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.