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“Orientalism alla Turca”: Evolutionary Desires, Imperial Nostalgias, and Western Anxieties in Ahmed Midhat’s Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân


On November 15, 1889,[1] Ahmed Midhat (1844–1912), a prolific Ottoman journalist and novelist, announced in his newspaper Tercümân–i Hakîkât (Interpreter of Truth): 

The pleasant travelogue of the compassionate Ahmet Midhat Efendi, his grace, where all his observations, thoughts, and expertise on events from his previous journey to Europe are presented, will be published as of tomorrow! (Tuğluk 2018, 145).[2]

The account of his impressions and ideas on the European cities he visited between August 15 and October 25, 1889, first appeared in a daily series as Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân (A Tour in Europe, hereafter Cevelân).[3] It was published as a book in 1890, read widely in Istanbul and beyond.[4] The Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II (1842–1918), even ordered its distribution to the European and American diplomatic missions (Asiltürk 1995, 576). These two different audiences—one at home and one abroad— invite closer analysis of the textual and ideological features of this remarkable text.

As the official appointee of Abdulhamid II, Ahmed Midhat joined the eighth Congrès international des orientalistes as an Ottoman delegate. He began his trip on a steamer in Istanbul and, disembarking in Marseille, traveled throughout Europe by train. After the Congress in Stockholm-Cristiana (Oslo), Ahmed Midhat spent twelve days at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris before extending his trip to Geneva, Montreux, Luzern, Konstanz, Vienna, and onto Trieste, where he took a ship back to Istanbul. 

In Cevelân, Ahmed Midhat revealed an “Other” of the Ottomans: Europe. He wrote in particularly vivid terms of his admiration for European machinery. During his travels and at the Exposition Universelle he encountered European material developments he could only have imagined when writing his earlier novels. Interestingly, Ahmed Midhat found another “Other” at the fair—the Muslim Arab, who also became a subject of his gaze.

Ahmed Midhat’s interests in evolutionist and materialist writings framed his own work. Moving beyond the dichotomies of “East and West,” “Self and Other,” and “colonizer and colonized,” he conceived all developments as medeniyet-i umumiyye, the global civilization that belongs to all peoples. He brought to light different sides of development and progress, with particularly revealing viewpoints on technological, social-cultural, and moral issues, managed with unusual savoir-faire. However, at times, his stance—despite his wish to be “objective”— was a partial one, his attention wavering between the material and the spiritual qualities of European development. Like European ethnographers, he was not immune toward ethnocentrism or homogenizing discourses towards complex societies and cultures. 

In what follows, I focus on Ahmed Midhat’s impressions of the Exposition Universelle 1889 in Paris in Cevelân. First, I make sense of Ahmed Midhat’s “evolutionary desires,” the term I use to describe his commitment to the idea, informed by Social Darwinism, that Ottomans should aspire to match Europe’s level of material development. Ahmed Midhat’s evolutionary desires encapsulate—but cannot be reduced to—his keen interest in (and envy of) the material, infrastructural, and industrial developments in Europe as he experienced them firsthand on his journey. He aspired for the Ottomans, too, to build grand avenues and boulevards, majestic bridges, impressive squares, and well-kept public gardens. He also wanted the Ottomans to produce and utilize the latest infrastructural technologies, such as rapid transport tools like locomotives and tramlines as well as electricity and lighthouses. These desires can only be understood in the context of his “imperial nostalgias” and “western anxieties,” imbued with longing for the glorious Ottoman past. Ahmed Midhat deployed this necessarily ethnocentric “imperial nostalgia” as a critical strategy to cope with, if not to overcome, his western anxieties, which he mainly expressed through discontent with European modernity and what he perceived as its weak morals.

Passenger train in front of the Pavilion of Algeria on L’Esplanade des Invalides (Library of Congress)

Cevelân is notable not only for its literary merits but also for its distinctively positioned ethnographic insights into “Europe.” Ahmed Midhat himself defined travel literature as a cornerstone for the advancement of knowledge (Herzog and Motika 2000, 140). Cevelân offers evidence of a cross-cultural production of knowledge and conveys issues of transculturation, border crossing, and self-location, long before they emerged in twentieth and twenty-first century anthropology. Furthermore, Ahmed Midhat’s writing should be evaluated as an important and understudied contribution to the history of Ottoman anthropology and ethnology.

In the 1850s, scholars in Turkey created a complex and dynamic non-Western anthropological tradition, which flourished by way of “traveling theory” (Birkalan-Gedik 2018, 2019). It incorporated theories of evolution, materialism, and development, which carried considerable social and political weight in Ottoman society at the turn of the 19th century (Kerim 1941; Hanioğlu 2005; Göçek 1996). Edward Said understood “traveling theory” as a process through which theory changes as it is transported into new geographical or historical contexts, reframed according to the intentions of its new adopters (Said 1983, 226; 2001). In this sense, travel is not a unidirectional movement but can ramify into polyvalent roots and routes. Delving into multiple ways of traveling—literary and metaphorical—and their implications for the history of anthropology (Rubiés 2000; Clifford 1989), Cevelân sheds light on an underexamined era of Ottoman anthropology, in which the eloquent gaze of an “Orientalist” (Dumont 2010; Findley 1998; Sagaster 1997) traveler illuminates both his own culture and those he observed. 

Ahmed Midhat: Cosmopolitan and Cultural Broker

Ahmed Midhat wore many hats. An impressive intellectual, he authored novels, short stories, and opinion pieces in the Tanzimat Era (1839–1876), when the Ottoman Empire was widely seen to be in decline (İnalcık 1976). He was a cosmopolitan, entrepreneur, and cultural broker who navigated the complexities of the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. 

Multiple ideological mainstreams defined this period; at different points of his life Ahmed Midhat seemed to fit each of them. The Young Ottomans insisted on modernization and keeping the millet system, which was based on the idea of non-territorial autonomy, whereby various religious groups were categorized as culturally autonomous, despite their geographic dispersion (Barkey and Gavrillis 2016); Islamists leaned on the idea of restoring and strengthening the Caliphate; Turkish nationalists relied on Turkish-ness as the dominant identity base (Berkes 1959). Political societies, like the Young Ottomans, believed that new “scientific” developments could coincide with and enrich religious knowledge. They aimed to show Islam as a contemporaneous religion in accord with science and development. While this idea stood in contrast with the view of certain elites who thought of Islam as one of the main causes of the country’s declining fortunes, debates on science and religion continued in following years. Again, introducing science was not a simple shift from “religion” to “science” (Yalçınkaya 2015; Poyraz 2010). Attitudes towards science and scientific development that were sympathetic to religion further smoothed developments in philosophy, anthropology, and medicine, enabling disparate disciplinary spheres to knit together in distinct ways (Shefer-Mossensohn 2015, 3). 

Born in Istanbul to a family of merchants, Ahmed Midhat grew up in dire conditions. A “Jack-of-all-trades” (Findley 1998), as a young man he received the patronage of Midhat Paşa (1822–1884), a western-oriented political leader under whom his transcultural perspectives bloomed. Later, as an entrepreneur, Ahmed Midhat set up his own printing house in Istanbul and maintained strong relations with the Ottoman government, working as the deputy manager of the sanitary commission (Okay 1989).

Scholars name Ahmed Midhat as the “first social Darwinist” among the Ottoman literati (Doğan 2012 [2006], 133–176). Ottoman social scientists also widely debated materialism, a framework which allowed the elite to discuss the origins and diffusion of humans, outside the confines of religious thought (Öktem 2012, Poyraz 2010). None of these developments were free of turbulence, as the secular elite had to navigate these ideas under the Muslim Sultan. 

Some scholars have argued that Ahmed Midhat was exiled for his close relationship with materialist and positivist thinkers (Mardin 2000 [1962]). But though his journals and newspapers circulated the German materialism of Ludwig Büchner (Hanioğlu 2005; Kalaycıoğulları 2016, Mardin 2000 [1962], 66), he publicly defended Islam, a point that complicates his intellectual position. His stated stances in Cevelân reveal “the conformity of Ahmed Midhat’s ideas with the cultural politics of the Hamidian regime” (Çekiç 2009, 4). In this travelogue, the author locates himself as a border-crosser, relying on his social and political relations such as with the Sultan Abdulhamid II, the benefactor who appointed him to attend the congress in Sweden and provided the funds for his European travel in Europe.

Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân between Literature, Travel, and Anthropology

While Ahmed Midhat’s writings have been studied by scholars of Turkish literature and history, anthropologists have neglected them.[5] Cevelân offers critical perspectives for the study of the history of anthropology in Turkey, and for the global history of anthropology. Notably, his route from the Ottoman Empire to Europe and back subverts the conventionally recognized directions of “colonial travel” (Clifford 1989), challenges the immobility of the “Other,” and brings an important twist to the study of travel literature, especially within the frameworks of alterity and hybridity. 

Before anthropology became an academic discipline, travelers, missionaries, merchants, and bureaucrats supplied ethnographic knowledge to diverse audiences. As James Clifford argues, such documents helped constitute cultural anthropology (1997, 64). Other scholars discuss the factual errors of earlier European travelogues saturated with Christian piety and cultural prejudices. Eriksen and Nielsen situate what they call “proto-anthropology” between “travel writing” and “social philosophy”; it is when these two discursive modes are fused, “when data and theory are brought together, that anthropology appears” (Eriksen and Nielsen 2013, 6–10).

Furthermore, Clifford asserts that the “geography of distance and difference alters in postcolonial/neocolonial situations, as power relations of research are reconfigured, as innovative technologies of transport and communications are deployed, and as ‘natives’ are recognized for their specific worldly experiences and histories of dwelling and traveling” (Clifford 1996, 7). His words may guide our approach to the contexts of colonialism in the Ottoman Empire and particularly to an “Orientalism alla turca” a term that illustrates the changing roles of what was earlier thought to be the “immobile” Other. Orientalism alla turca defines the complexity of Ottoman attitudes toward their multiple others. Pointing to a recent historiographic turn, Özgür Türesay notes that since the end of the 1990s, several historians offered terms such as “Ottoman orientalism,” or “Ottoman civilizing mission” whereby Ottoman’s relations to Europe and to the Arab populations were discussed in new frameworks. In a broader sense, an “Ottoman colonialism” emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century in which the Ottoman elite conceived the boundaries of the empire as a part of colonial setting. Adopting a civilizing mission towards the Arab periphery, Ottomans displayed a metropolitan identity by which they sought to educate the Arab populations (Türesay 2013: 128-129). Ahmed Midhat’s positionality in Cevelân provides important insights in this context.

Travel was a well-known practice in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, both toward Europe and to the Arab provinces. The circulation of diplomatic envoys in the eighteenth-century was influential in introducing new scientific and technological knowledge and practices. The sefâretnâme, a sub-genre of travel writing, recounted journeys and experiences of ambassadors in a foreign land (Georgeon 1995); these private, political documents, addressed to the Sultans and their high administration, were not allowed to circulate beyond the Ottoman palace (Göçek 1990, 80). The fact that the Ottoman Empire was both an object and an origin for ethnographic narratives complicates standard notions of “imperial travel writing,” by presenting a non-Western but still imperial perspective.

In this light, Ahmed Midhat’s travel accounts stand as “partial truths” written by an observer who was partially an ethnographer (Birkalan 2000) engaged in something akin to fieldwork, and who also acted as a “go-between” (Borm 2000) mediating imaginaries of both Orient and Occident. If “travels and contacts are crucial sites for an unfinished modernity,” as Clifford (1997, 2) writes, we might make sense of Ahmed Midhat’s récit detailing his contacts with Europe as itself an unfinished project—an “in-between” text which yields new insights into perhaps another way of “imperial writing” and its boundaries.

Under the light of Orientalism alla turca, as way to challenge the existing narrative on colonialism and anthropology, I suggest that Ahmed Midhat’s writings were very much attuned to a cosmopolitan style. Locating himself in the text as participant and observer, he emphasized the sensual, the personal, and the autobiographical with a dynamic textual brilliance. He described his own movements vividly, speaking to the senses of the reader in a decidedly poetic way. As in later realist anthropologies, the primary subject of the Cevelân is the essence of “being there.”

Ahmed Midhat’s presence continually intruded into the frame, showing that not only had he been there, but (as classical ethnographies would also claim) that his text could take the reader “there” as well. Strikingly, however, for Ahmed Midhat time was urgent: he ran to keep his schedule, unlike ethnographers who may have had better control of their time. While realist ethnographies of the twentieth century tried to hide time and historicity in an “ethnographic present,” Ahmed Midhat continually and carefully noted dates, counting the number of weeks or months precisely since his departure from İzmir. 

Long before anthropologists spoke of “blurred genres,” Ahmed Midhat’s handsomely embellished travel accounts crossed lines of genre to report on how Europeans lived, ate, and shopped in the times of emergent modernity. But if the Western gaze looked for vanishing “primitives,” or exotic dancers as the “Other” (Young 2008), Ahmed Midhat sought vanishing “European morals” and Muslim women, which simultaneously constituted his complex subjects. He presented his impressions both of everyday life and of the extravagant displays of Paris’s World’s Fair to an audience in Istanbul— the cosmopolis, the world city and seat of the Sultanate. These identifications shed distinctive light on “travel as a cosmopolitan praxis” (Clifford 1997), positioning Ahmed Midhat as a cosmopolitan, modernist author whose observations of Europe serve as a cautionary tale. 

Ahmed Midhat had written about Europe even before his first trip in his 1876 novel Paris’te Bir Türk (A Turk in Paris). In Cevelân he noted, “I traveled the European cities mentally; I almost saw them” (147). He had a well-formulated view of which countries constituted “Europe.” For instance, he noted that Russia did not concern him, as he believed that they were behind European civilization (397). An exception of another sort was Sweden: the Swedes made a remarkable impression because, according to him, they supported material developments without giving up their moral values (155). 

Ahmed Midhat’s journey allowed him to claim a powerfully authoritative voice in Cevelân and to present a “totalizing discourse” on Europe. This authority was also visible, though pointing in a different direction, when, during an audience with the King of Sweden, he put himself in the role of defender of the political stance and situation of the Ottoman Empire (138). Ahmed Midhat deployed the category of “self”—a totalized view of the Ottoman empire— in order to manage relations with the “other”— a totalized view of Europe. Such self-conscious juxtapositions, in my view, represent a very post-modernist “sense-making” of anthropological categories. By selectively applying an objectifying gaze on both Europe and the Ottoman empire, he effectively challenged conventional oppositional categories of “East” and “West” or “Self” and “Other.”

In Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt introduced the notion of “transculturation” as a remedy to interpretations of travel accounts that assumed a unidirectional relationship between voyagers and the so-called colonial periphery and presented the latter as irredeemably passive. Transculturations are the processes through which travelers revise presupposed ideas about the cultures of “others” as well as one’s own. Pratt situates these processes in “the contact zone”—“social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths” (1996, 34; 2008 [1992], 6). But the travel account Ahmed Midhat wrote, as the emissary of an imperial power, raises interesting complications. Should we consider the Ottomans, as well as European powers, as colonizers? If so, what happens when two colonial powers meet in the “contact zone,” and within the borders of Europe? Or should we look for more embellished analytical perspectives to make sense of Cevelân?

Exposition Universelle 1889, Paris, and Cevelân

Ahmed Midhat’s writings were part of a longer trajectory of participation by Ottoman intelligentsia in World’s Fairs. For the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris, Sultan Abdülaziz, wishing to “partake in the cultural life of Europe” (Çelik 1992, 96; Gök 2003), had installed a mosque, a residence, a bath, and a fountain at the Ottoman Pavilion, at the invitation of Emperor Napoléon III. At the 1889 World’s Fair, the Ottoman presence was limited to one Tobacco Pavilion, placed among the “other” eastern cultures, as Ahmed Midhat notes (570–71). 

Turkish Tobacco Pavilion with Folies Parisiennes on left (Library of Congress)

World’s Fairs were systems of representation on a grand scale and effective mechanisms of cultural production. Çelik and Kinney note that “among their novel technologies was the creation of ersatz habitats; these scenarios of a reductive presentation of different cultures generated easily apprehended, symbolic imagery” (1990, 35). Exposition Universelle 1889 relied heavily on archaeological and anthropological displays (Greenhalgh 1988, 36) as well as cultural façades, entertainment concessions, and other vivid national and corporate displays to impress visitors. 

Above all, technological displays appealed to Ahmet Midhat. Mechanical industry, which was displayed at the Champ de Mars next to the Eiffel Tower, immediately caught his eye, and he visited the machinery multiple times; he was so impressed with technological developments that he once left the visiting hall as the last visitor (650–661). Within this arena, he traveled on a passenger train and used the elevator of the Eiffel Tower, exclaiming, “it is this kind of machinery that makes life so easy!”

Visiting the Gallery of Machines, inventions for small industries such as sewing and weaving fascinated him: “The Singer sewing machines produce superior quality of work very fast”; “The silk looms can contribute to the national economy.” He also made comparisons: “Ottomans, too, had set up silk looms in Bursa, Athens, and Thessaloniki,” but he found them inferior to what he saw at the fair (654–659). His entrepreneurial spirit appears in his remark that development is not only about quality but also about mass production. 

Interior of Gallery of Machines, showing machinery (Library of Congress)

Material developments, such as large avenues and boulevards, great bridges, impressive squares, and well-kept public gardens attracted Ahmed Midhat to modernity. Locomotives, train tracks, rapid transportation, and tramlines, along with electricity and lighthouses, formed a great part of his “evolutionary desires”—a yearning for progress, informed by his intellectual investments in social Darwinism. Yet, both curious and cautious, he refused to accept everything Europe offered. In Cevelân Ahmed Midhat illuminated, or textually created, a society in which technological developments conflicted with traditional morality. Thus, his accounts are a vehicle to explore important technological advancements but also to express his wistful yearning for the past glories of the Ottoman Empire through criticism of the morals and values of “nineteenth-century European society.”

Eiffel Tower, Electricity… and Other Imperial Nostalgias?

Cevelân reported on Paris’s unforgettable fin-de-siècle extravaganza. He raved about electric lighting, along with large and small machinery. He offered compelling accounts of steel construction for the Eiffel Tower, which he saw as an outstanding symbol of technological improvement, appearing even more beautiful at night as red electric bulbs adorned it (537). 

In fact, Ahmed Midhat was impressed by all kinds of light. This was already the case in Stockholm, a city that truly captivated him and which he called the most beautifully lit-up city in Europe. Thanks to its lighting systems, he said, “nights turn into days;” thousands of lanterns and candles in addition to electric bulbs illuminated the Drottningholm Palace (170–173). At a vacation palace, away from the center of the city, he saw electricity produced by a mobile steam machine. He perceived all of this within the framework of “medeniyet-i umumiyye”–global civilization, a pool of shared, advanced technologies, not necessarily limited to Europe, but the property of the world. At this thought, his text begins comparing his observations in Europe to what he had seen in the Ottoman Empire: he recalled seeing lights as great as those in Europe in Istanbul and Kordonboyu–İzmir, though without the same quality and extent. His desires quickly followed his comparisons: he next expressed the wish that “we should also have places that light up, like in Paris” (47). At this moment, his admiration for progress, his “evolutionary desire,” shifted to “imperial nostalgia,” the wish to restore his homeland to a lost greatness. 

Ahmed Midhat noted that using steel and lace construction, France had quickly erected the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of its empire, the highest building in the world at the time. When he saw it for the first time, he disliked it aesthetically. He called it “grotesque,” and compared its height with the height of minarets in Istanbul’s Yeni Cami, the New Mosque (95). However, the Eiffel Tower would function for him as a site of transculturation. On his second visit, he changed his mind and praised its architecture (560–562). 

To understand Ahmed Midhat’s fascination with the settings of the fair and particularly his “imperial nostalgias,” the work of On Barak (2013) on transportation and communication in twentieth-century Egypt offers important perspectives. Barak argues that people may perceive and experience “universal” technologies, such as electricity, steamers, railways, telegraphs, tramways, and telephones, differently in various social-cultural contexts. While in the West they symbolized standardization and punctuality, in Egypt they contributed to the production of unique “counter tempos” that pushed back against “dehumanizing European standards of efficiency, linearity, and punctuality” (Barak 2013, 5). Following Barak’s line of thought, it is clear the juncture of Ahmed Midhat’s evolutionary desires and imperial nostalgias was as a site of creative tension.

