Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Historiographical Concerns in the History of Anthropology

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Historiographical Concerns in the History of Anthropology

Article excerpt

Since the late 1960s, George W. Stocking Jr., professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, has--with only occasional lapses--pursued a strictly internalist methodological approach to the historical investigation of the European and European American behavioral sciences (Lewis, 1992, pp. 110-113). Stocking's books, edited volumes, and articles have withstood both the initial criticisms and the tests of time. Indeed, the longevity and durability of his contributions are testaments to the acuity of his keen mind (Stocking 1968, 1992, 1993, 2001).

Typical of Stocking's influence on the methodological orientation of scholars of the history of science is Professor Nancy L. Stepan's defense of the his internalist position in her book Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (1982). At that time, Stepan made the case--in an even stronger and more precise fashion than Stocking himself--when she wrote: "Social and political factors.., did not determine directly the specific form scientific arguments took about race." Furthermore, scientific arguments, Stepan added, "were instead derived from procedures and the content of the sciences themselves" (p. xv). Unwittingly, however--as the great historian of race George M. Frederickson pointed out to me in 1983, while I was an unpaid associate in the history department at Northwestern UniversityStepan's book suggests that British scientists and social scientists were unable or unwilling to pursue a more enlightened path on the issue of race at the turn of the twentieth century, primarily because social structural changes in Great Britain were not sufficiently wrenching to compel them to reassess their positions on the issues of race and race relations.

Furthermore, since the mid-1970s, I have raised serious doubts about the full adequacy of the explanatory potency of the strictly internalist discourse in reference to the issue of race in the behavioral sciences. As a consequence, in my book From a Caste to a Minority (1989), I sought to make the case for the saliency of external social structural forces in compelling sociologists to adopt anthropologist Franz Boas's liberal environmentalist stance on the issues of the character and capabilities of African Americans. Nonetheless, the question of why the Boasian revolution took place so early in anthropology was not addressed. As a consequence, I tackled this issue in Rethinking Race (1996) and concluded that although the internal discourse in anthropology was certainly important, it was not sufficient in and of itself to compel reassessment of older theories of race and race relations. In other words, cataclysmic social structural changes were necessary preconditions for the initial triumph of antiracist thinking in the newly emerging American behavioral sciences (anthropology, sociology, and psychology).

Nevertheless, many historically minded students of the behavioral sciences have an aversion to externalist argumentation. Instead, they themselves write polemics on the raucousness of the identity politics in their disciplines. These scholars think they have sound reasons to be nostalgic and to lament, primarily because the "good old days" of the cold-blooded, "objective" search for "truth" have supposedly been distanced and drowned out by the clamor of a particularistic-oriented group of new scholars who--to use the words of anthropologist Hubert S. Lewis believe that "they have a new and better way to understand reality than their teachers and predecessors," who seem to them to have been "hopelessly old-fashioned, wrongheaded, and on the wrong track" (Lewis, 2001). Although I concur in Lewis's argument for the abiding need for fair examinations in the history of the behavioral sciences, the same standards that are applied to subaltern traditions, I argue, should be applied to the mongers of "objectivity" and their acolytes.

Even more disturbing, however, are Lewis's hyperbolic statements that attribute present-day ideological clashes to a generational divide. …

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