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; we’re grateful to CHSTM for providing that space. 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.

Please set your timezone at https://www.chstm.org/user

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Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

Participants may send reports or concerns about violations of this policy to conduct@chstm.org.

Upcoming Meetings

  • Wednesday, January 10, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EST


  • Wednesday, February 7, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EST


  • Wednesday, March 6, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EST


  • Wednesday, April 3, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EDT


  • Wednesday, May 1, 2024 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm EDT


Past Meetings

  • 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.

  • March 1, 2023

    Cameron Brinitzer, a USC-Berggruen Fellow at the University of Southern California Dornsife Center on Science, Technology, and Public Life, joins us to discuss his article-in-progress: “The Evolution of Culture: Materializing an Elusive Concept.”  

    Abstract: In the 1970s and 1980s, at the very moment that many cultural anthropologists were abandoning the concept of culture in light of feminist, literary, and postcolonial critiques, and searching for new epistemic objects to orient anthropological inquiries, an array of life, mind, and behavioral scientists began to center concepts of culture in novel research programs. This essay traces how culture—long renowned for its imponderability and as something that one could only understand or interpret through sustained periods of embodied immersion in the field—has in recent decades been transformed into an object of experimental knowledge production in mind and life science laboratories. While focusing on the work of one influential European research group in the field of "Cultural Evolution" that is institutionally located at the Central European University, this essay also examines how concepts of culture have been turned into objects of reflection and intervention by governmental actors in recent decades. In light of these consequential ways in which concepts of culture continue to orchestrate human activities across a range of political, social, and scientific domains, I argue that anthropologists and historians of anthropology are well positioned to examine how culture is conceptualized in different contexts today and how these concepts are given material forms and force. 
    Joanna Radin, Yale University
    Rosanna Dent, NJIT

  • February 1, 2023

    For our first meeting of 2023,  Matteo Bortolini from the Università di Padova, Italy will join us for discussion of his work-in-progress:
    “'A Twenty-Four Hour Job': Hildred and Clifford Geertz’s First Foray into the Field and the Scholarly Persona of the Anthropologist
    With its rich funding, focus on post-colonial societies, teamwork and interdisciplinarity aimed at producing “dual” results, Cold War American anthropology represented a departure from both Boasian methodology and the Malinowskian palimpsest of the conditions for producing the “ethnographer’s magic.” This paper presents a historical reconstruction of the early days of Clifford and Hildred Geertz as members of the Modjokuto Project in order to reflexively tackle a number of problems regarding the history of social and cultural anthropology: How do social scientist come to understand their professional role and the specific scientific virtues attached to it? How are scholalrly personae and other regulative templates put to the test (and modified) during fieldwork? How does the lack of methodological reflection on the ways of the anthropologist impact on the completion of specific research projects? The article details how Hildred and Clifford Geertz embodied in their actions and decisions the Malinowskian image of the lonely ethnographer, thus creating a series of performative contradictions between their extremely individualistic understanding of the ethnographer and the needs of teamwork in the field.
    We are happy to host Freddy Foks (University of Manchester) and Matt Watson (Mount Holyoak) as discussants.

  • December 7, 2022

    Ali Sipahi joins us from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Özyeğin University, Istanbul, to workshop his paper, "How to be a good guest? American ethnographers in Cold War Turkey."
    Abstract: The article uncovers a chapter in the history of American anthropology by revealing the experiences of a Chicago-based group of ethnographers in Turkey in the late 1960s. Using original archival documents and oral history interviews, it focuses on the trials of Lloyd A. Fallers, Michael Meeker, Peter Benedict and June Starr in navigating Turkish bureaucracy and global politics between 1967 and 1969 (the so-called ‘long 1968’). Conceptually, the article calls for complementary collaboration between the scholarly literature on Cold War anthropology and critical hospitality studies. It argues that while the former dedicated its “evil slot” (to paraphrase Trouillot) to an undifferentiated guest role, the hospitality literature did the same for the host role. The case of American anthropology of Turkey shows that the macropolitical and ideological effects of the Cold War were refracted through the diversity of local understandings of hospitality in varied, even opposite, directions.
    Discussants: Elise Burton (University of Toronto) and Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main)

  • November 2, 2022

    Matthew C. Watson joins us from Mount Holyoke College to workshop a chapter from his new book project, tentatively titled The Whiteness of Method: Racial Infrastructures of Harvard Ethnography and Mexican Sovereignty.
    "The Ethnographic Drive: Interviews and the Racial Erotics of a Harvard Land-Rover in Chiapas"
    In 1951, Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) established a coordinating center for a pilot development project in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. INI administrators sought to draw Tzotzil- and Tzeltal-speaking indigenous communities that radiated around San Cristóbal into identification with the Mexican state and its political mythology of racial-cultural mixture, or mestizaje. To do so, the INI built roads. This essay stories the conjuncture of this state investment in the transportation infrastructure of indigenous Chiapas and the attendant geographical mobility of scores of U.S. anthropologists and students who used these roads to access “closed corporate communities” such as Zinacantán during the late-1950s and 1960s. I focus particularly on Harvard Chiapas Project founder Evon Vogt’s early project interviews conducted on these roads in a Land-Rover. Reading the Land-Rover as a space-making technology of ethnographic rapport, I ask how such vehicles have structured ethnographic forms of homosocial intimacy and attachment within a racial erotics of empiricism that renders the interview space a site of capitalist capture. Finally, through a cross-reading of mirror scenes reflecting encounters with Land-Rovers across the Harvard Chiapas Project and the Harvard Kalahari Project, I refract this critique of the interview form’s capitalist coloniality through a weak-theoretical evocation of the Land-Rover’s social, technological, and symbolic indeterminacy.
    Discussants: Hilary Morgan Leathem (Maynooth University);Karin Rosemblatt (University of Maryland)

  • October 5, 2022

    Staffan Müller-Wille joins us from the University of Cambridge’s Department for History and Philosophy of Science to workshop his forthcoming paper, “Race and Kinship: Anthropology and the ‘Genealogical Method.’”
    “Race and Kinship: Anthropology and the ‘Genealogical Method’”
    Müller-Wille’s chapter recontextualizes the “genealogical method,” a way to map biological and social relations and processes, in late 19th century kinship studies. He presents this method as an important interface between the biological and sociological approaches to human inheritance, which are typically thought of as distinct, though they shared similar concepts of race, kinship, and blood. In this chapter, Müller-Wille examines classic works in the history of anthropology by Rivers, Francis Galton, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Franz Boas to explore the genealogical method’s role as an analytical tool.

Group Conveners

  • nmbarron's picture

    Nicholas Barron

    Nicholas Barron is an Assistant Professor (Faculty-in-Residence) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His research interests include the history of applied anthropology and Indigenous political formations in North America. He is a managing editor with the History of Anthropology Review and the book reviews editor for Anthropology and Humanism. 


  • 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. 


  • 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.


  • Ramah Mckay


  • brigidp's picture

    Brigid Prial

    Brigid Prial is a PhD student in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation explores how chimpanzees became lab animals in the 20th century U.S. She examines how chimpanzees transformed from a promising research animal to an inappropriate one and what forms of knowledge, experience, and relations matter in high-stakes decisions about animal lives.


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