Cornell's Field Seminar in Applied Anthropology: Social Scientists and American Indians in the Postwar Southwest

By Davies, Wade | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview
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Cornell's Field Seminar in Applied Anthropology: Social Scientists and American Indians in the Postwar Southwest


Davies, Wade, Journal of the Southwest


As the Second World War ended, it appeared that new agricultural, medical, and mechanical technologies developed during this era would fundamentally alter people's lives on American Indian reservations. But if the war had reduced the insularity of native communities, it remained to be determined whether these enclaves could channel inevitable social and economic change in ways that the people themselves would deem appropriate and desirable. Alexander Leighton and other social scientists at Cornell University believed that technological advances in medicine and agriculture would enhance life on American Indian reservations just as they would in the developing world. These social scientists realized, however, that such changes would fail to produce beneficial results if native communities did not feel that their beliefs, decisions, and participation mattered in the process.

Between 1949 and 1952, the Cornell University Department of Anthropology and Sociology conducted its Field Seminar in Applied Anthropology in various Southwestern Indian and Mexican American communities. The project had a global focus that extended beyond reservations, but it also reflected significant changes in relations between social scientists and American Indians. Conceived by Alexander Leighton with the assistance of Edward Spicer, John Adair, Tom Sasaki, and Henry Dobyns, the field seminar responded to a perceived need to provide applied anthropology training for specialists and administrators actively involved in the introduction of new technology to underdeveloped regions of the world. The seminar combined firsthand contacts between students and Southwestern communities with classroom work to acquaint the students with the common problems of technological change in societies and provide them with the theoretical and practical tools to solve those problems. It sought to provide an educational environment for administrators from various agencies but in the process became involved directly with the Indian communities and agency officials.

The intellectual development of this project, the methods of its operation, and the breadth of its impact demonstrate that activities of social scientists on American Indian reservations, at least after 1945, often existed in an international context. Social scientists such as Leighton treated the issue of technological change on Indian reservations as part of the larger picture of postwar change around the world. He and his colleagues understood the clear differences between the various Indian peoples and the developing world, but they were confident that clear principles could be defined, based upon relations with Southwestern Indian communities, to facilitate efficient cultural change worldwide. These social scientists believed that their long-term experience with American Indian and Mexican American Southwesterners could be used to larger benefit. They hoped, as team members John Adair and Robert Bunker later wrote, "to make the physical problems and cultural diversities of Arizona and New Mexico represent those of many lands." (l)

A psychiatrist with an interest in anthropology, Leighton drew from his experiences in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in the Pacific, his prior work with the Navajos in Arizona, and his efforts for the U.S. War Relocation Authority to formulate a global perspective on "cross-cultural" dynamics. He concluded that extreme changes were going to occur in the postwar years as western technology invaded the lives of peoples who had been relatively isolated from world trends prior to the massive conflict. He also learned from the brutal experiences of war and the harsh realities of Japanese American relocation that the imposition of one culture upon another could have disastrous consequences. Leighton now believed that these inevitable technological intrusions had to be mediated by sensitivity to the practical problems such cross-cultural interaction posed.

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