2020 (page 1 of 3)

The One-Two Punch

One hundred and nine years ago, The New York Times ran a full-page overview of Franz Boas’s recently published book, The Mind of Primitive Man. [1] The headline read: “DOES THE WHITE RACE GIVE THE HIGHEST HUMAN TYPE?: As a Result of Recent Researches Prof. Boas Questions Current Beliefs in Racial Supremacy, Makes a Plea for the Negro and Tells Strange Facts in European Immigration.”[2] Above the handsome sketch of Boas were exaggerated profile portraits of “the Characteristic Round Jewish Head,” and “Characteristic Long Sicilian Head.” Coming on the heels of the media storm generated by Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1911),[3] this article provided added grist for the so-called Americanization movement whose sole purpose (at least that I can discern) was the consolidation of whiteness by assimilating the not quite white. The Times highlighted Boas’s research on how immigrants quickly became an “American type,” and underscored his arguments that there are no pure or superior races, and all can participate as citizens. The paper also described vital forms of government, thrift, skill, and complex military organization in pre-colonial Africa. The Times quoted Boas explaining, “the traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and social status. . . without falling back upon the theory of hereditary inferiority.”  Although pictures of “the Jewish” and “Sicilian” head are cringe-worthy today, many Americans would have found most of his findings against racial hierarchy not only repugnant, but profane.[4]

Continue reading

New release from BEROSE – Kuba on Frobenius and World War I

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This release is a fascinating paper by Richard Kuba about Leo Frobenius’s activities during World War I, and is extensively illustrated.

Kuba, Richard, 2020. “An Ethnologist on the Warpath: Leo Frobenius and the First World War,” in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Leo Frobenius (1873–1938), one of the most famous and controversial German ethnologists of the twentieth century, emphasized the historicity of African cultures and his work was inspirational to the representatives of the “Négritude” movement who aimed at re-establishing the cultural self-awareness of African peoples. Richard Kuba demonstrates, however, that any portrait of Frobenius is incomplete – if not distorted – if his activities and writings as an ethnologist engaged in World War I are not taken into account. Frobenius spent the war years not only as a researcher, but as the leader of a secret mission, propagandist, and director of a prisoner-of-war camp. As dazzling as his war experience may seem, it nevertheless reveals a great deal about the basic orientations of this rather unusual founding father of early twentieth-century anthropology and of the embedded-ness of the discipline in greater political regimes.

New release from BEROSE – Gonçalves on Luís Cascudo

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This article, in Portuguese, presents Brazilian anthropologist and folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo. It is published as part of the research theme “Histories of Anthropology in Brazil,” which was edited by Stefania Capone and Fernanda Peixoto.

Gonçalves, José Reginaldo Santos, 2020. “O folclore no Brasil na visão de um etnógrafo nativo: um retrato intelectual de Luís da Câmara Cascudo”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Brazilian anthropologist and folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo (1898-1986), who specialized in the folk cultures of his own country, is an under-acknowledged figure in the history of the discipline. In this compelling article in Portuguese, J. R. Santos Gonçalves portrays Cascudo as a “native ethnographer,” whose work is capable of igniting our contemporary imagination. Cascudo focused his attention on the most humble, material, earthly aspects of daily life, be they a sleeping hammock, a raft, food and cachaça, or popular gestures and expressions. In many of Cascudo’s studies, the human body was present as a fundamental, unavoidable mediator. Santos Gonçalves also highlights the fact that this “excluded ancestor,” while spending all his life in his hometown of Natal, in the legendary Nordeste, was part of the Brazilian Modernist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Associated as Cascudo was with “folklore” studies, his importance remained unacknowledged by the academic community of anthropologists. He is the author of numerous books that vividly recreate the universe of folk cultures in Brazil and continue to be re-printed, while his works remain important sources for current researchers.

New release from BEROSE – Mary on Leenhardt

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This latest release is a paper, in French, about the French Protestant missionary and ethnologist Maurice Leenhardt.

Mary, André, 2020. “Maurice Leenhardt, un ethnologue en mission,” in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

This ambitious biographical essay restores the complexity and depth of Maurice Leenhardt’s (1878-1954) missionary and ethnological endeavors in New Caledonia over more than twenty years. André Mary also evokes Leenhardt’s “second” career after he returned to France, where he was soon recognized as a first-class ethnologist, in dialogue with luminaries such as Paul Rivet, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and Marcel Mauss. His academic career did not prevent Leenhardt from remaining deeply committed to the Protestant world at the heart of a working-class neighborhood in Paris. He also reflected on the paradoxes of the missionary condition, and dedicated himself to a comparative history of missions abroad. Far from the postmodern and postcolonial critique, Mary analyses Leenhardt’s masterpiece Do Kamo (1947) by remaining as truthful as possible to the missionary’s ethnolinguistic inquiry, while evoking his conversations with Indigenous interlocutors on Kanak notions of person and body, mythical consciousness, and worldview.

New release from BEROSE – Thubauville on Jensen

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This paper, in English, concerns the German ethnographer Adolf Jensen, disciple of Leo Frobenius, who did fieldwork in southern Ethiopia in the 1930s and 1950s.

