Anthropology has turned its back on its heritage

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The freezing rain the other night turned our snowy road to ice and pulled our car back into a ditch. It was better than the cliff on the other side. This being rural Vermont, my cell phone’s only service was his flashlight and it was a dark, slippery hike to the nearest house. Three hours later, roadside assistance put us back on four wheels.

I have surely lost a few points in the ranking for rugged individualism, but my wife and I were just a little chilled by the adventure. Things could be – and indeed are – much worse elsewhere. At least we didn’t have any old Baywatch actress punch us for traveling without a mask.

I have been a half-resident of Vermont for thirty-five years, during which time my official domicile has changed between other states as frequently as warnings of impending climate disaster. I first settled in the Green Mountains when the threat of global cooling and an impending ice age was at the forefront.

Because my home in Vermont stayed put while I pursued my career here and there, it naturally became the repository of all the things I didn’t want with me – but wasn’t willing to throw away. My wife healed me of most of this rubbish. We outfitted a regional theater with all of the plush Victorian velvet furniture I inherited. We got rid of the big appliances, the lamps, the crystal, the plate, the old paintings, the filing cabinets, a gym or two. But what remains includes my library. And therein lies a burden.

It’s not only that I have a lot of books – around 14,000 – but that I have a lot of books that I love, including a collection of world ethnographic works. Sub-Saharan Africa; North, Central and South America; Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia; Australia; South East Asia; Japan, Korea, China; Central Asia; India; Middle East; North Africa. I was under the illusion for many years that an anthropologist should know something about all parts of the world, and I read like crazy the reports of ethnographers, big and small, and I extended the lists. to include the stories of missionaries; tales of explorers; archives of colonial officials; and travel accounts of intrepid tourists who wandered off the beaten track.

It might sound like a legacy that a research library would be happy to receive, but alas, no. I was for a time the university librarian of a large research university and I know exactly what was to become of this collection. It would be sold piecemeal to second-hand book dealers. After all, these dealers were my source for many of my older volumes.

But anyway, the biggest burden on me is that my discipline, anthropology, has turned its back on this heritage. Anthropology is a young discipline, dating mostly from the mid-nineteenth century. Of course, the interest in the inhabitants of the world beyond Europe is much older than that. When I was teaching the history of anthropology, I would return to Herodotus, who offered detailed accounts of the Egyptians, Persians, and many other peoples through his lens of the fifth century BC. And I would like my students to read Tacitus Germany as well as for a sophisticated Roman account of the Barbarians to the north. But anthropology in the sense of a systematic, scientific effort to make sense of the great variety of mankind was largely a 19th century invention.

To understand why, consider the writings of Henry Home, Lord Kames, a brilliant jurist and key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. In its 1774 volumes, Sketches of the history of manKames begins by evaluating the evidence as to whether humanity is a single species or a collection of species. He reasons to arrive at the conclusion that humans are divided into profoundly different species: “It is certain that all men are not equally adapted to all climates. Is there not therefore reason to conclude that, as there are different climates, there are therefore different species of men adapted to these different climates? Many of Kames’ contemporaries rejected his conclusion. “I count on fierce opposition,” he wrote, but he backed up his theory with what we would now call an abundance of ethnographic detail and concluded that “if all humans were one species he never could have exist, without miracle, different kinds, as they currently exist.

Kames’ conclusion flies in the face of modern science, but it was a formidable argument in its day and not so easily attacked. Among those who ultimately contested the idea that humans are divided into several distinct species was a British anatomist, James Cowles Pritchard, whose work from 1813, Research on the physical history of man, argues that even “the most dissimilar human races … [and therefore] belong to a species or a lineage.

