Year: 2017 (page 1 of 5)

‘Our Indigenous Ancestors’ by Carolyne Larson

Carolyne R. Larson. Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877-1943. 232 pp., 29 illus., notes, bibl., index. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015.

Argentina, more than almost any other Latin American country, has been associated with a white, criollo identity. The longstanding scholarly narrative held that the formation of this identity relied on strategic erasures of the presence of indigenous and African-descended peoples from the nation’s history, a project that crystallized in the late nineteenth century during a surge in European immigration. More recently, scholars and intellectuals such as Monica Quijada have pointed to the presence of indigenous peoples in nineteenth-century literary texts or museum practices, adding complexity to the narrative of erasure and opening space for historians to explore the multivalent roles of African-descended and indigenous peoples in Argentinian nation formation after independence from Spain in 1818.[1]

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Methodological Dissension on Sol Tax’s Training Expedition to Chiapas

Fernando Cámara Barbachano, Zinacantán Field Diary, 10 December 1942, Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Sol Tax is well known for developing the concept of “action anthropology,” which takes the goals and problems of research subjects as its point of departure ahead of the researcher’s desire for knowledge. However, he began his career with a much more conventional philosophy of science, and during the 1940s vigorously defended “basic” research against calls for anthropology to emphasize its political relevance.[1]

In the winter of 1942-3, Tax took a small group of students from Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Antropología on a fieldwork training expedition to Zinacantán, Chiapas. The trip proved to be much more than that, however, giving rise to intercultural frictions and occasionally blunt disagreements between teacher and students.[2]

While the group stayed only two months, the field diaries from this expedition and from several similar ones in the early 40s are invaluable: since everyone read each other’s entries regularly, the diaries served as a record of debates, and sometimes of conversations people preferred not to have face-to-face. Students wrote down their complaints about Tax, their concerns about the methods they were being taught, their opinions on local politics, and their justifications for questionable decisions—and Tax responded in kind.

One of the most conflicted students was Fernando Cámara Barbachano, who went on to become one of Mexico’s foremost ethnographers and to teach regular courses on anthropological theory and method. He wrote quite bluntly in the early days of the expedition about his desire to do beneficial work, and about his disdain for cloistered, purely academic research. In summarizing a discussion with his fellow students, he described them as aimless and perhaps naive:

No one offered a concrete idea regarding the end that they thought to bring about when they concluded their studies and the plans that they wanted to realize to benefit the Indian. It is something that interests me much, in that the greater part of these classmates are foreigners and do not think seriously about the large problem that Mexico has with its Indians, but some of us like R[icardo Pozas], M[iguel Acosta] and myself believe that we see things from another point of view.[3]

He quickly moved on to the more specific issue of method. Tax, following his own training, believed that to do a community study right you needed to make a map, a census, and a genealogical chart as complete as possible. That meant going around to all the houses and asking people for their names and their kinship relations. Many of the students, including Cámara, felt this was excessive. Tax gave him some articles by W. H. R. Rivers to read, but these did not fully convince him. His goal, he wrote, was “to try to resolve the indigenous problem, and that for this it was not necessary to know the name of fulano or of sotano and if he is a brother or a cousin or if he is dead or alive.” Eventually Tax, with the help of a Mexican colleague, managed to convince Cámara that “once the Social Organization [of a community] is known, any method of help can be used to lift up its social and economic level.” Cámara fell in line, but grudgingly.

Actually it seemed to me that they were right, but as the majority of the group only studies the indian as if he were a strange animal in which they seek defects or try to find interesting customs and a life to criticize or compare with their own, and afterward in some meeting in their social life in Mexico [City], talk of them as abnormal, supernatural beings or something outside of the mainstream [lo corriente] and which they should study because they are people far from civilized life, and that they as scientists have the obligation to study them, well I accepted that they were half right.[4]

By the end of the trip, Tax had mostly won Cámara over to his style of data collection, and to the idea that theoretically grounded research was a necessary prerequisite for practical intervention. But in contrast to Tax’s belief that science should proceed thoroughly on its own grounds, Cámara held to the conviction that its guiding light should be political. In his subsequent teaching career, he would firmly maintain that anthropological research was a science with a proper method based on the systematic collection and comparison of data in its social context. But anthropology’s purpose was to integrate the national body by improving the material living conditions of its disadvantaged populations, and to use familiarity with local cultures to help them achieve that transition.

This episode reflects not only the growing “Americanization of social science” in the 20th century[5], but also a strong tradition of political engagement in Mexican anthropology. Indeed, to the extent that anthropologists who worked extensively with Mexican colleagues (like Sol Tax and George Foster) eventually softened their views on the basic-applied distinction, it suggests influences going back the other way.[6]


[1] His main publication in this vein was “Anthropology and Administration,” América Indígena 5, no. 1 (Jan 1945).

[2] Tax later wrote publicly about the experience in a conference paper, as part of an argument that “the culture that has developed in Latin America does not provide what we think of as the democratic way of behaving in social life.” He described the students as being “unable to grasp the idea that they were permitted, even expected, to govern themselves” instead of appealing to a sovereign monarch across the ocean. Sol Tax, “The Problem of Democracy in Middle America,” American Sociological Review 10, no. 2, 1944 Annual Meeting Papers (Apr 1945), 198.

[3] Fernando Cámara Barbachano, Zinacantán Field Diary, 7 December 1942. Sol Tax Papers, Box 101, Folder 3. Special Collections Research Center, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago.