Thubauville, Sophia, 2020. “Of Phallic Stele, Heroes and Ancient Cultures. Adolf Ellegard Jensen’s Research in Southern Ethiopia,” in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Adolf Ellegard Jensen (1899-1965), a major disciple of the legendary Leo Frobenius, was himself one of the most influential German anthropologists of his time. His intellectual activity mainly concerned the fields of religion, myth, and ritual. A new article by Sophia Thubauville is dedicated to Jensen’s pioneering expeditions to southern Ethiopia in the 1930s and 1950s. Jensen’s research took place before Protestant missions converted the local population in large numbers and before the socialist revolution led to radical cultural and social change among the peoples of Ethiopia. As there exist no other descriptions of this region from that time, his accounts are a cultural archive for anthropologists, historians, and the people of southern Ethiopia. In addition to his extensive publications, Jensen also succeeded in interesting numerous young researchers in the region; their students and successors collaborate with a new generation of German anthropologists pursuing anthropological research in present-day southern Ethiopia.

The Peripeteia of The Gift: Gift Exchange by Grégoire Mallard

Grégoire Mallard. Gift Exchange: The Transnational History of a Political Idea. xi + 293pp., notes, bibl., index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Is there a more celebrated and contested text in the history of anthropology than Marcel Mauss’s The Gift?[1] Tucked away in the pages of Émile Durkheim’s old Année Sociologique upon its initial publication in 1925, this careful, erudite, even gnomic essay by the doyen of French anthropology contained a thicket of five hundred footnotes so dense they often relegated the main text to a few sentences adorning the top of its hundred-and-fifty-odd pages. Its interest in forms of exchange in “sociétés dites primitives” was predated by the works of Richard Thurnwald and Bronislaw Malinowski, yet unlike these pioneers his writings were not informed by direct ethnographic study.[2] The Gift (hereafter TG, subtitle: “The Form and Sense of Exchange in Archaic Societies”) was instead, in our contemporary academic parlance, something more like a review essay of armchair anthropology.

Continue reading

New release from BEROSE – Pallares-Burke on Rüdiger Bilden

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This paper, in English, is about a forgotten figure in Afro-Brazilian studies, Rüdiger Bilden.

Pallares–Burke, Maria Lúcia G., 2020. “An Intellectual Portrait of Rüdiger Bilden, Forgotten Forerunner of Gilberto Freyre,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

In her touching portrait of a forgotten figure in Afro-Brazilian studies, Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke brings to life German anthropologist Rüdiger Bilden (1893-1980), disciple of Franz Boas and colleague of Melville Herskovits at Columbia University. As early as 1929, Bilden coined the expression which identified Brazil as a “laboratory of civilizations,” a concept that has been highly controversial ever since. Bilden’s analyses of the effects of slavery on Brazilian society and culture are little known, however, in comparison to the thesis of his lifelong friend, the famous Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre. Bilden did not finish his Ph.D. at Columbia in the 1920s, published little and was unable to build a career. At a broader level, Bilden’s most important contribution concerned the question of race relations in the United States, a cause to which he gave increasing attention as the prospect of finishing his ambitious volumes on Brazilian slavery was diminishing. 

New release from BEROSE – Palisse on Roumain and Damas

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This paper, in French, concerns Haitian author Jacques Roumain, French Guyanese poet and politician Léon-Gontran Damas, and Haitian anthropology intellectual networks in the 1930s-1940s.

Palisse, Marianne, 2020. “Jacques Roumain, Léon-Gontran Damas, et les filiations de l’anthropologie haïtienne des années 1930-1940 : vers la constitution d’espaces intellectuels transcoloniaux ?,” in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

The article builds on the crossing of paths of the Haitian Jacques Roumain and the French Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas, and tries to shed light on the intellectual networks that inspired the practice of anthropology in the French-speaking Black Americas in the 1930s-1940s. The Institut d’Ethnologie de Paris, where Roumain and Damas studied, had a big influence on their own ideas of anthropology. But Damas and Roumain were also active members of Black intellectual networks on both sides of the Atlantic. These networks were connected with antifascist and antiracist groups of intellectuals but also with surrealism groups. Within these linkages, Haiti played a special role. Damas and Roumain saw anthropology as a tool for their project of improving the status of Black cultures and popular cultures. From their viewpoints as intellectuals from colonized countries and their refusal of assimilation, they took part in an in-depth reinterpretation of the discipline.

Upcoming History of Anthropology Talks at the HSS/SHOT Virtual Forum

Due to the ongoing pandemic, the History of Science Society (HSS) and the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) will not hold their planned in-person joint meeting this October, but will hold an online-only Virtual Forum, with a full schedule of talks, roundtables, social activities, flash talks, book presentations, and more. It will take place from October 8 through October 11, 2020.

The HAR News editors would like to highlight several events on the program related to the history of anthropology. Please note that the event times given are in Eastern Standard Time (U.S.) Registration for the Virtual Forum is required; a discounted registration rate is available for graduate students and unemployed and precariously employed scholars, and grant funding is available to fully reimburse graduate student registration fees. Please note that events are subject to change and it is best to check the program regularly for the events you are interested in.

Continue reading

Call for Applications: History of the Human Sciences Early Career Prize

History of the Human Sciences– an international journal of peer-reviewed research, which provides the leading forum for work in the social sciences, humanities, human psychology and biology that reflexively examines its own historical origins and interdisciplinary influences – is delighted to announce details of its prize for early career scholars. The intention of the annual award is to recognize a researcher whose work best represents the journal’s aim to critically examine traditional assumptions and preoccupations about human beings, their societies and their histories in light of developments that cut across disciplinary boundaries. In the pursuit of these goals, History of the Human Sciences publishes traditional humanistic studies as well as work in the social sciences, including the fields of sociology, psychology, political science, the history and philosophy of science, anthropology, classical studies, and literary theory. Scholars working in any of these fields are encouraged to apply.

