Anthropology and the MacArthurs

The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes.

First, a disclaimer: There have been many critiques of the MacArthur grants and I share the sentiments of most of the critics — I can’t help but feel they MacArthur’s are heavy on New York and LA awardees, and I often feel you have to be pretty centrally placed in these networks just to get a look from them.

But I can’t really complain. There have been 24 anthropologists elected MacArthur fellows out of the total 942 people who have recieved the award which is, like, 2% of awardees, sure. But I still think it’s something to be proud of. Also, we have been consistent winers, pulling in at least one MacArthur every other year or so from the very first year it was awarded, until 2000, when they started to become more intermittent.

Some of the people listed as ‘anthropologists’ are a bit distant from the academic core of our discipline, while others (for instance, Michael Silvstein, who won in 1982) get classified in other disciplines (in Silverstein’s case ‘linguistics’). As a result a list of the anthropology winners looks a bit odd. But I do think it is accurate. When I look at the names of winners what immediately strikes me (other than possibly a cabal of linguistic anthropologists passing the award around cough) is how right the MacArthurs got anthropology. Ruth Behar, Alfonso Ortiz, Paul Farmer, Eric Wolf, Shannon Lee Dawdy, Sherry Ortner, Steven Feld — these really are among the best and brightest that our discipline has produced.

A while ago I compiled a list of anthropologists who have recieved the MacArthur, and today’s announcement seems like a good time to share it with you, so here it is. I compiled it by going to MacArthur’s list of awardees and then searching for the term ‘anthropology’, so this captures how MacArthur categorizes its fellows (hmm… I can’t seem to find the page that I originally used to compile this list… so maybe this list is now ungrounded and worthless… or a valuable historical artifact… hmm…). I didn’t try to cut the people who didn’t seem to me to fit, or include others who might fit on this list. It’s really just a filtering of what was on their page. If you were looking for something to read over the weekend, you wouldn’t go wrong chosing any of these authors. Have a good weekend!

1981 – Shelly Errington
1981 – Lawrence Rosen
1982 – Alfonso Ortiz
1983 – William H. Durham
1984 – Shirley Heath
1988 – Ruth Behar
1989 – Jennifer Moody
1990 – Sherry Ortner
1990 – Eric Wolf
1991 – Steven Feld
1992 – Nora English
1993 – Paul Farmer
1993 – Henry Wright
1994 – Faye Ginsburg
1997 – Brackette Williams
1998 – Elinor Ochs
1999 – Denny Moore
2000 – Gary Urton
2002 – Erik Mueggler
2007 – Mercedes Doretti
2007 – Svan Haakanson
2008 – Stephen Houston
2010 – Shannon Lee Dawdy
2013 – Julie Livingston


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

5 thoughts on “Anthropology and the MacArthurs

  1. The list leaves out Edwin Hutchins, now emeritus at UCSD. A 1985 MacArthur, he is most likely among the most cited figures in the history of anthropology. CiTW is now pushing past 10 000 citations. As a comparison: Stone Age Economics pushes around 7000. The MacArthur-bio is very clear about his anthropological base, but he’s listed as a cognitive scientist, and not exactly part of the disciplinary mainstream.

  2. Interesting that Michael Silverstein would be listed as a linguist while Shirley Brice Heath would be list as an anthropologist, since Shirley, when she won the award, was teaching in an English department as I remember. As I recall the gossip networks in the early 80s, Cliff Geertz was making anthropology nominations to the MacArthur Foundation (thus Rosen, Al Ortiz, Ortner a bit later) and perhaps it was thought that too many anthropologists in the early classes would look suspicious, so Silverstein was slipped in as a linguist. When you consider that by the end of 1982 there were only 59 awards covering fields from art to zoology, it was extraordinary for anthropology to comprise 4 (close to 7%) of all those early MacArthur fellows.

  3. Lee Ann Newsom (2002) Archaeologist and paleoethnobotanist.

    Those who have gotten the MacArthur Fellowships though the years are certainly exceptional scholars. That said, it should not matter whether or not an anthropologist gets an accolade. What I find interesting is the sense of importance of the discipline and the concern with the metrics of these awards.

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