Ahmed Midhat leveraged his opinions of the Eiffel Tower and other technologies to reflect upon and promote Ottoman values. He balanced his newfound admiration for the tower with pages-long praise for the great achievements of the “East,” thus evoking his imperial nostalgia. He culled historical examples ranging from Mehmed the Conqueror to Avicenna along with other political leaders and scientists who contributed to the ideals of “progress.” The Ottomans “performed” science at the great medreses and libraries. They maintained terakkiyât-ı maneviye (spiritual development), which he opposed to mere fazilet-i maddiye (material virtue). In this way, they were able to conquer the Mediterranean and sail to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it would be a great mistake to represent the Ottomans (as many in the West had done) as a people primarily fond of pleasure. Yet, Ahmed Midhat wrote, there was a new trend among the West: now Westerners were researching the real traditions of the East, valuing reality over fantasy. He offered the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists in Stockholm as evidence (185–187). In this way, his imperial nostalgia served as the basis for corrections to the misrepresentations made by “ignorant” Europeans. 

Street of Cairo: Ahmed’s Western Anxieties

As a visible representative of a foreign land, Ahmed Midhat—who chose to wear a fez—was pronounced in his Ottoman attire. He was among those Muslim visitors who, according to Çelik (1992), “became a part of the display, often as the major attraction” (15, emphasis mine): Visitors from the Muslim world, such as Tunisia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire, were part of the amusement for European fairgoers. However, these visitors were not only “populations on display.” As von Plato has demonstrated in her work on exhibition cultures and mass audiences in nineteenth-century France, the French’s perceptions of foreigners also influenced their self-perception (2001). Likewise, Ahmed Midhat’s remarks on “Muslim women dancing” show the ways the Fair influenced his notions of himself, within the broader contours of his embedded otherness and as a man talking about women. Or, put differently, Ahmed Midhat’s own “degrees of Otherness”—in Francesca Vanke’s words (2008, 198)—were illustrated in the ways he described other “others” on display: Muslims, namely Arabs from the Ottoman provinces—fell under the purview of the Ottoman “Other,” or under orientalism alla turca. This was because of the imperial power connections between the mainland Ottoman Empire and their exoticized Arab provinces like Egypt.

His account of the Exposition Universelle’s celebrated “Street of Cairo” regarding politics of gender, sexuality and public space was highly critical:

The Street of Egypt (Cairo) in the Exposition Universelle (Sergi-i Umumî) is a place that has provoked many objections to the morals of the French society. It has been considered the most beloved site by spectators—not because of its industrial products, donkeys, or donkey riders, or for the elegant architecture of the Egyptian-style buildings, but because of the spectacle of these singers and dancers and their belly dancing. Although by and large these performers had Muslim names, it is clear they are not Muslims. They are mostly Tunisian and Egyptian Jews; and some are Coptic Orthodox Christians from Egypt. The many arousing obscene postures and movements of their bodies cannot be taken as something everybody likes and approves [in Muslim nations]. Moreover, it is known that to watch such dances in Tunisia and Egypt requires going to obscure places, and such entertainment is considered debauchery (535). 

How can we make sense of this passage, especially if we consider that “in 1889 the number of spectators who came to watch the Egyptian belly dancers averaged two thousand per day” (Çelik and Kinsley 1992, 39)? In this passage, Ahmed Midhat spoke to two totalizing arguments. By denying a Muslim origin to the female dancers, he pushed back against Orientalist representations of Muslim lands as sensual and permissive. At the same time, alleging that the dancers were Jewish or Christian, he presented yet another essentialist view about Western women. According to him, Muslim women would never wear such costumes and dance in this way—while Christian and Jewish women evidently lack such scruples! For Ahmed Midhat, this staging encapsulated the violence of Western representations of the Orient. Yet, we do not know if he was aware of the Parisian dance practices in bars and clubs at the time, which might have contributed to his totalizing arguments about “European women.” 

Crowd on “a street in Cairo” in front of the Pavilions of Morocco (Library of Congress)

Fair organizers claimed their presentation of the Street of Cairo was rooted in archaeological exactitude and “authenticity.” However, in Ahmed Midhat’s view it was not the street’s shops and musicians, artisans, or donkey drivers that drew spectators to the pavilion, but the female dancers. For Ahmed Midhat, the Street of Cairo was, in Pratt’s terms, a contact zone, a transcultural site. But rather than helping him overcome his prejudices about Europe and the Orient, it reinforced them. In the end, he exchanged what he saw as a stereotype with a different stereotype, about the Orient and the West, about women, about morals, and, certainly, about himself.

Although Ahmed Midhat could not help but speak, directly and indirectly, about the Ottoman “self” in his text, he barely mentioned the Ottoman Tobacco Pavilion. Rather, he found alterity—his “others”—in the Street of Cairo exhibit. His criticism of the seemingly misrepresented Orient and Muslim women was in line with his conviction of the moral corruption of European modernity. “Admittedly,” he wrote, “in Europe, if a man falls down in the street and dies, not one of the thousands of men who run to watch feel obligated to give him a sip of water” (386). In other parts of his travelogue, he lectured on declining religious values: “Europeans, as they became enlightened and materially developed, mentally declined and ceased to talk about religion” (771). He had already undercut his claims to the moral high ground, however, by earlier sharing with his readers that he once became so drunk that he even got entirely lost himself (675)! 

Despite such humanizing admissions, his expressions of moral indignation are added to ethnocentric effusions of cultural exceptionalism and Ottoman pride: “My mind ventured around the morality and the mores of the Ottomans. Oh, Ottomans, My dear! Every aspect of the empire has been adorned with Highness. Can one imagine another nation with such grace as the Ottomans, in the entire world?” (111). 

By wearing his fez, he emphasized his Ottoman identity and outlook. When an engineer asked him “Monsieur, are you Jewish?” he reported to reply: “No, Effendi, I am not. I am an Ottoman, and among the best, as I am Turkish and Muslim. I write in the Ottoman script, which is written with the Arabic script, which is recognized as having derived from Hebrew.” Rather than making a concluding remark, he opened a new discussion, where, with these words, he presented his identity, his sense of belonging in essentialist terms, at a period when terms such as “Ottoman” versus “Turk” had become important in Ottoman elites’ discussions of westernization and modernization. 


Certainly, Ahmed Midhat was not the only Ottoman to report on Europe; many others in the same period admired Europe and so-called European developments. My aim has been to show that in Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân, Ahmed Midhat enjoys a liminal position, oscillating between admiration and rejection. Faced with European spectacle he feels at times desire and nostalgia, and, at times, jealousy and anxiety. I have illustrated these points by identifying his evolutionary desires, imperial nostalgias, and western anxieties, all of which are presented (for consumption by Istanbul’s intellectuals—and possibly for European and American diplomats) within materialist and social Darwinist frames. 

While Cevelân can serve as a source for considering the social implications of evolutionist thought, Ahmed Midhat brought a twist. Fashioning himself as a curious observer committed to development, he became an enthusiastic scientist when describing Europe, calling on Ottoman political and intellectual leaders to emulate European support of science. At the same time, he cautioned them not to leave behind their traditional values. His affinity for both Western development and critique of its moral decline clearly shows his caution regarding the existing Ottoman political order. Returning from exile, he became even closer to Abdulhamid II’s view of combining western development with a firm perpetuation of Islamic values, which he presented as “spirituality” or “religion” in more general terms.

As an authoritative writer aiming to instruct his readers on “Europe,” he participated in and observed European society and everyday practices. Rather than completely admiring or rejecting the “Europe” formulated by previous travelers, he brought a cosmopolitan experience, and, at the same time, never abandoned his essentialist attachment to “Eastern” spiritual qualities. Orhan Okay summarizes Ahmed Midhat’s vision thus: “Ottomans can reach the level of European material development, but Europe cannot reclaim the morality that it had lost”; his ideal society combines East and West, joining high technological development with high morality (Okay 1975, 772, 52–53). In other words, he both approached and distanced himself from Europe. According to Carter Findley, Ahmed Midhat shows how “an Ottoman thinker could creatively engage with Europe and yet resist its cultural power, a power that–if omnipresent—was not omnipotent” (1998, 49). 

Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân, then, was a text fulfilling three missions at once. First was an academic, internationalist mission: at the Orientalist Congresses he defended the Orient and criticized Westerners for their lack of knowledge about Eastern civilizations. His second, popular mission was to translate Europe for his readers and educate them on its technological and industrial developments; here, at times, he presented Europe as a cautionary tale, often falling into moralism. Put blandly, he argued that material progress and moral decay had gone hand in hand in contemporary Europe and warned his fellow Ottomans against making the same mistake. Lastly, with the intention to distribute his book to foreign diplomats in the United States and England, he also taught that the Ottomans did not belong to the “backward” Orient. He presented Ottomans to a wider international audience as competitors in global civilization, and as a uniquely glorious empire in its own right. 


This article is part of a project funded by DFG (Deutsche Forschung Gemeinschaft/German Research Foundation), Traveling Theories: Die Geschichte der Anthropologie in der Türkei (18501950) which critically examines the history of anthropology in Turkey over a century. The author thanks Taylor Moore, Rosanna Dent, and John Tresch for their valuable comments and edits on the text. 

Works Cited

Ahmed Midhat. 1890. Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân. Istanbul. Turkish National Grand Assembly Open Access Collection. ( Accessed on 17 April 2019.

Ahmed Midhat. 2015. Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân. Edited by Arzu Pala. Istanbul: Dergâh. 

Asiltürk, Baki. 1995. “Ahmet Midhat Efendi Müsteşrikler Kongresinde” (Ahmed Midhat at the Orientalist Congress). Türk Dili (521): 571–576.

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Borm, Jan. 2000. “In-Betweeners? On the Travel Book and Ethnographies.” Studies in Travel Writing 4 (1): 78–105. 

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Çelik, Zeynep. 1992. Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs. Berkeley: University of California.

Çelik, Zeynep, and Leila Kinney. 1990. “Ethnography and Exhibitionism at the Expositions Universelles.” Assemblage (13): 34–59. 

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Herzog, Christoph and Raoul Motika, 2000: “Orientalism alla Turca: Late 19th/Early 20th Century Ottoman Voyages into the Muslim ‘Outback’.” Die Welt des Islam 40 (2): 139–195.

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[1] The Ottoman Empire with the Tanzimat Period, ca. 1839, and the Republic of Turkey, until 1926, used the Rumi (Roman) calendar, based on the Julian calendar. The date in Roman calendar in the original is 3 Teşrîn-i Sānî 1305. My title borrows the term from Herzog and Motika who aimed to locate Ottoman Empire within postcolonial studies and offered a new way of thinking about the Ottomans relationship with the Western world as well as with its Arab colonies. In short, Orientalism alla turca conveys the emergent imperialist attitude of the Ottomans along European lines. See: Herzog and Motika 2000. Additonally, Özgür Türesay notes (2013) that since the end of the 1990s, several historians, including Selim Deringil, Ussama Makdisi, and Thomas Kühn, have offered terms such as “Ottoman orientalism,” or “Ottoman civilizing mission” to discuss Ottoman’s relations to Europe and Arab populations. An “Ottoman colonialism” emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Ottoman elite adopted the ways of thinking of their enemies, the great imperialist nations, and began to conceive of their boundaries as part of a colonial settings.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own. 

[3] “A Tour in Europe” is one possible translation for the title Avrupa’da Bir CevelânCevelân, often used as a compound verb as “cevelân et-” means strolling, or promenading. “Seyâhat” is more common for traveling and “seyahatnâme” is the name for travelogue. Ahmed Midhat’s “travel” implies passing joyful time but also investing mental and physical labor, especially when one considers that he was 45 years old when he took the journey.

[4] Ahmed Midhat published the travelogue in Ottoman script, the alphabet used in the written records of the Ottoman Empire from ca. 1300 and in Turkey from 1919 until the official adoption of the Roman alphabet in 1928. The present work on Avrupa’da Bir Cevelân uses the edition in Roman alphabet with translator’s notes (Pala 2015) and consults the original in Arabic script when needed.

[5] See for example: Ursinus 1987; Boer 2002; Esen 2014; Gonzales 2012. Okay’s treatment of Ahmed Midhat’s mentality towards Europe (1975) remains as a notable source.

Activating the Torres Strait Archive: An Interview with Anita Herle and Jude Philp on Recording Kastom

We at HAR were very excited to learn about the recent publication of Recording Kastom: Alfred Haddon’s Journals from the Torres Strait and New Guinea, 1888 and 1898. The book features the previously unpublished journals of Cambridge zoologist and anthropologist Alfred Haddon, who worked in the Torres Strait and New Guinea in 1888 and 1898. “Kastom” is a dynamic concept which refers to contemporary knowledge and practices that derive authenticity from a perceived origin in the pre-colonial past. It’s defined further in the Torres Strait Islander Commission Act (2005 (2019)): “Ailan [Island] Kastom means the body of customs, traditions, observances and beliefs of some or all of the Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait area.” Haddon’s extensive documentation, originally seen as salvage ethnography, is currently used by Islanders as a means of connecting with the past and as a crucial resource for maintaining and revitalizing aspects of kastom in the present.

Recording Kastom analyzes and contextualizes the journals and intimate documents Haddon sent to his wife Fanny for information and safe-keeping. These documents reveal many details of day-to-day life in the field, including the central role played by the Islanders in his collecting practices. The book’s authors, Anita Herle (AH) and Jude Philp (JP), agreed to virtually sit down with HAR editors Cameron Brinitzer (CB), Freddy Foks (FF), and Laurel Waycott (LW) for a chat. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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‘Structures’ in Context

“Mythical thought, this bricoleur, builds structures by putting together events, or rather the residues of events, while science ‘at work,’ simply as a result of having been established, creates its means and its results in the form of events, thanks to the structures that it is ceaselessly producing and which are its hypotheses and theories.”

            Claude Lévi-Strauss, Wild Thought (2021[1962], 25-26).

“It is the hallmark of productive experimental systems that their differential reproduction leads to events that may induce major shifts in perspective within or even beyond their confines. In a way, they proceed by continually deconstructing their own perspective.”

           Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things (1997, 36).

“Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event,’ if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structuralor structuralistthought to reduce or suspect.”

            Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1978[1967], 278).

“Archaeology, however, must examine each event in terms of its own evident arrangement; it will recount how the configurations proper to each positivity were modified…it will analyze the alteration of the empirical entities which inhabit the positivities…it will study the displacement of the positivities each in relation to the others…lastly, and above all, it will show that the general area of knowledge is no longer that of identities and differences…but an area made up of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function…”

            Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970 [1966], 218).

“Although Foucault, in his analysis of the processes by means of which the classical episteme was replaced by our own, had proposed that these epistemes be seen as being discontinuous with each other, what he oversaw was that such a discontinuity, like the earlier discontinuity that had been effected by the classical episteme itself, was taking place in the terms of a continuous cultural field.

            Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” (2003, 318).

“This book has traced how epistemology and ethos emerged and merged over time and in context, one epistemic virtue often in point-counterpoint opposition to the others. But although they may sometimes collide, epistemic virtues do not annihilate one another like rival armies. Rather, they accumulate…”

            Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison, Objectivity (2007, 363).


If structuralism has implied a denial of history, does studying structuralism as a historical phenomenon mean denying its validity? What difference might it make to shift analytic attention from specific structuralists or structuralisms to structures as epistemic things?

The historical and current status of structures and structuralisms presents a panoply of apparent paradoxes. As early as the 1970s, the French anthropologist Dan Sperber (already on his way to becoming a cognitive scientist) wrote that few anthropologists had ever gained the fame of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and yet few had ever been so abstruse (1979, 19). Or, as Lorraine Daston noted more recently, although it was not all that long ago that the concept was absolutely “glittering,” there are few terms that seem as “dusty and dated” as structure does to historians of science today. And yet it doesn’t take an anthropologist to notice that, even if departments of anthropology have mostly relegated the study of structuralism to a week on French formalisms, buried in the middle of a syllabus, the term structure abounds outside of the academy—whether in discussions of structural inequality, structural racism, or structural reform.

Sixty years is a long time when it comes to epistemic tastes. The quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. It seems almost banal to note that structures of mind, language, or society—to say nothing of the purported universal relations among them—do not appear pressing or even promising as objects for historical or anthropological study. Almost, that is, because there is something rather remarkable about just how much the epistemic values guiding cultural anthropology and the history of science have changed—have nearly inverted—in the last half century.

One guiding aim of this Special Focus Section (SFS) is to grapple with these changes by resituating now-familiar histories of twentieth century “French Theory” in a broader historical frame, and shifting analytic attention from histories of structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger coined the term “epistemic things” to refer to objects of sustained scientific inquiry which “present themselves in a characteristic, irreducible vagueness” precisely because they “embody what one does not yet know” (1997, 28). It is in the process of inquiry, through specific technical conditions, institutional contexts, scientific instruments, and epistemic practices, he wrote, that epistemic things become stabilized objects of research and, sometimes, well-defined elements in the technical conditions that allow sciences to continually generate new epistemic objects. By focusing on histories of structures as epistemic things—as known, robust, resilient, but technically-established, worked-over, and thoroughly historical entities, given different conceptual and material contours across disciplines, periods, and locations—this SFS seeks a broader historical vantage and pursues several analytic openings.

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have demonstrated how, as early as the 1860s and 1870s, structures had emerged as objects of study in physics, physiology, logic, and mathematics. Here structures appeared to offer modern solutions to perennial problems of incommunicability across time, space, sciences, and even potentially species (2007, 253-255). Writing about the subsequent “structuralist fever” that linguists, psychologists, and analytic philosophers caught en masse in the 1910s and 1920s (2007, 256), Daston and Galison effectively dislodged Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics as the historiographic point of departure for histories of structuralisms. In doing so, they began to pry open a wider historical frame that makes space for histories of technical activities that preceded and helped make possible the emergence of the twentieth century human and social sciences—many of which initially took as their objects of study, precisely, structures of mind, language, and society.

In her re-issued keyword contribution to this SFS, “Structure,” Lorraine Daston returns us to the scene of a more recent sea-change in the history of science: the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). She implores us to recall that, at the time of the publication of Kuhn’s seminal work, “structure was a word to conjure with.” So how and why, she asks, has the term come to sound so utterly “bizarre” to historians of science in the intervening decades?

Perhaps, Daston muses, the semantic salience of certain once-scholarly terms merely shifts as their usage gains traction with popular, para-academic, and literary publics more broadly. Case in point: “once the word ‘paradigm’ became the stuff of New Yorker cartoons, mandarin scholars practically broke out in hives when forced to use it.” More pointedly, however, Daston diagnoses structures’ becoming-bizarre as a symptom of broader historical shifts in scholarly sensibilities and epistemic virtues: “from the streamlined to the dense and detailed,” a driving desire in the history of science (and in cultural anthropology, we can add) in recent decades has been to “reveal variability rather than uniformity” in the subjects, objects, and foci of scholarly examination.

It is also worth noting, however, that Daston underlines the lasting influence of Kuhn’s pluralization of scientific revolutions, intimating that further such ruptures might always be in store, even within the history of science and anthropology. Modish beliefs about structures’ capacities and limits can change, and a passion for structures, in either familiar or new guises, might appear once again.


Another analytic aim of this SFS is to contribute to a more geographically symmetrical history of structuralisms. For example, while we include an abridged and re-translated excerpt of François Dosse’s history of structuralism in France—vividly capturing the luster that structures held in mid-1960s Paris—it appears alongside Kang Shin-pyo’s new English translation of a conference that took place in Korea in 1981. In this presentation, Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps as clear as he ever was about his own concept of structure, as the soon-to-be-founders of Korean Studies and leaders of late twentieth century Korean anthropology pressed him across three languages to clarify his concepts, methods, and philosophy of science.

To take another example, although it has become standard to begin histories of structuralism with Saussure’s famous lectures in Geneva (1906–1911), structuralisms’ historians have tended to quickly move their geographic attention west to Paris and wartime New York. If one instead steps east and takes the view from Soviet-occupied Hungary that Csaba Pléh offers in his essay, the political, institutional, and epistemological stakes of structuralism shift yet again. As Pléh recounts, structuralisms faced opposition in Hungary in the 1960s and 1970s from both proponents of “traditional historical linguistics” within the academy and official communist ideology governing academic life under Soviet occupation.