Continue reading

New release from BEROSE – Pouillon on Van Gennep in Algeria

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This paper, in French, examines Arnold Van Gennep’s fieldwork in Algeria in 1911 and 1912, his only ethnographic work outside of Europe.

Pouillon, François, 2020. “Arnold Van Gennep en Algérie. Le détour exotique d’un ethnologue de l’Europe,” in BEROSE – International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Arnold van Gennep is best known today for his rites of passage theory, his contributions to the international debate on totemism, and his folklore studies. In this paper, François Pouillon reveals a less known facet: Van Gennep’s field experience in a colonial context, namely in Algeria, from 1911-1912. He invites the reader to browse through Van Gennep’s articles, archives, and his fascinating monograph En Algérie (In Algeria, 1914). Van Gennep developed a demanding research practice and a kind of reflexivity that was quite innovative at the time. Pouillon convincingly demonstrates that this Algerian experience was indeed a turning point in Van Gennep’s career, as it encouraged him to pursue his ethnography in rural France for reasons related to the predicaments of research in Muslim countries under European rule. Pouillon’s reading of the fascinating key text Les demi-savants (The Semi-Scholars, 1911), written in the same period, sheds further light on Van Gennep’s personality and on his singular place in the history of anthropology.

Webinar: The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn? Race, Racism, and Its Reckoning in American Anthropology

The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research will host a webinar on September 23rd at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 PM EST on “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn? Race, Racism, and Its Reckoning in American Anthropology,” sponsored by the UCLA Department of Anthropology Race, Racism, Policing and State Violence Committee, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

To register for this event click here.

Moderators: Kamari M. Clarke & Deborah Thomas

Introduction by Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Lucia Cantero, Assistant Professor of International Studies, University of San Francisco

Ryan Jobson, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

Chris Loperena, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center

Jonathan Rosa, Associate Professor of Education, Stanford University

Savannah Shange, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Zoe Todd, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Carleton University

Tripod: Performance, Media, Cybernetics by Jennifer Cool

A New Way of “Staging” the History of Anthropology

Jennifer Cool, Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, is both a social anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that she has spent the past few years experimenting with staged performances and film in an attempt to draw out what she has described as “the performative entanglements of media.”[1]

Continue reading

Boas in the Age of BLM and Idle No More: Re-Evaluating the Boasian Legacy

This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.

Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith (editors). The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism. 408 pp., 18 illus., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

William Y. Adams. The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology. 356 pp., 10 illus., bibl. Lanham, MD: Hamilton, 2016.

Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (editors). Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas. 416 pp., 28 illus., index. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Anthropologists and historians of anthropology readily acknowledge the role played by European empires in the making of the discipline. Although practitioners occasionally challenged existing power structures, they more frequently worked to inform and justify the dispossession, marginalization, murder, and enslavement of Indigenous and colonized peoples. These processes culminated in the Social Darwinist evolutionism of the Victorian period, which lent prevailing racial hierarchies a patina of scientific authority. This began to shift in the early twentieth century, when, amid a welter of social and cultural upheavals in Western society, anthropology’s imperial foundations appeared ripe for reconsideration. In America, the foremost proponent of these changes was the Jewish German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Traditional disciplinary histories point especially to Boas’s pivotal rejection of evolutionary anthropological approaches in favor of viewing cultures as integrated wholes, apprehensible solely within the contexts in which they are produced and maintained. These protocols were disseminated broadly, with Boas’s students founding university anthropology departments throughout the United States. On these grounds, Boas is frequently celebrated as “a major turning point from the evolution and racism of the nineteenth century to the historical particularism and cultural relativism of the twentieth century.”[1]

Continue reading

Introducing the History of Anthropology Reading Group, in collaboration with the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine

The editorial collective at the History of Anthropology Review (HAR) is pleased to announce the launch of a new reading group, hosted in collaboration with the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM). The “History of Anthropology Working Group” will allow anyone interested in the history of anthropology to take part in monthly discussions about topics of vital interest to the field. We warmly invite all HAR readers to join us for these online conversations. This year, spurred by Black Lives Matter protests, the reading group’s focus will be anthropology’s relationships to (and studies of) racism, racial science, white supremacy, anti-racism, and policing.

Continue reading

Conference: “Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future,” September 14-18, 2020

“The Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future” conference is jointly organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Royal Geographical Society, the British Academy, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS, and the BM’s Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The conference was originally planned as a face to face conference to be held in June 2020, but it will now be an online conference to be held 14-18 September 2020.

Continue reading

New release from BEROSE – Tambascia on Nimuendajú

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This paper, in Portuguese, discusses notable Brazilian anthropologist Curt Nimuendajú. Its English title says it all: “‘I don’t know how to make a living’: the backstage of Curt Nimuendajú’s ethnography”.

Tambascia, Christiano Key, 2020. “‘Não sei como hei de viver’: osbastidores da etnografia de Curt Nimuendajú”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Nimuendajú occupies an exceptional, legendary place in the history of Brazilian anthropology. He exerted a lasting fascination for Americanist anthropologists who recognized him as a great ethnographer. His unconditional defense of Indigenous peoples and his criticism of Brazilian Indigenous politics contributed to building the figure of a romantic ethnologist entirely devoted to his profession. Through a meticulous ethnography of the archives, Cristiano Tambascia takes us through the looking glass and helps us understand the making of this reputation and the many difficulties that littered the life and ethnographic practice of Nimuendajú, who lived in material and institutional precariousness, heightened by an uncompromising professional ethic.

