Anthropological theory through its dates

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, anthropological theory has (for better or for worse) a genealogical orientation and I’ve been trying to figure out how this orientation operates because I will probably be teaching a course on ‘anthropological theory’ in the future. One of the ways I’ve been trying to figure out this history of anthropology has been to look years which seem like turning points — or at least pivots — in (US) anthropological theory. Since I am doing ‘contemporary’ theory I have focused less on the pre-WWII period and tried to focus on some moments that seek key to me. I have a big piece of paper where I’ve plotted important books on a timeline. Here are some years that stand out for me just in terms of publishing:

1957/58: The New Ethnography — componential analysis and cognitive linguistics
1966: The year structuralism hit. Savage Mind, etc. etc.
1972: Anthropology Today (Berreman) and Rethinking Anthropology (Dell Hymes) — politicization and relevance
1981/82: Post-Steward Columbians: Europe and the People Without History and Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities
1986: Objectivity? We don’t need no stinkin’ objectivity: Writing Culture, Anthropology as Cultural Critique
1997: Culture, Power, Place and Anthropological Locations.

One of my professors in grad school once remarked to me there is a bit of an academic rain shadow effect — your professors teach tend not to teach about their professor’s generation (because they are rebelling against it?), so you never learn about it in grad school. Then you learn about it, rebel against your professors, assign your students to read the generation of professors who taught your professors, then your students never read your professor’s work, they graduate… etc. etc…..So I am particularly interested in learning more from y’all about the ‘soft’ spot in my knowledge of the history of anthro between the period now firmly declared ‘classic’ (pre-Kroeber’s textbook Anthropology) and Ortner’s “Theory In Anthropology Since The Sixties” (1984) whose definitive construal of this period I have been struggling to get out from under for the past couple of years.

Any ideas?


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

10 thoughts on “Anthropological theory through its dates

  1. Well, Geertz, Schneider & Turner are missing here–dates? ’67 for Forest of Symbols, ’72 for Geertz & Schneider (I think that’s when that big yellow _Symbolic Anthropology_ reader came out (& obviously these are slightly arbitrary). The absence of Geertz especially is a rainshadow effect of sorts at our grad school, though he is not so much anyone’s teacher as an older brother. Also in 72 & 73 is feminist anth: Rosaldo & Lamphere and Reiter. Leach, Gluckman et all might be too early for your course (and too British?) but that was a key moment. I’m not so sure the oedipal approach to what’s absent quite works (though maybe for some of the crisis of representation stuff)–some things become incomprehensible in the immediate aftermath of their inevitability (structuralism, for example), but it may have more to do with confronting a general disciplinary consensus and finding a place to challenge it than with any particular rebellion against teachers–many people seem to wrestle in more complex ways with the work o their actual teachers. Rambling thoughts, but hopefully helpful

  2. Thanks CJ — I think Women, Culture, and Society was 74 and Towards an Anthro of Women was 75?

    I was trying to aim for dates where there were multiple and definitive publications, not just important books as you note. I have some British dates but I haven’t really gotten too far past since the 1950-54 period when structure functionalism bloomed and then fell apart.

    I feel that I’m relatively free from Oedipal urges as far as I can tell — if I wasn’t I suppose I would be advocating a return to Leslie White? I guess my point is that anthropological theory cum genealogy is different than the history of anthropology (we’ve talked about this before) and that it is interesting to try to rethink the period without the guidance of the authoritative and useful but horizon-forming essays like Ortner’s.

    Of course all of this is probably only interesting to scholars of my age, who were just in the process of learning to tie their shoes when Ortner wrote her article — it doubtless seems incredibly naive to others.

    The other thing to think about what counts as ‘high table’ theory and what doesn’t. For instance, its not like cognitive anthropology as an area has gone away, but somewhere between 1956 and 1969 (when the reader on cognitive anthro was published) it went off the agenda (I think) as ‘what everyone was talking about’. Just watching how subfields move in and out of the limelight in this way is interesting — and of course assumes that there is a limelight.

    Anyway I have no answers and I feel slightly stupid in these observations, but they’ve been on my mind lately and I thought I’d share them.

  3. How about the rise of medical anthropology? I might be a little bit biased since that is where my interest lies, but Arthur Kleinman’s Illness Naratives, or Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping seem pretty important.

  4. I suppose you could do this sort of timeline for every subdiscipline — it would be instructive to see when the journals and AAA sections were founded as well. Sadly I should, but don\’t, know more about the timeline of medical anthro, nor do I know at what point it really moved into the center of the discipline\’s consciousness as a whole. Surely an SM reader out there knows this stuff tho — what do you all think?

  5. Re 1966. It was also the year that Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger, which I do believe continues to be more influential than The Savage Mind turned out to be. It was, anyway, the hot new thing the year I started graduate school at Cornell.

  6. bq. Re 1966. It was also the year that Mary Douglas published Purity and Danger, which I do believe continues to be more influential than The Savage Mind turned out to be.

    Though at this point they seem to be remarkably similar explorations of the “logic of the concrete.”

  7. Thinking about the ways in which “moments” appear out of the retrospective recognition of patterns of scholarly concern, it is interesting to note that both _Orientalism_ (1976–a book which needs to be in any history of contemporary anth) and _Outline of a Theory of Practice_ (1977) are critiques of the distortions in theory introduced by the colonial gaze (go look at the opening paragraph of the latter). Which reminds me that to Berreman & Hymes in 72, one might want to add Asad on the “Colonial Encounter” in 73.

    On the whole, it strikes me as perhaps more productive to think of theory dialogically than genealogically (or for that matter dialectically)–thinking about what interlocutors and what widely recognized problems people are responding to in their work. There is more space for th world (Algeria, Vietnam, 1968) to enter into things or to ask questions about things like what people at a given moment are reading and thinking about and why. For example in the Hymes _Reinventing Anthropology_ volume, one can see many hints of what would eventually become reflexive anth (see Bob Scholte esp., but also Berreman and Willis)–but here it is clearer that part of what underlies that is a concern with “authentic” relationships–derived from existentialism and applied to fieldwork (obviously Fabian is relevant here too).

  8. So I have to ask, did the anthropology geneology die off in 1997 (date of the last book you cite)? That was 10 years ago. Someone should have notified me about the end of the line for anthropology!

  9. Ken: l, as we say, ol. No I stopped in 1997 because after that date I don’t really have a sense of what is/will be considered relevant in the future.

    CJ: I’m not sure a ‘genealogical’ method is opposed to a ‘dialogic’ one — as I’ve said (somewhat awkwardly) in my post, all genealogical framing is a dialogue with one’s own teachers and cohort. It is true that portraying these histories as a series of publication dates gives the impression that I think of this as an internal dialogue removed from the ‘real world’ but my intention is just the opposite: to make this history available for comparison with wider trends. As a side project I’m working on a little interactive time line which I’ll unveil at some point. Asad, Said, Fabian, etc. are already on there.

    One other thing that I thought was interesting: in 1994 the big programmatic reader was entitled _Culture/Power/History_ but by 1997 the trio invoked in an anthology were _Culture/Power/Place_. Perhaps this is the point at which historical anthropology left the high table?

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