Thus, in its very arrangement, this SFS intends to advance an analytic argument. The history of structuralism is far from exhausted by familiar histories of French intellectuals promulgating abstract ideas developed in the French academy, adopted in American “comp lit” departments, and subsequently (if selectively) exported elsewhere. Instead, a historical epistemology of ‘structures’ can illuminate how twentieth century structuralisms took shape amid unprecedented global flows of people and things. At the same time it can show how they emerged in the context of new scales of state-sponsored violence, international war, and human displacement. It is, after all, no exaggeration to state that most structuralisms were given form by scholars who were literally on the move in an effort to avoid mortal annihilation.

How then to structure the texts of this SFS? How to arrange, order, organize, relate, regulate, present, position, or express these contributions as a set of elements, each of which would stand meaningfully on its own, yet resonate together as a whole with a significance that exceeds any mere sum of its parts?

To characterize Daston’s contribution as prescient would be an understatement. Consider that several of the essays comprising this SFS play profitably with structures’ epistemic potential for probing our own bizarre present’s most varied problems. In their contributions, Helen Verran, Frédéric Keck, and Bernard Geoghegan trace ‘structures’ analogically across domains as diverse as chemistry and political science, neuropathology and epidemiology, media philosophy and artificial intelligence. If in 1966 Michel Foucault famously professed structuralism to be “not a new method,” but the “awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought,” (1994[1966], 208) this collection more modestly offers structures not as remnants of a failed, half-forgotten approach of surpassed human sciences, but as latent and generative sources for thinking about our own troubled modernity.

Helen Verran, for example, synthesizes an idiom from the physical chemistry of colloids with imaginative resources amassed through her decades of experience as an ethnographer. Verran’s ethno-chemical method—which she names “conceptual flocculation”—equips her to conjure experimentally with notions of structure and relation, an “entwined pair of concepts” central to anthropological theory. Put another way, her exercise plays with the “lives of concepts” by decoupling structure from relation. Verran thus dissects both anthropology’s historical relation to structuralist theory as well as theory’s structuring role for contemporary anthropology—offering up anthropology as an ethnographic, empirical, and conceptual engagement with the “complex happenings in collective knowledge and culture work” of today.

While explicitly indebted to Georges Canguilhem’s historical epistemology, Verran elaborates how she has also departed from his legacy to concentrate on how concepts “work in the wild,” as opposed to discursively in the pages of scientific texts. Verran distills a playful process for “doing things with” concepts, even those as “contrived” as structure, relation, and assemblage, as well as with intellectual interlocutors including Phillippe Descola and Marilyn Strathern, who “offer possibilities to imagine futures different than pasts.” But while the structure of past imaginaries and their potential relations to futures may suggest infinite possibilities to the historian or anthropologist of science, Verran convincingly argues that what we really need today is “an a-theoretical anthropology of the present that might offer a basis…[for a] knowingful doing of the present.”

Through a consideration of the SARs-CoV-2 pandemic, Frédéric Keck employs a structural analysis that considers contemporary conditions for social contagion amid planetary viral pandemonium, while recasting the conceptual lineage of structure itself. Keck refreshingly locates structuralism’s “intellectual roots not in mathematics,” as has been sometimes assumed, “but in biology.” From the vantage of the history of the life sciences, scholarly antagonism toward structuralism’s universalizing abstractness appears misguided. Structure instead comes into view not as the angelic geometry of nineteenth century anatomy, but rather through perspectives grounded in the bestial bricolage of twentieth century pathology.

For Keck, viruses are ideal figures for thinking structurally (as well as rethinking structure) in the twenty-first century. As SARs-CoV-2 has demonstrated, viruses are agents of change, catalyzers of discontinuity, and conduits of anthropogenic crisis. They are forms of living matter without which no “normal” organism could exist today—but they are not exactly alive. Structurally, in biology, viruses are voids, absences that produce an overabundance of pathology. Keck takes up mask-wearing as an instance (and event) through which to explore how representations are not merely social facts that go viral on the level of practices, habits of thought, or symbolic systems; they literally transform human bodies and biologies as well. For Keck, the mutagenetic spread of representations regarding zoonosis, pandemic emergence, and viral contagion all call to mind the “structuralist notion of transformation.” In our age of social media and a bio-mediatized pandemic of world-historical proportion, virality structures the pathogenesis of both living bodies and body politics.

Bernard Geoghegan harnesses what we might call a counter-history of structuralism, modifying Foucault (1994[1966]), to consider the contemporary ubiquity of modern social media, information technologies, virtual databases, and algorithmic automation in light of twentieth-century “structuralism’s dreams for social data.” Geoghegan enables us to see how “the political and scientific stakes of structuralism are better grasped in terms of a database of language (or practices, performances, mentalities, etc.)” than a “prison-house” (as Fredric Jameson would have it); he invites us to “think of structuralism as a mid-twentieth century, relatively non-monetized, conceptual corollary of today’s social media and its ambitions for data crunching and cultural analytics.” Facebook patents appear as concretized network and kinship theories, Lévi-Strauss as an early artificer of AI.

Geoghegan demonstrates how this “structuralist database” offered less a solution to the problems of violence at the heart of modern statist, nationalist, and culturalist systems, than a vehicle for such problems’ presentation as entropically organized. The structuralist database is intrinsically opposed to a dusty archive of letters; it is, rather, “a fundamentally generative platform” alive to future possibilities. Positioning an “archeology of cultural analytics” as integral to an understanding of the development of “contemporary IT industries” and digital technologies, Geoghegan figures structuralism as a contingent precursor to our virtual present, as a meaning-making and model-building machine. He attends to the ways that structuralist “theorists’ experience with colonialism, war, and criminology shaped their outlooks,” and how this familiarity with state violence was an explicit biographical factor in their turn to structural methods, which offered some “measure of salvation in the face of the…varieties of collective violence sanctioned by modernity.” It is too easy, he suggests, to retrospectively denounce structuralism’s fetishes and oversights, or to see it as merely a displacement of one (nineteenth century) modern European scientism for another (twentieth century) one. Geoghegan pushes us towards the powerful fact—perhaps difficult to reckon with but impossible to ignore—that structuralist thought “only took on its canonical form when its leading practitioners turned their eyes on European and Eurasian subjects who fell victim” to the violence of modern European states.

One can read Pléh’s personal recollections regarding the Soviet state opposition to institutionalized structuralist thinking and teaching in postwar Hungary as an Eastern corollary to the trans-European refugees and exiles who convened in New York, Cambridge, and Paris. As Geoghegan observes, “the prominence of this community of researchers in anti-fascist and anti-Soviet consultation helps explain the great consequence with which they approached the science of communication.” The same can be said, Pléh shows, for certain linguists and psychologists in Soviet-occupied Hungary. Structuralism was born in the margins of a Europe that had turned some of its most frenzied forms of marginalization upon itself. No one ought to doubt what Walter Benjamin called the “destructive character” of European rationalism; Geoghegan’s contribution forces us to remember that structuralism was stewed in a cauldron of craven autophagic excess which consumed Europe for most of the twentieth century.


Finally, a focus on structures as epistemic things allows us to observe the curious social fact that, in spite of the suspicion with which they are viewed in some corners of the academy, the term structure is truly ubiquitous across contemporary vocabularies—scientific, political, and popular. Medical anthropologists and historians of medicine have examined forms of “structural violence” and worked to cultivate “structural competency.” The influential theorist of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, famously described invasion as “a structure not an event” (2006, 388). Political analysts, anthropologists, and historians have studied many forms of “structural inequality,” including those produced by the infamous “structural adjustment” programs of international financial institutions. To focus in on a further example, in 2020 and 2021, it has been impossible to ignore the many ways that politicians, social analysts, and activists around the world have both mobilized around and contested the term “structural racism.” Structural racism was first conceptualized by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (1997) to address what he saw as a lack of theoretical vigor in race and ethnic studies. Lamenting how “many social analysts researching racism assume that the phenomenon is self-evident,” Bonilla-Silva advanced a “structural reinterpretation and theory of racism” to counteract these problems.

Bonilla-Silva noted that Ruth Benedict, in her book Race and Racism (1945), “was one of the first scholars to use the notion of racism…defined as ‘the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority’” (1997, 465). He observed that social scientists in the following decades likewise almost always conceived of racism in terms of beliefs, doctrines, ideologies, or individual psychology. Calling for a more rigorous conceptual framework to analyze “the operation of racially stratified societies,” Bonilla-Silva proposed to study the practices and mechanisms through which humans and social systems become racialized—how “economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (1997, 469). For him, only such a structural approach to racism—accounting for the ways that “racialization occurred in social formations also structured by class and gender”—would make it possible to grasp the everyday and institutionalized “racial practices and mechanisms that have kept Blacks subordinated” globally, “whether individual members of the races want it or not” (1997, 470, 473). 

The currency beyond the academy of Bonilla-Silva’s term “structural racism”—coined in part as a response to the rampant psychologism of early twentieth century anthropology—raises the question of the latent vitality of “structure” even after the surpassing of structuralisms. Even without identifying as structuralists, can we not benefit from conceptual frameworks capable of identifying and holding together complex sets of relations among disparate forces that are at work simultaneously and transformed over time and across space, while nevertheless retaining certain fundamental elements?

Rather than confine ourselves to the study of structuralist intellectuals or institutions, then, our focus on structures as epistemic things, ever situated in multiple and moving contexts, aims to open and engage a range of histories as well as the seemingly countless social lives that structures continue to lead today. Reflecting on his own aspirations for a history of epistemic things in the experimental life sciences, Rheinberger wrote that with the combinatorial fourfold “of theory and practice, nature and society, we remain, despite all rotation of competences, within the confines of a conceptual framework that Jacques Derrida has qualified as the logocentric legacy of occidental metaphysics” (1997, 17-18). Rather than announce another after or post, or posit any more beyonds, this SFS instead follows the various moves of structuralists, certain anthropologists, and historical epistemologists around this logocentric sandbox. Perhaps this is merely one more “rotation of competences,” but it invites us to look around Verran’s proverbial playground for others who too might be asked: “Do you want to play?”


“Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure…has always been neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center…By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form…Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible…The concept of centered structure is in fact the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground…”

           Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play” (1978[1967], 278-279).

el centro
de un poema
         es otro poema
el centro del centro
         es la ausencia

en el centro de la ausencia
mi sombra es el centro
del centro del poema

the center
of a poem
          is another poem
the center of the center
          is absence

at the center of absence
my shadow is the center
of the center of the poem

           Alejandra Pizarnik, “The Short Cantos (posth.) III.” (2016, 179). 

“Philosophy, anyone?”

            Lorraine Daston, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (2009, 813).


Works Cited

Benedict, Ruth. 1942. Race and Racism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 1997. “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 62, No. 3 (June): 465-480.

Daston, Lorraine. 2009. “Science Studies and the History of Science.Critical Inquiry 35, No. 4: 798-813.

Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978[1967]. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In Writing & Difference, translated by Alan Bass, 278-293. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1994[1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2021[1962]. Wild Thought, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Pizarnik, Alejandra. 2016[1962-1972]. Extracting the Stones of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, translated by Yvette Siegert. New York: New Directions Paperbook 1303.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1979. “Claude Lévi-Strauss.” In Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida, edited by John Sturrock, 19-51. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” The New Centennial Review 3, No. 3 (Fall): 257-337.


Editors’ note: This essay was first published in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 42, No. 5 (November 2012), 496-499. Special Issue “50 Years of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” edited by Michael Gordin and Erika Lorraine Milam. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and HSNS editors.

“Structure” was a word to conjure with in 1962. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology had appeared in 1958 (translated into English in 1963); Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was first published in 1957 and had reached its fifth printing by 1965.[1] Even if they didn’t brandish the word “structure” in their titles, a cluster of influential books in the humanities and social sciences published circa 1960 raised hopes that the complexities of, say, the plays of Racine or cultural taboos or bargaining might reveal simpler basic structures the way an X-ray revealed skeletons.[2] The runaway success of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did its part to glamorize an already up-and-coming word. Even scholars more resistant to the lure of structuralism than linguists and anthropologists, for example historians and philosophers but also psychologists and psychoanalysts, fell under the spell of Kuhn’s structures of scientific development.[3]

Yet probably no word strikes historians of science nowadays reading Kuhn (if they do) as more dusty and dated than the once glittering “structure.” This is not because the whole book is a fossil from a bygone era. Even if it is no longer assigned in courses across the university, much of Kuhn’s analysis still seems fresh and even avant garde: the close studies of scientific pedagogy that he flagged as crucial to understanding the cognitive and social cohesion of research communities are still a desideratum; much work in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science still focuses on the resolution of controversies as the moment when researchers’ most fundamental assumptions are laid bare; topics such as the know-how implicit in mastering scientific paradigms have been revived by the history of the body and other explorations of what is often called, not always accurately, tacit knowledge. Even though many of the polestar words that do now guide the history of science—“context,” “controversy,” “consensus”—were first made luminous in Kuhn’s Structure, “structure” itself has lost its shine.

Why? It’s not because what Kuhn meant by structure was vague or because the actual structure he proposed for narrating the history of science has been definitively falsified by subsequent research. The structure was crystalline and cyclic (but not cumulative): establishment of a paradigm, normal science pursued within that framework, growing awareness of anomalies that resist solution within the reigning paradigm, a crisis in which the coherence of both paradigm and research community frays, and the emergence and eventual triumph of a new paradigm to start the cycle anew. There was criticism aplenty of the specifics of Kuhn’s account, but by giving different answers to the questions he had posed, its effect was more to reinforce than to refute his scheme. From the outset critics worried that Kuhn’s structure might hold only for the physical sciences or that research conducted within different paradigms might not be as incommensurable as Kuhn claimed or that the crises had been melodramatized by a few well-chosen quotations. And once the word “paradigm” became the stuff of New Yorker cartoons, mandarin scholars practically broke out in hives when forced to use it. But Kuhn’s determination to wrest the definite article and majuscules away from “the Scientific Revolution” of the seventeenth century and to apply the miniscule version to many other episodes in the history of science has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations: we now nonchalantly speak of all manner of revolutions—the Darwinian, the Einsteinian, even the Genomic—even if we balk at the now vulgar “paradigm.” Kuhn’s central contention, viz. the inevitability of recurrent scientific revolutions in all fields, in the emphatic plural of his title, has become a commonplace.[4]

So why has “structure,” the other part of the title, fared so badly, at least within the history of science? Not because Kuhn’s own version of structure has been decisively refuted, much less because an alternative pattern of historical development has replaced it. Most historians of science no longer believe that any kind of structure could possibly do justice to their subject matter. The very idea of looking for overarching regularities in the history of science seems bizarre, a kind of leftover Hegelianism, the last attempt to give Reason (now incarnate in science) a rational history—or still worse, scientism applied to science itself, more historical than Derek de Solla Price’s statistical “science of science” but just as quixotically in quest of illusory regularities.[5] The words that have replaced “structure” among the bywords of the humanities and social sciences—terms like “culture” and “context” and “thick description”—deliberately baffle all attempts at generalizations, whether philosophical or sociological, that aspire to span places and periods. Since roughly the 1990s, the focus in these disciplines has shifted from the streamlined to the dense and detailed; the professed aim has been to “complexify” rather than simplify and to reveal variability rather than uniformity. “Focus” is used here advisedly, since the object of inquiry has contracted to ever smaller scale, both geographically and chronologically, as even a glance at the titles of articles in leading journals for the last decade or two will confirm. Even the adjectives routinely used to praise lectures index this shift in intellectual sensibility from Bauhaus (or perhaps Swedish modern) to baroque: good papers are “rich,” no longer “acute” or “incisive.”

Kuhn himself heralded this change, perhaps unintentionally and almost certainly not realizing that it would undermine a search for structures in the history of science. In a sharp and occasionally bitter 1971 article on why historians had not embraced the history of science, Kuhn placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the historians: “The historian’s ignorance of even the main developmental stages of science has no parallel for the other disciplines on which he touches.”[6] Yet Kuhn was unwavering in his conviction that the future of the history of science lay in history departments. This was because insofar as historians of science were at all responsible for their marginalization by historians, it was due to the “Whiggishness” inherited from the scientists’ own version of their past. Only recently, under the tutelage of Alexandre Koyré, Anneliese Maier, Frances Yates, and others, had historians of science begun to think about past science in its own terms: “For the first time, it [science] has become potentially a fully historical enterprise, like music, literature, philosophy, or law.”[7]

That potential has been fulfilled, perhaps with a vengeance. History of science has never been more resolutely historical in its methods (archival) and modes of explanation (contextual, where the appropriate context is mostly defined by the accepted historical rubrics and specialties, e.g. “Victorian” or “postcolonial”); most of its practitioners teach in history departments, where Kuhn thought they belonged. (Whether history of science—though not the history of technology and, especially, medicine—is any better integrated into mainstream history than it was when Kuhn reproached historians for their ignorance is another question.) Yet the historicism Kuhn prophesized and welcomed has ultimately dissolved the structures he sought: an essential tension at the heart of his own still riveting vision for the history of science.

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structural, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963); Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague: Mouton, 1965).

[2] Among the other iconic works in this vein and of this era were Roland Barthes, Sur Racine (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1960); Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966); and Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

[3] Kuhn himself used the words “structure” and “pattern” interchangeably, as in the following description of the history of physical optics, presented as typical of all the “mature” sciences: “That pattern [of pre-Newtonian optics] is not unfamiliar in a number of creative fields today, nor is it incompatible with significant discovery and invention. It is not, however, the pattern of development that physical optics acquired after Newton and that other natural sciences make familiar today” (13).

[4] Kuhn himself thought this point would encounter so much resistance among readers conditioned to think of scientific development as smoothly continuous that he devoted all of chapter II to its explication.

[5] Derek J. de Solla Price, “The Science of Scientists,” Medical Opinion and Review I (1966): 81-97; see also Derek J. de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963). Kuhn cautiously discussed prospects for “the science of science” in Thomas S. Kuhn, “History of Science,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 14 (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 74-83, on 82.

[6] Thomas S. Kuhn, “The Relations between History and the History of Science,” originally published in Daedalus 100 (1971): 271-304, and reprinted in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 127-61, on 154.

[7] Ibid., 150.

1966: The Year of Light

By François Dosse

Translated by Cameron Brinitzer & John Tresch

Editors’ note: This is a new translation and abridged version of text previously published in François Dosse, Histoire du structuralisme, Vol.1 Le champ du signe, 1945-1966: chapitres 33 à 35 (Paris: La Découverte, 1991), translated by Deborah Glassman, The History of Structuralism: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997). This translation is printed here with the permission of the author and La Découverte.

Copyright © Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1991, 2012.

“Everything went downhill from 1966 on. A friend had lent me Les mots et les choses, which I was giddy to open… I suddenly abandoned Stendhal, Mendelstam, and Rimbaud, just as one stops smoking Gitanes, to devour the people that Foucault was discussing: Freud, Saussure, and Ricardo. I had the plague. The fever didn’t let me go and I loved that plague. I was careful not to cure myself. I was as proud of my science as a louse on the pope’s head. I was discussing philosophy. I called myself a structuralist, but I did not shout it from the rooftops because my knowledge was still tender, crumbly; a wisp of wind would have dispersed it. I spent my nights alone learning, stealthily, the principles of linguistics, and I was happy… I filled myself with syntagms and morphemes… If I debated a humanist, I would crush him in a single blow of épistémè … I pronounced, in a voice filled, almost trembling, with emotion, and preferably on autumn evenings, the names of Derrida or Propp, like an old soldier caressing flags taken from the enemy… Jakobson is my tropic or my equator, E. Benveniste my Guadeloupe, and the proaïretic code my Club Med. I see Hjelsmlev as a steppe… It seems to me that I am not the only one to have strayed into these canyons” (Lapouge 1986, 30).

