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.”

If such settler metaphors make us uncomfortable today, Stocking’s call proved immensely successful: the history of anthropology has established itself as a proper academic field. Stocking’s multi-volume series “History of Anthropology” has been widely read and acclaimed—probably more among anthropologists than historians. And yet anthropologists sometimes find it frustrating to read historians of their discipline. While admiring their scholarship, they sometimes feel, as ‘natives’, that even if one gets all the facts right, one might still fail to get the central point. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to historicizing fieldwork. Stocking‘s deflationary approach to “the ethnographer’s magic” came as a salutary counterpoint to Malinowski’s self-aggrandizing account. However, his insistence on Boas’s priority in the invention of fieldwork (a reflection of a British/U.S. rivalry) prevented him from grasping the radical nature of Malinowski’s ethnography, which is still inspirational one century later. Narratives of the past always have a cosmological/political component, as they provide a genealogy of our present.

Disciplinary history as genealogy of the present. When the Musée de l’Homme reopened in Paris in 2015—having survived the loss of its ethnographic collections to the Musée du Quai Branly—it claimed an essential continuity with the initial 1938 project: significantly, the book on sale at the opening was not a catalogue, but a history of the institution. Image source: Musée de l’Homme.

In fact, contrary to Stocking’s dire prediction, anthropologists have not only survived the invasion, but the history of the discipline has increasingly received recognition as a legitimate activity: a History of Anthropology Network has just been recreated within the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA). One effect of the challenge from historians has been to alert  anthropologists to the perils of anachronism and to upgrade the criteria of scholarship: just as ethnographies must be consistent with what we have observed and heard, so accounts of the past have to withstand historical critique. While some anthropologists devote themselves full-time to this task, many combine historical investigations and fieldwork. Most, however, decline the label of “historian of anthropology” (which still carries the stigma of manqué evoked by Stocking), and choose, rather, to incorporate historical reflexivity as an essential part of their trade. The history of anthropology then becomes part of a larger project of “anthropology of colonialism,” critically analyzing the consequences of Western governmentality outside Europe, and providing an “historiography of the discipline’s present.”

History of anthropology of some kind should be an essential component of any anthropology curriculum. It helps students realize the historicity of knowledge: that our formulations are always grounded in a specific time and place, and that we draw consciously or not on the works of those who precede us. When it comes to defining research agendas, however, such a perspective can become a blinder. As the disciplinary frame is projected retrospectively, those knowledge practices that are recognized as part of our genealogy are artificially detached from other practices left out of the analysis. Instead, historical inquiries of anthropological knowledge should be placed within a larger project of understanding the ways knowledge practices shape—and are shaped by—interactions between heterogeneous worlds in “colonial” and post-colonial settings. For example, a comparative approach to the complex links between anthropology and state-making, in the past as in the present, can offer a privileged entry for studying the entanglement between the governing of populations defined by their “difference” (by missionaries, military, administrators, and others), and the production of knowledge (both learned and lay) about these populations.

While “History of Anthropology” provides a convenient flag to rally a number of scholarly undertakings (which the new HAN will hopefully help disseminate), we need to unsettle the disciplinary frame of “anthropology” itself, taken as a given in Stocking’s initial call, in order to understand how, yesterday as today, knowledge practices emerge from and shape interactions across worlds.



Blanckaert, Claude, ed. 2015. Le Musée de l’homme: Histoire d’un musée laboratoire. Paris: Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle/Musée de l’Homme/Artlys.

de L’Estoile, Benoît, Federico Neiburg, and Lydia Sigaud, eds. 2005. Empires, Nations and Natives. Anthropology and State-Making. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bérose: Encyclopédie en ligne sur l’histoire de l’anthropologie et des Savoirs ethnographiques  [online encyclopaedia and series created by the late Daniel Fabre; website due to be relaunched in April, 2017].

Pels, Peter. 2008. “What Has Anthropology Learned from the Anthropology of Colonialism?Social Anthropology 16: 280–299.

Pels, Peter, and Oscar Salemink, eds. 1999. Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Read another piece in this series:

Benoît de L'Estoile: contributions / website / blestoile@gmail.com / CNRS, Ecole normale supérieure, PSL Research University