[4] Cámara, Zinacantán Diary, 10 December 1942.

[5] Mauricio Tenorio, “Stereophonic Scientific Modernisms: Social Science between Mexico and the United States,1880s-1930s,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (Dec 1999), 1156-87.

[6] For more on cross-border influences in US and Mexican ideas of science and the state, see Ruben Flores, Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Diversity at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA)

Biological anthropology has long been plagued by its exclusionary past. Today, many biological anthropologists and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) are actively seeking to address this legacy by forging positive relationships between anthropologists and marginalized communities, and by encouraging new voices to contribute to the field. For example, the AAPA created the Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropological Sciences (IDEAS) program to increase participation by first-generation college students or students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science (African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos). The recent Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study (2014) conducted by Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde also highlighted persistent issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the field.

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‘Fredrik Barth’ by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography. xi+249 pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. London: Pluto Press, 2015. $99 (cloth), $35 (paper)

Fredrik Barth was a creative and outspoken theorist, an indefatigable fieldworker and world traveler, and he was fortunate in his biographer. Thomas Hylland Eriksen is not only obviously devoted to Barth, but he is also thorough, comprehensive, fair—pointing out problems and occasional failings of his subject—and not too much over the top in his admiration. Above all he does an excellent job presenting and explaining Fredrik Barth’s many works and his innovative methodological and theoretical positions as well as contextualizing his work in the anthropology of his time.

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Articles: June Additions

Adams, Matthew S. “Formulating an Anarchist Sociology: Peter Kropotkin’s Reading of Herbert Spencer.Journal of the History of Ideas 77, no. 1 (2016): 49–73. doi:10.1353/jhi.2016.0004.

Author’s Abstract: The work of Herbert Spencer was a crucial influence on the development of Peter Kropotkin’s historical sociology. However, scholars have underestimated this relationship; either overlooking it entirely, or minimizing Kropotkin’s attachment to Spencer with the aim of maintaining the utility of his political thought in the present. This article contests these interpretations by analyzing Kropotkin’s reading of Spencer’s epistemological, biological, and political ideas. It argues that Kropotkin was engaged in a critical dialogue with Spencer, incorporating many Spencerian principles in his own system, but also using this reading to articulate a distinctive anarchist politics.

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Books: June Additions

Adair-Toteff, Christopher. Fundamental Concepts in Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Publisher’s Abstract: This book helps explain some of Max Weber’s key concepts such as charisma, asceticism, mysticism, pariah-people, prophets, salvation, and theodicy and places them within the context of Weber’s sociology of religion.

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‘Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture’ edited by Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias

Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias (Editors). Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture. 264pp., 11 b/w illus., index. London: Routledge, 2016. $163 (hardback), $52.95 (paperback), $52.95 (eBook)

In Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture, editors Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias bring together scholarship on what they compellingly label the “endangerment sensibility”: that is, “a complex of knowledge, values, affects and interests characterized by a particularly acute perception that some organisms and things are ‘under threat,’ and by a purposeful responsiveness to such a predicament” (2). The volume features nine contributions split equally into three sections. These sections consider: the affects, values, and science that are interwoven in this sensibility (Part I); the situated politics of endangerment discourses and practices (Part II); and technologies of preservation, which help constitute endangerment and have ontological consequences for the entities they aim to preserve (Part III).

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‘Local Knowledge Global Stage’ edited by Darnell and Gleach

Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach (Editors). Local Knowledge, Global Stage. Histories of Anthropology Annual Series 10. 354pp., 25 illus. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. $40 (paper)

As a historian writing about late-nineteenth century anthropology who is also interested in contemporary anthropology, I learned a lot from this book. The tenth in the series Histories of Anthropology Annual, this volume is in conversation with the work of two influential, and recently deceased, historians: George Stocking and Henrika Kuklick. Yet this collection of essays, like its predecessors in the series, locates itself more in the field than the archive. The editors believe, rightly so, that what emerges from fieldwork can inform us about larger issues of knowledge production. But history also has a role to play. Good work calls for methods “transcending the customary distinction of past, present, and future and replacing the static repetition of events, dates, and feats of great men (sic)[1] representing the story from the standpoint of the victors with a more nuanced collation of histories in the plural” (xiii).

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‘Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits’ by Chip Colwell

Chip Colwell. Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. 336pp., 10 halftones, notes, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. $30 (cloth), $18 (e-book)

During highway construction, twenty-eight sets of human remains are found. Twenty-six of the bodies are reburied in a nearby cemetery but two skeletons, a woman and her baby, are not—instead, they are given over to the state archaeologist. What accounts for the difference? Is it that the skeletons of twenty-six white people are not interesting to archaeological study? Or is it that the thought of reburying Native American remains when they could be studied is somehow a violation of our dedication to knowledge of the past?

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Paper Prize: FHHS/JHBS John C. Burnham Early Career Award and Forum for History of Human Science (FHHS) Article Prize

TWO FHHS PRIZE ANNOUNCEMENTS : 30 June 2017 deadline

1. FHHS/JHBS John C. Burnham Early Career Award: Send manuscript and
curriculum vitae (PDF format) by June 30, 2017 to

The Forum for History of Human Science (FHHS) and the Journal of the History
of the Behavioral Science (JHBS) encourage researchers in their early careers
to submit unpublished manuscripts for the annual John C. Burnham Early Career
Award, named in honor of this prominent historian of the human sciences and
past-editor of JHBS. The publisher provides the author of the paper an
honorarium of US $500. (see details below). Continue reading

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