It is in these burlesque terms that Gilles Lapouge described, twenty years later, what was in 1966 a true Saturday night fever for a structuralism reaching its peak. All the effervescence of the human sciences converged at that moment to light up the horizons of research and publication around the structuralist paradigm. 1966 is the “central landmark (…) It can be said that, at least at the Parisian level, there was that year a great, and probably decisive, mixing of the most acute themes of research” (Barthes 1981, 7). The year 1966 can be crowned the year of structuralism, and if we can speak of the children of 1848 or those of 1968, we must add the children, just as turbulent, of the luminescent year of structuralism, 1966.

That year’s publishing news reflected in all domains the force of the structuralist explosion, taking the form, in 1966, of a veritable earthquake. One can judge by the number of major works appearing in print that year alone. Roland Barthes published his famous response to Raymond Picard’s pamphlet Nouvelle critique, nouvelle imposture (edited by Jean-Jacques Pauvert), Critique et vérité (Seuil) with the banner: “Should we burn Barthes?”. Greimas published, for his part, his Sémantique structurale at Larousse: “My semantics has become, thanks to Dubois, structural in red letters. He told me, ‘We’ll sell a thousand more copies if you add ‘structural’” (Greimas 1984, 97). The qualifier of structural/ist was a good sales pitch in the mid-sixties. All social milieus were affected by the phenomenon, right up to the coach of the French national football team who declared that he was going to reorganize his team, which was losing on all fields, according to structuralist principles.

François Wahl, the great friend and editor of Roland Barthes at Seuil, succeeded in convincing Lacan to gather his writings into a collection. This enormous 900-page volume written in baroque style, as hermetic as can be, consecrated Lacan in 1966 as the “French Freud”. When the reviews began to appear in press, Lacan’s Ecrits had already sold 5,000 copies and Le Seuil urgently needed to reprint the work, which had not finished its long career, since more than 36,000 volumes would be sold by 1984. Appearing as a paperback in 1970, and divided into two volumes, it would beat all records for a work of its kind: 94,000 copies sold of the first volume and 65,000 of the second. Still at Seuil, in the same year, in the collection “Tel Quel,” Tzvetan Todorov introduced the work of the Russian formalists to the French public with his Théorie de la littérature, prefaced by Roman Jakobson. Figures by Gérard Genette appeared in the same collection.

But the event of the year that relegates other works to the background by its success was, of course, the publication at Gallimard of Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses. Without precedent, the first printing ran out in just a few days: “Foucault sells like hot cakes: 800 copies of Les Mots et les choses sold out in 5 days during the last week of July (9,000 copies in all)” (Le nouvel observateur).

The work of Foucault enabled the launch of the Bibliothèque des sciences humaines by Pierre Nora, who had just joined Gallimard at the end of 1965. Nora simultaneously released in the same collection, alongside Foucault’s book, the work of Elias Canetti, Masse et puissance, that of Geneviève Calame-Griaule, Ethnologie et langage, and a work that was to become the great reference of the moment, bringing its author out of the isolation in which he was confined at the Collège de France, Problèmes de linguistique générale, by Émile Benveniste. At the same time, Pierre Nora did not want to limit himself to the role of spokesman, a mere echo of structuralism, so he asked Raymond Aron, whose seminar he was attending, to prepare a work that would appear in 1967, Les étapes de la pensée sociologique. Yet his position as head of the human sciences imprint at Gallimard in 1966 made him, in spite of himself, a champion of structuralism. He even tried (and failed) to get Lévi-Strauss to move from Plon to Gallimard. It was in 1966 that Payot decided to publish a book originally intended for a German publisher, La religion romaine archaïque, by Georges Dumézil. Pierre Nora immediately grasped the advantage that he could draw as an editor from the work of Dumézil in this structuralist climate, so he approached Dumézil: “Pierre Nora intervened. He is the one who made me. I am a Gallimard creation” (Dumézil 1986).

Even if certain houses such as Le Seuil or Gallimard appear as the spearheads of the structuralist editorial enterprise, other publishers joined in the festivities of 1966. Les Éditions de Minuit published a book by Pierre Bourdieu, L’amour de l’art, written with Alain Darbel. The Éditions Maspero created a shock in 1965 with the double publication of Lire le Capital and Pour Marx. They published a work by the Althusserian Pierre Macherey, Pour une théorie de la production littéraire. The Presses Universitaires de France republished Georges Canguilhem’s thesis, Le normal et le pathologique, originally appearing in 1943. As for the historians, they did not remain silent in the face of this rising tide of structure, and the Annales school also brought out in 1966 a number of major works such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s thesis, Les paysans de Languedoc, published by SEVPEN (Ecole pratique des hautes etudes) and the work of Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français, published by Fayard. As for the master of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel, he took advantage of this enthusiasm for the longue durée and structures by republishing Armand Colin’s thesis, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéan à l’epoque de Philippe II, with a new conclusion where he admitted that he had a structuralist temperament.

The year 1966 was also one of intense structuralist activity among periodicals. First, some of them were created. The journal Langages ran its first issue in March 1966 and presented the scientific study of language as an essential dimension of culture. Its editors wrote that their project was to open up the interface between various disciplines that use language as a subject of reflection. Likewise, it was at the beginning of 1966 that Cahiers pour l’analyse was published by the Epistemology Circle at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, with a foreword, signed by Jacques-Alain Miller on behalf of the editorial board, setting itself the ambition of constituting a theory of discourse based on all of the sciences of analysis: logic, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. The first issue was devoted to truth and contained Lacan’s famous “Science and Truth,” which would be reprinted in Ecrits at Seuil. In the third issue of Cahiers pour l’analyse, from May 1966, Lacan clearly situated himself in the structuralist movement in a response to philosophy students: “Psychoanalysis as a science will be structuralist, to the point of recognizing in science a refusal of the subject” (1966, 5-13). The analyst’s discourse must therefore lead to the construction of a theory of science.

A major event was the publication of issue 8 of Communications, devoted to the structural analysis of narrative, gathering the major names in semiology of the moment: Roland Barthes, Aljirdas-Julien Greimas, Claude Brémond, Umberto Eco, Jules Gritti, Violette Morin, Christian Metz, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gérard Genette. More than just one issue among others, this had programmatic value. In addition to an introduction to the structural analysis of narrative, written by Barthes, who offered linguistics itself as a founding model to “de-chronologize” and “re-logify” narrative in a structural framework, Greimas situated the enterprise at the intersection of semantics and the Lévi-Straussian analysis of myths. His contribution was written in homage to Lévi-Strauss, and he situated his studies in a perspective that complemented that of the anthropologist, as containing the elements for a theory of interpretation of mythical narrative: “The progress recently made in mythological research, thanks above all to the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, constitutes a contribution of material and elements for considerable reflection to semantic theory” (Greimas 1966[1981], 34). Greimas thus settled on the same terrain as Lévi-Strauss, taking up again the Bororo myth of reference, which had been used as a basis for the first volume of the Mythologiques, Le cru et le cuit. He shifted, however, the angle of the analysis, envisaging the mythical story as a narrative unit, and not as a unit of the mythological universe, in order to clarify its descriptive procedures.

This Hjelmslevian approach to the material studied by Lévi-Strauss in order to grasp its immanent structures, did not, however, especially satisfy Lévi-Strauss himself, who did not feel the need for a lesson in rigor, even from a semanticist of Greimas’s status. Soon after, Lévi-Strauss, who housed a team of semioticians directed by Greimas in his laboratory of social anthropology at the Collège de France, sent them packing without notice. Lévi-Strauss could no longer house a team that claimed to do better than he by undertaking a synthesis of his own paradigmatic approach and Propp’s syntagmatic analysis.

The contribution of Umberto Eco reveals one of the ambitions of the structuralist program, which is to decipher everything, and not to limit the corpus to a conventional list of great texts from literary history. Eco chose Fleming’s popular detective novels, the 007 series with James Bond. Already in the first of the series, Casino Royal, written in 1953, Eco perceived the invariant matrix of all the books to come and asked about the source for the popular success of the heroic figure of James Bond. Eco shifted the conventional analysis of Fleming’s works, which highlighted ideological aspects, by showing that they responded above all to a rhetorical demand. Fleming’s world is Manichean world as a matter of convenience for the art of persuading the reader: “Fleming is not reactionary because he fills in the “bad guy” box in his schema with a Russian or a Jew; he is reactionary because he proceeds by schemas” (1966[1981], 98). Eco thus set aside Fleming’s typical depiction as reactionary in order to characterize the particular genre—the fable—whose inherent dogmatism inevitably induces reactionary thought through its schemas.

Todorov, for his part, relied on the shift made by Russian formalists to establish the categories of literary narrative within the framework no longer of “literature” but of “literariness”; not the direct apprehension of works, but of the virtualities of literary discourse that made them possible: “This is how literary studies can become a science of literature” (1966[1981], 131).

As for Gérard Genette, he questioned the boundaries of narrative, starting from the classical tradition of Aristotle and Plato and proceeding up to the use made of it in the contemporary novelistic writing of Philippe Sollers and Jean Thibaud, which expressed the exhaustion of the representative mode, perhaps announcing the definitive end to the age of representation. The conjunction of all these contributions offered an immense field of research for literary scholars; they would take up these new orientations to challenge the dominant discourse of classical literary history, with all the more enthusiasm as the project seemed both collective and promising for the construction of a truly new science.

In 1966, Sartre’s journal, Les temps modernes, devoted a special issue to structuralism, a sign of success which allowed all the dikes to be overrun. Jean Pouillon, who presented the dossier, started from the undeniable observation that structuralism was fashionable: “Fashion is exasperating, since criticizing it means giving in to it.” (Pouillon 1966, 769). He defined structuralism as the expression of two great ideas: that of totality, and that of interdependence, that is, the search for relations between different terms that are close together, not in spite of but by virtue of their differences. Structuralism thus consists in seeking the relations that give the terms they unite a positional value in an organized whole. Marc Barbut questioned the meaning of the word structure in mathematics and evoked the analogical use that Lévi-Strauss made of the four-class system in his analysis of the Kariera kinship system. As for Greimas, he analyzed the relationship between “structure and history” to underline the irrelevance of the Saussurian dichotomy between diachrony and synchrony—to which he opposed Hjelmslev’s conception of structure as an “achronic mechanism.” He thus responded to the reproach of ahistoricism leveled at structuralism: according to Greimas, for a structuralist everything lies at the level of the metalinguistic model, and in such a perspective, the historical dimension is relegated to the role of backdrop. In the same issue of Les temps modernes, Maurice Godelier affirmed the affiliation between Marx and structuralism. Marx “announces the modern structuralist current” (1966, 832); understood in relation to the work of Lévi-Strauss, Marx can be recognized as the true precursor of the structuralist paradigm insofar as he made it possible to dissociate visible social relations from their hidden logic, to set aside historicism in favor of structural study, and to emphasize contradiction—not within the same structure but in the relation between two irreducible structures, the productive forces and the relations of production.

The journal Aléthéia also devoted a special issue, in February 1966, to structuralism—with Godelier, again, on contradiction, as well as an article by Lévi-Strauss on scientific criteria in the social and human sciences. Kostas Axelos wrote on Lucien Sébag’s attempt to reconcile Marxism and structuralism, Georges Lapassade on Hegel, and, in an interview, Roland Barthes presented structuralism as the possibility of “defetishizing knowledge—whether old or current” (1966, 218).

The year 1966 was also one of great meetings, symposia, and colloquia. The château of Cerisy, which remains a mecca for intellectual activity, hosted in 1966 a conference on “Current Paths in Criticism,” whose proceedings were published by Plon in 1968. On the shores of Lake Geneva, in September 1966, a congress of French philosophy was held on language, with discussions centered on lectures by Benveniste and Mircea Eliade. But as a sign of the interest aroused abroad by the French effervescence of the time, the Americans organized a major structuralist ceremony in October 1966 under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University Humanities Center. This was the first time that structuralism crossed the Atlantic to reach the New World. The Americans perceived very well this phenomenon of French critical thought as multidisciplinary and thus invited representatives of various human sciences: Lucien Goldmann and George Poulet to represent sociological literary criticism; Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Nicolas Ruwet for literary semiology; Jacques Derrida as a philosopher for his work on Saussure and on Lévi-Strauss, published at the end of 1965 in the journal Critique; and Jacques Lacan for his structuralist rereading of Freud. The symposium was published a few years later in the United States (Marksey and Donato 1970). Of course, Roland Barthes was invited as one of the essential stars of the movement playing out in France; his contribution was on the repression of rhetoric in the nineteenth century and its replacement by positivism, which lastingly divided the destiny of literature from that of the theory of language. In this manner he showed the historical roots of what was happening with the renewed interest in reflections on language, and this new conjunction between literature and linguistics, or “semio-critique,” focused on writing as a system of signs, in an objectifying mode. He evoked the new frontiers to be conquered in the exploration of language, thanks to the modern symbiosis among linguistics, psychoanalysis, and literature which structuralism achieved.

But the event of the year, the bestseller of the summer, was undoubtedly the publication of Michel Foucault’s book, Les mots et les choses. If Sartre was able to say that the book was predictable, its success nevertheless surprised the editor Pierre Nora and the author, since the first print run was a modest 3,500 copies, which very quickly sold out. Released in April 1966, 5,000 were reprinted in June, then 3,000 more in July, and another 3,500 in September. Foucault was lifted by the structuralist wave and his work appeared as the philosophical synthesis of the new reflections carried out over the last fifteen years or so. Although the author later distanced himself from the structuralist label, in 1966 he was right at the heart of the phenomenon: “Structuralism is not a new method; it is the awakened and troubled conscience of modern knowledge” (Foucault 1966, 221).

Invited by Pierre Dumayet on to the great literary television program of the time, “Lecture pour tous,” Foucault expressed himself in the name of a “We” that founded a collective break, in which he took his place alongside Lévi-Strauss and Dumézil across a distance from the work of Sartre, “who is still a man of the nineteenth century, because his whole enterprise aims to make man adequate to his own meaning.” The comments he made to Pierre Dumayet to illustrate his work for the television public fully participated in the new structuralist ambition. Foucault asserted the disappearance of philosophy, its dissipation in other activities of thought: “We are entering an age which is perhaps that of pure thought, of thought in action, and even a discipline as abstract and general as linguistics, as fundamental as logic, or even literature since Joyce, all are activities of thought. They act as philosophy; they do not take the place of philosophy, but they are the very unfurling of what philosophy was in the past.”

On this TV show, Foucault defined his project of an archaeology of the human sciences (originally the work was to be subtitled: “archaeology of structuralism”) as the expression of the will to make our culture appear strange, much as we perceive the Nambikwara described by Lévi-Strauss. It is therefore not a question of tracing lines of continuity in the unfolding of thought in a continuous and evolving logic, but quite the contrary, that of identifying the discontinuities that make our past culture appear to us fundamentally other, strange to ourselves, distant once more: “It is this ethnological situation that I wanted to reconstitute.” And Foucault attacked any attempt to identify with the purely ephemeral figure of man, at once new and destined to disappear soon. God is dead; man follows him toward an ineluctable disappearance, aided by the sciences which take his name: “Paradoxically, the development of the human sciences leads us not to the apotheosis but to the disappearance of man.”

It was clearly this death of man that fascinated the era; many pressed in behind the funeral procession. The successive negations of the subject in Saussurian linguistics, in structural anthropology, and in Lacanian psychoanalysis, found in Foucault the one that reinstalled at the very heart of Western cultural history the figure of an absence, a lack around which épistémès are deployed. In all his numerous interventions of 1966, Foucault never stopped sending Sartre back to the nineteenth century or situating himself firmly on the side of Lévi-Strauss, Dumézil, Lacan, and Althusser, or of twentieth century modernity. The funeral notice whose parable Foucault elaborated may seem paradoxical at the very hour of the explosion in the human sciences, but Foucault conceived of psychoanalysis and ethnology as “counter-sciences” (1966, 391); the high status he conferred to them joined up with the structuralist paradigm that brought them to the forefront as major keys to modern intelligibility.

For Foucault, modernity lies there, in the recognition of this impotence and of the illusion inherent in the theology of man in the Cartesian cogito. After having brought down the hero and fetish of his culture from its pedestal, Foucault went after historicism, history as a totality, as a continuous referent. Foucauldian history was no longer the description of an evolution, a notion borrowed from biology, nor the identification of progress, an ethical-moral notion, but the analysis of multiple transformations at work, and the identification of discontinuities, like so many instantaneous flashes. The reversal of historical continuity is the necessary corollary of decentering the subject: “The human being no longer has any history; or rather, since he speaks, works, and lives, he finds himself interwoven in his own being with histories that are neither subordinate to him nor homogeneous with him…the man who appears at the beginning of the 19th century is dehistoricized” (1966, 380). Self-consciousness dissolves into the discourse-object, into the multiplicity of heterogeneous histories.

Les mots et les choses consecrates Foucault’s most structuralist phase, that of the science of sign systems, where behind the description of the succession of various épistémès since the classical age, Foucault searched for the unthought of each stage of Western culture, their mode of order, their historical a priori. In the same way that Lévi-Strauss sought the unthought of social practices in so-called primitive societies, Foucault deciphered the unthought of the constitutive base of Western knowledge, extending the Kantian effort to “shake us out of our anthropological slumber” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1984, 71). It is to escape from this anthropological space, from the analytic of finitude, from the empirico-transcendental plane, that Foucault assigned at the end of his book a particular status to three disciplines: psychoanalysis revised and corrected by Lacan, ethnology in its Lévi-Straussian version, and a Nietzschean, deconstructed, version of history. The book thus ended on a particular epistemology: that of structuralism, which he offered as the realization of modern consciousness.

The two great tutelary figures at work were thus Marx and Freud. The Lacanian re-reading of Freud imposed itself as the indispensable renovation of the founding work, doing what Althusser’s reading of Marx did for Marx; but there were also hybrid cases, attempts to reconcile approaches that might initially appear antagonistic. This was the case for Maurice Godelier, who attempted a synthesis between Lévi-Strauss and Marx for a return, both innovative and structural, to the work of Marx. It was thus in 1966 that Godelier published with Maspero Rationalité et irrationalité en économie, but the second part of the book is in fact made up of articles that appeared between 1960 and 1965 in La pensée and Economie et politique—which is to say, before the Althusserian rereading of Marx, Maurice Godelier was already making a maverick return to Marx, to the method and the structure at work in Le Capital. He made a distinction in Marx between the hypothetico-deductive method and the dialectical method. Maurice Godelier thus did not wait for Althusser’s return to Marx; his solitary work was in keeping with the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss.

If concepts circulated quickly in the year 1966, and if all roads led to structure, it was far from easy to capture the central, potentially hegemonic position, in this cauldron of structuralist culture. Finding any perch at all was costly, and the risk of entirely dropping out was great. The play had to be subtle. No, to be sure—structuralist Paris was an impossible game to win.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 1966. Aléthéia. (Février).

Barthes, Roland. 1981. “Avant-propos: 1971,” in Essais critiques. Paris: Points-Seuil.

Eco, Umberto. 1966[1981]. “James Bond: une combinatoire narrative.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Derrida, Jacques. 1965. “De la grammatologie”, Critique, No. 223-224 (Déc).

Dumézil, Georges. 1986. Entretien avec Jean-Pierre Salgas, La quinzaine littéraire 16/3.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. et Paul Rabinow. 1984. Michel Foucault, un parcours philosophique. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel. 1966. Les mots et les choses. Paris: Gallimard.

Foucault, Michel. 1966[1988]. “Lectures pour tous,” document INA, diffusion Océaniques, FR3, 13/1/1988.

Godelier, Maurice. 1966. “Système, structure et contradiction dans Le capital,Les temps modernes, No. 246 (Nov).

Greimas, Algirdas-Julien. 1966[1981]. “Éléments pour une théorie de l’interprétation du récit mythique.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Greimas, Algirdas-Julien. 1984. Cité par Jean-Claude Chevalier et Pierre Encrevé, Langue française, No. 63 (Sep).

Lacan, Jacques. 1966. “La Science et La Verite.” Cahiers pour l’analyse, No. 3 (May).

Lapouge, Gilles. 1986. “Encore un effort et j’aurais épousé mon temps.”La quinzaine littéraire, No. 459, 16/30 (Mar).

Marksey, Richard and Eugenio Donato. 1970. The Structuralist Controversy: The languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Pouillon, Jean. 1966. “Problèmes du structuralisme,” Les temps modernes, No. 246.

