History of Anthropology

The History of Anthropology Working Group is an outgrowth of the History of Anthropology Review. Originally called the History of Anthropology Newsletter, HAR has been a nerve center for the history of anthropology for over forty years. In 2014, our editorial collective brought the newsletter into the digital age, redesigning it as an open access website with new sections and features. Over the six years since HAR’s relaunch we’ve seen the field of history of anthropology expand beyond an earlier focus on classic texts and figures to incorporate global traditions of anthropology, approaches from Indigenous Studies, STS and the History of Science, museology, library and information science, and the politics of collecting and displaying cultures. The history of studying the world’s cultures, ways of life, and systems of knowledge is vitally important as a means to address current issues, where increasing global connections do not erase significant differences.  
HAR’s editors sought a forum in which to discuss and develop the issues that drive the journal beyond what is there on the site. This Working Group is open to anyone who wants to reflect on the histories of anthropology—anthropologists, historians, interested others.  
Building on last year’s series of discussions on anthropology’s historical entwinement with racial science, white supremacy, and anti-racist activism, our discussions this year (2021-22) will explore the significance of anthropology’s history to its current practice. We are inviting anthropologists to choose historical texts or moments in the history of the field which they have found useful, difficult, or inspirational for their own work. Among other topics we aim to question the difference between histories of anthropology approached from inside the discipline and from outside of it, and the different ways in which critical and archival research about anthropological precedent informs current inquiry. We warmly welcome anthropologists, historians, and any other interested parties to join the conversation.

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • May 1, 2024

    We are very pleased to have Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) join us in May.
    Title: Eugène Pittard, Bayan Afet, and Others: Actors and Milieus of Anthropological Knowledge and the Formation of the Turkish History Thesis in the 1930s
    Abstract: My study delves into the formation of racial-anthropological knowledge by Swiss and Turkish political elite, anthropologists, and historians during the 1930s, focusing on its role in the political narratives of Turkish nation-building. Central to this research is Eugène Pittard, founder of the Musée d'ethnographie de Genève and the first Chair of Anthropology at the Université de Genève. Pittard was instrumental in challenging the scientific validity of racial categorizations, yet paradoxically, he also championed the "Turkish History Thesis," which posited that the "Turkish race" is superior and ancestral to European races.  This argument aligned well with the ideological needs of Turkey's nation-building efforts at the time. My investigation is part of a DFG-funded project that scrutinizes the production and dissemination of "racial" knowledge within Turkey through various networks, involving a diverse group of European and Turkish scholars, cultural diplomats, and political figures. By analyzing extensive archival materials from Switzerland, Germany, and Turkey, I aim to unravel the complex interactions among these actors and their use of anthropological knowledge for political purposes. Ultimately, this work seeks to enrich our understanding of the history of anthropology in Turkey by offering a critical analysis of these historical dynamics that can challenge the existing disciplinary narratives.
    Our commentators will be Sebastián Gil-Riaño (University of Pennsylvania) and Katja Geisenhainer (Frobenius Institute—Goeth University). 

  • April 3, 2024

    April's session will feature an informal talk by Joanna Radin (Yale) titled "Michael Crichton's Racial Calculations for 1960s Anthropology." There will not be a pre-circulated reading for this session. 

  • March 6, 2024

    Presenter: Adrianna Link (American Philosophical Society).

    Title: (Re)Inventing Anthropology's History through Crisis and Collections at the American Philosophical Society
    Abstract: This chapter uses the growth of the American Philosophical Society’s anthropological and linguistic collections during the mid-20th century to explore connections between American anthropology’s documentary impulse and the lead up to its disciplinary reckonings in the late-1960s and early 1970s. Drawing on my positionality as both an employee of the APS and as a historian of anthropology trained within a history of science tradition, I consider how anthropology’s disciplinary histories have shaped and continue to shape the function of the Society’s Indigenous collections by highlighting two key moments in their development: 1) the 1945 deposit of papers from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Committee on Native American Languages and the concurrent launch of the Phillips Fund; and, 2) events leading up to the 1965 publication of the Guide to Manuscripts Relating to the American Indian in the Library of the American Philosophical Society and the subsequent 1967 conference on “The American Indian,” which itself was held as part of a larger series of conferences related to the Society’s program in the history of science. I suggest that while the APS’s archives proved important to the process of establishing the contours of anthropology’s history and its disciplinary reinvention in the late 1960s, the emphasis on history of anthropology also effectively obscured the contributions and authority of Indigenous peoples in the creation and processing of many of its collections. The chapter ultimately concludes with a discussion about what the intertwined histories of anthropology’s archival and disciplinary formation might reveal about the field’s continued sense of crisis, both as it pertains to its shifting disciplinary standards and to the ethical stewardship of Indigenous materials.
    Paper available below!

