Social Anthropology in Economic Literature at the End of the 19th Century: Eugenic and Racial Explanations of Inequality

By Maccabelli, Terenzio | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Social Anthropology in Economic Literature at the End of the 19th Century: Eugenic and Racial Explanations of Inequality


Maccabelli, Terenzio, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


Social anthropology is today considered a flourishing branch of human knowledge, promoted all over the world by specialist journals and scientific institutions. (1) However, the social anthropology dealt with in these pages has little to do with this reality. The object of this research is the thought of authors such as the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge and the German Otto Ammon, who, in the second half of the 19th century promoted a new discipline, with an explicitly racist and eugenic content that they initially called "social anthropology" and later named "anthro[po]-sociology." In the last decades of the 19th century, this discipline had vast resonance in European and American culture. Its fortunes were obscured with the beginning of the new century, but, however, were strongly rooted in Germany, where it became an incubator for the National Socialist eugenic projects (Mosse 1978). This work intends to demonstrate the wide resonance that this interpretation of social anthropology also had in the economic literature of the period.

One of the inducements to undertaking this research is the increasing interest shown by historians of economic thought in the relationship between eugenics, racism, and political economy. Numerous contributions on the question recently have been published, (2) nonetheless, neglecting the thought of the so-called school of social anthropologists. Much more studied instead is the reception given to the theories of Lapouge and Ammon in the sociological field, (3) where the parabola of the doctrine has been highlighted; after sudden popularity, sanctioned by the space dedicated to it in the major sociological reviews, social anthropology was progressively ousted from the scientific sociological panorama following its scientific delegitimization. In this paper we propose an analogous reconstruction from the economic standpoint. In analyzing the spread of anthroposociological theories in the economic field, major emphasis will be laid on the eugenic and racial explanations for social stratification, which constitute the heart of such a doctrine.

The paper is organized as follows. The first section is dedicated to a brief presentation of the social theories of Georges Vacher de Lapouge and Otto Ammon, the founders of the school of social anthropology. The second section comprises an overview of the articles that the most authoritative economic reviews of the period, principally the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Journal of Political Economy, dedicated to the school, chiefly through the agency of Carlos C. Closson, an indefatigable popularizer of the theories of Lapouge and Ammon in the English-speaking world. The third section of the paper enters into the principal question; that is, the explanation offered by the social anthropologists for economic and social inequality. The fourth section then discusses the influence of social anthropology on Vilfredo Pareto, one of the most authoritative scholars of social hierarchies, and shows how responsive he was to the topics discussed by Lapouge and Ammon. In the fifth part, the paper will illustrate the growth of criticisms of social anthropology and how it was ostracized with the coming of the new century, both by economists and by sociologists. In the last part will be discussed the role of Thorstein Veblen in the spreading of social anthropology in economic literature, before of its epilogue.

I

The School of Social Anthropology: Georges Vacher de Lapouge and Otto Ammon

AMMON AND Lapouge are authors who are seldom quoted in the history of social science. (4) At the turn of the century, however, their fame was notable and their writings were diffused by the journals of various scientific disciplines. The two scholars were, in truth, difficult to classify from a strictly disciplinary point of view, given that they operated in a grey area covering craniometry, anthropology, sociology, and economics. …

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