Tzvetan, Todorov. 1966[1981]. “Les catégories du récit littéraire.” Communications, No. 8. (Rééd) Paris: Points-Seuil.

Nine Pails of Ashes: Social Networks, Genocide, and the Structuralists’ Database of Language

Confined as we are to a structural analysis, we need give only a brief justification of the proposition just advanced, and according to which complex kinship structures—i.e., not involving the positive determination of the type of preferred spouse—can be explained as the result of the development or combination of elementary structures. A special and more developed study is to be devoted to these complex structures at a later date.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949

It’s complicated.

Facebook, ca. 2007

Precritical and commonsensical accounts imagine language as liberation from bodily constraints.[1] Through language, internal representations escape their cranial enclosure permitting, if not a communion, at least a confluence of individual thoughts and experiences. In 1972, American literary critic Fredric Jameson suggested recent theoretical trends might be flipping this notion on its head, when, inspired by Russian formalism and structuralism, he spoke of a “prison-house of language” (1974, i, 186, 214-215). This analogy suggested a carceral account of language, in which humans—perhaps including theorists—were held captive by words and signs. Utterances became less like the expressions of a rich subjective interiority than a trace of fetters, anchored in the walls of cells assigning the speaker’s perspective.

In some crucial respects, the carceral analogy had much to recommend it. French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques recounts indigenous life enclosed by a vicious colonial state and reduced to a dispersed network of fragmentary elements. Swiss structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s accounts of speech as situated in a “spoken chain,” “sound-chain,” and “phonetic chain” envisions the subjects of language as manacled in linguistic determinants that precede and exceed them (1959, 22-23). His celebrated account of language as a game of chess implies not merely containment but also a highly regimented warfare in which capture and defeat spring more from the “rules of the game” than individuals’ agency.[2] French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s account of the criminal as subject to the demands of a social structure, rather than aberrancy of conscience or soul, suggest analyst and society are, in fact, oriented and constrained by an individual’s pathology (2006, 102-122, 739). Such examples illustrate a few of the “constraints” operative within structuralist models. The subjects of structuralism find themselves governed by spaces, operations, procedures, and transformations not of their own making, where potential moves follow precisely assigned steps.

These examples also suggest how structuralist theorists’ experiences with colonialism, war, madness, and criminology shaped their outlooks.[3] The indigene, the player, the hysteric, or the criminally insane may devise original responses to the problems they face, yet their possible moves are constrained by a network of forces given concrete expression in political, military, medical, and other rule-bound strategies of control. For all that pertinence, the comparison of structuralist models to a prison is misleading. Quite simply, structuralists’ deep familiarity with state violence enabled them to distinguish between structural and carceral forces (though they might, admittedly, coincide). More to the point, it is the contention of this essay that it was precisely their familiarity with state violence that explains their turn towards structural methodology as a harbor from the great destructive forces unleashed by modernity.[4]

Against the prison analogy, we might better grasp the political and scientific stakes of structuralism in terms of a database of language (or practices, performances, mentalities, etc.).[5] The conceptual ensemble of the database evokes not only the methods and models familiar to structuralists, but also some which have regained importance in our present moment.[6] One might even think of structuralism as a mid-twentieth century, relatively non-monetized, conceptual corollary of today’s social media and its ambitions for data crunching our social arrangements.[7] While we often think of social media as relying on a series of specific technological advances, or even economic modes, it also rests upon a series of conceptual presumptions about social life as symbolic fields of networked relations which, if properly mapped, provide general outlines of future exchanges.

It’s not for nothing that anthropological, psychoanalytic, and linguistic structuralism share with Facebook a peculiar interest in mapping sexual and family relations and patterns of linguistic and commercial exchange.[8] Structuralists stand out as the great innovators in this project of “cultural analytics,” premised on computational and network analysis of databases of cultural difference. Often borrowing conceptual models from mathematics and computing, they held that a virtual field of symbolic relations governed social life. Structuralists worked with small, tractable datasets standing in proxy for larger scale or “big data” analyses that Lévi-Strauss and others predicted would later be scaled up by IBM mainframes and similar machines.

Yet an ethical charge to counteract violence set the digital methods of structuralism apart from present-day digital humanisms and social media analytics. Structuralist efforts to inventory and informatically model culture coincided with an effort to counteract the reality of cultural annihilation unleashed by science, technology, and the state. Undergirding their appeal to rule-like iterability was an effort to preserve the tremendous dynamism of ways of life disappearing or disappeared under the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, colonialism, and imperialism. The chains, chess-boards, asylums, and colonies pervading structuralist analogy echoed their own sense of the deep and abiding structural violence faced by their “informants,” and a recurrent preoccupation with their own fields’ systemic implication in that violence.

Structural method encoded the practical working conditions of its practitioners as well as the enticing prospect that lost and missing fragments might be reconstructed as by simulation. This sets them apart from the clichéd accounts, particularly those of a positivist inclination, which construe structuralism as a search for social laws and cultural universals. Such accounts contrast present-day analytics’ vast empirical corpuses against structuralists’ supposed preference for idealized formalism. If these analyses are not entirely impertinent, they nonetheless overlook the problem of intercultural difference and violence that oriented informatic and cybernetic methods. Reconstructing elements of that political history—as the present essay seeks to do—not only sets structuralism “in historical context.” Much more than that, it highlights the fundamentally political charge that informed these cultural scientists’ technical, informatic, and empirical methods. It anchors the broader problem of “cultural analytics,” particularly its pursuit by computational means, within a network of crises and responses shaping the basic legibility of cultural difference. As such, a reconsideration of structuralism’s dreams for social data is instructive for our present.[9]

What Was Structuralism?

Differing enactments across fields, regions, and across the lives of single scholars fluster systematic definitions of structuralism. The prominence of the word “structure” evokes notions of geometric formalism but most structuralists concerned themselves with consistently structured patterning of difference, rather than a complete structure or form. Their method laid more emphasis on structuring than structures, as such. Of particular importance for their work were techniques for capturing data and putting them into dynamic relations, on the basis of which an infinite series of future iterations might be derived.

In very broad scope, they inherited this problem from their predecessors—the neogrammarian linguists and colonial ethnographers—but with a decisive difference. Nineteenth-century linguists and anthropologists collected traces of disappearing “primitive” cultures, theorizing methods for collecting, classifying, and exhibiting their materials. For such purposes a museum archive, with perhaps a little more logic and order than an early modern library or cabinet of curiosity, sufficed. A monograph or exhibition offered an ideal platform for presentation. For the structuralist, by contrast, particular artifacts were necessarily fragmentary; they embodied an iteration of a formal system whose traces were largely lacking. Amerindian myth, the discourse of an analysand, or a sample of Russian offered a limited set for deducing the structural relations in a total cultural ensemble. The purpose of a statement or colonial artifact was not preservation and exhibition for its own sake, but rather to serve as data points for extrapolating a larger field of informatic permutations.

We can witness the passage from nineteenth-century archivist to modern data processor, in miniature, in the work of French structural anthropologist Lévi-Strauss. One of his very earliest scholarly works, pre-dating his initiation into structuralism, is an exhibition of ethnographic photos and artifacts shown in Paris in 1937 under the sponsorship of the Musée de l’homme [Fig. 1].

Figure 1: Cover of the catalog for the exhibition of photographs and artifacts collected by Claude and Dina Lévi-Strauss on their expedition to the Indians of the Matto-Grosso in the Brazilian interior. Indiens du Matto-Grosso (Mission Claude et Dina Lévi-Strauss). Novembre 1935-Mars 1936. Guide-catalogue de l’exposition organisée à la galerie de la “Gazette des Beaux-Arts” et de “Beaux-Arts”, 21 Janvier-3 Février 1937. Paris: Musée de l’Homme, 1937.

Described in the catalog as a “natural history museum,” the institution is known for its association with anthropology. (Interestingly, the catalog recognizes Dina Lévi-Strauss’s contribution to its preparation, and her subsequent disappearance from Lévi-Strauss’s accounts of the expedition has itself been a topic of growing interest in recent years.[10]) Here, the work of ethnography is the capture and exhibition of a disappearing culture. The photographs and artifacts are singular traces of a “world on the wane,” as one translator would later describe it. They present less links in a chain of cultural transformations than soon-to-be fossils. Their sedimentation into non-calculable and non-fungible cultural vestiges—by the ravages of colonization that brings ethnographic enframing in its wake—resists datafication.

We can instructively contrast that work with Lévi-Strauss’s records, including many returns to the photos and observations of that voyage, that follow his structuralist conversion from the mid-1940s onwards. In that later research, tools, tattoos, myths, architecture, design, rituals, and kin become data-points in an infinitely generative store of symbolic units. He pairs photographs with diagrams, note cards, filing systems, algebraic formulations, culminating in the celebrated Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. As biographer Emmanuelle Loyer has put it, Lévi-Strauss’s “objective now was to build theoretical models and not to collect, and then exhibit, material artefacts” (2018, 384) [Figs. 2-4]. For this project, no simple archive would do, and the museum itself risked becoming a relic of an earlier, pre-scientific era of human investigation. The future of cultural sciences lay in becoming information-processing centers for isolated, extracted, correlated, and extrapolated data.

Figure 2: Kinship diagram depicting cross-cousin marriage. Lévi-Strauss also furnished an algebraic analysis prepared by mathematician André Weil and discussion in terms of Mendelian genetics, part of a broader effort to substitute a welter of empirical facts for an accounting of the “distinctive features” governing relations among terms. Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, James Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 173.
Figure 3: Quasi-algebraic representation of the formal transformations of social relations in American Indian mythologies. (Diagrams by Jacques Bertin, whose integration of visualization and information is brilliantly discussed in Campolo, “Signs and Sight.”) Source: Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Mythologiques Vol. 1). Translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1969 [1964].
Figure 4: Claude Lévi-Strauss amidst the vast Human Relation Area Files (HRAF), an unrivaled index of anthropological data centrally processed at Yale University and disseminated to a select series of research institutions. Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratory of Social Anthropology in Paris was the only HRAF installation in Paris, made possible by the exceptional space and state funding he secured by classifying his research group at the Collège de France as a scientific laboratory. Source: Marion Abélès. “Le fichier des Human Relations Area Files.” La lettre du Collège de France, Hors-série 2 (2008): 66–67. Photographer uncredited.

Jakobson’s Cybernetic Structuralism

The drive to develop formal scientific models, suitable for mathematical transformation, figured prominently in diverse structuralists’ work, including Saussure, Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and French literary critic Roland Barthes (ca. 1960-1970). Each found in structural method an account of cultures as symbolic systems composed of discrete elements that, speaking very roughly and generally, signify through differential relations which subtend the conscious intentions of human subjects. While nuclear physics, chemistry, and biology counted among the sciences cited as exemplifying structural relations, it was by means of cybernetics, game theory, and information theory that structuralism finally reached the status of high modern social science.[11]

Jakobson’s programmatic 1956 treatment of linguistics, Fundamentals of Language, co-authored with a Latvian-born American linguist at MIT, Morris Halle, encapsulates key aspects of his structuralist approach. In particular, it showcases methods derived from his time in the interwar Prague Linguistic Circle and revised in light of postwar communication engineering following his emigration to the United States. The title hints at that perspective: language is no contingent accumulation of utterances for happenstance documentation, as Saussure’s historicist predecessors, the neo-neogrammarians (according to Jakobson) maintained, but is instead a rule-bound system. Language is, furthermore, organized by functions and equilibria whose overall purpose—communication—permits its reduction to logical functions (Jakobson 1978, 4-5). The means, differential sound patterns formed from phonemes, vary across languages but the fundaments endure.

A telling example of structural analysis comes as Jakobson and Halle paint the scene of a New York party guest introduced to one “Mr. Ditter.” The guest rapidly but non-consciously endeavors to identify the correct designation from a range of alternatives: bitter, dotter, digger, ditty, and so on. The process is oriented towards selection, combinatorics, and a good measure of probabilistic deduction, all of which relies on access to a cognitive repository of phonemic units and corresponding rules for their transformation. The correct answer, ditter, is comprised of four sequential units: /d/+/í/+/t/+/ə/, identified as much by elimination of unlikely combinations as positive pursuit of likely compositions (Jakobson and Halle 1956, 3).

According to the authors, this scene illuminates general rules for linguistic investigation: that each language has a more or less fixed ensemble of terms, defined by specific distinctive features relating to the articulation of its phonemic terms (e.g., vocalic/non-vocalic, consonantal/non-consonantal, compact/diffuse, and tense/lax), which may be reduced to a series of binary rules of selection, combination, and opposition [Figs. 5-6]. In a nod to Shannon’s theory of information, Jakobson and Halle (1956, 17) characterize these varied distinctions as “information-bearing elements”: that is, terms that generate information in their differential relations, with a greater number of distinctions generally corresponding to a higher quantity of information. From time to time, changes may emerge, such as the suppression of one set of binary distinctions or the emergence of a new one, as the pronunciation and acceptance of the speakers shift.

Jakobson argued that such shifts in the historical trajectory of a language, its diachronic dimension, were no mere isolated events but rather belong to a mutation that differentially reverberated across the synchronic organization of a total language system. This play between diachronic and synchronic change reflected the natural tendency of the language to adapt as a necessity for maintaining equilibrium and even economy (Jakobson 1990, 184-201). Structural linguistics focuses attention on these “structuring” relations and their enduring dynamics.

Figure 5: Graph devised by information theorist Colin Cherry and linguists Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson to reduce Russian phonemes to binary oppositions (coded as +/-) permitting measure of their value according to the mathematician Claude E. Shannon’s theory of information. Based on the total set of phonemes and the quantity of “selections” necessary to specify a selection, they determined each phoneme conveys at least 5.38 bits of information. Source: E. Colin Cherry, Morris Halle, and Roman Jakobson. “Toward the Logical Description of Languages in Their Phonemic Aspect.” Language 29, no. 1 (March 1953): 38.
Figure 6: Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to refine the Cherry/Halle/Jakobson measure of Russian phonemes, initially prepared and hand mailed to Jakobson but transposed into a cleaner version by the editors of the Jakobson/Lévi-Strauss correspondence. Source: Lévi-Strauss to Jakobson, 5 May 1952, in Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Correspondance 1942-1982. Edited by Emmanuelle Loyer and Patrice Maniglier. Librairie du XXIe siècle. [Paris]: Éditions du Seuil, 2018, p. 165.

The systematizing tendencies of the interwar linguistics of the Prague School, and Jakobson in particular, proved uncannily fit for cybernetic reframing. Their core principles, quite developed by the mid-1920s, emphasized a conception of language as an integrated system of differential terms, reducible to oppositions, constrained by serial patterning, given arbitrary representation, explainable in terms of teleology and a systematic tendency towards equilibrium. Jakobson’s updating of the Saussurean terms langue and parole to code and message in the course of the 1950s appeared more like refinement than reinvention; the exchange of structuralist “teleology” for cybernetic “teleology,” of “equilibrium” for “homeostasis,” appeared like improved precision, not least of all to Jakobson. Broad features of this analytic resonate with information theorists’ descriptions of communications in terms of a discrete set with stable statistical properties distributed across a system.

Such similarities are not strictly fortuitous, although a full accounting of their conditions exceeds the present essay; briefly and schematically, these changes in linguistics resonate with an interwar liberal intellectual strategy that surfaced in diverse intellectual quarters across Europe and North America, including logical positivism, BASIC English, and even some spheres of eugenics.[12] Features of this shared perspective included the search for basic economic units of communication, whose propagation could be more or less rationally and scientifically described to ensure reliable transmission in the face of cultural and historical difference. For liberal intellectuals facing a maelstrom of ethnic, economic, and linguistic strife, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, the appeal of rational communications as a neutral technical sphere for overcoming difference is not hard to see. Logical positivism imagined a repository of mathematics-like terms that resisted transformation despite translation across languages; BASIC English sketched elementary vocabulary purged of treacherous nuance with the aid of statistics; structuralism, by contrast, sketched a fundamental data-set of phonemes, operated on through combinatorics, with each isolated term in organic and stable relation to the system as a whole.

Structuralist Linguistics as Formalization of Cultural Antinomies

Jakobson’s orientation towards discrete units caught in webs of systemic transformation could be seen in fragmentary form in the work of Saussure. Perhaps more decisively, Saussure provided clues of the cultural antinomies later animating Jakobson’s analytics. The Swiss linguist once remarked that “there should be a science of sound that would treat articulatory movements like algebraic equations: a binary combination implies a certain number of mechanical and acoustical elements that mutually condition each other; the variation of one has a necessary and calculable repercussion on the others” (1959, 51). His students’ notes suggest Saussure provided illustrating charts and diagrams in which spoken language became networks of symbolic relations realizing mathematical transformations (Saussure 1989). This is no typical prison, but rather hints at a world of symbolic logic and combinatorics, a database of culture producing infinite transformations through opposition and difference.

With Saussure as their exemplary and prophetic precursor, structuralists would resemble the systems analysts of latter-day computing. By analyzing myth, madness, or poetics, structuralists disclosed the dynamic possibilities of the subjects of the data-series they inventoried.[13] Expressed in brief: under the sway of structuralism, the work of cultural analytics shifted from a kind of taxidermic mummification to simulation and cloning. Techniques of mere collection, classification, and documentation, such as might be undertaken by a nineteenth-century philologist or even colonial ethnographer, gave way to the supposedly rational tasks of symbolic documentation characteristic of the programmer, logician, or behavioral scientist.

A confrontation with cultural difference, including a certain notion of grand civilizational clashes, undergirds the structuralist shift from historicism to systems analysis. In his 1940s lectures in New York, Jakobson noted the “genetic perspective” of nineteenth-century neogrammarian linguists under whom Saussure trained, characterized by “a search for [linguistic] prototypes in earlier forms of each given language” (1978, 6). Such work intertwined scientism, orientalism, and nationalism. Consider the work of linguist and Orientalist Franz Bopp (1791-1867), which helped define the scientific specificity of European linguistic inquiry through the historical reconstruction of Sanskrit. In Bopp’s work, the discovery of combinatory principles in historical phonetics emerged through a reckoning with a paradoxically ahistorical other—an Orient which, as Edward Said argued, was “always the same unchanging, uniform, and radically peculiar object” (1994, 98).[14] At stake here is the emergence of an historical, modern European science through opposition to the supposedly ahistorical fragments of a timeless other. This confrontation with the Orientalist other, which was also a confrontation with an imperial antagonist (the Ottoman Empire), provided the contours of the combinatorial language system reworked by Saussure and his disciples in Prague.[15] This juxtaposition of cultural difference and scientism formed, in a sense, the kernel of what Derrida would term “the very modernity of linguistic science, that is, modernity as linguistic science, since so many other human sciences refer to linguistics as their titular model” (1986, 139). The scientific models of structuralism boded a coming methodology, by which the human sciences would inventory and shape cultural order, much as physics inventoried and shaped physical order (though the threat of those models enabling disorder and annihilation was, admittedly, never far from mind).

The recourse in structural linguistics to a kind of scientistic mediation of difference, which was also a particular tactic for sublimating conflict, would prove an enduring feature in some of its most prominent practitioners, including Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss. Here, we might again recall Saussure’s invocation of chess to explain the focus of structural linguistics on internal rules, focusing on the emphasis he laid on a system transposed from the Orient to the Occident: “The fact that the game [of chess] passed from Persia to Europe is external; against that, everything having to do with its system and rules is internal” (1959, 22). The passage offers a peculiarly structural justification of the historical situatedness of structural methods. From Bopp through Saussure, the appearance of linguistic science coincided with an assertion of European identity grounded, in part, on a distancing but supposed mastering of an Oriental other. The scientificity of that maneuver, as well as the integrity of the identities it produced, required disavowal of these operations as merely extrinsic and incidental—which, not coincidentally, establishes the formal integrity of a system suddenly rendered “internal” and intrinsic.