‘Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology’ by Peter Hempenstall

Peter HempenstallTruth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology. xiv +321pp., 17 illus., 2 maps, bibl., index. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

Peter Hempenstall’s Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War over Cultural Anthropology offers a fresh and thoroughly researched biography of the controversial anthropologist Derek Freeman. The book is built around Freeman’s infamous criticism of Margaret Mead’s first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, and the ensuing acrimony within the discipline. An admirer of Mead’s work, Freeman travelled to Samoa to do his own research, attempting in the process to find Mead’s original informants and reproduce her research on adolescent sexuality. In the early 1980s, he began to argue that her conclusions on adolescence were mistaken, and that she had been hoaxed by mischievous young informants. Attacking Freeman, Mead, and one another, anthropologists around the world took sides that reproduced a kind of nature-nurture debate on human development and teenaged identity crises with supporters of Mead on the side of nurture and those backing Freeman on the side of nature. The furor did not subside until after Freeman’s death in 2001. This dispute, still a sensitive subject for many anthropologists, acts as Hempenstall’s focal point, but Truth’s Fool goes well beyond it. In fact, in the beginning, Hempenstall advises his readers to remember that “the Mead thing” (7) is only one particular way of understanding Freeman’s life and work. I recommend this book as a compelling story for anyone interested in the history of anthropology as a discipline, as well as those trying to grasp the fallout of Freeman’s work and the heated response to it. As an outsider to anthropology but an insider to Australian academia, Hempenstall gives us a new perspective into this period of anthropological debate.

Continue reading

New release from BEROSE – Goetzmann on Henry Sumner Maine

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This article, in French, discusses one of the founding fathers of anthropology in the nineteenth century, the jurist-anthropologist of the British Raj, Sir Henry Sumner Maine.

Goetzmann, Marc, 2020. “Le juriste anthropologue du British Raj. Sir Henry Sumner Maine et son oeuvre”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

British Victorian jurist Henry Maine was one of the founding fathers of anthropology, and legal anthropology in particular. He is best known for Ancient Law (1861) and its famous thesis on the transition from status to contract in Indo-European societies. For seven years, beginning in 1862, Maine was legal adviser to the Council of the Governor General of India. He was interested in the dynamics between law and social change and the functioning of customary law in Indian village communities. His writings fostered the development of field investigations in India from the 1870-1880s and onwards. He is regarded as one of the main inspirations for the policy of indirect rule in the British Empire. His ideas were to be successful among Indian nationalists wishing to preserve Indian institutions, primarily village communities. As a professor of law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he was also the author of Village Communities in East and West (1871), Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875), and Dissertations on Early Law and Custom (1883).

Latest Additions to the Bibliography, August 2020

This page displays our most recent batch of citations; a comprehensive bibliography of citations we’ve collected since 2016 (going back as far as 2013) and a search tool are also available.

We welcome suggestions from readers. If you come across something of interest during your own fieldwork in the library, whether that be physical or virtual, please let us know by emailing us at bibliographies@histanthro.org.

Continue reading

American Philosophical Society Indigenous Studies Seminar, 2020-2021

The Indigenous Studies Seminar at the American Philosophical Society’s Library & Museum provides a forum for works-in-progress that explore topics in Native American and Indigenous Studies and related fields. Inspired by the work of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) at the APS, we are particularly interested in work by Indigenous scholars and projects that highlight community-engaged scholarship, use of archival and museum collections in research, teaching, and learning, Indigenous research methodologies, language revitalization, place-based teaching and learning, and related topics.

We welcome proposals from individuals working in a broad range of academic fields and community settings, and are particularly interested in interdisciplinary approaches. The seminar is open to graduate students, faculty members, and independent scholars, whether campus- or community-based. To maximize time for discussion, papers are circulated electronically in advance. The seminar meets once a month on Fridays from 3-5pm EST from October through May. All meetings in 2020-2021 will be held on Zoom.

Any questions should be directed to the coordinators of the seminar, Kyle Roberts (kroberts@amphilsoc.org) and Adrianna Link (alink@amphilsoc.org) at the APS.

To submit a proposal, please email a one-page proposal, a brief statement (2-3 sentences) explaining how this paper relates to your other work, and a brief CV by August 21, 2020 to kroberts@amphilsoc.org and alink@amphilsoc.org.

Conferences as Ecologies of Ideas: Epistemic Cultures of the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania

A considerable portion of scholarly life is bound up with meetings of various kinds. For those located within academic institutions, office hours, departmental meetings, and university committees play a range of roles in the ebb and flow of day-to-day activities and the career trajectories of Homo Academicus (Bourdieu 1988; Wacquant 1989). Of particular significance for academic disciplines are conferences that bring scholars from multiple institutions together for the purpose of sharing knowledge and exploring new directions in methodologies and the interpretation of salient ideas.

In this essay, we query the role that conference procedures play in shaping the vitality and trajectory of ideas within the discipline of anthropology through an examination of the history of the annual meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO). The particularities of this meeting, we argue, coalesced over time as a curiously successful model of governance, organization, and ethos for nurturing new ideas and approaches. By “ideas,” we refer to the conceptualization of issues, the kinds of data that are considered appropriate for addressing them, the language in which they are couched, their theoretical implications, and the methodological interventions necessary to pursue them. Our concern is with how different organizational contexts affect the processing of ideas among members of a discipline in conference settings, what we call the “ecology of ideas” within a particular epistemic culture.

