1974 as a key year in anthropology

As some of you may know, in my free time I’ve created a timeline of anthropology using the program Aeon Timeline (I’d highly recommend it). As I’ve plugged more and more dates into it I’ve become increasingly convinced that 1974 is the year that anthropology took on the form that it currently exists in today.

Some caveats come with this claim: by ‘anthropology’ I really mean ‘American cultural anthropology’, and by 1974 I really mean 1972-1976. But even given these clarifications, I think there is some value in going back to the early seventies.

We forget how totally World War II transformed anthropology, and the world more generally. The founders of the discipline, Boas and Malinowski, both died in 1942. The older generation such as Lowie and Kroeber waned in influence, and in the immediate post-war period the American Anthropological Association and the Association for Social Anthropology both took on something like their present form. The period from 1946-1968 is probably one of the least taught in anthropological theory courses. What would later become ‘interpretive anthropology’ was being produced, but often in scattered papers. Scientistic approaches like componential analysis were trying to make good on the general post-war enthusiasm for technoscientific progress. Structuralism had hit the US, but at that point people often thought of Lévi-Strauss as offering a scientific, formal model for cognition, not a poetic and humanistic account of myth. Volumes like Turner and Swartz’s Political Anthropology attempted to bring a sort of Parsonian rigor to the study of whatever kind of behavior people wanted to study. In 1964, Leslie White was president of the AAA, signaling the dominance of what some people (but not White!) called Neoevolutionism. Reason, science, modeling, were important forces both in British social anthropology (for instance in Leach’s Pul Eliya, 1961 or Barth’s Modes of Social Organization, 1964).

Just looking at a timeline of this period, you do get a bit of a Mad Men vibe from the discipline: newly-senior scholars like Wolf, Douglas, Geertz, Turner seemed ready to move from evolution to Marxism, from the study of New Nations to the interpretation of cultures, from ‘social dramas’ with an emphasis on ‘social’ to an emphasis on ‘drama’. The formal suit of Science just wasn’t fitting, and people wanted to take off their tie and have a martini.

Things began speeding up, but anthropology didn’t really start morphing until 1968, which was a good year for anyone to morph into anything they like. Academics being what they are, the spirit of ’68 wasn’t actually published until 1972. This was a time of incredible growth and change.

Subdisciplines came of age, for one thing. The AAA rolled out a massive new publishing apparatus, including Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Political and Legal Anthropology Review, American Ethnologist. Directions in Sociolinguistics and other works that Dell Hymes had a finger in were renovating linguistic anthropology. Women, Culture, and Society came out as well, proving that anthropology of gender (and race, and class) were on the scene to stay. Interpretation of Cultures came out in 1973 as well, as did Steps Towards and Ecology of Mind. In 1975 Cornell’s “Symbol, Myth, and Ritual” series began publishing. All of these books and series marked the appearance of trends that had begun three or four years before as conversations at the AAA.

It was a period of expansion, but also a period of canonization: the war between materialists and idealists — the sloppiest construals of anthropology’s intellectual history ever — gained traction around this time, providing an overarching narrative for the discipline. The first theory anthology, High Points in Anthropology, also came out.

Anthropology’s current leftist sensibility also became increasingly mainstream, especially in Reinventing Anthropology and Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1972 and 1973 respectively). Journals like Dialectical Anthropology (1975) and Critique of Anthropology (1974) were founded in this period. The need to legitimize Marx by reading him through, say, Julian Steward, had fallen away, as had Steward himself, who had passed away in 1972.

The main reason all this happened, of course, was the baby boomers. By 1974 the very earliest boomers were just about to turn thirty — the age at which they could no longer be trusted — and many were already pretty far along the academic system. The youngest were just entering college. WWII vets like Geertz and Wolf were approachable but not too old. Slightly senior scholars like Sahlins were able to tie boomers and vets together and mobilize younger students in things like teach-ins.

This was a time of enormous intellectual excitement, and of horizon widening. But it wasn’t necessarily a time of cosmopolitanism or the reading of ‘theory’. Geertz led off his ‘Thick Description’ essay citing Cassirer and Langer, authors who (unfortunately) would have no real influence in the future of anthropological theory. As Billy Ray once put it, this was the era of gay pirate criticism. Queer buccaneer theory would not develop until the early 1980s. In fact Semiotext(e), a key purveyor of “French Theory” was founded in 1974 and would not start seeping into the anthropological context until later. In fact, Sahlins’s Culture and Practical Reason (which vied with Habermas and Lukács in 1976) and the english translation of Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice in 1977 mark the end of this period, as does Said’s 1978 Orientalism. This was the origin of ‘theory’ as a group of continental thinkers to be mastered. Paul Rabinow, who built much of his career as an expert on French Theory, had only received his Ph.D. in 1970. By 1979, the second oil crisis and the looming of Reagan signaled the slow shutting of the gates of academic resources, gates which are now almost completely closed. We worry about the job market now, but the 1970s were also a time when numerous baby boomers left the academic field for applied and practicing positions, rejuvenating a field which up to that time had labored to prove it was not a handmaiden to industry and the military.

