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American (or rather United States) anthropology is a vast professional and disciplinary undertaking. It is taught in many high schools and most colleges and universities. Some ninety universities grant around 400 doctoral degrees in anthropology annually. Applied anthropologists outnumber academic anthropologists and hundreds of persons with doctorates in anthropology practice other professions such as law, medicine, public relations and government service.
Over 370 academic anthropology departments, sixty-four museums, forty-two research institutes and eleven government organizations are affiliated within the American Anthropological Association, whose membership of over 11,000 represents only a portion of the profession. Regional, subdisciplinary and area study associations have periodic meetings and produce journals or newsletters. Articles on anthropology appear frequently in newspapers and popular magazines. Fictional anthropologists feature in popular novels, films and cartoons.
American anthropology has a four-field academic tradition in which archaeology, linguistics, biological and cultural anthropology maintain debate around certain problems concerning humankind (Silverman 1991). This emphasis developed at the end of the nineteenth century as part of a unifying thrust by university-trained anthropologists to succeed the disparate amateur interests represented in the government’s Bureau of American Ethnology, local ethnological and folklore societies and museums.
Trends In American Anthropology Past And Present
American anthropology can be encapsulated thematically in the intellectual history of the discovery and passing of modernity — not that anthropologists agree on the use of this term (Manganaro 1990). Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish three phases in modern American anthropology. Voget (1975) characterized them as ‘developmentalism’, ‘structuralism’ and ‘differentiative specialization’. Since then the onset of postmodernism in American anthropology must also be acknowledged.
The first phase, from about 1851 to 1889, was a period when “ethnology was practiced mainly through the Bureau of American Ethnology. Long periods of fieldwork were conducted among Native Americans using the indigenous languages. Artifacts and texts were collected, and photographs were taken. It was believed that deteriorating demographic and material conditions on the reservations necessitated a form of “’salvage anthropology’ since the Indian way of life was fast disappearing. Evolutionary theories (specifically those of “Herbert and Lewis Henry Morgan) were used to order the field data rapidly accumulating at the Bureau and to explain the nature of Native American society.
The second phase, from 1890 to 1940, was a formative era when academic anthropology was established, and a process of professionalization was undertaken by university departments, many with their own summer training schools, laboratories and funded research programs. The concept of ‘culture’, as articulated by Boas, and subsequently developed by his students (including “Mead, “Benedict, “Lowie, “Kroeber and “Sapir) who dominated professional anthropology, replaced the earlier emphasis on ‘society’; and four-field research was advocated to reconstruct the disappearing Native American cultures. The diffusion of cultural traits was then charted through material culture and language studies. The influence of German anthropology (or ethnology) was quite marked throughout this Boasian period.
In the early horse-and-buggy stage of field research, the academic set out from the university to stay on a reservation, interviewing selected, knowledgeable informants. This began to change as the influence of British social anthropology encouraged systematic analysis of Native American tribal organization (with particular attention to kinship and social organization). Grounded in their continent-wide appreciation of space, place and fast-changing times, American anthropologists were resistant to the natural history methods and the sociological comparisons advanced (at Chicago, for example) by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Instead they advocated methods of controlled comparison, recognizing that ecological and historical factors might account for structural similarities and differences. American anthropologists were sometimes critical of the narrow sociological focus of British anthropology, deploring its lack of attention to the work of European and American scholars, its ahistorical ethnography and its problematic before-and-after approach to cultural change.
“Alexander Lesser argued for the historicity of “social facts, in the face of the emergent American school of ‘culture-and-personality’ studies, and challenged the “scientism of both Malinowski’s functionalism and Radcliffe-Brown’s “structural functionalism. This gave rise to a subterranean stream in cultural anthropology, combining archaeology, “ethnohistory and history, that only surfaced to any major effect in the discipline with the mainstreaming of anthropological political economy in the 1970s.
In response to the United States’ needs for scientific knowledge about East Asia and the Pacific and its newly acquired territories overseas, American anthropology began to expand beyond Native America at this time, but this provided a relatively small proportion of its ethnographic corpus before World War II.
The third phase, from 1940 to 1964, was the period of social-scientific ascendancy when economics, sociology and political science dominated the academy. Maintaining only a partial allegiance to the social sciences, American anthropology resisted narrower sociological definitions of the field. Nevertheless research methodology changed. Anthropologists began to study contemporary conditions on reservations, for example, relying on observation as well as elicited information. Anthropologists carrying out observational research in urban and rural American communities began to question the generalizations of sociologists and political scientists about United States society. Overseas fieldwork also expanded significantly, leading to further questioning of, for example, tradition, modernization, continuity and change.
Levi-Strauss’s structuralism opened the door again to European ethnology. From the New School of Social Research in New York city, where he spent his wartime exile, Levi-Strauss launched the structuralist movement that was to sweep the discipline in the 1950s and early 1960s. Francophone scholarship began to replace the German input into American anthropology. Thereafter, in ever quickening succession (marked by the shorter and shorter time it took for francophone works to achieve English publication), the publications of linguists (Saussure), Marxist anthropologists (“Godelier, “Meillassoux), sociologists (Bourdieu), historians (Braudel), and philosophers (Althusser, “Foucault) entered American anthropology.
A postwar ‘brain drain’ from Britain brought several social anthropologists to American shores, including Victor Turner, Mary Douglas (temporarily), F.G. Bailey, and Aidan Southall. A transatlantic movement in political anthropology advocating action theory and a similar Manchester-derived focus on symbols in action and ritual led to further shifts in American field methods. Yet, at the same time and not coincidentally, American anthropology reasserted itself in the neo-evolutionist studies of White and Steward, a revival of culture history, and a strong push towards cultural ecology.
