Kuklick, Henrika. The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Henrika Kuklick’s The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945 charts the professionalization and academic institutionalization of British anthropology across three “stages,” “generations,” or “schools”—evolutionist, diffusionist, and functionalist—by reading anthropological texts as cultural products which illuminate changes in British political mores and social life. Kuklick claims that “whatever their views on technical problems, anthropologists [of each generation] were, above all, creatures of their historical moments” (250). Taking anthropologists’ “analyses of remote societies” as “vehicles for projective fantasy” (244), and “interpretive differences” among each school as “products of observers’ social circumstances” (3), Kuklick evaluates the “significance of anthropological ideas on the basis of their social consequences” (242) in order to “contextualize anthropology within the national culture” of Britain (278). Thus, she explains evolutionist theories of linear historical progression in terms of their ability to justify educational reforms at home and colonial rule abroad, as well as the growing popularity of meritocratic ideals among the British middle-class. She explains diffusionist contentions that cultural variation was a product of differences in social organization, as opposed to unequal natural endowments of humans, by reference to World War I and a concomitant sense among the British that “individuals’ fortunes could be altered by the circumstances in which they were placed” (181). Finally, she explains functionalists’ “triumph” during the interwar years as a result of their successful appeals for patronage, hinging on claims about the superiority of professional fieldwork and anthropological expertise relative to the practices of rural colonial administrators. 

Relevance Today

While some critics—most of them anthropologists—objected to Kuklick’s argument that all of British anthropology before World War II can be understood in terms of its “social” conditions of production, and many have found her use of British “culture” or “thought” too singular for late-twentieth and twenty-first century epistemic tastes, her detailed exposition of the diffusionists’ integration of anthropology and experimental psychology is a contribution to the history of anthropology that remains unparalleled. Whereas extant histories of British anthropology had downplayed the coherence and influence of diffusionist research,[1] Kuklick writes that this very treatment “tells us less about the intrinsic bankruptcy of diffusionist ideas than about the divorce of anthropology from psychology that occurred in Britain after World War I” (130). While the formalization of fieldwork methods is still frequently ascribed to functionalists like Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, diffusionists argued a generation earlier that the comparative methods of armchair philosophers and ethnologists had to be combined with observation and experimentation in the field. For W. H. R. Rivers and his students who accompanied him on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, for example, it was precisely the combination of psychological experimentation and ethnographic observation that “disconfirmed conventional evolutionist wisdom” about non-European people’s biological and cultural capacities (143). Given the recent interest among experimental mind scientists in things cultural and anthropologists’ enduring attention to laboratory sciences, Kuklick’s discussion of nineteenth-century concatenations of the lab and the field provides conceptual and historical material that might productively recast the chasm that still largely divides these fields of inquiry. 

Selected Reviews

Adas, Michael. Isis 84, no. 4 (December 1, 1993): 812.

Barkan, Elazar. American Ethnologist 21, no. 4 (November 1, 1994): 934. 

Kuper, Adam. The Times Literary Supplement (June 26, 1992): 8. 

Stocking, George. Victorian Studies 36, no. 2 (Winter, 1993): 232. 

Urry, James. American Anthropologist 95, no. 2 (June, 1993): 468–469. 

Vincent, Joan. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 29, no. 3 (July 1, 1993): 248.

[1] See Stocking, George W. Victorian Anthropology. New York: The Free Press, 1987; Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

Cameron Brinitzer: contributions / cbrinitzer@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science