In the opening lines of her influential work Epistemic Cultures, Karin Knorr Cetina offers a working definition of epistemic cultures: “those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms—bonded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence—which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures that create and warrant knowledge” (1999:1). The epistemic communities constituted by anthropology can be identified as maintaining a “richly textured internal environment and culture” (Knorr Cetina 1991, 120). We are particularly interested in the long-term dynamics of scholarly conferences as they are material institutions that reproduce themselves over time and exert some degree of agency over the social and intellectual lives of participants (Hughes 1936; Parsons 1990). We also recognize that conferences often have the quality of obligatory celebrations of a discipline’s raison d’ȇtre, while implicitly or explicitly reaffirming the particular forms of their governance. As such, we offer this study of the work of the ASAO as a model for the potential of academic conferences to nurture epistemic communities.

The Role of Conferences in the Production of Knowledge

Just about every professional organization and academic discipline holds conferences at regular intervals for the avowed purpose of sharing information and ideas in face-to-face venues. Finding out what’s new in one’s field of interest, socializing and networking, enhancing possibilities for publication, and establishing evidence of national or international reach may be significant for tenure and promotion, and other benefits are readily identified (Morse 2008).

Other scholars, meanwhile, are more critical. For instance, Canadian anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman opines that

“the vast multitude of anthropological conferences, congresses, articles, monographs, and collections, while adding up to mountains of paper . . . do not seem to add up to a substantial, integrated, coherent body of knowledge that could provide a base for the further advancement of the discipline.”

(Salzman quoted in Borofsky 2019:45; cf. Borofsky 1994)

In contrast to Salzman, we are less dismissive of conferences and suggest that constructive disciplinary work plays out through the longue durée of conference participation. Annual conferences of professional organizations clearly perform important work for their disciplines, including (1) establishing specific epistemic communities; (2) maintaining and reproducing those communities over time; (3) establishing normative epistemic, methodological, ontological, and ethical commitments and practices within those communities, which develop over time; and (4) acting as an ecological setting in which specific disciplinary/epistemic community-producing ideas emerge, persist, are transformed, or perish.

Strikingly, for all the professional attention given to conferences, there is relatively little research regarding the nature of conferences as social and cultural institutions for sharing knowledge, including the ways they are structured, their cultural environments, and how these characteristics affect the social and historical lives of ideas within scholarly communities. Thinking of Judith Mair’s 2013 challenge to move toward issues of knowledge production and circulation, we are concerned here with what we are calling “the ecology of ideas” constituted by annual meetings of specific professional organizations.

We write in the wake of a multiyear project on the history of one association with which we have been intimately involved, the Association for Social Anthropology of Oceania (ASAO).[1]  We have identified a number of significant points that affected, and continue to affect, the meetings’ distinctive cultural environment for the processing of information and ideas.[2]  These include the organization’s founding charter, which favored a comparative framework that prioritized the processing of ethnographic data rather than abstract theorization. The resultant framework encouraged collegial engagement in pursuit of common goals and governance. Our work on ASAO’s history has convinced us that the degree of governance hierarchy is highly significant for either facilitating or inhibiting the agency of a discipline’s members to shape its intellectual agenda, and that the degree of organizational hierarchy is a primary driver for the social and historical life of an ecology of ideas as cultivated within an association through its meetings over time.

A Brief History of the Birth and Constitutional Development of ASAO

The idea for an anthropological organization that would take advantage of opportunities presented by the Pacific Islands for comparative research was the brainchild of Vern Carroll, a student of David Schneider’s at the University of Chicago. Carroll had done extensive fieldwork on Nukuoro Atoll, a Polynesian outlier in Micronesia, and was enamored with the possibilities for controlled comparison within Polynesia and Micronesia. The idea for such research, and publications based on it, had precedents in British social anthropology and Marshall Sahlins’s publication of Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958).

To initiate his vision, Carroll, in conjunction with Roger Keesing, organized a “symposium” in 1967 at Keesing’s home institution, the University of California–Santa Cruz. The sole topic of the meeting was adoption in Eastern Pacific societies (Island Melanesia was included as a concession to Keesing, who contributed a paper on adoption among the Kwaio in Malaita, Solomon Islands).[3] 

Discussions at the Santa Cruz symposium led Carroll to propose the formation of an Association for Social Anthropology in Eastern Oceania (ASAEO). In its initial newsletter (May 15, 1967), he provided the rationale for the organization.[4] “One major conclusion reached at the symposium,” he noted,

“was that the intensification of modern social anthropology research in the Pacific has not so far been sufficiently systematic: we have gone out as individuals or in small team projects, largely out of touch with our colleagues, and have pursued diverse research interests and published the results in scattered bits and pieces. Organized comparative studies like those on politics and kinship that brought African social anthropology into focus have so far been lacking.”

In response, this association was formed “as a means of organizing research, disseminating information, and arranging recurring symposia on topics in Oceanic social anthropology” (ASAEO Newsletter 1:1).

A few years later, in a newsletter published just prior to the first annual meeting of the organization, which had by then assumed its current name (ASAO),[5] the organizers commented on the implications of the word “social” in the association’s title, specifying that “We are an organization of ethnographers with regional comparative interests.” Further, in the same newsletter, when considering,

“What sort of ‘Annual Meeting’ does ASAO hold?” the response indicated, “There will be a limited number of symposia…. Discussions at these symposia will center around previously circulated position papers and will represent one stage of monograph preparation”

(ASAO Newsletter 9:6, 8 [Winter 1972]).

