Silverman, Sydel. The Beast on the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2002.


In this “ethnography of anthropologists and their conference behavior” (x), Sydel Silverman describes the interworking of the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s International Symposia, writing from the perspective of a participant observer.  As president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research from 1986 to 1999, Silverman was the principal organizer of these invitation-only meetings. She begins by detailing the general process by which a conference was conceived and implemented, including attention to the idiosyncrasies of the Wenner-Gren conferencing model. The five- to six-day conferences were structured around discussions of pre-circulated papers, collective meals and cocktail hours. The strict rules of participation prohibited outsiders, including spouses, which regularly engendered “dissension and conflict” (13). The book proceeds to explore the interworking of 25 conferences that nearly span the entire course of Silverman’s 13-year presidency. While some gatherings proved more successful in terms of bringing the “beast” to life (a metaphor for the events originally coined by participant Gregory Bateson), Silverman identifies consistent patterns such as a persistent “epistemological division” between essentialist and constructionist views of science (261). Thus, The Beast on the Table offers a rare insider perspective on the collective (and often contested) formation of anthropological knowledge within institutional settings.

Relevance Today

While The Beast on the Table may not be cited as frequently as other contributions to the history of field also published at the end of the last century,[1] the book’s ability to examine a constitutive and often overlooked element of disciplinary formation makes for an invaluable addition to the history of anthropology. As Richard Handler has noted, conferences along with journals are crucial components in the production of discrete disciplines and corresponding identities.[2] However, the process by which these coherent branches of knowledge and identities come into existence is somewhat paradoxical. At annual association meetings, the assumption of disciplinary coherence is at an all-time high. Moreover, participation in such gatherings becomes a symbolic affirmation of one’s belonging to an “imagined community” of intellectuals.[3] The same can be said of Wenner-Gren’s highly selective invitation-only international symposia. However, as Handler observes, beneath this sense of belonging lie itinerant, heterogeneous groupings of individuals brought together by a combination of bureaucratic structure and a seemingly infinite number of personal motivations, which are often lost in neat disciplinary narratives.[4] 

Silverman effectively rescues the contingencies and idiosyncrasies of these events from Trotsky’s proverbial dustbin of history to provide us with a dynamic understanding of the process by which anthropology as a field of inquiry and its corresponding professional identities are recursively assembled within specific institutional entanglements. Additionally, Silverman’s observations have become all the more relevant in light of recent examinations of the broader socio-political context in which Wenner-Gren’s internationally-oriented anthropological focus emerged.[5] Read alongside these works, The Beast on the Table continues to enable us to move between different scales of analysis to better capture the institutional coordinates of anthropology’s history.

Selected Reviews

Bolles, A. Lynn. Transforming Anthropology 13, no. 2 (October 2005): 172.

Darnell, Regna. Current Anthropology 45, no. 2 (April 2004): 295–96.

Kehoe, Alice B. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 13, no. 1 (2003): 12–14.

Pinxten, Rik. Anthropos 99, no. 1 (2004): 300–301.

Wallman, Joel. American Anthropologist 106, no. 4 (December 2004): 778–79.

[1] Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of the Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Regna Darnell, Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001); Richard Handler, Excluded Ancestors, Inventible Traditions: Essays toward a More Inclusive History of Anthropology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000); Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[2] Richard Handler, “Between History and Coincidence: Writing Culture in the Annual Review of Anthropology, ca. 1982,” in Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology, ed. Orin Starn (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 52–71.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London; New York: Verso, 1991).

[4] Handler, “Between History and Coincidence: Writing Culture in the Annual Review of Anthropology, ca. 1982,” 59-61.

[5] Susan Lindee and Joanna Radin, “Patrons of the Human Experience: A History of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropology Research, 1941-2016,” Current Anthropology 57, no. Supplement (2016): S218–S301; Ilja A. Luciak, “Vision and Reality: Axel Wenner–Gren, Paul Fejos, and the Origins of the Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research,” Current Anthropology 57, no. Supplement 14 (2016): S302–S332.

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website /