Often when I ask people to describe the history of anthropology, especially the part that they were not around for, I get the feeling that our disciplinary narrative is not very well told and not very well matched to the facts. I hope to expand more on what I think actually happened in future posts, but for now I just want to stop and indicate the way that the early 1970s, as represented by 1974, was an important moment in the discipline when a lot of what we now take for granted in anthropology was figured out.


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 rex@savageminds.org

17 thoughts on “1974 as a key year in anthropology

  1. The G.I. Bill completely transformed higher education in America – universities expanded, people who never would have gone to college went to college, etc. According to Wikipedia, “By the end of the program in 1956, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill education benefits in order to attend colleges or universities” If the GI Bill beneficiaries were getting their BAs by the mid-fifties, and their Ph.D.s by the mid-sixties, it isn’t hard to imagine that they were publishing in the mid-seventies. (I assume people publish earlier in their careers now then they did then, but I could be wrong.) But it is crucially important to remember how African Americans were systematically excluded from the GI Bill… and hence never had the same chance to transform Anthropology in the 70s.

  2. As usual the development of visual anthropology gets left out of this review of important developments in anthropology. By 1974 films were a regular part of the AAA meetings. The Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication was established and a journal Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, edited by Sol Worth was part of a growing trend to explore the possibility of a pictorial anthropology.

  3. It’s odd to me to read such a narrative, both because of the criticisms grand narratives have suffered (most of them not really fair) and because I don’t share this particular narrative. You only mention Steward in passing (when he died), not his influence in the 50s when his major book came out. I think there was a much more inductive approach to anthropology until the “idealist vs materialist” debate. There is the whole environmental anthropology stream, (Rappaport, Carneiro, Vayda…). And the anth of religion does not fit this narrative. For example, the Reader in Comparative Religion edited by Lessa & Vogt came out in a first edition in 1958, and a last 4th edition in 1979. In the 1980s, the anth of religion basically died out, with religion not studied qua religion but as symbolism or medical anth, only to be revived again in the late 1990s with the creation of the Society for the Anth of Religion as a section of the AAA. That has nothing to do with 1974. To me, theory was killed by the red scare, making marxist theory taboo, and making anthropology get stuck in structural functionalism and inductive descriptions. Leach, Firth, Gluckman, and Turner all started to challenge structural functionalist approaches in the 1956-58 period (and only Gluckman using Marx), but it was not a revolution. Political economy and marxian anthropology finally returned in the 1960s, first with the work of Wolf and Mintz, and that is why things changed after that. The percentage of the population that has completed college grew gradually throughout the post-war period, and that growth also changed the discipline from one where many anthropologists knew each other to the diverse discipline with many subfields that we have today. That change happened gradually, but cascaded when the AAA changed its structure to emphasize sections (I believe it was in the 1970s but I’m not sure of the exact date–that may be what gives the impression that US Anthropology dates to the mid-1970s). So I don’t really agree with the idea of some sort of zeitgeist change in or around 1974; a lot of other things have been going on.

  4. Glad to see recognition of the hell of the job market–I left academia (well, wasn’t invited in) to be first field archaeologist (aka shovelbum) and then archivist.

  5. Kerim, I think you are right to emphasize the importance of the GI Bill. As I tried to point out in my post, it was vets, not pre-war Boasians, that were the immediate context in which the baby boomers came of age. Some vets, like Goodenough, became an establishment to react against, while others like Wolf gave the newer students something to run with. And of course it is important to remember who didn’t benefit from the GI Bill. Transforming Anthropology (the journal I mean) didn’t get started until 1990 or so iirc.

    Jay thanks for the heads up on visual anthropology, which I’m not familiar with. It sounds like the pattern I’m describing.

    Joseph I think you make some good points about periods that I only touched on here. My point that 1974 was a year in which the discipline’s interests solidified. The case of anthropology of religion, which died in the 1970s and stayed that way for decades is a case in point :!) You describe change in undergrad enrollments as gradual, but I would argue that higher education growth was explosive, not gradual. This is true for anthro Ph.D.s as well: In 1961 there were about 50 anthro Ph.D.s awarded in the US. In 1976 there were 450. I do think you are right, however, to point out how this changed the association — it went from being the size of a private club to the size of a large high school… and I fell like the quality and quantity of gossip in the discipline is reflected in this change!