The first official annual meeting of ASAO was held from March 29 to April 1, 1972, at Rosario’s Resort-Hotel on Orcas Island in the San Juan Group in Washington State, and attended by some fifty anthropologists.[6] In addition to the three symposia, informal discussions were held in the evenings on four additional topics (ASAO Newsletter 10:10 [Spring 1972]). The following year’s meeting included two symposia, two “working sessions,” and an informal evening “discussion session” concerning indigenous reactions to anthropological research (ASAO Newsletter 12:1–5 [Spring 1973]). A stocktaking of those first two ASAO meetings resulted in a restructuring of the conference format for the 1974 meeting in order to reduce scheduling conflicts and build in time for symposium contributors “to work out formatting of their symposium volumes.” The solution was to propose the three classes of sessions: symposia, working sessions, and informal sessions (ASAO Newsletter 12:11–12 [Spring 1973]).

The emergence of the three types of session co-occurred with the start of what became ASAO’s iconic “three-year cycle” of developmental sessions. This development of topical sessions and ideas was very much about “learning to talk to one another” over multiyear conversations according to early and longtime ASAO member Michael Lieber (personal communication, March 2015). Although Carroll later expressed misgivings about the new structure (ASAO Newsletter 50:2–3 [Spring 1984]), the evolution of session formats can be seen as the result of his initial organizational scheme, which placed power in the hands of session organizers. Topics were not selected by the ASAO Board of Directors or officers; rather, it was very much a grassroots matter of someone with a keen interest in a topic proposing a session and taking responsibility for guiding the development of the “long conversation,” as another early and longtime member, David Counts, called the three-year cycle (personal communication, December 2015).

It is useful to contrast ASAO’s conference format with more traditional conference cultural environments and governance structures such as that of the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). While the governing structures of both the ASAO and AAA are clearly efficacious in producing meetings that have attracted participants and audiences over decades, their governance has important implications for the epistemic communities that they produce, reproduce, and maintain, and how they organize and nurture particular ecologies of ideas.

The Ecology of Ideas

We suggest that examining ASAO meetings in terms of constructivist and second-order cybernetic perspectives helps underscore the most successful aspects of the meetings in terms of cultivating a diversified and vibrant ecology of ideas.[7] Both of these perspectives adhere to an epistemological premise that scientific knowledge is constructed by communities of scientists as a result of discussion, negotiation, and contestation in the production of knowledge and in its circulation via peer reviewed literature (Latour 1987). In the social sciences, constructivism as an epistemology urges researchers to reflect on the paradigms underpinning their research and to be open to considering multiple ways of interpreting research results. The focus should be on presenting results as negotiable constructs rather than as models that aim to represent social realities more or less accurately (Rouse 1993; Galison and Stump 1996).

Ben Sweeting and Michael Hohl (2015) have critiqued the format of conferences such as AAA’s from a constructivist perspective in some detail. They observe that although the traditional format for conferences, established by the Royal Society of London in the 1600s, involved the reading of papers accompanied by active participation and an exchange of knowledge, contemporary conferences have become much more passive. As they point out, the traditional paper presentation model offers some benefits, such as predictability, which facilitates advanced planning, and the possibility for young scholars to introduce themselves by presenting research relatively quickly. However, drawing on the criticisms of second-order cyberneticians and constructivists such as Ranulph Glanville (2011) and Gordon Pask (1979), they summarize the many practical shortcomings of traditional conference design, including the minimization and formalization of conversation, the impossibility for sustained cross-conference discussion due to parallel sessions, and structures that make conferences and proceedings spaces to present finalized research and results rather than true works in progress (Sweeting and Hohl 2015:2).

They go on to consider how a constructivist approach highlights the role of conferences as “an active part of research” and ask the following:

“How might, for instance, we compose a conference in such a way that, in turn, it helps us in composing new ideas and research questions rather than in passively reporting on and listening to the results of research already conducted?”

(Sweeting and Hohl 2015:3)

What can we make of the implications of constructivism and second-order cybernetics for understanding the dynamic outcomes of particular conference cultures like ASAO? To begin with, one might question whether the ASAO format, as a result of its more egalitarian structure, allows for greater flexibility in the processing of ideas. Indeed, some have questioned whether its normative three-year cycle may actually be too rigid for productive discussions to take place. But our work on the history of ASAO sessions in fact makes it clear that the “ideal” three-year cycle is far from a realized outcome, accounting for only 19 percent of the outcomes of initial informal sessions between 1973 and 2015. The actual sequencing of sessions is much more fluid and suggestive of an intellectual dynamic resulting in multiple outcomes, depending on where participants take discussions.

ASAO meetings thus do seem to distinctly resonate with Sweeting and Hohl’s constructivist suggestions towards improving conference environments with respect to the processing of ideas. In other words, by eschewing a top-down prescriptive formula, allowing the process to be driven by session participants themselves as they pursue common interests, ASAO meetings may work to front significant moments of exchange, multiply opportunities for feedback loops to recur within and across meeting years, focalize and amplify individual entanglement in collective scholarly work, and promote learning and exploring in contrast to scholarly reportage.

The different session levels facilitate different types of discourse, with informal sessions providing a venue for a wide variety of theoretical viewpoints and forms of field data, while working sessions require sufficient field data to prepare draft papers, and symposia require a greater degree of cohesive ethnographic comparisons if they are to result in publishable outcomes. ASAO session participants regularly decide it is necessary to repeat session levels to gain the degree of consensus or focus required to move up a level—hence our finding that informal and working sessions often are repeated before going on to the next level (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).

Another dynamic of the ASAO conferences as a particular ecology of ideas can be identified in the way that many of our own publications would never have occurred had not someone suggested a topic we had not thought about, but realizing that we had excellent ethnographic data on the topic in our fieldnotes, we joined the conversation and proceeded to develop an article or book chapter.

