Tag Archives: boas

Zora Neale Hurston, The Making of an Anthropologist

Little did Zora know that moving to New York from Washington, DC, where she was a student at Howard University, would forever change the trajectory of her life. When Zora landed in Harlem, she became the latest arrival to what would become enshrined in history as the Harlem Renaissance. Zora’s dramatic flair and need for attention attracted the likes of the actress Fanny Bryce who hired her as a secretary and, after discovering Zora had few secretarial skills, kept her on as erstwhile chauffeur and travel companion. She also caught the eye of a trustee from Barnard College who paved the way for Zora to complete the education she had begun her college career and pay for it as well. At the age of 34, a fact she kept hidden, Zora enrolled in Barnard as a college  student.  With an Associate degree from Howard University, Zora would complete her Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and  become the first Black woman to graduate from the institution.  During this period, the seeds were sown for the making of a Black anthropologist with deep roots to the southern culture of the American Negro and who would influence the direction of folklore and ethnography.

At Barnard, Zora discovered the “spyglass of anthropology” taught by the revered Frantz Boas. Today Boas is recognized as the father of “American Anthropology” with its four-field approach. While he might not have garnered as much fame in 1926, he certainly mapped out the structure of Columbia’s anthropology department specializing in American Indians from the multiple viewpoints of cultural, biological, archaeology and linguistic anthropological perspectives, and training some of the discipline’s most illustrious anthropologists of the 20th Century. This “holistic” approach to doing anthropology, as well as Boas’ emphasis on intensive fieldwork, would shape the future of American anthropology and influence generations of leaders in the field.

Continue reading

Boas and the Monolingualism of the Other

Kwakiutl texts

In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.

So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading

Boas and the Culture of Racism

The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.

This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:

Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.

While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.

Continue reading

Forgetting Gabriel Tarde

(This guest post comes from Matt Watson, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Texas Tech University. He’s developing these ideas in a book manuscript titled Reading Latour’s Cosmopolitics: Ontology, Ecology, Love. Descriptions of his research and publications are available at www.matthewcwatson.org. Feel free to send thoughts, corrections, objections, specific compliments, or notes (love or ransom) to matthew.clay.watson@gmail.com. -R )

As Rex recently pointed out, Durkheim’s elder and rival Gabriel Tarde is experiencing a “reinvention” or “revival” at the hands of Bruno Latour and assorted posthumanist authors. They’re studiously reworking Tarde’s ambitious argument that invention, imitation, and opposition are the elementary forms of social life (human, animal, and other). Of these three elements, Tarde most thoroughly explored imitation. A now-established trope among neo-Tardians is that Durkheim’s success in securing sociology’s autonomy as a discipline relegated Tarde’s “microsociology” (as Gilles Deleuze called it) to the margins of the human sciences. Contributors to the edited volume, The Social after Gabriel Tarde, assert that anthropologists haven’t worked through Tarde’s ideas. The editor, Matei Candea, states, “Until recently…Tarde was almost entirely absent from anthropology, with the notable exception of the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” It might come as a surprise, then, that in 1964 Margaret Mead could write, “Since Tarde’s original publication, the idea of imitation has been worked to the bone.” What on Earth could Mead have meant? Wasn’t Tarde forgotten?

The short answer is no.

Continue reading