Field Notes is a forum for reflections on the state of the field of history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome a variety of contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at email@example.com.
All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.
Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation. Continue reading
The short documentary Historia de un ballet (History of a Ballet, 1962) dramatizes an ethnographic encounter central to a creative process. Director José Massip followed Cuban choreographer Ramiro Guerra and his company of modern dancers as they researched, created, and premiered a new work, Suite Yoruba (1960), about Afro-Cuban ritual music and dance. The film depicts dancers actively engaging with anthropological methods as they conduct fieldwork and share their findings with a wider public through performance. Though not formally trained as anthropologists, dancers traversed disciplinary and social boundaries to create work that animated political visions of revolutionary collectivity. Continue reading
In 1973, the first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter opened with a statement of purpose from the editorial committee, called “Prospects and Problems,” by George Stocking. The editors were self-consciously defining and claiming a field. They let loose with territorial metaphors: occupation, soil, furrows, forays. Now, as we continue our relaunch of HAN, we return to this 40-year-old manifesto as a starting point for thinking about the past, present, and future of the field.
The 1973 essay noted a sense of disciplinary crisis as a spur to growth; it asked whether this history should be done by anthropologists, intellectual historians on “one-book forays,” by “anthropologists manqué,” or by a new generation of interdisciplinarians; it announced the need for “landmarks” including lists of archival holdings, bibliographic aids, research in progress, recent publications—which HAN would provide. It ended with a call for participation from readers.
Seeking to continue HAN’s role as a site for debating the field’s present state and shaping its future, in late 2016 we invited a series of scholars from various fields to respond to this manifesto. In February 2017, eight distinguished authors responded with generosity, insight, experience, good humor—and impressive speed. Continuing our reappraisal of Stocking’s inaugural editorial statement, in August 2017 we added nine additional surveys of the field’s potential terrain. These contributions covered new ground, unearthed skepticisms, and sowed a set of new questions. Now, in October 2017, we close the series with a third set of reflections from an impressive group of early career scholars. They imply a rich future for the study of anthropology’s past.
We encourage HAN readers and subscribers to make use of the comments section to respond to individual pieces, or to the section as a whole. Dig in and leave a mark.
This editorial was originally published on February 1, 2017. It was updated on August 15, 2017 and on October 21, 2017.
“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.”
Zora Neale Hurston
I asked two colleague-friends to collaborate in this exercise of envisioning the future of the field: visual anthropologist and filmmaker Patricia Alvarez and medical anthropologist and playwright Ugo Edu. We first circulated written ideas and then Edu suggested a conversational format à la Hartman and Wilderson (2003). With the limits of time and space, we reproduce only parts of that conversation here. To render this collaborative work visible, see our transcript. Continue reading
As a new graduate student in the history of science, technology, and medicine, I was interested in circulations of medical practices and medicinal plants between Ojibwe communities in northern Minnesota and non-native, non-professional medical practitioners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Casting about for archival materials, I found many historical documents that directly discuss medicinal plants had been produced by anthropologists, ethnologists, and their forbears. Medicine writ large—medicinal plants, songs, and recipes, ideas and stories about medical practice, and general concerns about sickness and health—figured frequently in the field notes, professional correspondence, and publications of such varied figures as Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), Frances Densmore (1867-1957), and Sister Mary Inez Hilger (1891-1977). In these documents, medicine and anthropology were deeply enmeshed. Continue reading
The history of archaeology, as a field, has always seemed (to me) to be playing catch up with work in the history of anthropology. Yet, reading the contributions to HAN’s “Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks” Special Focus Section suggests to me that the histories of archaeology and anthropology now operate on the same plane in terms of the tensions that drive their production. Anyone working on archaeology’s history should be willing to grapple with the many tensions inherent in acknowledging the field’s geopolitical entanglements in the same way as historians of anthropology. Indeed, these shared but distinct histories of knowledge production can be put to good analytical use. As their investigations are driven by similar—and often entangled—tensions, are bounded categories like ‘the history of archaeology’ or ‘the history of anthropology’ still useful?
