Making Anthropologists Visible

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.”

But as it happened, I would spend weeks among the Fore trying to reconstruct the fine and subtle differences the local people had discerned in the outsiders. It turned out the Fore were doing their own participant observation of whitemen, evaluating them principally according to the kinds of cargo they possessed and the exchange relations these encounters opened up, thereby modulating previous impressions of whitemen formed on recent first contact in the region, or through visits to distant towns such as Kainantu and Goroka. The anthropologists became, in the new pidgin, stori missus and stori masta because listening to stories seemed their primary way of relating to Fore. In contrast, missionaries just wanted to tell their own gruesome story over and over again, and stop people eating pigs. Government officers or kiaps went on patrol and bossed people around. The medical scientists or doktas asked for stories too, like a stori masta, but they appeared most interested in taking blood and performing bush autopsies—these activities created a particular impression on Fore people since they made these whitemen unlike any others they had met. I was talking about these differences with old men who had been the adolescent intermediaries—interlocutors, translators, and exchange partners—between the doktas and kuru sufferers and families. These liklik doktas or dokta bois, as they called themselves, once were unusually brave youths who had traveled to other parts of the highlands longer “opened up” to whitemen, so they already knew some pidgin and appreciated how to make whitemen visible as persons of one sort or another.

Vin Zigas on patrol, with Sinoko standing above him, late 1950s. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. Photo credit: D. Carleton Gajdusek.

I tell this tale because it seems to me that we tend to write the history of anthropology as though our subject matter is self-evident—or our key figures simply announce themselves. Not only do we often fail to recognize the cultural work that people like the Fore are doing in their encounters with those whom we call anthropologists, we generally fail to do that work ourselves. I think that as historians we sometimes take for granted what it means to do anthropology, in a way that most anthropologists now do not (or so I hope). Last century, historical accounts of anthropology emphasized conceptual development, institutional and disciplinary structures, and biographies of intrepid ethnographers.

Of course, this was changing gradually. I remember in the late 1980s, Henrika Kuklick, a topnotch disciplinary historian, urging us to look additionally at field practices in out-of-the-way places. But she still assumed the anthropologists were who they claimed to be, that such studies would take place in archives in North America or Western Europe, and that the so-called anthropologists were cosmopolitan travelers while their subjects remained passive dwellers, if no longer isolates. (These days I wonder if she really did believe this; perhaps it was what I wanted, as a Bolshie graduate student, to hear her saying at the time.) In contrast, advocates of cultural critique in and around anthropology from the 1970s were deconstructing and challenging ethnography and the category of “anthropologist.” Kuklick and Stocking and other historians knew this, of course, but somehow these critical insights rarely informed historical narratives.

Even now, as I read historical accounts of expeditionary science and anthropology, I get the sense that only the outsiders are traveling and only they are participant observers and theorists. As Johannes Fabian put it, we continue to deny “coevalness,” thus spatializing time in a discriminatory fashion. Or, to follow Arjun Appadurai, we could say that we are perpetuating the “metonymic freezing” that an antiquated anthropology once delivered. In other words, we historians of anthropology seem to have problems with agency and identity. Perhaps it would help if we shook off our bonds to the history of science and joined with the new Indigenous studies—or if we just treated our historical subjects more “anthropologically.”

In a sense, we might reframe the history of anthropology in terms of cultural (and physical) comparison and “diasporic conjunctures,” to use Stuart Hall’s term. Let me give another example. In 2008, I joined some of the Fore people whom I knew at the “End of Kuru” meeting at the Royal Society in London. It was the first time most of them had left Papua New Guinea, but they looked comfortable, relaxed, and remarkably free from jetlag. After the meeting, they and some scientists and anthropologists went on a bus tour of London. Stopping at various churches, the Fore were able to explain the complicated religious iconography to atheist Americans, English, and Australians. Our ignorance troubled them and incited curiosity. They questioned us about our beliefs and tried to work out what sort of whitemen we might be. Who, then, were the anthropologists? Can we imagine a history of their anthropology?



Anderson, Warwick. 2008. The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1998. “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place.” Cultural Anthropology 3: 36–49.

Clifford, James. 1997. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late-Twentieth Century. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Constructs its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1990. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, 222–37. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Lindenbaum, Shirley. 2013. Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. 2nd edition. Boulder: Paradigm Press.

Narayan, Kirin. 1993. “How Native Is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?American Anthropologist 95: 671–86.



The citations and image included with this piece were updated on February 8, 2017.


Read another piece in this series:

Warwick Anderson: contributions / website / / University of Sydney

1 Comment

  1. A great short think piece. I absolutely agree we should try to imagine indigenous “history of anthropology.” I have been trying to work toward understanding indigenous observation and study of Anglo visitors in my own work, and it’s interesting to hear some of the terms the Fore used for anthropologists in contrast to others. There’s an interesting speech by a Zuni man (Palowahtiwa) in the 1880s that speaks of anthropologists he met having a “gift of guessing,” which in part had to do with the way anthropologists (here, specifically F L Cushing) recorded information and levered it for authoritative ends.

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