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Vale Ward Goodenough

As some readers out there may know, Ward Goodenough passed away this week. A Micronesianist who had done a little work on Papua New Guinea, his death prompted an spate of remembrances on the Pacific Anthropology list I belong to. By any account he was a remarkable man — a prolific author, a careful fieldworker, a mentor to a whole generation of anthropologists, and an innovative theorist to boot. At a certain point in anthropology’s history a lot of people looked at him and saw the future of anthropology. Now that he has passed away I thought I might ask — respectfully — how and why it happened that Goodenough is remembered as an area specialist and not a theorist. It’s an interesting question partially because of what it says about the twists and turns of anthropological theory, but also because of how it speaks to the way our discipline is configured today. So I should say up front that I’m interested in talking about him and why he is important, even if he is not the road that anthropology took. I don’t want to use his passing to speak ill of him.


Goodenough was a Yale man — his father taught there, and he got his Ph.D. there. He came off the edges of the Boasian tradition. Like Julian Steward, he went through Cornell before heading off to Yale to do his degree. He missed Sapir and ended up taking courses from Malinowski, Linton, and Murdock. Murdock became his mentor, he came out of Yale ready to turn anthropology into a Real Science. It was a good time for it: the cold war was on, and anthropology was ready to Apply itself. People like Goodenough, Frake, Conklin, Lounsbury, Romney, and others were interested in making anthropology more quantitative, and brought a lot of energy to that task.

They ended up being sidelined, however. I think of the post-war period in anthropology as a series of overlapping moments. The componential, formal modeling, ethnoscience, cognitive sort of moment of Goodenough got started just a few years before Geertz (and a bit later, Turner) got going on symbolic anthropology. Goodenough’s paper on “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” was (iirc) in 1956. Geertz began publishing interpretive stuff in the early 1960s. Neoevolutionism also got going in the early 1960s. Structuralism, that genius school of social thought, managed to look like kinship algebra to the ethnoscience people, myth interpretation to the symbolic anthro types, and structural Marxism to the evolutionists. So as a result everyone read Lévi-Strauss.

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