Tag Archives: History of Anthropology

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.

J. N. B. Hewitt, Iroquois Americanist (SMNAB 1)

It took me several years to get a command of the Hewitt Six Nations ceremonial and text notes. – Bill Fenton1

John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt (1859–1937) is often described as a linguist by vocation, but his interest in linguistic structure was of a piece with a much broader set of research interests. He was a skilled comparativist who collected native language accounts in the service of historical reconstruction. In his reliance upon this particular set of sources and methods, Hewitt falls squarely within the Americanist Tradition.2

During his five decade career at the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE hereafter), Hewitt returned from the field with scores of texts in Tuscarora, Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk. Upon each return to D.C. he then proceeded to fastidiously gloss them at his own pace, and publish only in drips and drabs. In the years since his death his publications and manuscripts have served as rich source material for ongoing study of Iroquois culture history and the Iroquoian languages.

Bureau of American Ethnology
Undated portrait of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt. (NAA INV 02858800, Photo Lot 33, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.)

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Savage Minds Native Anthropologist Biographies (SMNAB)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew T. Bradley

Over the next four weeks I will be posting a series of biographical sketches of indigenous anthropologists. The genesis of my month’s guest blogging lies in a late October biographical post on Ely S. Parker I put together for my personal blog. Rex contacted me after seeing the post to broach the idea, motivated in part by the intention to “alter how Google remembers [indigenous anthropologists].” I never walked to school barefoot in the snow, but I do remember a pre-recap era Internet back before fresh content had less shelf life than a quart of milk. Call me a geek, but the opportunity to craft something digital and durable struck me as authentically exciting.

“Three Iroquois in Diverse Costumes,” c. 1827 watercolor by Tuscarora ethnologist David Cusick. Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, object no. X.521, New-York State Historical Society.

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Zora Neale Hurston, The Making of an Anthropologist

Little did Zora know that moving to New York from Washington, DC, where she was a student at Howard University, would forever change the trajectory of her life. When Zora landed in Harlem, she became the latest arrival to what would become enshrined in history as the Harlem Renaissance. Zora’s dramatic flair and need for attention attracted the likes of the actress Fanny Bryce who hired her as a secretary and, after discovering Zora had few secretarial skills, kept her on as erstwhile chauffeur and travel companion. She also caught the eye of a trustee from Barnard College who paved the way for Zora to complete the education she had begun her college career and pay for it as well. At the age of 34, a fact she kept hidden, Zora enrolled in Barnard as a college  student.  With an Associate degree from Howard University, Zora would complete her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and  become the first Black woman to graduate from the institution.  During this period, the seeds were sown for the making of a Black anthropologist with deep roots to the southern culture of the American Negro and who would influence the direction of folklore and ethnography.

At Barnard, Zora discovered the “spyglass of anthropology” taught by the revered Frantz Boas. Today Boas is recognized as the father of “American Anthropology” with its four-field approach. While he might not have garnered as much fame in 1926, he certainly mapped out the structure of Columbia’s anthropology department specializing in American Indians from the multiple viewpoints of cultural, biological, archaeology and linguistic anthropological perspectives, and training some of the discipline’s most illustrious anthropologists of the 20th Century. This “holistic” approach to doing anthropology, as well as Boas’ emphasis on intensive fieldwork, would shape the future of American anthropology and influence generations of leaders in the field.

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Sources on St. Clair Drake

Since so many readers were interested in Faye Harrison’s piece here on SM and Karen Brodkin’s challenge to Boas’s supremacy as the exemplar of anti-racist anthropology I thought I would provide a quick walkthrough of some aspects of this alternate canon in anthropology — what Harrison has called the ‘DuBoisian’ stream in the history of anthropology (there is a whole special issue of Critique of Anthropology on this topic).

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Boas and the Monolingualism of the Other

Kwakiutl texts

In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.

So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading

“The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.

One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.

And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Continue reading

Coming of Age in Samoa, open access

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa with William Morrow & Company. She did not copyright her book, possibly because copyright was only a few years old in the US and the idea had still not sunk in. However, when it became clear that the book would be a consistent earner, she did copyright it, and it has been locked up tight since then.

Luckily, the good folks are archive.org have a scan of the original 1928 edition without a copyright mark. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this text is essentially now free for all, provided you use and circulate this edition.

Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.
Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.

This is just one example of the many, many important works of anthropology that are legally available for circulation, but which people haven’t located, or done due diligence to make sure that the pieces truly are open access.

So when was the last time you actually sat down and read Coming of Age in Samoa? Why not download it today and try a chapter or two?

Elsie Clews Parsons’ loveshack

That a patrician New Yorker was in an open marriage during the early 20th century is an attention grabber, ergo the title of my post. But that is not even among the half dozen most impressive facts of Elsie Clews Parsons’ life, about which more below.

Last spring I had the opportunity to visit her Gilded Age cottage in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she and her husband Herbert Parsons summered. One of the most enjoyable parts of my afternoon was my walk up to the cabin above the cottage. The cabin was designed for Elsie by her paramour C. Grant LaFarge, one of the architects responsible for the design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As I checked out the cabin’s interior, I imagined Elsie sweating through the soupy Southern New England days over the pages she had filled in the desert Southwest.

C. Grant LaFarge
The Lenox, Massachusetts, cabin where Elsie Clews Parsons spent her summers writing up her field notes.
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Is there an anthropological canon? Evidence from theory anthologies

Is there a canon of anthropological theory? Do we have a ‘disciplinary history’ of where we have been and where we are going? Sure, there are many grand narratives we tell of our discipline, but these stores tend to be tendentious and based on anecdotal. Can we find a more empirical, disinterested way to look for order in anthropology’s past?

In this post I examine anthologies of anthropological theory in order to see to what extent anthropology has a coherent, institutionalized canon. Is there a strong degree of agreement between these books? Do they tell the same stories? Do they include the same authors and readings? To answer this question, I asked our intrepid intern Angela to track down the contents of every edition of the main anthropological theory readers in North America.

What did I find? The short answer is that these anthologies strongly agree on this history of anthropology between the years 1850-1950. Agreement rapidly decreases after — wait for it — 1974. Why and how? Are these anthologies accurate indicators of the anthropological zeitgeist? Who gets included and who doesn’t? For answers to these questions, read on….

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Friday fun — run-ins with anthropological hoaxes.

There aren’t many things as Upstate-y as the blue and yellow historical markers ornamenting the two-lane roads of the Empire State. One of my favorites is found on the Cherry Valley Turnpike near the Onondaga Reservation. While I knew about the Cardiff Giant through teaching about the scam during my first-ever go-round TAing,1 running across the marker put the hoax squarely on my mental map and made it a lot realer to me.

marker – Cardiff Giant

Ever have a run-in of your own with a famous or not-so-famous anthropological hoax?

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