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If anthropology is (somewhat anachronistically) understood to have developed as ‘the study of simple and stable societies that are radically different from the complex and changing West’ (Carrier 1995: 1), then it has a long prehistory, and dates (at the latest) from the earliest encounters of European imperialists with non-Western peoples. Anthropologists are, however, no different from other scholars: their work is intellectually collaborative — defined by a community determined to reach consensus. Thus, a narrative of the history of British anthropology per se commences in the nineteenth century, with the formal organization of a self-referential body of scholars. The enterprise became a coherent pursuit between roughly 1843 and 1871, a period bracketed by the foundation dates of the Ethnological Society of London and of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (after 1907 the Royal Anthropological Institute).
In the Name of Science
The Anthropological Institute reunited the Ethnological Society with a group that had seceded from it in 1863, the Anthropological Society of London. The ethnologicals were monogenists, holding that all human races derived from a single creation, a position initially founded in a religious worldview and associated with anti-slavery agitation. Anthropologicals were polygenists, maintaining that diverse physical types of humankind were distinct species, a view especially congenial to those who supported slavery and argued that supposedly congenitally inferior peoples would learn elevated habits only if compelled to do so. The creation of the Anthropological Institute signaled the triumph of monogenism as anthropological orthodoxy, attesting to the power of Darwinian argument in the latter part of the century: all humans were members of a single (if differentiated) species. But monogenism had been redefined in quasi-polygenist terms: because Darwinian reasoning (and its antecedents) rested on the presumption that the earth and its life forms were of an age far older than that which had once been calculated from biblical chronology, the races of humankind were conceptualized as long-persistent subtypes. In sum, the Institute had succeeded in resolving intellectual conflict, and had in the process moderated the political tone of anthropological debate – conveying, as the society’s founders intended, that anthropology was a strictly scientific pursuit (see Stocking 1971). Indeed, the Institute has remained a force in the discipline because it has remained an ecumenical organization, hospitable to persons of diverse theoretical convictions and to every anthropological subfield.
Thus, anthropology achieved considerable intellectual coherence prior to its recognition by the universities at the end of the nineteenth century, when faculty positions were created and it became a degree subject for undergraduates and postgraduates in turn. Because anthropologists have been wont to represent the campaign for inclusion in university curricula as extraordinarily heroic (see Leach 1984), we should note that the universities were no more reluctant to admit anthropology than such subjects as psychology and English literature, and that in the nineteenth century learned societies rather than universities were the institutional sites of much of British scientific activity (Kuklick 1992: 52-5). But though late nineteenth-century anthropologists were able both to define problems for collective inquiry and to agree on standards for the resolution of disputes – functioning as members of a scientific community that approached Thomas Kuhn’s ideal type – their conception of their enterprise was quite different from that which has prevailed since the second third of the twentieth century (see Stocking 1965).
Explicating Human History
Until the 1920s, sociocultural anthropologists, biological anthropologists, and archaeologists were joined in a common historical project — one defined by the nineteenth-century assumption that truly scientific explanations (of virtually all phenomena) were historical. And anthropology’s purview comprehended Europeans as well as exotic peoples. Late-nineteenth-century anthropologists rejected an old, biblically derived view of human history — that so-called primitive peoples had degenerated from the original, pre-lapsarian state of human perfection — judging that primitives were closer than Europeans to primeval humankind. They undertook to chart the course of human progress, relying on assumptions as much Spencerian as Darwinian: acquired characteristics were inherited, so progressive improvement was the normal condition of human existence, and racial traits were functions of social behavior. Evolution involved simultaneous material and moral advance, and followed ‘a very similar course even in the most distinct races of man’ (Lubbock 1892 : 3): progress toward worship of a remote deity associated with an abstract, ethical religious system (implicitly, for many anthropologists, the dissenting Christianity on which they had been reared); the replacement of magical by scientific reasoning; development of formal political offices and impersonal legal systems; and the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal kinship structures (supposedly denoting both accurate understanding of the biology of reproduction and elevated moral standards). The evolutionists’ research program was specification of the characteristics of each developmental stage and of the mechanisms by which transitions from one stage to another were effected (see Kuklick 1992: 78-89).