Confronted with all the limitations of my stiff training as a historian of science, I have become enchanted by the narratives taking shape at the intersection of academic research and museum work with texts, things, space, and people. In March 2018, we are opening the exhibition FOLK: From Racial Types to DNA Sequences at The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology in Oslo. Every time I utter these words, my heart starts beating faster. For me, this is where the history of anthropology comes alive, where we can test its contemporary relevance, and where all could go wrong. Continue reading
George Stocking was the anthropologist’s historian of anthropology: a “professional stranger” who plowed furrows in department halls arm-in-arm with anthros tending fields and chickens. The horticultural trope–his for us–strikes me as more taboo than totemic today, but I’ll take it anyway. I suspect he would’ve liked the image of toil in common.
Ethnographic presents are of course as much in history as any other phenomena, although anthropologists sometimes writing in the ethnographic present may be deliberately avoiding a historian’s trajectory. It has of course long ceased to be necessary to point to what once led anthropologists to be explicit on this point: they wanted to get away from the kinds of ‘conjectural histories’ that were then dominating explanations about human institutions. It is precisely because issues cease to be necessary that we need a history of anthropology.
When HAN was founded in 1973 I was a graduate student in History at Harvard, just focusing on my dissertation. George Stocking visited Harvard sometime before that and offered a seminar in the Anthropology Department. I sat in on the course—our first encounter.
Why is the history of anthropology necessary and vital now? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other approaches to its content and questions)? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other human sciences or political/intellectual/material intersections)? At the risk of seeming to be a curmudgeon, I have to register my doubts that these questions merit the affirmative elaborations that they seem to presuppose. Any historical phenomenon merits its history being recorded and engaged. Anthropology has a history and so is a worthy subject of historiographical inquiry, and as Stocking amply demonstrated, a historiography that cannot legitimately be confined merely to its intellectually internal twists and turns.
I came to HAN relatively late, 20 years after it got going. But there’s a sense in which the history of anthropology is always a belated field. I caught the bug as an undergraduate in two seminars with Stocking at Chicago— he was an inspiring, exacting teacher—and I pored over HAN, even subscribed to it, in the years to come. It had an obscure, retro charm, even then: the cover, which must have been mimeographed a hundred times; the stapled pages of typed-up and dot-matrix text. It was like a church circular from 1965, a decommissioned card-catalog entry, a zine, or an indie-label 45 to which only a few were privy.
Now that borders and walls are so commonplace in our daily political discourse, a reflection on our (admittedly more benign) disciplinary boundaries seems timely. I came to the history of anthropology from an early focus on post-WWII evolutionary biology; encountering the particular mix of physical and cultural anthropology that underpinned post-revolutionary indigenista politics in Mexico necessarily led me to a disciplinary identity crisis. Continue reading
My training was in laboratory-based biological anthropology, but I was always interested in the (checkered) history of the field. So back in 1986, when I was a genetics post-doc at the University of California, Davis (during the first generation of DNA sequencing), I also co-taught a graduate anthropology seminar in the history of bio-anthropology.
If the truth be told, the exponential growth undergone by the history of archaeology over the past thirty years can only in part be attributed to the influence of G. W. Stocking and the History of Anthropology Newsletter—the revival of which is of course both timely and full of promise. The erstwhile debate as to whether the history of a given field (in the social sciences and humanities, at least) is best undertaken by its practitioners or by professional historians—besides raising questions as to what this “best” might possibly imply—proves rather less pertinent for a discipline such as archaeology that is, after all, an intrinsically historical one.
No less than epidemics or scientific facts, disciplinary crises are constructed. And just as a disease or a truth claim can also be real, so can a crisis. In all three cases, much depends on perspective and who is doing the defining. Few scholars today would contest, for instance, that anthropologists in the nineteen-sixties and seventies debated their profession’s politics and their discipline’s objects of study, or that these debates called into question tenets considered fundamental to the field (Kuklick 2008; Clifford 2005). As George Stocking put it in his original call to arms for the History of Anthropology Newsletter, anthropologists turned to historical analysis in part because of their shared “sense of disciplinary crisis.” From HAN’s brief “statement of purpose,” it was this casual yet confident emphasis on crisis that jumped out at me. Surely, this assertion needs some probing.