Pritchard is little more than a footnote in today’s anthropology, but he is sometimes criticized for upholding the principle of common humanity for a long period during which views such as Kames’ dominated. A recent historian praised him for his “passionate promotion” of his belief in “human dignity”. Pritchard was one of a handful of early 19th-century writers who laid the groundwork for a moral view of anthropology that attacked popular racial justifications for slavery. From this would eventually emerge the practice of “field work”, that is to say the will of researchers to learn mother tongues and to spend years living among a non-Western people in order to document their customs and beliefs. .

Serious ethnography dates back to the 1840s, when an American lawyer, Lewis Henry Morgan, began documenting several tribes in upstate New York, but it was not until the 1880s that close observation and sustained has become the gold standard of anthropological research. From Franz Boas’ immersion in the life of the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia to the involuntary stay of Bronislaw Malinowski during World War I in the Trobriand Islands, a specialized form of in-person investigation has taken shape that would add immensely to our understanding of human diversity. .

Anthropology can rightly claim great scholarly achievement. The thousands of books written by the men and women who have ventured into remote and often dangerous places to live for a year or two are a testament to both Western curiosity and personal courage. Books, of course, vary in quality. Some ethnographers combined scientific rigor with literary skill. Others had neither, and some embody the “unreliable narrator”. Few widely read studies by Margaret Mead have stood up to closer examination. But taken as a whole, the ethnographic writings of the 1880-1980 period are an intellectual monument never to be repeated.

I say 1980, but the actual date when ethnography slipped from the road into a ditch is difficult to pin down. During the 1970s, several prominent anthropologists declared that they no longer saw the discipline as a “science”. Instead, they argued that it is best to view the ethnographer as a creative writer or perhaps a memorialist. A breath of intellectual freedom swept through anthropology departments, many of which were weary of the ever increasing demands of abstract theory and rigorous reporting. As this general detente took hold, an exciting explosion of political activism ensued. Feminist and neo-Marxist anthropology made its mark, as did post-modernist forms of anthropology and other identity-based ways of describing the task of the ethnographer. Gay anthropology quickly joined the party and ethnographers began to study their own indigenous communities, which vitiated the whole premise of meeting “the other” on one’s own ground. A new type of ethnography arose, sometimes called “reflexive anthropology,” in which the writer devoted most of his efforts to describing his own feelings and barely noticing the people that a foundation had paid him to study. .

Not all anthropologists have fallen into one of these ditches. It is still possible to find a solid and well-written ethnography. But they are increasingly rare. A specialization has also emerged from anthropologists who study the history of the discipline, which is reminiscent of Hegel’s saying, “The Minerva owl does not spread its wings until dusk has fallen.” Anthropology has had its day. Right now it is a very popular undergraduate program and it has given us such famous figures as the late David Graeber, the anarchist who helped organize the “Occupy” movement and whose posthumous book, Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, proposes a codification of all the pernicious tendencies which characterize the discipline during his adolescence.

But enough of that. As you can see, I got off the road in this ditch, and while sitting here in the cold waiting for roadside assistance, I have the opportunity to reflect on all those books that no one risks re-reading. or want. They appeal to my vanity. Glad to be able to find the shelf where I collect very old editions of Lord Kames and James Cowles Pritchard. Maybe I share the fate of every scholar whose learning life is ultimately replaced by fresh new ideas. A learned alchemist in Lavoisier’s time must also have felt left behind by history, with no roadside assistance in sight.

Yet I believe that this body of ethnographic scholarship deserves to be preserved. It is, among other things, the definitive answer to Project 1619; the root and branch rebuttal of critical race theory; and the eradication of diversity-equity-inclusion. These ideologies are, at bottom, efforts to establish a moral hierarchy based on victimization. It is dangerous vanity.

Read enough ancient ethnography, and the story of people victimizing each other is inevitable, but so is deep knowledge of the human community. As Pritchard understood 200 years ago, our cultural differences are endless, but they are not everything, and the more we do, the worse our lot. Anthropology at its best has taught us that our follies are as universal as our aspirations; and that seeking ascendancy in the name of righteousness is just another path to difficulties and division. We are our imperfections. The best is to hit the road again.


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