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….
Method, approach, and assumptions
There are only three main anthologies of anthropological theory published in North America. High Points in Anthropology was the first such reader, and was originally published in 1973. A second edition came out in 1988. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History took up the slack in 1996 and has been updated regularly since then. It is currently in its fifth edition. A competitor, Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, began in 2001 and is now in its fourth edition.
There are other readers produced in the UK and other English-speaking countries (Oz, New Zealand) and of course there are a variety of readers in other countries. There are also readers themed around particular subfields, or which focus on anthropology and ‘social theory’. Here I want to start small and just examine a few key readers that fit a well-defined pedagogical niche.
In this blog entry, I’ll compare the most recent editions of these works, especially the fifth edition of Anthropological Theory (5 AP) and the fourth of Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory (4 RH). In a future blog entry I hope to trace their development across time. I should also say I am writing this based only on reading the tables of contents prepared for me by Angela. You can a find a comparison of theory anthologies here — I suggest you pull them up while you’re reading this so you can follow along.
I have also read almost all the pieces anthologized, so I have a high degree of familiarity with this literature and assume you do too. However, if I actually read the editors’ introductions and other writings, I would probably be on more solid footing understanding why they’ve made the choices they have. So that’s a shortcoming of this approach. Still, I feel like this approach is a useful one.
My goal here is really to focus on authors rather than on particular pieces. Which anthropologists are considered canonical in anthropological history?
Anthropology’s beginnings: 1850-1950
Ok so: what is included and what is not? First, it’s clear that both 5 AT and 4 RH agree strongly on the prehistory of our discipline. Both begin in the late 19th century with the work of Spencer, Morgan, Tylor, Marx/Engels, Freud, Durkheim, Weber, and Mauss. 4 RH also includes Saussure. So far, so good: both works cover identical thinkers. There is a high degree of canonicity for the most distant past of our discipline.
5 AT then has a section labeled ‘the early twentieth century’ which it divides into ‘Culture and Personality’ (Benedict and Mead) and a larger category called ‘historical particularism’. This last includes both American and British thinkers (Boas, Kroeber, Whorf, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Gluckman). Personally, I think all of the British authors listed here would be terrified to see themselves listed as historical particularists. Radcliffe-Brown a particularist? But whatever.
4 RH, on the other hand, has a single section entitled ‘the earlier twentieth century’ which includes the same authors as 5 AT, but cuts Whorf and adds Lévi-Strauss, Sahlins, and Leach.
For the period from 1900-1950, then, it looks like there is a high degree of agreement about who the relevant authors are, with just slight variation. In some cases, 4 RH includes authors in this section that 5 AT includes in the next section — so there is a high degree of agreement regarding who canonical authors are, but some disagreement about how to periodize them.
Basically the present: 1950-2000
Both readers now move on to the heart of a disciplinarily distinct anthropology: the post-war period to the close of the millennium. How much agreement is there between the two readers here?
5 AT calls this section ‘theory at midcentury’ and breaks down into subsections labeled ‘reemergence of evolutionary thought’ (Steward and White), neomaterialism (Fried, Harris, Rappaport, Wolf), structuralism (Lévi-Strauss and Ortner), and ethnoscience (Conklin and Tyler).
4 RH doesn’t pause mid-century as 5 AT does. Rather, it continues on with ‘the later 20th century’. This section includes many of the same names as 5 AT’s ‘theory at midcentury’ (White, Harris, Wolf, Ortner). It also includes Sapir (who died a decade before the later twentieth century began), Turner, Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, Slocum, Gal, Said, Foucault, Bourdieu, Clifford and Marcus, and Lock and Scheper Hughes.
5 AT next moves to ‘the 20th century and beyond’ and breaks it down into sections: sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral ecology (E.O. Wilson and Bird and Smith), Anthropology and gender (Slocum, Leacock and Valentine), Symbolic and Interpretive approaches (Douglas, Turner, and Geertz), ‘background to postmodernism’ (Bourdieu and Foucault), postmodernism (Rosaldo, Abu-Lughod, and Hanson), and ends with ‘globalization, power, and agency’ (Appadurai, Bourgois, and Ted Bestor).
4 RH concludes with ‘the early twenty-first century, with readings by Appadurai, Marcus, Jon Marks, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen.
The two anthologies split the period from 1950-2014 in different ways, so to compare them we need to lump their two sections together. Once we do so, we find little agreement between them. There are 27 authors in 5 AT and 21 in 4 RH. Only 10 authors are anthologized in both books: Appadurai, Geertz, Wolf, White, Harris, Foucault, Bourdieu, Slocum, Ortner, and Turner. Both volumes seem to make missteps here: 4 AT does not include Marcus and Fischer or Clifford (clear choices for ‘postmodernism’ readings), while 4 RH includes Sapir, who died in 1939, as a post-war thinker.
RH includes Gupta and Sharma, Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Edwards, Sapir, Said, Marcus and Fischer, Clifford, Marks, Lock and Sheper-Hughes, and Sue Gal, all authors 5 AT omits.
AT includes Conklin, Hanson, Rappaport, Abu-Lughod, Tyler, Leacock, Rosaldo, Steward, Douglas, Fried, EO Wilson, Bird, Valentine, Bourgois, and Bestor. These are authors 4 RH omits.
There do appear to be solid ‘chunks’ of theoretical movements that both textbooks cover: ‘interpretive’ anthropology (Geertz and Turner), 70s era theory (Foucault and Bourdieu), and ‘postmodernism’ although what is included in that category varies (is it Renato Rosaldo and Abu-Lughod, or Marcus-and-Fischer and Clifford?)
Its also clear that the last quarter century of anthropology are more or less untouched by these recent anthologies, despite their occasional attempts to claim that they have a coherent narrative after 1986. Over a decade into the new millennium, can one really include Arjun Appadurai’s 1990 essay “Disjuncture and Difference” in a section entitled “the early twenty-first century” as 4 RH does?
In conclusion, the two main theory anthologies for our discipline show strong agreement on the early history of the discipline, but after — wait for it — 1974 their shared narrative loses coherence. Why?
There are many possible reasons. There is a genealogical relationship between High Points, AT, and RH: AT and RH are derivative of High Points (and RH of AT). As I hope to show in a future blog entry, an analysis of the development of these different editions over time may explain their current shape. It may also be that competition has driven the authors of these two anthologies to differentiate themselves from each other. But overall it appears that some of the core pedagogical texts in our discipline lack a shared narrative of our recent past, and are skittish about claiming to tell an authoritative tale of the last fifteen years in particular.
One might object that these are just two books, and they are not central to training graduate students (and hence the real reproduction of the discipline). Therefore, this exercise may have limited value. I take this point. But we must ask ourselves: what sort of discipline are we in if there is a strong disconnect between our undergraduate textbooks and basic expert knowledge about the shape of the field?