Napoleon Chagnon profile

1 minute read

The New York Times has a very long and informative profile of Napoleon Chagnon, written by Emily Eakin: “Napoleon Chagnon, America’s Most Controversial Anthropologist”. The profile is in connection with Chagnon’s upcoming book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes the Yanomam and the Anthropologists. The piece does a very nice job of summarizing Chagnon’s work, its importance in the field, and how he came to be vilified by many cultural anthropologists of his generation.

It’s full of good paragraphs, and I’m choosing to quote this passage because I love the last sentence:

Under the influence of Derrida and Foucault, cultural anthropologists turned their gaze on their own texts and were alarmed by what they saw. Ethnographies were not dispassionate records of cultural facts but rather unstable fictions, shot through with ideology and observer bias.
This postmodern turn coincided with the disappearance of anthropologys traditional subjects indigenous peoples. Even the Yanomami were becoming assimilated, going to mission schools, appearing on television in Caracas and flying to the United States to speak at academic conferences. Traditional fieldwork opportunities may have been drying up, but there was still plenty of work to do exposing anthropologists complicity in oppressing the other. As one scholar in the journal Current Anthropology put it, Isnt it odd that the true enemy of society turns out to be that guy in the office down the hall?

An all-too-common tale. The profile is a good way for students and others who may not know the historical background to understand this part of the history of anthropology. Recommended.