A New History of Anthropology

Jeremy MacClancy raises three cheers to a book that offers oft-neglected theories on the past

February 28, 2008

Students of anthropology have it tough. The courses they are taught on the history of the subject are usually boring, blinkered and Whiggish to boot. All too often the subject is presented as a deadening chronicle of disciplinary self-improvement, with each generation identifying, then moving beyond, the sins of their forefathers (and mothers). Evolutionism, this story tells us, was racist, functionalism suited colonialism, structural-functionalism ignored history, high structuralism was for mystics, postmodernism was an apolitical dead end, while diffusionism was just plain wrong-headed. Only the present holds much promise. "Onward, ever upward" is the underlying agenda to this all too common tale. At times I'm surprised our students stay with us.

Of course this party line of constant self-advancement appears coherent only because it wilfully excludes so much. At an Oxford lecture I attended several years ago, the palaeontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould argued that we humans are not at the apical growing tip of some evolutionary tree but out on a limb, and we ignore all the other branches, which we happened not to go down, at our peril. It was a salutary reminder of just how random our development can be.

Anthropology is little different. The conventional format of our history remains oddly silent about a whole host of different approaches that did not make it for the wrong reasons. And there are even more, still worth our consideration today, that hold valuable insights and suggestive agendas.

In other words, what our students need is not just a history of anthropology, but an anthropology of that as well. They need to learn why some ideas are yet propagated while the rest are left to lie fallow. For if anthropology is about putting ideas and customs into their contexts, surely it behoves us to do the same with our own practices. We are, after all, not special.

So, three cheers for an exciting, marvellous new history of anthropology that does exactly that. Henrika Kuklick has a broad vision of the subject, including contributors from biological as well as social anthropology. It's an international vision too, with chapters on usually neglected theatres of anthropology - Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, China, Holland, along with the usual characters from the UK, the US and France.

The opening chapter is a brilliant, imaginative tour of "Anthropology before anthropologists" (written by Harry Liebersohn). There is a valuable section on "Early obsessions": the spiritual dimension (Ivan Strenski), empiricism (Barbara Saunders), anthropology and the Classics (Robert Ackerman). Another section has three important chapters on the ways the "race" concept has been deployed and to what effect.

Finally, in "New directions and perspectives", Lyn Schumaker writes informatively about the revolutionary effects of women in the field, both as anthropologists and "assistants"; Anna Grimshaw reviews visual anthropology; Rena Lederman skilfully diagnoses the effect of anthropological regionalism, with Melanesia as her main example.

The book ends on a high point. The last chapter (Merrill Singer) is an incisive discussion of applied anthropology. These days, if anthropology has a viable future it is very likely to lie in the most productive ways its approaches can be applied beyond academe.

What makes this collection excellent is not just the inventive range of topics but, above all, the sophistication and open-mindedness of the contributors. Over the past 20 years, George Stocking at the University of Chicago has raised the history of anthropology to a new level of contemporary scholarship. And all of Kuklick's contributors seem to have learnt from his and his followers' example. Every article is freshly and imaginatively researched, and the broader social contexts of the ideas under review are always given a fine-grained consideration. Not a single article is written in a boring, numbing style.

Almost every chapter held at least one surprise, if not several, for me, and I have been teaching the subject for more than 20 years. It is unfair, I know, to choose favourites, but the chapter that most took me aback was Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov's on fieldwork in 19th-century Russia.

What he shows is that student radicals, exiled to Siberia for their activism, deliberately chose to do systematic long-term fieldwork among the locals. Their aims were to raise the political consciousness of villagers (they flopped) and to check, via sustained ethnographic work, the ideas of Marx and Engels on primitive communism (they came up with riches) - and all this several decades before Bronislav Malinowski even thought of stepping ashore at the Trobriands. It is indeed time for us anthropologists to rethink our past.

A book like this succeeds only because of a strong editorial hand. Kuklick has triumphed here. This book should be essential reading on every history of anthropology course.

I accept that the coverage of certain basic theories may be a little short in places, but the chapters should enthuse students enough to go hunt that further information themselves. Better that way round than to have students, bored by their textbook, desperately looking for enlightenment and only then chancing upon Kuklick.

A final comment to all those teachers of our history who choose not to recommend this book: you will deserve the class-time snores you'll hear.

Jeremy MacClancy is professor of anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, and author of Expressing Identities in the Basque Arena.

A New History of Anthropology

Edited by Henrika Kuklick
£50.00 and £22.99
ISBN 9780631225997 and 226000
Published 11 December 2007

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