  6. Good point about the GI bill, Kerim. Both the transformative success (extremely rare in educational reforms) and its racialized (and gendered) aspects.

  7. I can remember John Roberts, a decorated WWII veteran, remarking to me in my first year at Cornell that he could remember when the whole membership of the AAA could meet in a large ranch house outside of Tucson.

  8. Dominik – yes, I should have mentioned how the GI Bill set back gains that women had been making in higher eduction. In admitting so male veterans to higher education it would take decades before some semblance of gender balance was restored…

  9. In 1974 I was stumbling in and out of my first and only full-time academic job. But my memories of being in graduate school in the late 1960s (1966-1969) are of a period that was intellectually as well as politically exciting. Turner, Douglas, Geertz, Leach and Levi-Strauss were hot off the presses. Goodenough, Steward, even G. P. Murdock and HRAF, were still seen as viable alternatives. So were studies of culture and personality, grounded in close observation of child rearing. Anthropologists seemed full of new ideas, and the ideas including theories, not “theory,” which is to say propositions about how customs and habits might be explained as opposed to agonizing doubt about whether anything was knowable at all. Anthropologists were the people who claimed both hands-own experience and the broadest of broad perspectives. It was still possible to think of oneself as adding to a rich and growing body of knowledge about the whole natural history of humanity, from biological evolution and prehistory down to the present day.

  10. Yes the immediate postwar years saw a big rollback in Boasian diversity, both in terms of race and gender — Ruth Benedict being replaced by Ralph Linton as the head of the Columbia department is emblematic of this step. But some of the Vet generation did emphasize the importance of these people. Again, Wolf and Mintz were strong exponents of Leacock, Weltfish, and Benedict.

    The last sentence of John’s comment is indicative of another shift that I wanted to mention but didn’t — I think by the 1970s the 4 field paradigm had really vanished amongst high table anthropologists. In the fifties Marshall Sahlins published on primatology, but it was unimaginable that Geertz (or Appadurai!) do so.

  11. Re Rex’s last remark: Two additional factors here may be the information explosion that occurred as the number of anthropologists multiplied and the rise of what we might call the “create your own curriculum” movement that my generation was very much part of. The first made it impossible to keep up in all four fields; the latter encouraged us not to bother.

    In my case, just one data point, I chose Cornell over Chicago because, like the Honors College at Michigan State from which I got my undergraduate degree, there were no strict distribution requirements. I can still remember going to Jack Roberts, whom I had met at an NSF funded summer program in quantitative anthropology the summer before I started graduate school, and asking what he thought I should be taking my first semester of graduate school. He said, “John, the whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student. See that library over there? Go use it and figure out what you want to study.”

    As a result, I did one course in Chinese archeology, mostly Neolithic pottery and Shang bronzes, a course in Bloomfieldian (pre-Chomsky) linguistics, a course on the ethnography of Mainland Southeast Asia….and something else; I forget what. Sucked into the China program, I never did do any physical anthropology.

    My introduction to the anthropology of China was heavy on kinship, marriage and ancestor worship. The key text was Maurice Freedman’s Lineage Organization in Southeast China, itself largely inspired by Fortes’ work among the Tallensi. Pushed toward British social anthropology, excited by reading Vic Turner and Mary Douglas, and having a whole lot to learn about China and places in Southeast Asia where there were lots of overseas Chinese, I never learned much about any other part of the world except Africa. Instead of a well-rounded four-fielder, I became a kind of intellectual patchwork doll. I may have been an extreme case, but I think this happened to a lot of us in my generation.

  12. Boas was notorious for basically not training his students — you just took his courses and did what he did and then you were supposed to absorb it through osmosis. I think that from the twenties to the forties there was very much a gentleman scholar sort of approach. By the time people really started thinking about curriculum the incoming generation found attempts to professionalize and regulate disciplinary socialization unacceptable. And a lot of faculty were happy to just tell their students “yeah, you know go out and come back and tell us what happened”. Textbooks in anthropology had been written since the twenties, and in the sixties people began thinking about methods rigorously, but in that key 64-74 period when it could have crystallized, it didn’t.

  13. Interesting. It could also be argued that during the ’74-’76 period the Castaneda episode, which had created significant waves for a couple years, sort of drew to a close as increasing evidence emerged calling into question the authenticity of the Don Juan material. AAA meetings during these years, such as the ’74 one in Mexico City, included well-attended discussions of these themes, and then Richard De Mille’s damning critique of Castaneda came out in ’76.