It is also noteworthy that many topics are abandoned following informal or working sessions, and that many symposia do not result in publications. This should not be regarded in any sense as symptomatic of failure, but rather as ASAO providing a venue that allows for ideas to be explored without restriction, and to sort out those that lend themselves to fruitful comparison from those that do not, thus serving ASAO’s foundational principle of facilitating controlled comparison, while motivating a continuity of particularly fruitful discourses that often takes issues of concern in new directions.


In conclusion, while we find the constructivist and cybernetic critiques of standard academic conferences such as those of the AAA quite compelling insofar as they point up the problematic nature of their formats vis-à-vis the production and evolution of new knowledge, it would be far from our intention to denigrate the value of such annual meetings. Rather, our analysis aims at drawing attention to the significance of hierarchy, among other dynamics in the constitution, governance, and norms of an association, for setting the environmental grounds in which particular ecologies of ideas flourish. Whereas large associations such as AAA may require hierarchy to maintain a semblance of order at conferences, smaller associations such as ASAO are able to thrive by reinforcing an egalitarian collegiality conducive to unfettered discussion.

Nevertheless, we do not think expressions of dissatisfaction with AAA conferences among a limited number of alienated or disaffected participants should be dismissed as inconsequential. Rather, they can be viewed as symptoms of a more significant dynamic—that the particular ecology of ideas fostered by that format is indicative of specific forms of knowledge production, the ways in which contests over knowledge are conducted, and the ways in which it is shared and circulated. The governance and organizational hierarchy of the AAA results in the ideas of certain key players being given currency. They are fronted, often pushed hard by their colleagues, and rendered especially impactful.[8] 

Although alternative ideas may be circulating, they are more easily relegated to the periphery, or given serious attention only among smaller segments of a discipline’s communities. This, we believe, has the result of reinforcing current paradigms at the expense of developing ideas that may be challenging to the status quo. The contrast is with small groups of scholars working in an egalitarian milieu on a topic of common interest on an ongoing basis, which we believe is a more productive way to make significant progress in developing worthwhile ideas. Rather than rewarding displays of one-upmanship or competitive confrontations, the ASAO format provides an intellectual environment that fosters ongoing relationships. Perhaps most important of all, it encourages people, especially younger scholars, to take risks by presenting lines of research and ideas in their formative stages in a supportive atmosphere.

This is not to say that conferences like AAA are not worthwhile; there are still many valid reasons to attend them, such as those noted above. But we believe there is room for a greater degree of flexibility at large conferences, including granting small groups of scholars concerned with specific topics more autonomy in the ways in which they organize their sessions. In other words, we are suggesting that the organizers of conferences, whatever their scope, think through the implications of their formats for the nurturance of ideas and their implications for furthering the goals of their particular discipline.[9] 

Acknowledgments: We would like to express our warm appreciation for helpful feedback on the initial draft of this paper, which we received from Mike Lieber, Mike Rynkiewich, Rick Feinberg, Rich Scaglion, Jan Rensel, and other participants in the 2015–2018 ASAO sessions that focused on multiple aspects of the association’s history.

Works Cited

Borofsky, Robert, ed. 1994. Assessing Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Borofsky, Robert. 2019. “An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms?” Center for a Public Anthropology. DOI: 10.31761/pa-oas1.19aaoa

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Carroll, Vern, ed. 1970. Adoption in Eastern Oceania. ASAO Monograph 1. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai‘i.

Galison, Peter, and Stump, David J., eds. 1996. The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Glanville, Ranulph. 2011. “Introduction: A Conference Doing the Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Kybernetes 40(7–8):952–963.

Hughes, Everett Cherrington. 1936. “The Ecological Aspect of Institutions.” American Sociological Review 1(2):180–189.

Kawa, Nicholas C, José A Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty. 2019. “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities.” American Anthropologist 121(1):14–29.

Knorr Cetina, Karin D. 1991. “Epistemic Cultures: Forms of Reason in Science.” History of Political Economy 23(1):105–122.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mair, Judith. 2013. Conferences and Conventions: A Research Perspective. London: Routledge.

Mawyer, Alexander, and Alan Howard. Forthcoming. “A History of ASAO Sessions: Formats and Topics.” In ASAO Histories: Perspectives, edited by Jan Rensel. ASAO Occasional Paper 1.

Mead, Margaret. 1968. “Cybernetics of Cybernetics.” Pp. 1–11 in Purposive Systems, edited by Heinz von Foerster, John D White, Larry J Peterson, and John K Russell. New York: Spartan Books.

Morse, Janice M. 2008. “The Side Effects of Conferences.” Qualitative Health Research 18(9):1159–1160.

Parsons, Talcott. 1990. “Prolegomena to a Theory of Social Institutions.” American Sociological Review 55(3):319–333.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sweeting, Ben, and Michael Hohl. 2015. “Exploring Alternatives to the Traditional Conference Format: Introduction to the Special Issue on Composing Conferences.” Constructivist Foundations 11(1):1–7.

Von Foerster, Heinz, 2003. “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics.” Pp. 287–304 in Understanding Understanding. New York: Springer.

Von Foerster, Heinz, et al., eds. 1974. Cybernetics of Cybernetics. BCL Report 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL.

Wacquant, Loïc J. 1989. “For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On Homo Academicus.Berkeley Journal of Sociology 34:1–29.

