it’s really in the back issues (over  twenty five years of them) that JASO really shines. Here, the journal shows how a small group of people embarked on a shared project can create. The ups and downs of the department are recorded in every issue — book reviews show you what the department thought of the outside world, while obituaries help it mourn its own. I feel like a biography of Godfrey Lienhardt could be written out of just these back issues alone. It’s rich stuff to explore, and its all open access.

Ultimately, the quiet way JASO publishes its material may not result in a tremendous ‘impact’ of the sort that audit culture likes to see. But that’s ok. A quick look at the list of contributors make it clear that this journal is not just a platform for producing scholarship, it’s a platform for nurturing scholars and reproducing institutions.

Go dig around the site — it’s a rich enough archive that I’m sure there’s something there to tickle your fancy or to underwrite a teachable class example.

Anthropologists are helping Vanuatu and so should you

People around the world have heard about the devastation cyclone Pam has wrought in Vanuatu and other areas of the Island Melanesia. It’s striking to see people who normally couldn’t tell Tanna from Tuvalu suddenly focus in on this part of the Pacific. And there is good reason to do so — Pam’s impact was devastating. The cyclone hit Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, square on. Many other outlying islands were also hit. Vanuatu needs our help to recover from these terrible, terrible events.

There are many excellent charities you can donate to to help the people of Vanuatu. But I’d like to particularly attract your attention to one charity organized by anthropologists and others with a close connection to the country: Heart blong mifala wetem yufela — which means roughly like “our hearts are with you” in Bislama, the English creole widely spoken in Vanuatu. This fund is being run through chuffed.org (‘chuffed’ is Australian for ‘pleased’), an excellent Australian charity site. The money  will go right to the Australian High Commission in Port Vila Vanuatu High Commission in Canberra — you can’t get much more directly targeted then that. The list of people who have donated to this fund are a who’s who of anthropologists, historians, and other researchers who work in Vanuatu and Melanesia more generally. Please consider giving.

What is Vanuatu that anthropologists should be mindful of it? Although less well known than the Papua New Guinea of Mead and Malinowski, Vanuatu has a long and important history in our discipline. Vanuatu — and Island Melanesia more generally — was the location that generated some of the first, and still highly-regarded, anthropological ethnography. Codrington’s hugely-influential book The Melanesians fundamentally shaped anthropology, and gave the west the concept of ‘mana’. Foundational researchers such as A.M. Hocart and W.H.R. Rivers conducted research in this area. Today, the Vanuatu Cultural Center is leading the world in its programs to produce new blends of indigenous and anthropological knowledge (please click on that last link — it’s an openness ebook!). A key player in supporting the cultural center, Ralph Regenvanu, is a parliamentarian with a background in anthropology.

There are so many reasons to help out now that Vanuatu is in such dire straits — especially for anthropologists. Donations are always helpful, but if you’re not in a position to send money overseas, take this opportunity to teach about this current disaster and how it intersects with our discipline — this may be the first and last time that students Vanuatu appears on the radar of many people outside the Pacific.