When Peoples Meet

Here’s an SM mini-quiz: Given your knowledge of anthropological fads, what year would you expect to see a book published which had section headings like “Power, Politics, and Dominance”, “Tactics of Survival and Counter-assertion”, and “The Problems of Contemporary Imperialism”? Take a guess and click below the jump for the answer.

  1. The book? When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts. The editor? Alain Locke, a key figure in the Harlem renaissance and the first Rhodes Scholar.

When Peoples Meet is more than just a work of anthropology. At over 800 pages and with 100 chapters, this anthology was meant to synthesize pretty much all of the expert literature in the social sciences and humanities that had to do with ‘when people met’. Contributors include everyone from Arnold Toynbee and Charles Darwin to more familiar names to us such as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir.

When Peoples Meet presents a version of history that doesn’t always get told in our contemporary canon. In the selection from Darwin, for instance, the famous naturalist witnesses a Spanish campaign against Indians (in, I believe, Chile):

This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he [a Spanish soldier] answered, “Why, what can be done? They breed so!” Everyone here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against the barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?

Despite it’s explicitly interdisciplinary nature, anthropologists figure heavily in the collection. Twenty of them were anthologized in When Peoples Meet, and several (such as Boas) are featured more than once. Overall I’d estimate that around a quarter of the book is anthropology. They also figure prominently in the acknowledgments: Gene Weltfish, Ruth Benedict, and Melville Herskovits are all mentioned by Locke and his co-editor Bernard Stern. It’s not surprising, then, that When Peoples Meet has such an anthropological point of view.

Because the book wasn’t published by a big New York publisher, it basically has very little web presence. Because no one is interested in making any money off of it, it doesn’t feature prominently in search results. But it was pretty widely distributed back in the day — any university library, and even a good-sized city library system will have a copy. The piece deserves to be not only remembered, but taught. This was a time when anthropologists still wrote in English (well, more of them did at any rate). Although the essays may seem dated now, they contain research results that have not really been invalidated by additional research, even if we now have a much more complete and complex understanding of the dynamics of culture change. Clear statements about the fundamental findings of our discipline? This is definitely a volume with bits that could be used in an intro course. Or, more interestingly, a volume that could be used by someone struggling to find some structure for planning and teaching their first intro course.

I know, you were totally thinking ‘tactics’ didn’t occur in the title of anthropological works until after Foucault, right? 🙂


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

4 thoughts on “When Peoples Meet

  1. Thanks very much for the reference. I wanted to know more so looked it up: WorldCat has the title as “When Peoples [plural] Meet,” which explains why it was so curiously absent from search results (well, that and the prevalence of dating sites clogging up the list…).

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