  • February 7, 2024

    We are very pleased to have Ramon Folch González (Arizona State University) join us in February.
    Title: Frans Blom in Chiapas, Mexico & the World: recovering information on art, looters and collections (1943-1963) from local archival sources
    Abstract: This paper analyses the role played by Frans Blom in the Mesoamerican antiquities trade in Chiapas during the 1940's and 50's trough the unpublished documents stored in the Na Bolom Museum archives. The details of Blom's life are very well known and the sheer size of his archives allows us to learn his opinions and instances where he collaborated with collectors as well. There are few anthropologists whose life is as documented as Blom's and this is a way to understand how ambivalent some postures were towards collectionism and looting in the early days of Mexican anthropology. I consider Blom played a crucial role in delaying the looting phenomenon in Chiapas until the 1960's, his letters show him well informed about looting and his broad network of friends and acquaintances allowed him to denounce what he considered wrongdoing. The rich archives at Na Bolom also inform us about the contextual information of many museum objects both in Mexico and overseas, in some cases museum director would ask Blom for advice about an object and his opinion would be taken for granted, some of the contextual information in museums to this days can be traced to an informed opinion by Blom.  tracing the little contributions made by scholars to museum collection via correspondence sheds light on the great complex network of knowledge transmission during the mid-XXth century. This case can serve as an illustrative example to study the life of other historical figures and study them beyond their published works. 
    Our commentators will be Matteo Bortolini (Università di Padua) and Sam Holley-Klein (University of Maryland).

  • January 10, 2024

    Our first meeting of 2024 will revolve around the work of Sam Holley-Kline (University of Maryland, College Park).
    Title: Managing Archaeology at the United Fruit Company, 1908-1952
    Abstract: Maya archaeologists collaborated with the United Fruit Company during the first half of the twentieth century. In Guatemala, the Company funded research projects in Quiriguá (1910-1915) and Zaculeu (1946-1949). While scholarship increasingly recognizes the interpretative convergences between archaeological and corporate interests in the context of U.S. imperialism, the day-to-day administration of funds and management of workers have been relatively less examined. Based on archival research, I suggest that focusing on these areas draws archaeology into the political economy of U.S. imperialism and broader practices of racial discrimination—but these worked differently based on corporate objectives and local socioeconomic conditions. I conclude by advocating for bottom-up approaches to the history of archaeology that cross established historiographic boundaries. 
    Our commentators will be Christopher Heaney (Pennsylvania State University) and Matthew Watson (Mount Holyoke College).

  • November 1, 2023

    Brooke Penaloza-Patzak is a Marie Jahoda Fellow at the University of Vienna, Department for Economic and Social History, and joins us to workshop a chapter from her book manuscript "With Objects at Hand. The Rise and Fall of the Natural Science of Human Culture, 1860-1930"

    We will be reading a draft of her final chapter entitled "The Great War and Science in Terms of Flour and Fat."

    The chapter centers on the fate of liberal, international Americanist anthropology in the inter-war period from a broader history of science perspective. Central themes include long-term engagements linking object-based methods and frameworks for research into cultural and biological development, the 20th-century fate of pan-German ethos born of the European revolutions of 1848, trans-national campaigns to debunk pseudoscientific race science, and the sale of 19th-century ethnographic collections by German and Austrian-based scientists liquidating "personal" assets to cover basic living costs.
    We will be joined by Lee Baker (Duke University) and Cameron Brinitzer (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) will provide commentary for Brooke's chapter.