Why, then, acknowledge Persia (or Sanskrit, etc.) at all, when European linguistics might occupy itself with the intrinsic necessity of its principal objects’ autonomy? Because, in properly structural fashion, it is only through this epistemic difference that the specificity of European identities can be established. Acknowledging external difference is necessary for establishing an internal identity which must, nonetheless, hold itself apart from that difference. This dynamic animated Benveniste’s remarks on the American Northwest and Lévi-Strauss’s writing about the Nambikwara of Brazil. But its theoretically radicalized form took shape only when the violence and domination it confronted “came home to roost,” that is, when its leading practitioners turned their eyes upon European and Eurasian subjects victim to projects of cultural purification and opposition unleashed by “European” modernities. In this respect, Jakobson’s journeys from Revolutionary-Era Moscow to interwar Prague and wartime New York, before assuming a leading position in the Cold War anti-Soviet apparatus that took hold in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1950s, merit particular attention.

Moscow, Prague, and State Violence

The development of structural methods for resolving cultural difference on scientific terms was guided by shifting orientations of the state toward persons labeled minorities. Saussure himself had shifted to structural methods, and phonetics in particular, as the French state he served increasingly focused on linguistics as a science that could support national greatness. As a professor at Paris’s École Pratique des Hautes Études in the 1880s, Saussure spearheaded new methods in scientific linguistics while also training young teachers who would lead the national charge in driving out dialects in favor of a single dominant language system, that of High French (Brain 1998, 256).

This scientific straddling of modern and folk, national and regional difference, also marked Jakobson’s structural initiation: like the pre-structuralist Lévi-Strausses who dispatched photographs to Paris, Jakobson launched his linguistic career in the 1910s as a Muscovite university student documenting premodern folklore in Russian villages.[16] As if to dramatize this dynamic—the profoundly nationalist impulses underwriting preservation—and also, as if to throw its violent dynamics into inverted relief, Jakobson later reported narrowly escaping murder at the hands of local informants who mistook him for a German spy (Jakobson 1997, 31, 278 n.63). From that excursion, he returned to Moscow where he spent his nights in the company of the Russian Futurists, discussing Einstein, technology, revolution, and attending poetry readings at the Polytechnic Museum. From the timeless countryside, he came back to modernity, where he could calmly and patiently inventory the disappearing linguistic history of a culture whose time had already passed, without its speakers even realizing it.

The mark of the structuralist consciousness, however, was not so much to thematize this opposition as to internalize it. As a scientific method, it came into its own when its practitioners faced the prospect of their own cultural annihilation. As Foucault would put it, structuralism was “the awakened and troubled consciousness of modern thought” (2002, 226). Troubled, it would seem, by a confrontation with itself, as the violence exported around the world or wielded by center against periphery increasingly was turned back against its source. When the prospect of extinction fell upon the scientist, the city dweller, and the cosmopolitan intellectual, a new kind of archival impulse took shape—not merely museumification of what was lost, but an urge to save the distinguishing features of cultural difference for future animation.

Structuralism flourished in the wake of genocide and pogroms. When the prospects of such extinctions were visited upon national and ethnic cultures, when the inventorying violence of modernity redounded upon itself, the search for a new symbolic preservation appeared. This impulse went beyond the documentarian, historicist impulse, leaning instead towards the possibility of preserving dynamism in the face of decimation.

Two anecdotes convey the political urgency that infused Jakobson’s structural linguistics: First, after hiding out in the countryside after the arrest of his fellow student activists in the Constitutional Democratic Party, Jakobson emerged to find himself enlisted by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to help it define linguistic frontiers between Russia and the Ukraine, so that the former could authoritatively assert new territorial claims. Jakobson complied, asking in lieu of payment that they grant his parents passports to leave the country, that his sick father might be treated, a request which they honored (Jakobson 1997, 53-54).[17] Second, in 1922 the Russian formalist Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky, whose political persecution led him to take refuge in Finland, wrote to the celebrated Russian painter Ilya Repin for help returning safely to Russia. The latter replied: “You write, asking that I certify that you are not a Bolshevik, and you write the letter in the Bolshevik orthography. How can I possibly defend you?” (Jakobson 1997, 65).[18] Fearful of this tumultuous climate, in which quite a few of his academic and artistic friends would soon die of privation, political execution, or suicide, in 1920 the twenty-three-year-old Jakobson decamped with the Red Cross for interwar Prague, the multilingual cross-roads for Eastern, Western, and Central European speakers and cultures (Jakobson 1967).

In Prague, he fell in with a distinguished community of linguists, including his mentor in structural linguistics, the refugeed Russian Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, with whom he co-founded the Prague Linguistic Circle. Trubetzkoy was a proud Eurasianist, that is, a champion of Slavic and Eastern European cultures, skeptical of Western European cosmopolitanisms that systemically denigrated “the East,” disdainful of a Eurocentric chauvinism that viewed other cultures as “children” or “savages” (Moore 1997, 322). And yet, Trubetzkoy believed that (linguistic) science could beat back, or at least stave off, the violent conflicts that proceeded from this perspective. He was mistaken: after he assumed a professorship in Vienna, he perished of a heart attack, apparently brought on by the stress of his perilous anti-Hitler agitation following Austria’s annexation.

When the National Socialists invaded Czechoslovakia, the vocally anti-fascist and Jewish Jakobson, on a tip from a knowing friend, reduced his personal papers to “nine pails of ashes” and decamped for Denmark, followed by Norway and Sweden.[19] His wife recalled the ensuing years as a time of dislocations, intermittent storage, documentation, filing, stamping, signing, and code switching:

“Temporary apartments, clothes in suitcases, boxes in storages, losses during transportation from one country to another, looking for new apartments, visas, places on boats and trains, switching from one language to another, from one environment to another, and people, people, people of all countries, characters, professions, destinies; greeting and parting, lifting of anchors barely laid, the escape from Norway on foot with the Germans on our heels, arrested and killed friends there, tension in Sweden, which functioned as a safe haven for thousands, again a whole year of visits to consulates and embassies, acrobatic attempts to leave…”

svatava pírková-Jakobson, quoted in Toman (1995, 245).

In May 1941 Jakobson and his wife had boarded a passenger liner in Gothenburg, destined for New York. According to the memoir of fellow shipmate Toni Cassirer, the wife of Ernst, on their second day at sea German troops boarded and searched the passenger liner to check identity papers. As the Jakobsons were both undocumented, stateless persons, the soldiers hesitated—their decision to ultimately let them continue on their journey, as they were of Russian origin, is somewhat surprising (Jangfeldt 1997, 144). In fact, that was not the end of their troubles. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, redbaiting US anticommunists would turn their malevolent attention to Jakobson; apparently it was only through the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower, an acquaintance from Columbia University in the 1940s, that the Un-American Activities Committee withdrew a subpoena for Jakobson to publicly testify (though declassified FBI records indicate he offered private, apparently confidential testimony).[20]

Statics, Dynamics, and Method

Structural linguistics did more than simply weather these threats. Its elaboration in Prague by a community of expatriates and refugees, its re-animation in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a new community of European refugees (including Thomas Sebeok, Halle, Lévi-Strauss, and André Martinet) permitted its reconstruction as an instrument of an American anti-fascist and anti-communist arsenal. These researchers’ prominence as anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet consultants during the 1940s and 1950s helps explain the great consequence with which they approached the science of communication. Theirs was a hard-won knowledge of the precariousness of their own situation and that of millions of their compatriots across Europe and Western Asia.

The methodological innovations of Jakobson bespoke this sense of urgency. Already in the fraught interwar years Jakobson had identified the move towards dynamic structural analysis, and the rejection of historicism, with the prospect of surviving modernity. In “The Generation that Squandered its Poets,” written to honor his recently suicided friend, the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Majakovskij, Jakobson declares their common membership in a “lost generation” that arrived at the Russian Revolution “not rigidified, still capable of adapting to experience and change, still capable of a dynamic rather than static understanding of our situation.” This phrasing recapitulates the opposition Jakobson frequently posited between neogrammarian methods, which he characterized as static, historical, and rooted in the past and structuralist methods, which he characterized as dynamic, perpetually generative, and oriented towards a future horizon of transformation. As “witnesses and participants in the great socialist, scientific, and other such cataclysms,” Futurist poetics and structuralist method straddle forces of progress that are coextensive with those of destruction. He adds: “All we had were compelling songs of the future; and suddenly these songs were transformed by the dynamics of the day into a historico-literary fact.” Though aligned with dynamic generativity, structuralism and futurism also carried, as it were, reactionary forces that could draw movement to a standstill, freezing their objects as historical fragments.

Which is to say, Jakobson’s structural methods—as well, certainly, as those advanced by Trubetzkoy, Lévi-Strauss, and probably even Benveniste—elicited the essential features of cultures precisely as they were threatened with liquidation. As Derrida, a generation younger than Lévi-Strauss, put it, structuralism possessed a “catastrophic consciousness, simultaneously destroyed and destructive” (1978, 5-6). In the presence of cataclysmic threat, structuralism took the measure of a culture, identifying essential systems and features, discarding excess baggage with the brutal efficiency summoned by the threat of imminent destruction. (Derrida knew a thing or two about political menace: much as the Jewish Lévi-Strauss took refuge in New York, Derrida spent much of World War II at home, due to the expulsion of Jews from schools in French Algeria; years later, back home in Algeria during its War of Independence, he would write to his mentor Louis Althusser of his crippling immobility in the face of “the daily assassinations, to which one becomes accustomed and talks about like bad weather.”[21])

Structural method confronted the reality of irreparable rupture but also embodied it within its own “internal” system dynamics. The axis of phonemes, divisible and combinable in an infinity of iterations, imposed radical constraints from one language to the next, but within these constraints opened onto a nearly limitless horizon. In this regard, the never fully resolved tension between diachrony (that is, the historical axis of linguistic change) and synchrony (that is, the systematicity of virtual totality defining a language at a given moment) refigured a modern contradiction in scientific form. Perhaps unique among the interwar structuralists, Jakobson did not shy away from this conflict but proposed in perhaps the most noted essay of the Prague school, “The Principles of Historical Phonology” (1990 [1931]) (alluded to above), that the disruptive forces of diachrony could, in fact, become a generative vehicle animating the lively, relational dynamics of synchrony in a language system. The unruliness of historical rupture ensured that the telos of langue towards equilibrium never devolved towards the ultimate stability, death, but instead kept the entire system in a state of mutual adaptation or dynamic stability. This paradigm of language prefigured cybernetician Ross Ashby’s celebrated homeostat, a chain of interconnected stability-seeking devices that continually adapted to one another to produce a stable current without human intervention, which Norbert Wiener labelled “one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.”[22]

The ingenious synthesis of historicism and dynamism, which in langue (as in the homeostat) required no human intervention or consciousness to maintain itself, was not a prison. But neither was it liberatory. Jakobson’s invocations of atomic physics from the 1910s through the 1960s to explain the lively molecular relations among structural elements did not draw by chance upon the mechanism for the most powerful annihilation of human and inhuman matter; in physics’ power to break the world into a new set of relativistic interrelations, Jakobson recognized an engine for immense power that was identical with unfathomable destruction.

Atomic invocations complement Lévi-Strauss’s remark in Tristes Tropiques (1955), written following his embrace of structural linguistics and of cybernetics, that “‘Entropology’, not anthropology, should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of this process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms” (1975, 397). Meant to capture the tragic disarray of an anthropologist facing the tragic conditions of tribal cultural forms reduced to a pale shadow by the violent impositions of colonialism, Lévi-Strauss’s neologism “entropology” also reflected a sense of irreparable loss attending his return after World War II to a France that seemed unlikely to regain its prewar grandeur and, in any case, had forever lost a certain imperial innocence after Vichy-era collaborations.

Notions of a cybernetic database offered not so much a resolution to these problems as their means of presentation: in cybernetics and information theory, entropy connoted both the breakdown of all organization of a system and, almost paradoxically, its maximum degree of complexity. It embodied a state of historical unwinding as well as the genesis of ever-greater complexity. From a cybernetic perspective, it is the lack of entropy that endows biology and natural language with the requisite redundancies to produce life and meaning. Yet, from the perspective of information theory and cryptography, entropy also coincides with maximum efficiency and maximum security; all human traces have been replaced with machine-generated randomness. The structuralist database took up this mission by inventorying as full a record of the distinguishing features organizing a cultural system as it could.

If this was in some sense a historical record, perhaps even the relics of a lapsed world, it nonetheless retained the dynamic potentials of cultural difference. But, unlike the dusty drawers of the museum of ethnography or the neogrammarians’ inventory of dead languages, when presented as a database defined by rule-bound interrelations, these historical traces also pointed towards a horizon of future iterations. Whether in language, kinship, or economy, the structuralist database was fundamentally a generative platform, a matrix for genesis and transformations. With the turn of Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss towards metalanguage in the 1960s, it would even provide the contours for the extraction of metadata, by which the broader map of meaning governing a culture could be illuminated.

The structuralist database did not, however, guarantee freedom, much less existence: it provided the basis for identifying the logical constraints bearing down on the individual. Like Wiener’s cybernetics, it found its origins in atomic physics before turning to computing, information, and communication as its definitive corollary. Its defining mood is not the loneliness of the prison but the despair of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of nine pails of ashes—the fire that consumes so brightly it annihilates order, producing infinite combinations from the reduced elements it leaves behind.[23]

Social Networking, Then and Now

“The world of the symbolic is the world of the machine,” Lacan once remarked. This is not exactly because he or his fellow structuralists were “influenced” by cybernetics, per se, but more precisely because they belonged to a moment in which machinery, records, filing systems, experiments, and, indeed, vast fields of science had undermined the solidity of bodies, cultures, and history itself. In the face of genocide and colonialism, museums and philology gave way to a greater interest in the dynamic systems of networks, data points, and exchanges disclosed by the rise of statistics, relativity, and systems engineering—not simply as an ideology of scientism, but also as an alternate strategy of preservation. As Heidegger, the onetime National Socialist apparatchik put it, quoting Hölderlin and perhaps explaining away his own collusion: “But where the danger lies, also grows the saving power” (1977, 28). Where structuralism’s predecessors traveled the world collecting traces of dead and dying cultures, the structuralists sought to reduce these records to a set of dynamic data points for informatic simulation.

What links might we draw between structuralism and subsequent digital technologies? Internalist histories of computing defined by serial inventions have often viewed social scientific contributions as inessential to the actual scientific and technical development of digital technologies. Yet the structuralist gambit occupies a privileged place in the archaeology of cultural analytics central to contemporary IT industries—which in turn invites a reassessment of the essence and origin of computing. Reuniting the history of computing with those of the human sciences and political violence, far from obscuring the history of technology, makes the larger course of its development intelligible.

In today’s social networks we find, in practice, a mapping of distinguishing features governing the genesis, exchange, and dynamism of communication such as Jakobson or Lévi-Strauss could only have dreamt of. The account of what a social network is, in one patent issued to Facebook, Inc. in 2019, even recalls the language of high structural anthropology circa 1953. “A social network,” Facebook lawyers explain for US patent office bureaucrats,

“is a social structure made up of entities, such as individuals or organizations, that are connected by one or more types of interdependency or relationships, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge, or prestige.”

Patent for applicant Facebook, Inc. of a work by inventors Michael Johnson, Michael Dudley, and Ryan Patterson. “Suggesting search results to users before receiving any search query from the users.” United States US10467239B2, filed June 8, 2018, and issued November 5, 2019.

“Network.” “Social structure.” Not an association of persons or things but “entities” defined not by qualities nor embodiments but “relationships,” such as “kinship,” “exchange,” or “beliefs” whose “interdependency” provides a model of future transformations. The diagrammatic account of how such relations take shape around nodes and edges—where the relevant inputs could be cousins, lovers, news items, or recommended vendors—is treated in some detail by Lévi-Strauss, and reflected on by Jakobson and other structuralists in varied forms [Fig. 7].

Figure 7: “[E]ach node may represent an entity, which may be human (e.g., user of the social-networking system) or non-human (e.g., location, event, action, business, object, message, post, image, web page, news feed, etc.),” Source: see preceding block quote.

In Facebook’s network diagram, as in Jakobson’s informational representation analysis of phonemes, Lévi-Strauss’s kinship diagrams, or his laboratory’s Human Area Research File (HARF), we have not so much a graphical assignment of empirical givens, but rather a paradigm of storage, correlation, and extrapolation, of database and metadata. To think for a moment in terms familiar to Lévi-Strauss, it schematizes the belonging of les données [data] to les dons [gifts], i.e., of “the given” to the structure which “gives.”

Yet as I hope this essay has suggested, structuralism is not only a formulation of generativity: it is also generative. It is itself a synthesis of political, technological, and economic turmoil that gave birth to our present. It is a modern answer to the problem of modern violence, an archive aimed at transcending the constraints of historicism and the archive. Grappling with these problems drove its theorists deep into thickets of social relations, networks, and exchange, emerging from them with new proposals for datafication against menace. This confrontation with modern problems would, under quite different circumstances, permit Harvard undergrads’ networked rating systems of potential mates to scale up, with the speculative resources of Silicon Valley, into the world’s most valued social network (by investors and markets, that is).

If the intersections and parallels between two generations of databasing are clear, these circumstances also point towards a vast epistemic and political gulf. In the case of the structuralists, their most utopian ambitions for vast symbolic inventories and extrapolations were motivated by the search for counter-agents to modern political violence. It was an exercise in databasing against the destructions that its protagonists witnessed. In the present-era of mass extinctions, viral exceptions, and the looming specter of untold climatic migrations, are there any imperatives besides monetization (and state surveillance) to rationalize the far more comprehensive databasing of Google, Facebook, and Twitter?

Works Cited

Brain, Robert. 1998. “Standards and Semiotics,” in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication, ed. Timothy Lenoir. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Force and Signification,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1986. “The Linguistic Circle of Geneva,” in The Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass. Brighton: The Harvester Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2002. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row.

Jakobson, Roman. 1967. “The Generation That Squandered Its Poets (Excerpts),” trans. Dale E. Peterson. Yale French Studies, no. 39 (January): 119–25.

Jakobson, Roman. 1978. Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1990. “Principles of Historical Phonology,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1997. My Futurist Years, ed. Bengt Jangfeldt, trans. Stephen Rudy. New York: Marsilio Publishers.

Jakobson, Roman and Morris Halle. 1956. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Jameson, Fredric. 1974. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton Essays in Literature, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jangfeldt, Bengt. 1997. “Roman Jakobson in Sweden 1940-1941.” Cahiers de l’institut de linguistique et des sciences du langage de l’Université de Lausanne 9.

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. “A Theoretical Introduction to the Functions of Psychoanalysis in Criminology,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 102-122.

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. “Science and Truth,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 726-745.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1975. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Atheneum.

Loyer, Emmanuelle. 2018. Lévi-Strauss: A Biography, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff. Medford: Polity.

Moore, David Chioni. 1997. “Colonialism, Eurasianism, Orientalism: N. S. Trubetzkoy’s Russian Vision.” The Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 2 (July): 321-326.

Said, Edward W. 1994. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1959. Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1989. Cours de Linguistique Générale, Édition Critique, Tome 1, ed. Rudolf Engler Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Toman, Jindřich. 1995. The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[1] I thank Alexander Galloway, Samuel Weber, and Erhard Schüttpelz for feedback and conversation that greatly enriched this essay, as well as Alison Hugill for her work copyediting the text. I am also grateful to editors John Tresch, Cameron Brinitzer, Gabriel Coren, Rosanna Dent, and Allegra Giovine for soliciting this essay and offering incisive comments for its improvement. In a time of pandemic my own kinship system provided an essential network of support. For that, I thank Lisa Åkervall. This essay is dedicated to Paul Kockelman, in whose work a few of the historico-literary facts reflected on here recover the dynamic, generative force the structuralists would have wished for them. In particular, this paper also offers an oblique attempt to answer, by slightly different means, his question “What does it take to automate, format, and network semiotic practices? What difference does this make for those who engage in such practices? And what are the stakes?” The Art of Interpretation in the Age of Computation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1.

[2] Compare with Jean Renoir (dir), The Rules of the Game, 1939, 110 min.

[3] While the texts above by Lévi-Strauss and Lacan capture more or less explicitly their encounters with state violence, in the case of Saussure, see also Robert Brain’s remarks on how the politics of the French state penetrated his activities in the seminal latter decades of the nineteenth century: “Standards and Semiotics,” in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materiality of Communication, ed. Timothy Lenoir (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 249–84 and 414–25.