At the end of the nineteenth century, anthropology’s leaders (if not necessarily its rank and file) repudiated the doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, reconceptualizing the relationship between race and behavior. They appropriated Darwin’s natural selection model of change among plant and animal species, describing human evolution in a fashion more consistent with it than Darwin’s own interpretation of human history: neither biological nor social evolution had an inherent direction, and they were distinct processes. Biological change was so gradual that the human species had barely altered since its formative period, and social change could be so rapid that a people’s way of life was transformed in a generation. Human behavioral change was analogous to biological change in plant and animal species, and was explained in the terms of Darwinian biogeography, which stressed the importance of migration and isolation in modification of species’ characteristics. A human group changed rapidly by diffusing over extensive, heterogeneous areas, thereby being subjected to rigorous natural selection pressures as it contested with various populations for survival in diverse environments; a large, dispersed group became individually differentiated, developing a broad repertoire of skills, which facilitated adaptation to novel situations. By contrast, a group confined to a small, geographically bounded habitat, often (if not invariably) an island, in which natural selection pressures were relatively light, was a homogeneous population, thoroughly adapted to its particular environment and by this token behaviorally stagnant; should its circumstances change, it would likely suffer cultural if not necessarily physical extinction – as could be witnessed among the exotic peoples newly exposed to European colonial power (Kuklick 2008).
The End of Synthetic Anthropology
The difusionist and functionalist schools which battled for anthropological paramountcy in the World War I era were both engendered by Darwinian biogeography – although they represented themselves as diametrically opposed (and historians have usually taken them on their own valuation). The diffusionists sustained nineteenth-century evolutionists’ historical objectives, and resembled their predecessors in their description of the sequence of institutional changes leading to modern civilization. But the diffusionists’ explanation of historical change was antithetical to that of evolutionists: human history had no inherent direction; human beings were naturally conservative, rather than innovative, so culture contact effected through migration was the most likely impetus to change; and the distinctive traits of modern civilization were products of historical accident – and did not necessarily constitute a morally superior order. The functionalists, dominant in social anthropology from the late 1920s until the 1960s,focused on the idiosyncratic cultures of isolated peoples. They abandoned the search for laws of world historical change, and, indeed, dismissed historical explanations qua explanations. Instead, they sought to define the persistent features of stable social systems: peoples might be distinctive in behavioral particulars, but all societies necessarily exhibited uniform properties of social order; isolated from the historical currents that obscured the stable structural features of Western societies, materially simple societies were ideal anthropological subjects, easily apprehended in their totalities. But the research programs of diffusionism and functionalism were both conceived in biogeographical terms: the former focused on the consequences of human migration, the latter on those peoples geographically protected from contact with migrant bearers of novel practices. And it is important to note that the fieldwork method functionalists embraced was neither original nor peculiar to them. Concern with the phenomenon of diffusion — of interest to many anthropologists at the turn of the century, not just the self-conscious diffusionist school — was arguably a major impetus to the development of fieldwork: when a society was exposed to new influences, some features of its way of life might be unaffected while others were wholly transformed, and only through field research could the anthropologist determine which observed changes were superficial and which fundamental (Kuklick 1992: 121-31; 2008).
Because diffusionists and functionalists repudiated the link between race and culture, in the twentieth century the research of physical and sociocultural anthropologists became practically distinct. Complete disciplinary differentiation was not immediate, for the (largely medically trained) diffusionists retained their predecessors’ comprehensive conception of anthropology, and undertook to expound a model of universal human psycho-biological nature consistent with their descriptions of cultural change. But the functionalists dispensed with biological inquiries per se on the grounds that the same natural imperatives figured in the constitution of all societies, and were therefore irrelevant to explanation of societal variation; the fundamental human drives that were axiomatically antecedent to social institutions were not explicated but posited (if even mentioned). Archaeologists and biological anthropologists, however, remained committed to the objective of nineteenth-century anthropology – documentation of the course of human history. Anthropology’s subfields became discrete, and interaction among their practitioners minimal – even when they shared concerns.