The fourth phase started around 1965 and could be said to be still with us. Postmodernism is characterized by crisis and fragmentation. Experience of academic crisis during and after the Vietnam War (1965—73) led to a paradigm shift in American anthropology towards hermeneutics (in symbolic or interpretive anthropology) and history. Technical advances in the sciences and communications led to increased specialization and a contestation of the interrelationship among the traditional four fields. Further specialization within cultural anthropology increased linkage of its intellectual domains to disciplines other than anthropology, particularly history and literary criticism.
New anthropological interest groups were formed within the profession for humanistic, medical, psychological, urban and visual anthropology, each with its increasingly distinctive discourse. Feminists, homosexuals, Black and Hispanic anthropologists became institutionalized in programs and centers in the universities, their research challenging the anthropological canon. Anthropological postmodernism was itself challenged by those who noted its emergence just at a time when minority and subaltern voices were beginning to make themselves heard.
American anthropology continued to be remarkably cosmopolitan, this time drawing as much on disenchanted Third World scholars in history and the humanities, as on European emigre scholarship. The role of the United States as a leading global player and the issues raised by a critical new American anthropology underwritten by public and private funds -especially issues related to localism and globalism, postmodernism, and the literary turn – have had a marked overseas impact on the postmodern global academy.
Continuities In The American Tradition
Through all this postmodern flexing of disciplinary and counter-disciplinary muscles, two continuities may be discerned in American anthropology: its four-field practice and its intellectual combativeness towards American social science.
An intriguing collection of essays published in Current Anthropology between 1960 and 1990 drew attention to several enduring issues in American anthropology (Silverman 1991). Essays on the emergence of humankind, for example, dealt with connections among tool-making and tool use, forms of cognition, social organization and language. Several essays on cultural transformation focused on shifts in food production, trade and the growth of cities. In the first cluster, findings from biological anthropology, archaeology and linguistics were systematically related. In the second cluster, archaeology, ethnohistory and ethnography were intermeshed.
A key text to have emerged out of the continuing four-field approach is Edwin Wilmsen’s Land Filled with Flies (1989). This revisionist work used archaeological, archival, linguistic, biological and ethnographic evidence to refute the analytically closed-system approaches of structuralists and cultural ecologists. This led to a representation of the !Kung San of the Kalahari as a contemporary instance of the remote way of life of hunters and gatherers. Wilmsen found the San to have had a long history of regional and transcontinental commerce. Entrenched ideology in modern society, he argued, perpetuated their dispossession and rural underclass status. Another key text representing this body of distinctively American counter-social science scholarship was “Eric Wolfs Europe and the People without History (1982), a work first envisaged and outlined in 1969.
Wolf’s political economy paradigm and Clifford Geertz’s (1973) literary-interpretivist notion of ‘culture as text’ were both equally transgressive of the American brand of social science (particularly the burden of the modernization paradigm) that dominated the professionally formative years they shared. Ross (1991) has characterized American social science as exceptional, pragmatic, technocratic and scientistic, centered around liberal individualism and with a shallow historical vision. Hence, working against the grain of American social science, the disciplinary engagement of Wolf and Geertz (political economy and interpretive anthropology) with history and hermeneutics respectively.
Within the discipline itself, controversy focused on whether the goal of American anthropology was explanation or interpretation. This epistemological issue — on what basis anthropology contributes to knowledge – quickly became enmeshed within the question of how knowledge, power and authority are produced and reproduced. Michel Foucault’s writing (for many American anthropologists mediated through the translations and commentaries of “Paul Rabinow) was clearly influential, but so too was a strong feminist challenge within anthropology itself. In a reflexive mood then, both Foucauldian and feminist critiques having entered the mainstream, American anthropology is prepared to face the twenty-first century.
A distinctive feature of American anthropology is its research interest in the history of anthropology. This became virtually a subfield within the discipline after 1962 when the Social Science Research Council sponsored a conference on the subject. Although there had been narrative accounts of American anthropology and its leading practitioners, only Leslie White’s research in the Morgan archive provided anything like a corpus of historical inquiry. It also raised the question of historians’ and disciplinarians’ histories of anthropology.
The research and teaching of A.I. Hallowell at the University of Pennsylvania and later that of “Dell Hymes provided a launchpad for the new disciplinary interest. “George Stocking’s histor-iographical writing and his teaching encouraged a trend towards specialization by both historians and anthropological practitioners. American anthropology from the 1850s to the 1930s, nineteenth-century German intellectual history, Canadian anthropology, and Victorian anthropology in Britain, as well as the scholarship of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown (both of whom taught for short periods in American universities) have been the main areas of concentration.
- Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.
- Manganaro, M. (1990) Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Mascia-Lees, F., P. Sharpe and C. Cohen (1989) ‘The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15: 7–33.
- Morgen, S. (ed.) (1989) Gender and Anthropology: Critical Reviews for Research and Teaching, Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.
- Murphy, R. (1971) The Dialectics of Social Life: Alarms and Excursions in Anthropological Theory, New York: Basic Books.
- Ross, D. (1991) The Origins of American Social Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Silverman, S. (ed.) (1991) Inquiry and Debate in the Human Sciences: Contributions from Current Anthropology, 1960–1990, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Stocking, G.W., Jr (1993) The Ethnographer’s Magic and other Essays in the History of Anthropology, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Voget, F. (1975) A History of Ethnology, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Wilmsen, E. (1989) Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Wolf, E. (1982) Europe and the People without History, Berkeley: University of California Press.
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