[4] More generally, Jameson’s interpretation emerged from the late 1960s, when a new generation of renegade theorists was in ascent—famously identified with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” by Paul Ricœur and later dubbed post-structuralism in North America. Among the upstarts we may count French-Bulgarian literary theorist (and former assistant to Lévi-Strauss) Julia Kristeva, French philosopher Michel Foucault, French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, and crypto-Lacanians such as Luce Irigaray and Félix Guattari. So stunning were these scholars’ intellectual inroads in the global humanities that a primary task of any twenty-first century study of structuralism is to chip away at the sedimented interpretations their movements imposed on it.

[5] This paper takes inspiration from recent, ethnographically informed reflections on infrastructure, albeit with a shifted emphasis on the infrastructure of ethnography itself. A few of the key works from this larger body of scholarship include Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 377–91; Geoffrey C. Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005); Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (2013): 327–43; Miyako Inoue, “Paper Democracy: The Installation of the Filing System in the Postwar Japanese Prosecutor’s Office,” unpublished; and Kockelman, The Art of Interpretation in the Age of Computation.

[6] I have focused on European structuralists, in part for their continuing prominence in present-day academic discourse, as opposed to Americans such as Leonard Bloomfield, or even the French Émile Benveniste or André Martinet, whose less prominent role in contemporary thought reflects, in my estimation, the less pronounced confrontation they had with political violence. The theorists I do consider embody, in an intensified condition, dynamics that I think could be generalized across structuralism, and which find less marked manifestation in theorists such as Bloomfield or Benveniste, whose confrontation with phenomena such as genocide, exile, and other forms of collective violence were less pronounced.

[7] I say “relatively” because, in fact, the openness of international foundations such as Rockefeller, Wenner-Gren and Ford, and more indirectly UNESCO, to funding cybernetic-affiliated work seems to have played a part in its embrace by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss. See Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2011): 96–126.

[8] For more on the possible relations of kinship and contemporary big data, see Nick Seaver, “Bastard Algebra!,” in Data, Now Bigger and Better (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2015), 27–46, and Ara Wilson, “Visual Kinship,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 42 (2018).

[9] With this phrasing I explicitly have in mind historian Rebecca Lemov’s characterization of contemporaneous initiatives at Harvard’s Institute of Social Relations (a center which tried, without success, to recruit Lévi-Strauss for a full professorship and occasionally consulted with Jakobson). See Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). My account of cultural analytics, including the politics of counting and computing, benefits from works including critical accounts of quantification in Jacqueline Wernimont, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018) (and elaborations in her Twitter feed), the highly nuanced negotiation of “theoretical” literary analysis and computation in Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London: Anthem Press, 2012), arguments for the contours of cultural analytics in Lev Manovich, Cultural Analytics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), and critical accounts of (structural/poststructural) “theory” as opposed to digital humanities or computational humanities as sketched in Franco Moretti, “‘Operationalizing’: Or, the Function of Measurement in Literary Theory,” New Left Review 84 (December 2013): 103–19 and in Andrew Piper, Can We Be Wrong? The Problem of Textual Evidence in a Time of Data Elements in Digital Literary Studies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020) (and elaborated in his Twitter feed).

[10] On Dreyfus in Brazil, see Ellen Spielmann, Das Verschwinden Dina Lévi-Strauss’ und der Transvestismus Mário de Andrades: Genealogische Rätsel in der Geschichte der Sozial- und Humanwissenschaften im modernen Brasilien (Berlin: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2003); and Luísa Valentini, Um Laboratório de Antropologia: O Encontro entre Mário de Andrade, Dina Dreyfus e Claude Lévi-Strauss (1935-1938) (São Paulo, SP: Alameda, 2013).

[11] See, for example, Roman Jakobson, “Current Issues of General Linguistics,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 56–60; Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics in Relation to Other Sciences,” in On Language, ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 452–88; and Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Francois Jacob, et al., “‘Vivre et Parler’: Une discussion révolutionnaire,” Les Lettres Françaises, no. 1221 (February 14, 1968): 3–7. Lily Kay wrote brilliantly about the kinships tying molecular biology to Jakobson’s structural linguistics; media theorists Bernhard Siegert and Erhard Schüttpelz, as well as anthropologist Paul Kockelman, have likewise remarked on Jakobson’s adaptation of Claude Shannon’s schematic diagram of communications to a theory of poetics. See Lily Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Erhard Schüttpelz, “Quelle, Rauschen und Senke der Poesie. Roman Jakobsons Umschrift der shannonschen Kommunikation,” in Schnittstelle: Medien und Kommunikation, ed. Georg Stanitzek and Wiljelm Voßkamp (Cologne: DuMont, 2001), 187–206; Bernhard Siegert, “Die Geburt der Literatur aus dem Rauschen der Kanäle. Zur Poetik der Phatischen Funktion,” in Electric Laokoon: Zeichen und Medien, von der Lochkarte zur Grammatologie, ed. Michael Franz, Bernhard Siegert, and Robert Stockhammer (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007), 5–41; Paul Kockelman, “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise: How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20, no. 2 (2010): 406–21. See also work on the sources of some structuralist methods in cybernetics and information theory, including Mai Wegener, “An der Straßenkreuzung: Der Mathematiker Georges Theodule Guilbaud. Kybernetik und Strukturalismus,” Archiv für Mediengeschichte 4 (2004): 167–74; Céline Lafontaine, L’Empire Cybernétique: Des machines à penser à la Pensée machine (Paris: Seuil, 2004); Lydia H. Liu, The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory”; and Ronan Le Roux, Une Histoire de la Cybernétique en France (1948-1975) (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2018). Alexander Campolo likewise notes the close relations between Lévi-Strauss’s diagrams and a “computational understanding of graphics.” See Campolo, “Signs and Sight: Jacques Bertin and the Visual Language of Structuralism,” Grey Room 78 (February 1, 2020): 47.

[12] On logical positivism, see Peter Galison, “The Americanization of Unity,” Daedalus 127 (1998): 45–71; on genetics and eugenics, see Claude Elwood Shannon, “An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics,” in Claude Elwood Shannon: Collected Papers, ed. N. J. A. Sloane and A. D. Wyner (Piscataway, N.J.: IEEE Press, 1993), 891–920; and Axel Roch, “Mendels Message: Genetik und Informationstheorie,” in Versuchskaninchen–Bilder und andere Manipulationen (Zurich: Museum für Gestaltung, 1997), 27–33; on Basic English, see Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making It New In New Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 127–58; and Liu, The Freudian Robot, 39–98.

[13] See, for example, Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 206–31; and an essay dedicated to the psychoanalyst and nephew of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss’s friend Raymond de Saussure: Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” in Structural Anthropology, 186–205.

[14] On the combinatory logic in Bopp, see Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 305–21.

[15] While not heavily invested in colonization, the Ottoman Empire figured prominently as an imperial rival in the Germanic lands.

[16] The relations between ostensibly “traditional” cultures and the state varies significantly, even in the face of some parallels. The Lévi-Strausses toured the Amazonian interior as emissaries of the Brazilian and French states that sponsored their mission. On an expedition to the Russian countryside with a professor of linguistics, Jakobson’s stance was more comparable to that of W. B. Yeats, for whom Irish folklore was a counter-force to the British colonial state. Yet all three excursions seemed motivated by the desire to document a spiritual culture that modernity threatened with annihilation.

[17] Regarding his refuge in the countryside, see remarks offered to the House Un-American Activities Committee, reported in f. 78, p. 281 Roman Jakobson, “Memoir,” in My Futurist Years, ed. Bengt Jangfeldt, trans. Stephen Rudy (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1997), 53–54.

[18] Jakobson reports that “When Shklovskij later returned to Moscow, he left it with me, and I gave it to the Slavic Library in Prague,” to which editors of the memoirs have added the parenthetical remark “Slovanska knihovna, the entire collection of which was seized by the Russians after the war.”

[19] Jakobson quoted in Stephen Rudy, “Introduction,” in My Futurist Years, x; Jindřich Toman, The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), 244.

[20] On Eisenhower’s intervention, see Jakobson, My Futurist Years, fn. 78, p 280-281. It is, in fact, possible that there is some confusion here between the subpoena and the private testimony. They may have been one and the same event, the report of Eisenhower squelching the subpoena may be mistaken, and Jakobson may have concealed the private testimony, leading to later confusion. In any case, reports of Jakobson’s private testimony to the committee in April 1953 are recorded in another meeting he had, this with the FBI Boston Field Office: “Dr. Roman Jakobson,” 10 December 1956, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston, Massachusetts, 105-706-27, p. 2—apparently held in the FBI’s Washington, DC archives. Furnished to Geoghegan by Freedom of Information Act request.

[21] Quoted in Nicola Tams, Geschriebene Freundschaft: Zu den Briefen Derridas (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2018), 107, fn. 9.

[22] Quote appears in Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 93.

[23] See also Wiener’s admonitions that cybernetics belonged to “the world of Belsen [concentration camp] and Hiroshima,” and that he labored “in the very slight hope” that cybernetics might counter rather than contribute to the concentration of power facilitated by modern science and engineering. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948), 38, 39.

The Place of Structuralism on the Hungarian Intellectual Scene: Late 1960s – Early 1970s

I am writing these notes from the perspective of a peripheral observer, having been a student of psychology and linguistics when structuralism reached Hungary. I was mainly a consumer of—if at times kitchen sink social participant in—the debates spurred by the arrival of structuralism. There was a great difference, for many of us, from what we saw on the French philosophical scene in the 1960s. The French history of structuralism has focused on structuralism as a comprehensive social theory that questioned the commitments of what were then traditionally left-leaning social power- and history-oriented social sciences and humanities in France. Seen from Hungary, however, structuralism appeared as a culmination of half a century of (what was assumed by many to be an almost) organic development: from Saussurian linguistics to universal structures of cognition and society. In Hungary, in addition, we had a political situation where the social implications of scientific theories could take the form of direct political intervention.

Structuralism hit many youngsters in Hungary coming from linguistics proper, and not from Foucault, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss. At the same time, the message of structuralism in the Hungarian context was the concentration on pure structure and form rather than history and content. It was in a way like the 1920s Russian and Czech formalism: the inspiration towards form was coming from linguistics and language-inspired poetics.

Status quo of Hungarian linguistics in the early 1960s

To understand the situation of modern linguistics in Hungary and the impact of a structural vision, a few basic background factors should be considered. Hungarian linguistics in the 1930s and 1940s saw a small but promising structuralist attempt in the work of Gyula Laziczius (1896–1957), a phonologist and general linguist who initiated the Prague School (Linguistic Circle) and inspired Karl Bühler’s vision of language structure. Laziczius conceived langue as a system of signs accommodated to states of affairs in actual speech, or parole, and characterized by three functions: the descriptive, the directive, and the expressive functions (Laziczius 1942, 1966). As a phonologist with an instrumental phonetic background, Laziczius concentrated especially on the expressive function in his studies of emphatic aspects of speech.[1] One aspect of this had particular relevance for the following generation: between 1938 and 1949, Laziczius built the first European department of structuralist general linguistics at the University of Budapest (Pázmány, later Eötvös). Amidst the communist reorganization of academic life, the department was shut down, which resulted in a 10-15 year cessation of structuralist activity in Hungarian linguistics and hindered intergenerational transmission of structuralist orientations.

In the early 1960s, there was an interesting triangularity, wherein both traditional linguistics and Marxist ideology were opposed to a structural study of language. Traditional linguistics, still clinging to the frozen metatheory of the late nineteenth century neogrammarians, claimed that the only scientific study of language was historical linguistics. This attitude harbored suspicions about the structuralist and form-based “static” analysis of the linguistic system. Formális nyelvészet, or “formal linguistics,” moved away from immediately-given folk categories in a language and instead towards a view of language as a system of signs. Not an easy move.  

There was another tension surrounding the introduction of a structuralist approach to language in Hungary. The Marxist social imaginary understood society to be the result of constant class conflict and struggle, and applied a radical historicism and historical relativism to its interpretation. Class interest and history permeated everything. The structuralist attitude—when extended from the proper domain of language, with its concentration on system rather than history—presented a significant challenge.[2]

Structural analysis and would-be Hungarian structuralists thus had to face two inbuilt ideological, scientific, and existential rivals in the 1960s. Structuralists were considered problematic because they both neglected meaning and treated language as an object rather than an internal essence of humans. The other criticism, which Marxists leveled at structuralists’ ahistorical treatment of language, was that their concentration on structure implied a vision of eternal human nature.

Two structuralist Hungarian linguists in the 1960s: Antal and Fónagy

In spite of these intellectual and political contexts, two short-lived attempts to build up a structural linguistics still took form in Hungary. One was that of László Antal (1930-1993), a dynamic young linguist who was exceptionally well-read for the rather intellectually-closed communist country at the time. Antal started a campaign for structuralism in 1958 with a short paper published in a widely-read journal, Magyar Nyelvőr.[3] There, he outlined the idea that structuralism could serve as a generic name for all approaches that considered language to be “a closed system of signs,” and proposed “that the value of a given sign or sign category is determined by its definite place in the entire system” (Antal 1958, 94). Antal (1959, 1961b) worked to apply the structuralist approach to long-debated and difficult issues of Hungarian descriptive morphology.[4] He also published a popular book on what he called formal linguistic analysis (1964). This book—the first linguistics book that I ever read—combined the ideas borrowed from Harris (1951) and from Shannon (1948) with Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) information theory.

Antal had started from the mentalistic frames of Saussure, but he gradually became committed to a strictly behavioral vision of language. Morphological boundaries in segmentation would correspond to changes in entropy. Antal “started from the problems of segmentation in agglutinative languages and proposed that over words, the usual tendency is decreasing entropy. By this he meant the number of possible continuations at any given point that correspond to lexical density and grammatical structure.”[5] Thus, Antal used Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) notion of entropy for equal probability outcomes, where entropy is a function of the number of possible outcomes.[6] It is important that Antal’s structural approach had a hidden existential component: his structuralism campaigned for the independence of linguistics (from psychology and logic) by arguing for the existence of self-sufficient linguistic structures. In this approach, there was a corollary between the independence of linguistic structure and the independence of general linguistics.    

Iván Fónagy (1920-2005), the other representative of structuralism in Hungary in the early 1960s, was the fundamental contrast to Antal. Instead of independence, he looked for interdependence. He was committed to combining the psychological (in fact, the psychoanalytic) and the literary approaches to language with a structural approach to the language system.

Fónagy had a pupil-mentor relationship with Laziczius and thus represented a sort of continuity with a Saussure-inspired mentalistic structuralism, which Fónagy embedded in his sophisticated approach to multiple functions of language and framed in the tradition of the Prague School (Jakobson 1960) and Karl Bühler (1934).

Fónagy mainly contributed to a structuralist approach in three ways. Unlike Antal, he was not interested in an internalist structural approach but rather its extension toward a comprehension of the total communicative situation (Kiefer 2005; Szende 2008; Pléh 2018).[7] A second novel contribution was his analysis of the functions of language, with special attention to emotional expression. Finally, he reinterpreted the arbitraire of linguistic signs. As Kiefer (2005) has pointed out, for Fónagy, arbitrary linguistic signs had been historically motivated, and in actual communicative acts they obtain a secondary iconic or indexical motivation.[8]

What happened to linguistic structuralism in Hungary?

As Ferenc Kiefer (1931-2020), a Hungarian linguist of the subsequent generation, recently chronicled, a sui generis, fully-fledged Hungarian linguistic structuralism never developed (Kiefer 2019). There were several reasons for this. The first was the reaction of official academia, which was dominated by traditional historical- and meaning-centered linguistics. In 1961, for example, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (an important intellectual compass in Budapest) organized a grand “debate” about structuralism, with a plenary talk by Zsigmond Telegdi (1909-1994), one of the most educated and influential linguists in Hungary at the time. Telegdi claimed that there was a proper place for formal analysis. He tried to ease the worries of traditionalists by suggesting that this place for structure should not reduce interest in historical linguistics. He also tried to relax the Marxists by claiming that, while formal analysis had its autonomy, in a comprehensive vision of language the study of meaning and society also had their places.

As Kiefer presents it, the debate resolved very little, if anything. Since that time, the duality of traditional historical linguistics, on the one hand, and more method-oriented theoretical linguistics, on the other, has remained prominent in Hungary. But two of Telegdi’s other rhetorical moves have proved to be very productive. First, he pointed out that in the Soviet Union discussions about structuralism led to an official academic resolution in 1960, in which a clear differentiation between structuralism as an idealist ideology and structuralism as a method was made (Telegdi 1961, 24). Second, he highlighted how older questions concerning linguistic structures were taken up by mathematicians in the Soviet Union, and applied to the new problems of machine translation and computerized language processing.[9]

As chair of the re-established Department of General Linguistics in Budapest, Telegdi helped create an educational curriculum for “general and applied linguists,” separate from both language-specific philology and traditional Hungarian linguistics.[10] The new linguistics, however, was much more than structural. Antal’s and Fónagy’s first attempts at a modern structuralism in Hungary were quickly displaced by generative grammar. Structures were soon supplemented or even replaced by rules all over the place.[11]

For my generation, which was trained by these early converts to generative grammar, the famous examples of separating grammaticality and meaning—for example, with sentences like Chomsky’s (1957) “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”—introduced the idea that syntax and form had primacy in cognitive organization. This idea was also taken up in psychology through “a primary concentration on formal aspects both regarding representations and regarding models of cognition. Cognitive research in the 1960s repeated for general cognition what had been initiated by the early linguistic structuralism of the Russian formalists and the avant-garde artistic movements in the 1920s” (Pléh 2019, 405). A focus on form and sentences soon appeared in experimental cognitive psychology as well as in linguistic theory. This attitude has remained a persistent feature of Hungarian psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology ever since.

Addendum: What happened to other structuralisms in Hungary?

Structuralism first appeared in Hungary, albeit belatedly, in linguistics. Being trained as a psychologist and linguist, I viewed developments at the time in other fields mainly with the eye of a linguist. I was happy to see the methods and worldview of formal linguistics extended to other domains. As a consequence, at the time we felt a number of critical interventions to be threats to the entire “linguistic turn” (Bollobás 2019). Other fields, such as folklore, anthropology, and literary studies followed suit about a decade later. But because of the complex—sometimes joined, sometimes rivaled—interests of the Communist Party’s ideological leadership in traditional historical, sociological, and literary scholarship, structuralism’s entry into these fields created a much bigger splash.

In my naïve view, this was related to two factors. Anthropological structuralism questioned the historical relativity so cherished by mainstream Marxists. Literary structuralism, for its part, posed a challenge to many literary scholars for reasons of tradition. The dominant view at the time held that literary analysis should be centered on life history and sociological contextualization. For the Marxists, this contextualization should embed literature into the frames of class struggle and aesthetic realism. With its concentration on form and sometimes even quantitative methods, and with its choice of authors to be studied and researchers to do these studies, structuralism in these fields created a real uproar.

One could list many examples.[12] Elemér Hankiss (1928-2015), who was at the time a politically-compromised multilingual literary scholar, edited a double book of translations on structuralism (Hankiss, 1971) that was provocative for two reasons. First, it collated all modern literary studies under the banner of structuralism; and second, it avoided the question of whether structuralism was an ideology—an issue that was crucial even for soft-line party treatments of structuralism at the time (Kelemen, 1969). Hankiss (1969) also published a book of essays for a general audience, and it employed structural analysis to show how similar principles operate in phenomena as seemingly diverse as Hungarian folk songs and the writings of Samuel Beckett. Both the ahistoricity and the choice of works were provocations.[13]That was enough from a single intellectual. Hankiss had to leave Szeged University and later the entire literary scene. He became a noted sociologist, politologist, a liberal political figure, and the president of Hungarian National television after 1990.

Gábor Bezeczky (2006), a Hungarian literary scholar, also provides a detailed description of the multiple forms that Hungarian literary structuralism took in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Communist Party’s ideological reactions against it, ultimately resulting in a high-profile ideology session. These official reactions undermined foreign influences during the early 1970s. We were in the aftermath of the 1968 Prague Spring crackdown, and in the middle of what Kremlinologists have called a hardening of the Brezhnev party line and Soviet ideological control. All of the central party’s interventions felt threatening at the time. Structuralism—though a pseudo-official summary of the “debate” was still published in 1977 (Szerdahelyi 1977)—was practically stopped in literary and human sciences. Bezeczky (2006, 6) put it ironically: “The reason for alarm on the part of the party line literators was probably that they ran out of ideas. Within literary scholarship they were unable to juxtapose anything to what they called ‘formal’. Thus they reverted to a political stance”. Bollobás (2019) recently described the consequences ironically as well, noting how the new generation of students started a new chapter of post-structuralism. Thus, the late appearance of structuralism was fast followed by a strong post-structuralist movement in Hungarian literary theory. Does that mean that party hardliners won?  