Toward Membership in a Global Intellectual Community
In the post-World War II period, it has become increasingly difficult to identify peculiarly British anthropological approaches; while local ties of various sorts must figure in the work of British anthropologists, the reference groups of British scholars are now international. Certainly, the discipline has never been isolated from outside influences. In particular, one should note the importance of the American Lewis Henry Morgan to the development of kinship studies – although, at least initially, he served largely as an intellectual antagonist (see Lubbock 1871); the French Emile Durkheim, whom anthropologists of virtually every theoretical persuasion have invoked since the early twentieth century; and the German psychophysicists whose work influenced such pioneers as Galton, Rivers, and Malinowski. Moreover, since the post-World War I era, British anthropology (particularly social anthropology) has been an export product; Britain has attracted many foreign students, and anthropologists of British origin have migrated elsewhere. But especially since the 1960s, practitioners in Britain have participated in an international intellectual exchange, finding compelling such theories as the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss and varieties of Marxism (see Ortner 1984). And though British anthropologists may feel that their national variant of the discipline has been especially compromised by its ties to colonialism (see Asad 1973), they have joined their colleagues elsewhere in redrawing the boundaries of their field’s subject matter – perhaps not the least because inquiries conducted under the rubric of anthropology have become highly suspect in former colonial territories – so that social anthropology’s purview now resembles that of a century ago.
What have been British anthropology’s distinctive features? The most obvious of these are institutional, for different national university systems divide the academic map rather differently. Perhaps because they derived from the intellectual matrix in which (the British) Darwin’s comprehensive scheme was embedded, anglophone departments initially joined socio-cultural and physical anthropology, unlike their continental counterparts. Notwithstanding their foundational similarities, however, British and American structures have differed: though British functionalists failed in their efforts to excise physical anthropology from the anthropological sphere (see Radcliffe-Brown 1932: 167), they succeeded in effecting complete differentiation among the discipline’s subfields, whereas, at least on the undergraduate level, American departments retain the aspiration to integrate the field’s original components; and British social anthropologists have pursued inquiries that in the United States have often fallen under the rubric of sociology (albeit based on different subject matter), perhaps thereby contributing to the oft-remarked state of British sociology, underdeveloped relative to its American or continental counterparts. Has British anthropology conveyed distinctive messages? Perhaps its social analyses have often projected British political values on to exotic cultures, presuming that peoples everywhere are ‘imbued with the values of liberty and equality’ (Dumont 1975: 338). One must distinguish between problem selection and analysis, however: everyday concerns affect problem selection in every research enterprise, no matter how apparently abstract it is, but these concerns do not preclude conscientious observation and generalization.
- Asad, T. (ed.) (1973) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, London: Ithaca Press.
- Carrier, J.G. (1995) ‘Introduction’, in J.G. Carrier (ed.) Occidentalism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Dumont, L. (1975) ‘Preface to the French Edition of Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer’, in J.H.M. Beattie and R.G. Lienhardt (eds) Studies in Social Anthropology, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Kuklick, H. (1992) The Savage Within, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kuklick, H. (1996) ‘Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian Biogeography and British Anthropology’, American Ethnologist 23(3): 611–38.
- Kuklick, H. (ed.) (2008) A New History of Anthropology, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Leach, E.R. (1984) ‘Glimpses of the Unmentionable in the History of British Social Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology 13: 1–23.
- Lubbock, J. (1871) ‘On the Development of Relationships’, Journal of the Anthropological Institute 1: 1–26.
- Lubbock, J. (1892 ) The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man, 4th edn, London: Longmans, Green.
- Mills, D. (2008) Difficult Folk? A Political History of Social Anthropology, Oxford: Berghahn.
- Ortner, S.B. (1984) ‘Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 26: 126–66.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1932) ‘The Present Position of Anthropological Studies’, Presidential Address to Section H – Anthropology – of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Report of the Centenary Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science , London: The British Association.
- Spencer, J. (2000) ‘British Social Anthropology: A Retrospective,’Annual Review of Anthropology 29: 1–24.
- Stocking, G.W., Jr (1965) ‘On the Limits of “Presentism” and “Historicism” in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1: 211–18.
- Stocking, G.W., Jr (1971) ‘What’s in a Name? The Origins of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1837–71’, Man (n.s.) 6: 369–90.
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