[1] With Vern Carroll and others, Howard played a role in the development of the association in the mid 1960s, and in the decades since he served in myriad roles including board member, program coordinator, membership coordinator, web master, and multiple times as session organizer. More recently, Mawyer served for several years as the ASAO program coordinator, and also on the association’s Distinguished Lecturer Committee, the Pacific Islands Scholars Award committee, as well as a three-year term on the Board.

[2] As our contribution to a working group concerned with the association’s history, we developed a database of sessions, presentations, and subsequent publications from fifty-plus years of ASAO’s annual conference meetings (Mawyer and Howard forthcoming).  

[3] The focus on adoption was the product of the cynosure of kinship studies in social and cultural anthropology at the time. Within kinship studies, anthropologists were interested in adoption in relation to the transmission of rights in land and other forms of property. A selection of the papers was published in a volume entitled Adoption in Eastern Oceania edited by Carroll (1970).

[4] ASAO Newsletters are archived online here.

[5] When developing its constitution in 1969, the association decided to allow its geographical focus to expand beyond Eastern Oceania in order to include Papua New Guinea (ASAEO Newsletter 5:1 [March 1970]).

[6] Photos from ASAO annual meetings are posted on the ASAO website.

[7] Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, was developed by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster, and Gordon Pask, among others, in the late 1960s and mid 1970s (Mead 1968; von Foerster et al. 1974; von Foerster 2003). In her 1967 keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), Mead proposed that the practice of cybernetics by the ASC should be subject to cybernetic critique.

[8] While not our focus here, we imagine such dynamics at keystone conferences may not be entirely innocent of a role in the formation and maintenance of inequalities in the social networks of anthropology as profession (Kawa et al. 2019).

[9] Robert A. Scott, Associate Director Emeritus of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, who read a draft of this paper and gave us valuable feedback, raised the question of how the ASAO format fits the call for increased interdisciplinary work. In our opinion, an egalitarian environment such as that offered by ASAO would be vital for any kind of interdisciplinary development because it will inevitably require considerable negotiation and the ability of participants to set aside the prevailing paradigms of their disciplines in favor of other possibilities. This kind of collaborative development is only likely to take place over an extended period of collegial discussions.

New release from BEROSE – Mahias on the Nilgiris as Indian Tribal Sanctuary

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. This article, in English, discusses the ideological construction of the Nilgiris region in southern India as a tribal sanctuary, c. 1812-1950.

Mahias, Marie–Claude, 2020. “The Construction of the Nilgiris (South India) as a ‘Tribal Sanctuary’ (1812-1950)”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Anthropologist Marie-Claude Mahias explains how the case of the Nilgiris region in India was used in modern anthropology to construct very different sociological models. It was equally easy to prove that the inhabitants of this region were isolated tribes or that they were part of a jajmânî-like system of interdependence, with either the Todas or the Badagas as the dominant caste. Mahias demonstrates that the basis of the British distinction between ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’ were never clearly defined, as scientific and political considerations have always been intertwined in the history of both concepts. Mahias questions the perception of the Nilgiri peoples during the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth and reveals that the choice of sociological concepts was never really discussed. This does not mean, however, that it was wholly arbitrary. ‘Caste’ and ‘tribe’ are the outcomes of a controversial epistemological construction that has evolved in complex ways over the course of time.

New release from BEROSE – Toffin on Nepalese Anthropology

HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology. These two articles, both in French, discuss the history of Nepalese anthropology and folklore.

Toffin, Gérard, 2020. “Les folkloristes népalais, entre sentiment national et diversité des cultures (XXe – début XXIe siècle)”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Toffin, Gérard, 2020. “Naissance de l’école népalaise d’anthropologie (1960-2020)”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

French anthropologist Gérard Toffin traces the history of Nepalese folklore since the beginning of the 20th century. He analyzes how this movement has evolved over the last few decades, partly under the influence of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage policy, introduced in the early 2000s, as opposed to the previous focus on the archaeological legacies of classical written cultures. The article concludes with a reflection on the relationship between scholarly and popular culture in South Asia and on the deep roots of the Nepalese folklore movement in the context of a multicultural country of 30 million people, with some 100 different ethnic groups and castes, speaking nearly 90 different languages.

The second article by Toffin deals with the insightful case of Nepalese anthropology as a new discipline, a World Anthropology that was not created by the colonial power, as in India by the British Raj. Nepalese universities, funded largely with the help of developed countries, are unable to provide for the needs of young local anthropologists, who are forced to contract with foreign agencies in order to make a living. Overarching and ambiguous, dependence on foreign countries dates back to the first generation of Nepalese anthropologists, often trained as assistants to Western anthropologists – as was the case with Dor Bahadur Bista, the founding father of Nepalese anthropology, who was the informant/collaborator of the London SOAS professor of anthropology, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf. Their utilitarian approach within applied anthropology often distinguishes Nepalese anthropologists from their foreign colleagues.

Women of the Powell Expeditions: The Contributions of Emma Powell and Ellen Powell Thompson

Major John Wesley Powell is a prominent figure in the history of American anthropology and probably best known to HAR readers as the founder of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE).[1] Prior to that, however, he built a reputation as a field naturalist through an impressive series of expeditions, supported in the early years by a precarious patchwork of funding. With limited finances and lacking in impressive academic credentials, Wes Powell relied heavily on family members to staff his expeditions. Two women, his wife Emma and his sister Ellen, were integral contributors to the scientific staff, although their participation has received little recognition. Here I will discuss how their contributions, like those of many women, have been obscured by historical processes and suggest some ways that they might be rediscovered.

Continue reading
Older posts