Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology

By Darnell, Regna; McPherson, Naomi | Anthropologica, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology


Darnell, Regna, McPherson, Naomi, Anthropologica


Regna Darnell, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001, xxvii + 373 pages.

Reviewer: Naomi McPherson Okanagan University College

There is a "rhetoric of discontinuity" among contemporary anthropologists that renders invisible the intellectual genealogies of American anthropology, particularly in relation to "Franz Boas and his first generation of students" (p. xiv). Darnell brilliantly and convincingly argues that, regardless of where they did fieldwork, all North American-trained anthropologists are Americanists who take as givens the theoretical, methodological and ethnographic heritage of the Boasian tradition--culture in the plural, participant observation fieldwork, the cross-cultural study of meaning, the collection of ethnographic and linguistic texts, relativity and relativism, anti-racism--concepts foreshadowing contemporary "feminist, postcolonial, and postmodern interests in narrative, dialogue, and standpoint" (p. xviii). Darnell's own intellectual genealogy connects her to the Boasians through Frederica de Laguna, Boas's last doctoral student and Darnell's first anthropology teacher, and from her first anthropology textbook, Kroeber's Anthropology (1948 edition), to her dissertation (1969) on the early history of Americanist anthropology. Darnell's own corpus of work (nearly 50 entries in the bibliography), is grounded in long-term ethnographic and linguistic collaboration with the Plains Cree of northern Alberta and a career-long study of the history of Americanist anthropology. This deep and abiding understanding of the Americanist tradition richly informs this "discursive essay" which is both ethnography and a "serious critique of contemporary anthropology...theory and practice in the context of history" (p. xxiii).

The introduction, "The Invisibility of Americanist Genealogies," begins to reveal the intellectual continuities in contemporary, postmodern anthropological practice through a normative list of "distinctive features of the Americanist Tradition" which go to the heart of the anthropological endeavour theoretically, methodologically and ethically. Readers may well find themselves, perhaps surprisingly, acknowledging with Darnell that "The basic premises of the Americanist tradition are for me, not negotiable" (p. 23).

The first five chapters explore the work and key contributions of the core Boasians--Boas, Kroeber, Sapir, Whorf and Benedict--but this is no mere chronology of anthropological begats; rather, it is a nuanced, layered and critical analysis of the Americanist tradition and its continuity with contemporary anthropological practice. For example, Darnell points out that the two theoretically central Boasian concepts, the "analytic discreteness of race, language and culture...[and] the relativism and historical contingency of cultural categories...have been so thoroughly incorporated into North American anthropological praxis that they now appear trivial and unproblematic" (p. 37). The oft-repeated charge that Boas was not a theoretician is soundly refuted and we are treated to a penetrating analysis of the estrangement that grew between Boas and Sapir whose "approach attacked the core of anthropological method and theory...questioning the very premises upon which Boas's own anthropology rested" (p. 65). These differences culminated in the separation of linguistics from anthropology and the primacy of cultural anthropology, rather than ethnology, as definitively Americanist.

After Boas's death, Kroeber became the centre of Americanist anthropology and his concept of the superorganic, of culture as a creation of the mind, and of non-individualistic ideas transmitted socially rather than biologically reflect clearly the anti-reductionist Boasian paradigm. Kroeber's engagement with these concepts "have proved more interesting than his answers" (p. 89), as he was intuitively grappling with problems of order and individual agency which contemporary analyses explore within complexity theory, fractals and chaos theory. …

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