When we editors of the History of Anthropology Newsletter refer to ourselves as “the HAN Dynasty,” we’re making a (bad) joke. But we have all felt the weighty presence of the ancestors. It was a strange and awful coincidence that HAN’s first two editors died in the first half of 2013: George Stocking after long preparation, Riki Kuklick with terrible suddenness.
Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov (1932–2009) was a prominent Russian anthropologist and historian of anthropology. He authored more than 500 scientific publications dedicated to the culture of East and Southeast Asia, theoretical problems of ethnology, and the history of Russian ethnographic studies. He was a board member of the Association of Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists for several years until 2007. Between 1994 and 2005 he organized panels on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology during the Association’s biannual conferences, which drew hundreds of scholars. Reshetov filled many gaps in the history of Russian anthropology, saving many prominent ethnographers from oblivion and ensuring continuity of the Russian scholarly tradition. Continue reading
I remember the early days of HAN and the appearance of George Stocking’s foundational work—I still have my much-scribbled-on copies. It has been enormously gratifying to see the history of anthropology mature over the last few decades. For me, the way in which the visual and material have moved to the center of the analytical field is especially significant, because there appears to be an especially productive entanglement of visual, material, and historical studies within anthropology. Continue reading
A dark orange sheet of paper was inserted in the December 2003 issue of History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN), containing the following headline: ‘Regime Change at HAN’. The short text briefly mentioned the new editor and her publications without any editorial statement. Does this mean that the history of anthropology was by 2003 an established domain of research and consequently that HAN no longer needed to justify itself? To what extent did the absence of an editorial statement signal a sort of implicit recognition that the field had been ‘occupied’ by historians of science, and that the transition (not entirely smooth) from intellectual history to history of science had taken place between 1973 and 2003? Or was it the acknowledgement that the ‘Problems’ raised by the 1973 statement were no longer thorny issues? Continue reading
In 2003, when I first went to the eastern highlands of New Guinea to talk with the Fore people about investigations in the 1950s and 1960s of the fatal brain disease they called kuru, I wanted to know how they distinguished the various “whitemen” (a category that includes women) who came to study them, prod them, bleed them, and cut them up during this time. Having trained in medicine and history, I had previously supposed the disciplinary distinctions must be obvious. Nobel laureate D. Carleton Gajdusek was evidently a scientist of sorts; Michael Alpers and John Mathews did autopsies and epidemiology; and Shirley Inglis Glasse (later Lindenbaum) and her husband Robert Glasse were the ethnographers who connected the transmission of kuru to Fore endo-cannibalism, thus helping to initiate “medical anthropology.” Continue reading
Revisiting Stocking’s 1973 essay, I found the metaphor of the field of anthropology as an agricultural field somewhat at odds with my own historical sensibility. The depiction of “unobstructed acreage” and “unplowed furrows” being gradually settled by a new discipline—or raided by historians on one-book forays—may resonate for some scholars, but not for me. If I may recast the metaphor, the way I have always approached researching the history of anthropology is through gleaning—the Old Testament-sanctioned practice of the poor combing through recently harvested fields to scavenge for leftovers. Continue reading
“A land without men for men without land!” ran the slogan for the colonization of Amazonia under the military regime in Brazil, in full swing in 1973. That same year, George W. Stocking urged intellectual historians to grab fertile fields sporadically occupied by a small band of anthropologists. The History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) was explicitly devised to provide these hardy pioneers with a set of tools to plow this promising land, driving away dilettante hunter-gatherers trying to “hang around indefinitely.” Continue reading
The History of Anthropology Newsletter has been a venue for publication and conversation on the many histories of the discipline of anthropology since 1973. We became an open access web publication in 2016; please subscribe to our emails below to receive updates as we publish new essays, reviews, and bibliographies.
The revival of the History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) as an online publication began with volume 40 in 2016. Content is updated continually, and subscribers receive weekly emails with links to new content.
HAN is based at the Department of History and Sociology of Science, 303 Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6304. Fax: 215-573-2231.