A Social History of Anthropology in the United States

By Patterson, Thomas C.; Hancock, Robert L. A. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Social History of Anthropology in the United States


Patterson, Thomas C., Hancock, Robert L. A., Anthropologica


Thomas C. Patterson, Oxford: Berg, 2001, x + 212 pages.

Reviewer: Robert L.A. Hancock

University of Victoria

Since 2000, a number of significant books dealing with the history of anthropology in North America have been published. Among the most notable are Susan Trencher's Mirrored Images: American Anthropology and American Culture, 1960-1980, a major survey of the development of what she terms "fieldworker ethnographies" in the latter half of the twentieth century, and Regna Darnell's Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology, a comprehensive examination of the development and refinement of the Boasian theoretical paradigm. With his new book, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, Thomas Patterson has added yet another perspective to this literature.

Patterson's book arose out of a dissatisfaction with available histories of anthropology. In his opinion, the existing literature "did not refer to the social and political contexts in which anthropology was born and nurtured in the United States, and they certainly did not address how anthropologists as active agents fit into and helped to shape these contexts" (ix). He has three objectives: to examine the ways in which the civil-rights and anti-colonial movements, as well as European social theorists and critics, influenced American anthropology; to bring to the fore anthropologists on the left of the political spectrum whose contributions to the discipline had been downplayed by repression in the inter-war and Cold War eras; and to highlight the dialectical nature of anthropological knowledge production, that is, to show that the discipline "is shaped by what the world is and who the anthropologists and the diverse peoples they study are" (x). He explicitly characterises his book as a corrective to previous internalist approaches which did not examine the history of American anthropology in the context of American society.

Treating the topic chronologically, Patterson divides his book into five chapters. The first, "Anthropology in the New Republic, 1776-1879," examines the preprofessional period of American anthropology, from the founding of the Republic to the work of Lewis Henry Morgan. He draws connections between debates in Britain and the United States, focussing on anti-slavery movements. Relying largely on secondary sources, Patterson emphasises the role of territorial expansion in the development of anthropological thought in the United States, and in the parallel rise of scientific racism.

In his second chapter, "Anthropology in the Liberal Age, 1879-1929," Patterson examines the founding of the Bureau of Ethnology (later the Bureau of American Ethnology) and the professionalisation of the discipline. The expansion of the discipline, reflected in the growth of academic departments, the re-organisation of American Anthropologist, and the founding of the American Anthropological Association, occurred during a period of widespread racial intolerance of American Indians, Jews, and African-Americans. Patterson discusses Franz Boas in this context, focussing on his antiracist work, his arguments against evolutionism, and his work with African-American intellectuals. Only brief mention is made of Boas's political work in a public setting--an aside on Boas's defence of the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch neglects to mention that it was the Canadian government he petitioned. Interestingly, in his discussion of Boas's censure by the AAA in 1919, Patterson does not mention the anti-Semitism of the Washington group which opposed Boas. Instead, he discusses the anti-Semitism of marginal characters, such as Madison Grant.

Patterson's third chapter, "Anthropology and the Search for Social Order, 1929-1945," covers an era of increasing politicisation of American anthropology. Here he focuses on prominent anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who undertook major government research projects; ironically, many of the anthropologists chosen for these projects were students of Boas, the man who had been censured for his "disloyalty" during the First World War. …

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