  • October 4, 2023

    Taylor Dysart joins us from the University of Pennsylvania to workshop a chapter from her dissertation, “The Psychedelic Century: The Amazonian Origins of Global Science and Medicine of Hallucinogens in the Long Twentieth Century" 
    Abstract: My dissertation, “The Psychedelic Century: The Amazonian Origins of Global Science and Medicine of Hallucinogens in the Long Twentieth Century,” examines the history of psychedelics research through the prism of ayahuasca, a plant derivative native to the lowlands of the Amazon basin. It does so by tracing how a network of transnational and multidisciplinary researchers in the human and life sciences transformed ayahuasca from plant medicine into biomedical therapeutic from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. These researchers relied extensively on the knowledges and practices of mestizo and Indigenous healers, especially those of Tucano- and Shipibo-descent, who held longstanding relations with ayahuasca. Ultimately, this project reimagines the history of psychedelic science and medicine as one where Amazonia is paramount.
    The first chapter of my dissertation recounts how and why ayahuasca, a plant derivative native to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, first became a matter of concern for naturalists in the mid-nineteenth century. I begin this story in Panuré, a small settlement in Brazilian Amazonia, where the English botanist Richard Spruce first observed how Tucano men imbibed ayahuasca in 1852. In addition to Spruce, numerous naturalists from along the Americas and the European continent, remarked not only on ayahuasca’s ceremonial and everyday uses but speculated as to its medicinal and psychical potential. At the same time, I demonstrate how these naturalists drew ayahuasca and its world into the shifting discourses of primitive savagery, racial degeneration, and Darwinian logics of extinction, while observing how it remained intimately connected to both real and imagined violence as turbulent post-colonial states increasingly expanded into Amazonian borderlands. 
    We will be joined by Geoff Bil (University of Delaware) and Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Cambridge) who will provide commentary on Taylor's chapter. 

  • September 6, 2023

    To kick off the academic year, Nicholas Barron will join us to share his article, "Lessons in Safe Logic: Reassessing Anthropological and Liberal Imaginings of Termination," which has been accepted by the Journal of Anthropological Research. 
    As it is unusual for us to read a piece in press, we have paired it with two pieces to help broaden the conversation: Akhil Gupta and Jesse Stoolman’s recently published “Decolonizing US Anthropology” (2022) and George Pierre Castile’s “Federal Indian Policy and Anthropology” (2004). These pieces are intended as points of contextualization, comparison, and enrichment. As Nick continues to work on the material presented in this article, the session will still contribute to his ongoing work. 
    We are thrilled to have commentary from Laura Stark (Vanderbilt) and David Dinwoodie (University of New Mexico). 
    Abstract: "Building upon recent efforts to assess the history of anthropology in light of renewed calls for disciplinary decolonization, this paper turns to the role of US anthropologists in the infamous policy period known as Termination. Contextualizing the activism of the applied anthropologist John H. Provinse against the backdrop of broader shifts in post-WWII, US liberalism, I argue that Provinse’s support for Termination in the late 1940s reflected an embattled social democratic and pluralistic conception of Indian-US relations. This perspective contrasted with and was ultimately overshadowed by the assimilatory sentiments that would become institutionalized in the Termination policies of the 1950s. Thus, Provinse provides an analytical opening from which to explore the discipline’s relationship with Termination as well as the affordances and limitations of liberal anthropological activism. Moreover, such a case offers a generous rejoinder to more speculative assessments of the discipline’s many pasts."
    Late breaking addition: If you are interested in the broader context for the Gupta and Stoolman piece, it responds in part to pieces by two of our working group members, Herb Lewis and Ira Bashkow. Lewis and Bashkow's pieces are now included in the packet of readings as optional complements to the month's reading. 

