Anthropology in transition

3 minute read

My Wisconsin colleague Herb Lewis wrote a piece in 2005 about the development of anthropology across the 1960’s, as academics became more politically radicalized and increasingly committed to a critique of anthropology as a tool of imperialism. The article is written through the lens of the annual AAA meetings, which gradually changed in character as the field expanded and became more concerned with activism. The entire article is interesting as a personal reflection, but the portions describing the events of 1969-1970 are especially illuminating.

Lewis’ conclusion gives some useful perspective on the #AAAfail issue. How have we reached the point that a substantial fraction of anthropologists are hostile to idea that anthropology itself is a science?

[B]y now [the 1980's] there are fewer and fewer ideas and less and less knowledge in the discipline derived from "anthropology" as more and more has been imported from these other sourcessources that know not what anthropology once knew: the peoples of the world.
In the era of blurred genres, anthropologists increasingly took their inspiration from thinkers completely innocent of the many and varied ways of humankind, whose thought was tailored to European intellectual trends and needs. Many current anthropologists are more the heirs of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Marx, and Engels (the last two learned their anthropology from Lewis Henry Morgan, cultural evolutionist), and from many others who knew neither Boas nor Malinowski nor ever looked upon one of those peoples that ethnographers routinely live among and may devote many years to knowing.
By the mid-1970s many of the rebellious graduate students were teaching; by the mid-1980s they were tenured and well placed; by the mid-1990s they were in charge of the levers of power in departments, journals, granting agencies, the AAA. And the gap, the yawning chasm, between their ideas, aims, values, attitudes, knowledge, and what went on in anthropology before 1965 is vast. They would notperhaps could notpass on the knowledge, ideas, understandings of, and respect for, the achievements of earlier anthropology. Forgotten are the roots of the discipline, the accomplishments, the common knowledge and common sense of the past, and the considerable body of ethnography and ideas it produced before the revolutions of 1968. Where histories of theory are still taught (perhaps against the wishes of the students), they are more likely to feature Marx, Durkheim, and Weber than Boas and Malinowski. Anthropology's past has been consigned to oblivion.

Of course, by the 1980’s, anthropology was already disowning many of the central figures of its early development. If they had not themselves been tools of the colonialist oppressors, they were dupes of their knowing research subjects. Lewis is quite correct – many students of anthropological theory were no longer required to read extensively of early anthropologists. Alfred Kroeber became more well known as the oppressor of Ishi than for his synthetic work.

In addition to this ignorance of history, I think this inward turn also impeded an awareness of the broader context of anthropological work. The recurring tensions between applied anthropologists and more academically-oriented sociocultural anthropologists are one dimension of this problem. I don’t think it’s surprising that many anthropologists don’t see their activity as scientific, and I’m used to inhabiting a field with strains that may be substantially hostile to science or – worse – actively pursue a pseudoscientific agenda.

Still, I argue that anthropology is a science, even while I acknowledge that many anthropologists are not scientists. How can we have a coherent, rational study of humankind without much of its subject matter being ultimately humanistic in content? I don’t think our situation is very different from most of the social sciences. Psychology, political science and sociology all encompass some body of normative and descriptive theory that is not especially subject to empirical testing. In each field, quantitative data may actually settle some questions, but not others. Nevertheless, our understanding of many empirically tractable issues is enhanced by considering historical, narrative, or normative information.


Herbert S. Lewis. "The Radical Transformation of Anthropology: History Seen through the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, 19552005." Histories of Anthropology Annual 5 (2009): 200-228.