    Also, just to state the obvious (which is probably on your timeline): Wagner’s Invention of Culture came out in 1975.

  14. I do not disagree with what Rex says about Boas. I also recall Keith Hart remarking that when he shifted from classics to anthropology in the UK, he was appalled by what he saw as the slack scholarship that anthropologists were able to get away with. That said, the anthropologist in me wants to step back and look a bit more closely at the social and cultural context in which anthropology has evolved. From the sociology of professions we learn that the original and, in many eyes, still the only true professions were those of the priest, the doctor, and the lawyer. All three began in what Thomas Kuhn, writing about the sciences, labelled a pre-paradigmatic stage — basically people doing their own thing unhampered by licensing laws and legal sanctions against those who violate them. It was the state stepping in and legalizing privileges based on specified qualifications that created these original professions. The priests were the first to be so distinguished in medieval Europe, through differences in secular and church law.

    The point here is that the “professionalization” of academic disciplines aspires to the same model; but unlike medicine or law, there are no legal sanctions involved. There is only the consensus of groups of peers who agree on the conditions under which membership in the discipline will be recognized. Thus, for example, to be recognized as a physicist requires a certain course of training and the ability to do things that other physicists require as essential. There are no legal sanctions, however, against anyone calling him or herself a physicist.

    What, then, are the conditions under which the consensus that professionalization demands can be achieved? Returning to Kuhn, each discipline has a paradigm (or at least an acceptable range of paradigms). But how can a paradigm be established when a relatively small number of people of highly diverse interests suddenly becomes a group two orders of magnitude bigger? Especially during a period of rapid and unconstrained growth when individuals were free to pursue their separate interests and divide themselves into smaller and smaller factions cross-cut by areal as well as topical interests? And now what ground do they have to assert a shared identity and responsibility to each other? These are the issues that now confront not only anthropology but the other social sciences and humanities as well. When academic freedom meets the McDonaldization of education in straitened economic times, something has to give. A return to (to borrow the title of a great book) The Way We Never Were is impossible. Is there a vision of the future around which we can unite?

  15. Castañeda! Yes, and its an important moment. The first trilogy was 1968-1972 iirc, and then the more explicitly fantasy books came out later, beginning in 1974. I think because it was not peer reviewed, his literary work actually appeared during the high moments of the late 60s, instead of being delayed as some anthropology books were. There is a section on him in the anthropology section of the library (at least LOC) and I remember briefly glancing it at a few years ago — I think overall there were a lot of people (Mary Douglas, iirc) who were more sympathetic to him than you might expect. I have the impression that this was something Religion scholars and anthropologists parted ways on since most anthros didn’t believe there was a divine to experience.

    Castañeda also brings up another important point during this period — it seems to me that anthropologists stopped producing popular books for he general public around this time and turned more inward. Or the people that were producing popular books were not sending the sort of counter-cultural messages the public was expecting: i.e. Marvin Harris’s debunking scientism and Mead’s conservative columns in Redbook.

  16. “since most anthros didn’t believe there was a divine to experience”

    I wonder. I know that in my own case going off to study Chinese popular religion was a flagrantly Oedipal reaction to my pious Lutheran upbringing. What, after all, could be more rebellious than taking serious people who were into incense, burnt offerings, and graven images. I can still remember the first time someone handed me lighted incense and expected me to bow toward the idol on a temple altar–I froze, waiting for The Lord God Jehovah’s lightning to strike me. Got over that, but….

    Mary Douglas was a lifelong, practicing Catholic. Victor Turner converted to Catholicism. Max Gluckman, I recall being told, was an Orthodox Jew. Could one reason for the decline of the anthropology of religion have been anthropology’s ceasing to attract what Max Weber called “religiously musical” people?

  17. “It was a period of expansion, but also a period of canonization: the war between materialists and idealists — the sloppiest construals of anthropology’s intellectual history ever — gained traction around this time, providing an overarching narrative for the discipline.” It may or may not be a “sloppy construal,” but was an important time and issue; Marvin Harris’ “The Rise of Anthropological Theory” became the dominant text in theory courses (there were few alternatives available), even though most (?) who used it were critical of the polemical style and the techno-economo-environmental determinism advocated by its author. At that time, Harris was also, I believe, the first American anthropologist to write books for the “popular” rather than academic market, with the best-selling books “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” and “Cannibals and Kings.” No anthropologist I can think of off the top of my head has been able to do that since then. Your timeline might note that as one of the earliest examples of anthropologists seeking to “engage” larger and broader audiences beyond the towers of the academy.

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