  • May 3, 2023

    Dr. Beth Linker, "The Making of a Posture Science"
    From Aristotle to J. G. Herder, Western thinkers argued that bipedalism served as an important marker of human superiority, distinguishing human from non-human animals. It was not until the late-nineteenth century, in the wake of the Darwinian revolution and of a new, surveillance-based public health system, that scientists would begin to claim that poor posture was a grave health concern that had reached epidemic proportions, threatening the entire human race. 
    The first chapter of my forthcoming book, Slouch, traces the complex genealogical beginnings of the posture sciences and seeks to explain why erect human posture became something that comparative anatomists, physicians, and physical anthropologists studied with great concern and zeal. The chapter opens in 1891 with the discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus (later redesignated Homo erectus), or “Java Man,” seen by many as the “missing link” between human beings and apes. Research into the origins of bipedalism flourished in the Anglo-American world, taken up by men such as surgeon-anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith and Earnest Hooton. They and many of their colleagues argued that human beings were maladapted to the modern world for bipedalism appeared to cause significant respiratory illness, abdominal disorders, and foot weakness, conditions unobserved among non-human animals. 
    This cross-disciplinary interest in human evolution and physiology, along with social and cultural concerns about immigration, racial fitness, Empire, eugenics, and industrial efficiency, made the posture sciences possible. Moreover, the evolutionary sciences provided a convincing “outbreak” narrative for the poor posture epidemic, persuading many white middle-class professionals to engage in an anti-slouching crusade. Though the cause of the slouching epidemic resided in the deep past, it nevertheless persisted as a condition from which theoretically every human being could suffer.

  • April 5, 2023

    Jason Pribilsky joins us from Whitman College to workshop his chapter, “Dream Collecting in the Cold War Andes: Probing and Projecting Indigenous Interiors in Cornell-Peru Project at Vicos.”
    Abstract: My work chronicles the efforts of midcentury anthropologists working in the early Cold War in the Peruvian Andes to turn Indigenous peoples toward modernization and away from threats of social unrest and communist persuasion. It forms a portion of a book-in-progress on the Vicos Project (1952-1966), a long-term development intervention whereby Cornell University social scientists purchased the lease to an anemic highlands hacienda and turned it into a self-styled laboratory for the study of culture change. Throughout, I focus closely on the fieldwork encounter – its various transactions, fraught exchanges, and moral ambiguities – to understand the politics of field practice, Indigenous agency and refusal, and a fuller understanding of the nexus of science, the Cold War, and the importance of Indigenous peoples in this period for geopolitical competition. I attend to ways anthropologists went about creating scientific value called forth by Cold War social science and how simultaneously Indigenous interlocutors compelled their white guests to different forms of self-awareness. In this particular chapter, I focus on efforts of researchers to probe the psychological depths of Indigenous interlocutors through their employment of projective testing methods (e.g., Rorschach and TATs), solicitation and analysis of dreams, and psychoanalysis. Through their attempts, often frustrating, to uncover indications of culture change and modern thinking is revealed researchers’ own anxieties about the self and meanings of the future.
    We are happy to host Grant Arndt (Iowa State University) and Paula López Caballero (El Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades—La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) as discussants.

Group Conveners

  • rdent's picture

    Rosanna Dent

    Rosanna Dent is an assistant professor at NJIT, where she teaches courses on the history of science, medicine, and technology, with an emphasis on the global South. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the history of twentieth century research in A'uwe (Xavante, Indigenous) communities in Central Brazil. The book examines how a half-century of iterative interactions of scholars and community members have shaped knowledge production as well as the political and social realities of both subjects and scholars. 


  • JudithRHKaplan's picture

    Judy Kaplan

    Judy Kaplan is a cultural and intellectual historian of the human sciences with a focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistic research. She has published widely on subjects from orientalism to sound studies and is currently working on a new project that unravels histories of research on language universals. She is the NSF Fellow in Residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine.


  • Paula's picture

    Paula Lopez

    Paula López Caballero is a historian and anthropologist working at the National University in Mexico. The transversal question of her research is to critically examine indigeneity as a historical variable where the State, knowledge production, and ethnographic mediation are deeply intertwined. Her current project examines the first long-term anthropological expeditions in Mexico by Mexican- and U.S.-based social scientists from 1940 to 1960, as a privileged site to document how the daily, routine and systematic encounter with native inhabitants during fieldwork implied new standards of scientific objectification and representation.


  • Matthew Watson


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