Category: Clio’s Fancy

The first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter in 1973 included “CLIO’S FANCY: DOCUMENTS TO PIQUE THE HISTORICAL IMAGINATION.” It was a recurring department in the newsletter for the next thirty years. We revive it here, and invite your submissions of archival oddities to

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).

George Stocking’s Stockings: Needlepoint to Pique the Historical Imagination

Many HAN readers will be familiar with George Stocking’s work on the history of anthropology; not all will know that he was also an artist. Until his last year of high school, while living in Manhattan, he thought of himself as bound for a career as a painter (Stocking 2010:25-26). After college, he worked in a meat packing factory, seeking to organize a union; he grew disillusioned with the Communist Party and entered graduate school in 1956, “to understand why American culture was so resistant to radical change” (69). That set him on the path of a scholar and teacher.

Yet in the 1970s, when George was settled on the faculty at the University of Chicago, he returned to his artistic pursuits. Not in painting, however—but in needlepoint. At first, he purchased kits for a footstool and pillows. After the birth of a grandchild, he needlepointed a Christmas stocking, using a standard design. In 1980, he dispensed with the kit and designed his own Christmas stocking, creating an original pattern with biographical details tailored to the recipient: his seven-year-old grandson, Jesse, who was much taken with The Incredible Hulk. The stocking portrayed Santa as a muscular, green-skinned superhero who seems to have arrived on a garbage truck, punching through a brick wall, to the amazement of a Krazy-Kat like Mickey Mouse. Continue reading

Kuklick on the Tarmac

One summer afternoon in 1958, two young girls stood on the hot tarmac at Idlewild  (later JFK) airport, awaiting the arrival of the famous German choreographer Albrecht Knust. Knust was in America to promote Labanotation, a technique for capturing dance on paper developed in the 1920s by his mentor, Rudolf Laban. In Knust’s honor, the girls had emblazoned the edges of their wide, white skirts with Labanotation’s characteristic symbols, and as he disembarked, they eagerly extended their arms to display their creations. Continue reading

A Left-Handed Wedding Announcement

The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research has been a hub for information about the comings and goings of anthropologists since its founding in 1941 as the Viking Fund. Its vast archives maintained in its current office on Park Avenue South in New York City contain countless treasures, including this wedding announcement:

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The first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter in 1973 included “CLIO’S FANCY: DOCUMENTS  TO  PIQUE THE HISTORICAL  IMAGINATION.” The entry, a pair of anecdotes suggesting that late in life, Louis Henry Morgan may have had second thoughts about his own theories, received the juicy title “DID THE ARCH-EVOLUTIONIST MAKE A DEATHBED RECANTATION?” The next issue’s contribution transcribed a 1904 letter from Franz Boas to Booker T. Washington, asking for frank advice about the eventual job prospects of J.E. Aggrey, an African-American student interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, under the equally intriguing header: “THE TUSKEGEE NOD IN AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGY.”

The editor, George W. Stocking, Jr., closed with a deadpan plea: “We particularly  encourage readers to submit items for Clio’s Fancy. Both of these have so far come from the same source, who is by no means inexhaustible.”

Our first entry to the relaunched “Clio’s Fancy,” from Joanna Radin, adds to this tradition of archival oddities which raise the historical eyebrow; it speaks of kinship rituals, alternative histories, and ethnographies of the future. We hope you will enjoy it—and better yet, that you’ll submit gems you unearth in the archival mine.