‘In Defense of Anthropology’ by Herbert Lewis

Herbert S. LewisIn Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology. xvii + 244 pp., bibl., index. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2013. $69.95 (hardcover)

For years, Herbert Lewis has defended classical anthropology (meaning here American cultural anthropology produced in the first half of the twentieth century) from postmodern and postcolonial critique. This volume collects eight of Lewis’s essays on this subject, and also includes an original piece written especially for the volume. For those sympathetic with Lewis’s claims, this volume will be welcome. However, Lewis’s strident tone will probably not sway the unconvinced, much less those critical of classical anthropology.

Lewis’s argument in these chapters is simple: Most criticisms of American cultural anthropology are misguided. Anthropologists never treated their research subjects as radically other, nor did they imagine cultures as ahistorical, isolated, homogenous units (chapter one). Franz Boas was a leftist and political activist, not a colonizer (chapters six and seven), and most anthropologists had similar commitments (chapter three). Anthropology was not a handmaiden to colonialism (chapters four and five) nor was it a willing accomplice of American imperialism during the Cold War (chapter eight). Why, then, does anthropology have this reputation? Lewis argues that contemporary contemptuousness of anthropology originated in the American counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, whose desire to smash authority figures created a straw man of classical anthropology which baby boomers and their descendants continue to pummel to this day (chapter two).

Lewis is at his best when he adduces disconfirming evidence which punctures facile generalizations about classical anthropologists’ many supposed sins. Lewis’s “The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences” (chapter one) provides a variety of quotations from classical anthropologists which gainsay some of the sloppy critiques of this tradition. In doing so, Lewis puts himself in the same tradition as Robert Brightman’s classic 1995 article “Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification[1] or Ira Bashkow’s 2004 “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries,”[2] among others.

For those of us trained in the Boasian tradition, these essays present an articulated, public version of what many of us have felt: How can studies of diffusion possibly be construed as presupposing an isolated cultural whole? For many readers, Lewis’s stern defense of Boasian anthropology will be a welcome remedy to criticisms which, ironically, often treat classical anthropology as homogenous, unchanging, and radically disconnected from contemporary anthropological theory.

At the same time, Lewis’s strident tone is unlikely to make new allies. Lewis freely admits that these chapters are “an old man’s dark and critical view of the present state of anthropology” (68) and he does not pull his polemical punches. He calls his opponent’s work “silly, unsupportable, and damaging” (70-71), full of “empty and meaningless generalization” (109) and “pretentious prose” (110) which is “extraordinarily tortuous and unconvincing” (115) and which often consists of “simple-minded trashing” (115). These are not conciliatory words. It is disappointing that Lewis, who so strongly wants to convince readers of the righteousness of his cause, cannot provide the same collegiality to his professional colleagues that he wishes that they would show Boas, Lowie, and Kroeber. It seems to me that it is precisely this sort of collegiality that would be key to converting people to his cause. In this respect, his prose is much more polarizing than Joel Robbins’s similar, but more diplomatic, argument in his 2013 article “Beyond the Suffering Subject.”[3]

I share with Lewis a lack of enthusiasm for some of the more outré critiques of anthropology that emerged in the late 1990s. But some readers will probably feel that Lewis has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Is it really the case that classical anthropology had no connection with colonialism? Is there absolutely nothing of value in a countercultural insistence on the importance on race, gender, class, and empire? As Talal Asad noted over forty years ago (and Lewis discusses in chapter four), the question regarding colonialism was how it serves as the context and condition of anthropological research, and a good deal of historical work has been done on the ambivalences and ambiguities of anthropological fieldwork. Lewis’s picture of anthropological participation in colonial and imperial enterprises could have been more finely drawn. For instance, did not George Peter Murdock and Radcliffe-Brown actively train people to serve as colonial administrators? Did Julian Steward not provide expert testimony against Indian land claims? Were anthropologists not employed in the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Lewis’s case would have been strengthened if he had acknowledged the complexity of anthropology’s entanglement with American power.

Lewis could also have been more generous in recognizing the scholarly contributions of post-sixties theory. Lewis is consistently dismissive of the work of thinkers such as Deleuze, Foucault, Bourdieu and other “social theorists.” But anthropology has improved through exposure to these authors. Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus really did move the ball down the field in our understanding of social process, far more than (for instance) Firth’s distinction between social structure and social organization. Equally, even as Marshall Sahlins put structures into motion in his work on historical anthropology in the 1980s, it was still difficult for him to understand when a structure was being transformed versus merely being reproduced. This was the dilemma that Deleuze was able to solve by retheorizing difference and repetition, a move which led to increased empirical insights and better theoretical models of social life. Lewis is right to reject the excesses of much contemporary theory, but at times it almost seems as if he is suspicious of any theoretical development which moves the discipline beyond where it was when he was a graduate student. This sort of conservatism, if Lewis subscribes to it, is more focused on protecting anthropology’s past rather than developing its future, and that is not how science should work.

In sum, then, Lewis’s volume is full of bold, provocative, and reactionary polemic. Some readers will welcome his strident voice in defense of the classical version of the discipline they know and love. Other readers, however, might have been more convinced if Lewis were more collegial, nuanced, and willing to concede that the other side may occasionally have a point. Regardless, Lewis’s volume is a welcome addition to the literature which demonstrates the role that the history of anthropology can play in challenging our discipline’s contemporary self-understanding.


[1] Robert Brightman, “Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification,” Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 4 (1995): 509–46.

[2] Ira Bashkow, “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries,” American Anthropologist 106, no. 3 (2004): 443–58.

[3] Joel Robbins, “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3 (2013): 447–62.

Alex Golub: contributions / golub@hawaii.edu / Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa

1 Comment

  1. Well, to say, “this is what anthropologists do … or don’t do”, is met by the statement by one of my own teachers, “anthropology is what anthropologists do.”

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