One can see sad or instructive parallels in the fate of certain social and human sciences in Hungary. The politically-minded and tradition-oriented critics of modernity killed some trends, but much stronger and longer lasting ones appeared in their place. There was true human suffering and tragedy involved. The much-criticized linguistic structuralism was replaced by generative grammar. Literary structuralism was wiped out in the name of a strong post-structuralism and literary hermeneutics. And the party line critique of soft or revisionist Marxism led both to the death of Marxism in Hungary and the birth of a strong philosophy of language and mind.

Works Cited

Antal, László. 1958. A strukturalizmusról. [On structuralism]. Magyar Nyelvőr 82: 94–99.

Antal, László. 1959. Gondolatok a magyar főnév birtokos ragozásáról. [Thoughts on the possessive declination of Hungarian nouns]. Magyar Nyelv 55: 351–7.

Antal, László. 1961a. A magyar esetrendszer. [The Hungarian case system]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Antal, László 1961b. “On the Possessive Form of the Hungarian Noun.” General Linguistics 5: 39-46

Antal, László. 1964. A formális nyelvi elemzés. [Formal linguistic analysis]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Bernáth, Árpád. 2019. “Az irodalomelmélet 1956 után újra polgárjogot nyert Magyarországon.” [Literary theory has been licensed again after 1956 in Hungary]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 50-112.

Bezeczky, Gábor. 2006. “A strukturalizmus Magyarországon.” [Structuralism in Hungary.] 2000, 17.4: 64-76.

Bollobás, Enikő. 2019. “Az első nyelvi fordulat Magyarországon. A strukturalista szemlélet megjelenése az irodalomtudományban.” [The first linguistic turn in Hungary. The appearance of strcturalsist approach I literary scholarship]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 113-155.

Bollobás, Emikő, ed. 2019. Elméletek vonzásában. [Attracted by theories]. Budapest: Gondolat.

Brown, Roger. 1970. Psycholinguistics: Selected Papers. New York: Free Press.

Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Fischer. English edition: 1990. Theory of Language: The Representational Function of Language. Translated by D. F. Goodwin. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. Hague: Mouton.

Fónagy, Iván. 1960. “A hang és a szó hírértéke a költői nyelvben.” [The information value of sound and word in poetic language]. Nyelvtudományi Közlemények 62: 73–100.

Fónagy, Iván. 1962. “Beszéd és valószínűség.” [Speech and probability]. Magyar Nyelvőr 86: 309–320.

Fónagy, Iván.  1963. “A stílus hírértéke.” [Information value of style]. Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok 1: 69–76.

Fónagy, Iván. 1971. “Double Coding in Speech.” Semiotica 3: 189–222.

Fónagy, Iván. 1990/91. “The Chances of Vocal Characterology.” Acta Lingustica Hungarica. 40: 285–313.

Fónagy, Iván. 2001. Languages within Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fónagy, Iván, and Fonagy, Peter. 1995. “Communication with Pretend Actions in Language, Literature and Psychoanalysis.” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 18: 363–418.

Harris, Zellig. 1951. Methods in Structural Linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by T. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT Press, 350-377.

Kelemen, János. 1969. Mi a strukturalizmus? [What is structuralism?]. Budapest: Kossuth.

Kenesei, István. 2006. “Antal László igazgyöngyei és hamis ékszerei.” [The real pearls and hake jewelry of A.L.] In: Kálmán László (szerk.), KB 120 A titkos kötet Nyelvészeti tanulmányok Bánréti Zoltán és Komlósy András tiszteletére. Budapest: MTA Nyelvtudományi Intézet – Tinta Kiadó, 337–352.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2005. “Fónagy Iván (1920-2005).” Magyar Tudomány 166: 1170–1172.

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2008. “Gyula Laziczius, a Hungarian structuralist.”  Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55: 121–130

Kiefer, Ferenc. 2019. “A hatvanas évek magyar nyelvtudománya. Az elméleti nyitás korszaka.” [Hungarian linguistics of the 1960s. The age of theoretical opening]. In Elméletek vonzásában, edited by Enikő Bollobás, 19-49.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1942. Általános nyelvészet. Alapelvek és módszertani kérdések. [General linguistics: Basic principles and questions of method]. Budapest: MTA.

Laziczius, Julius. 1944/1961. Lehrbuch der Phonetik. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Laziczius, Gyula. 1966. Selected Writings of Gyula Laziczius, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. The Hague: Mouton.

Hankiss, Elemér. 1969. A népdaltól az abszurd drámáig. [From folk song to absurd drama]. Budapest: Magvetó.

Hankiss, Elemér, ed. 1971a. Strukturalizmus. I–II. Budapest: Európa.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971b. Formateremtő elvek a költői műalkotásban. [Form creating principles in poetry.] Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Hankiss, Elemer, ed. 1971c. A novellaelemzés új módszerei. [New methods of short story analysis]. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Pléh, Csaba. 2019. “The Inspirational Role of Chomsky in the Cognitive Turn of Psychology.” Acta Linguistica Academica 66: 397–428.

Pléh, Csaba, Németh, Kornél, Varga, Dániel, Fazekas, Judit and Várhelyi, Klára. 2013. “Entropy measures and predictive recognition as mirrored in gating and lexical decision over multimorphemic Hungarian noun forms.”  Psihologija 46: 397–420.

Shannon, Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27: 379–423.

Shannon, Claude, and Weaver, Warren. 1949. A Mathematical Model of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Szende, Tamás. 2008. “Ivan Fonagy (1920–2005): Leitmotifs in his Oeuvre.” Acta Linguistica Hungarica 51: 131–143.

Szerdahelyi, István, ed. 1977. A strukturalizmus-vita. I.-II. [The structuralism debate]. Budapest: Akademiai.

Telegdi, Zsigmond. 1961. “A nyelvtudomány újabb fejlődésének egyes kérdéseiről.” [On some questions of newer developments in linguistics]. MTA I. Oszt. Közl. 18: 11–27.

[1] Kiefer (2008) gives a detailed account of his life and oeuvre.

[2] This challenge was outlined in the local context, for example, by the booklet that claimed to put structuralism back in its proper place, by Kelemen (1969), a linguistically well-read and rather young (just 26 years old!) Marxist philosopher at the time.

[3] The journal has no official English name but can be translated as, Hungarian Language Guardian. The meaning of guardian is as a safeguard of proper language use. It could, in fact, be translated almost as a “watchdog.”

[4] For example, he started to apply morphemic analysis in the style of Bloomfield and Harris (1951) for the Hungarian possessive nominal forms and the status of the plural possessed markers (ház-a-i-m-ban ‘house-Poss-Plau-Mine-IN’) that had already created plenty of discussion. In the same vein he published a much influential book on the Hungarian nominal case system showing how distributional analysis and the concept of allomorphy was helping to decide the status of certain endings if they are case markers and the status of linking vowels without a recourse to meaning intuitions (Antal 1961a).

[5] To take an English example, the string boo can continue as boot, book, boor, boom etc., having high uncertainty, while prog can only continue as progr, having no uncertainty at that point.

[6] This point is first made and elaborated in (Pléh et al. 2013, 398).

[7] The first extension had a starting point similar to Antal. Fónagy (1960, 1962, 1963) also wanted to extend the recently emerging information theory to the analysis of language. But while for Antal entropy was an issue related to language segmentation, for Fónagy who was using information theory to consider issues of parole, uncertainties of prediction were related to some language-external factors to be found in the Sender, to be analyzed as a symptom mature for psychoanalytic interpretation.

[8] This is the essential element of his ideas about double coding (Fónagy 1971, 2001). There are two coding processes on all levels of language. There is a primary code, where the grammar is manipulating arbitrary signs to arrive to a propositionally articulated message. The secondary coding introduces a Distorter in the communicative chain that reshapes, recodes, distorts and transforms the arbitrary signs of primary code into messages referring to unconscious underlying processes as well. The two layers are never separated, they constantly “interplay”. The secondary code is “parasitic”: it builds upon the primary code, there is no secondary code without an elaborated primary code. As Szende (2008, 135) his student and follower in Hungarian phonetics put it, the notional, propositional component “on its way to implementation undergoes another encoding operation by way of which the linguistic form eventually uttered becomes a full-fledged utterance. That operation of expressing emotions or the speaker’s attitude towards the entity or included in the statement changes the utterance mimetically and/or articulatorily. This can be most immediately recognized in the use of emphatic forms. It is in that sense, thus, that speech is ’doubly encoded’”.

[9] Kiefer also describes in detail how similar initiatives were implemented in Hungary among, for example, mathematicians involved in information theory and cybernetics in both Szeged and Budapest. The Academy’s Institute for Computer Science opened an entire section of mathematical linguistics and a machine translation section for a new generation of linguists—Kiefer included. Parallel developments took shape in Debrecen as well with the guidance of Ferenc Pap.

[10] The department also issued a successful yearbook series Általános Nyelvészeti Tanulmányok (Studies of General Linguistics). The scientific training was assisted substantially through co-teaching by members of the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Research Institute of Linguistics as well.

[11] The cultivation of a new generation of linguists dedicated to generative grammar was also facilitated by American Ford Foundation scholarships in the mid-1960s to the would-be teachers of the next generation.

[12] Here, I merely draw a few from the excellent surveys of Bernáth (2019) and Bollobás (2019).

[13] The same provocations held for his selective collections of modern poetry and short stories, which were analyzed by a select group of mainly structuralist and psychoanalytic experts (Hankiss 1971b, 1971c).

Structures of Contagion and Forms of the Social Environment

The genealogies of structuralism have established that its intellectual roots should be found not in mathematics, as Jean Piaget or Michel Serres once indicated, but in biology (Descombes 1979). In many aspects, “structure” in the twentieth-century human sciences replaces the nineteenth-century notion of “organization”. Both notions aim at solving political crises by displaying the elementary conditions of social life: the French Revolution for the notion of organization, the Second World War for the notion of structure. But while organizations rely on laws of development and progress, structures rely on models to anticipate future disasters.

In his famous 1952 article on “the notion of structure in ethnology”, Lévi-Strauss (1958, 333, 342, 343) quotes three times from Kurt Goldstein’s book, Der Aufbau des Organismus (1934), which had just come out in French under the title La structure de l’organisme. In this book, Goldstein presented his diagnostic on patients suffering from aphasia—the loss of speech—to show that new forms of living can be invented after a traumatic shock such as the First World War. This book was a major source for Georges Canguilhem’s philosophy of normativity as well as for Roman Jakobson’s structural linguistics. By contrast with nineteenth-century anatomy, which relied on divine models of organization, Goldstein showed that a structure is a form of re-organization after a shock which shows that life doesn’t have a substantial basis. While organization is grounded on a center that is politically expressed in institutions, structure is decentered because it is grounded on void entities, which are politically expressed in transformations.

How can we think the biological meaning of structure at a time of pandemics, after half of the global population has been locked down by an emerging virus and recommended to wear masks covering their noses and mouths? How will life be re-organized after this collective aphasia? While the question of normativity has been forgotten in the reception of structural anthropology, this question allows one to connect the Foucaldian approach of norms and forms—an expression I borrow from Paul Rabinow (1989)—and the more Marxist approach to transformations—a notion Lévi-Strauss borrows from morphogenetics and which has recently been reappraised by Philippe Descola (2016). I want to argue that viruses are void entities whose circulation and transformation produce normativity in a way that can be described through structural analysis.

Dan Sperber has strongly suggested replacing structural anthropology with an “epidemiology of representations”. The problems with the notions of structure and symbol, in Sperber’s view, come from the fact that they rely on a strong confidence in the anthropologist’s brain as a model for what happens in the brains of other human beings.  Sperber proposes to study the cognitive mechanisms that lead humans to transmit some ideas rather than others, despite their sometimes counter-intuitive contents, for instance, in religious rituals or mythical narratives. Social representations are thus compared by Sperber to viruses invading human populations, but little is said about how representations affect human bodies. When Sperber (1996, 83) writes, “what pathology is to the epidemiology of diseases, psychology should be to the epidemiology of representations,” he leaves aside, in this analogical formula, what pathology should be for an epidemiology of representations.

How to account for the fact that social representations also make brains and bodies sick? When French citizens wear surgical masks in the public space after complaining about the lack of stockpiled masks and the failure of the State’s pandemic preparedness, this can be considered as a structural transformation of the “Muslim scarf controversy,” which took place in France in 2003-2004 and was concurrent with the time when Asian societies began to wear masks en masse in the wake of the SARS crisis (Keck 2020b). We cannot say that the practice of wearing masks or facial coverings was simply mimicked in Europe as a circulation of ideas from Asia, but rather that the experience of viral epidemics and respiratory diseases led French citizens to relate in their own new way to the use of masks in the public space. Masks are normative: they orient the way citizen perceive their bodies in the public space.

Sperber (1996, 9) borrows his concept of “epidemiology of representations” from Gabriel Tarde, a magistrate and sociologist who studied flows of imitation and innovation at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, sociology used statistics to describe the social distribution of facts about contagion that had been previously thought of as caused by environmental factors such as miasma (Wald 2007). The debate between Emile Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde turned precisely on how social facts can act as causalities that are different from biological causes. Durkheim famously showed that collective representations have a causality of their own, that is, they have their own mode of contagion and virulence which differs from natural contagion, since it can counter-act natural contagion. Institutions have a life of their own because they are separated from ordinary life and appear through the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Durkheim (1916, 325) writes that collective representations are “in a sense delirious”: they affect the bodies of individuals in such a way that they can lead them to kill themselves or to live with an enhanced form of life.

Lévi-Strauss formalizes this aspect of Durkheim’s conception of the social. From Robertson Smith, Durkheim had borrowed the idea of a site within the social where the sacred is produced and symbolic representations are made, the crucial difference being that Durkheim replaced Smith’s holy shrine with a tribunal, or the State as operator of justice through social categories (Keck 2019). After meeting Roman Jakobson, who turns him into a resolute structuralist thinker, Lévi-Strauss talks about a symbolic function, which combines the signifier and the signified in various societies. Lévi-Strauss replaces the idea, common to both Robertson Smith and Durkheim, that “the sacred is contagious” with Jakobson’s observation that associations in language are much more metaphoric than metonymic: much more ruled by displacement than by contact.   

This shift may have been due to the influence of Franz Boas. It has often been argued that Lévi-Strauss borrowed Boas’s model of cultural relativism, which separated cultural from natural determinisms in the context of the debate on racism in the United States. But Boas was also trained in the German school of biological anthropology, which, under the leadership of Rudolf Virchow, stressed the unity of living forms, particularly when looking at human and animal diseases—so much that Virchow is considered as a founder of the “One Health” approach connecting humans, animals and the environment (Bresalier, Cassiday and Woods 2015). Boas is regarded as advocating a diffusionist approach in American anthropology, which, rather than looking for the origins of a cultural trait and describing its development in stages of evolution, follows its transformations as it mutates from one society to another. What Lévi-Strauss borrows from Boas—through complex discussions on the distinction between form and structure through human history (Lévi-Strauss 1958, 15-24)—is the idea that social forms can be studied over geographical processes of transformation. To this idea he adds the Marxian notion of dialectic as a movement through which structure unfolds itself by critical reflexivity.

Today, as we follow the mutations of pandemic viruses across species barriers and political frontiers (Keck 2020a), we may still use the Lévi-Straussian notion of transformation to think about how social forms of contagion reveal changing relations between humans and their environments. Mathematical models are not used to map the diversity of structures of the human mind within kinship systems, but to simulate the mutations of viruses and prepare for the next pandemic, or to predict the degrees of global warming and mitigate its effects. A structuralist account of contagion may be used to describe how mythical narratives about the origins of viruses are transformed when pathogens circulate globally. The “way of the masks” is now a story of stockpiling emergency goods and scarce resources to mitigate the consequences of environmental disasters. The criticisms that are addressed to nation states when they fail to stockpile masks or vaccines must be integrated into this story, as it is told differently in the environments in which viruses are tracked, collected, attenuated and stored. Preparing for pandemics has transformed the imaginary through which we relate to each other in a potentially contagious environment.

Works Cited

Bresalier, Michael, Angela Cassidy, Abigail Woods. 2015. “One Health in History.” In One Health: The Theory and Practice of Integrated Health Approaches, edited by Jakob Zinsstag, et al., 1-15. Wallingsford: CABI.

Descola, Philippe. 2016. “Transformation transformed.“ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 33-44.

Descombes, Vincent. 1979. Le même et l’autre. Quarante-cinq ans de philosophie française (1933-1978). Paris: Minuit.

Durkheim, Émile. 1998 (1916). Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: PUF.

Keck, Frédéric. 2019. “A Genealogy of Animal Diseases and Social Anthropology (1870–2000)”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 33 (1): 24-41.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020a. Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts. Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Keck, Frédéric. 2020b. “Wearing a Mask in France Would Be a Revolution.” The Hedgehog Review Blog, April 17 2020.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2016. We Are All Cannibals: And Other Essays. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York, Columbia University Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1989. French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sperber, Dan. 1968. Le structuralisme en anthropologie. Paris: Seuil.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. La contagion des idées. Théorie naturaliste de la culture. Paris: Odile Jacob.

Wald, Priscilla. 2007. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zimmerman, Andrew. 2010. Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Structures and Relations: Seeing the Entwined Lives of Concepts in an Exercise of Conceptual Flocculation

In asking about the lives of “structure” and “relation,” I do not take a head on approach. Rather, I sidle up to the concepts. John Dewey, whose early twentieth-century method in these matters I admire, called it “a flank approach” when he took on the concept of “The State” in his 1927 The Public and its Problems (Dewey, 1927). Such a military metaphor is not for me. I prefer to imagine a child on a playground asking, “Can I play with you?” Thus, I begin by playing a game with other concepts: “assemblage” and “polity.” I could propose this game by analogy to mathematical method, imagining it as a peculiar wordy calculus involving differentiation and provisional (re)integration. But I prefer analogy to chemistry. Telling it as the chemical method of flocculation, I take the anthropologically entwined pair of concepts, “structure” and “relation,” lyse them so that they float apart and, in reacting with other concepts as little wordy stubs, change their form, and rise to the top in a process of analytic flocculation. In subsequently being skimmed off, these novel concepts become useful in catalyzing divergences.

Around ten years ago, I claimed that it is useful to think of collective method in knowledge and culture work as a complex form of assemblage. In developing this proposition, I worked with two quite disparate exemplars of such work: a nineteenth-century British scientific expedition and a twenty-first-century Indigenous Australian digitization project. Attributing a precise meaning to the commonplace term, assemblage, one that went on from the STS sense of sociotechnical bricolage, but also quite different than post-structuralist “assemblage theory,” my 2009 concept of assemblage envisioned complex material-semiotic entwining of two distinct moments of generalizing—a one-to-many, inductive form, and a whole-to-parts abductive form of generalizing. In this Field Note on the concepts “structure” and “relation,” I pick up that proposition, this time focusing on the work that concepts do to mediate relations in the workings of these complex processes of structuring assemblage.

Whereas ten years ago, I used two rather modest exemplars of what knowledge and culture work generates—a novel botanical taxonomic scheme and a local intervention in identity politics around Australian Indigeneity—here my exemplar is a much grander project. I point to a polity as generated in infinite complex happenings in collective knowledge and culture work, imagining an overall process of assemblage understood as the entwining of the dual generalizing moments of assemblage. In beginning on foregrounding the concepts, “structure” and “relation,” I retell my account of assemblage through telling the workings of a polity.

Before I plunge into that, let me say something about the idea of studying the lives of concepts, which is what I see myself as discussing here. I take the phrase “studying the lives of concepts” from Henning Schmidgen (2014), who uses it to sum up the work of Georges Canguilhem, a twentieth-century French historian of science.

Georges Canguilhem only rarely expressed himself programmatically on the history of science. When he did so, he left scarcely any doubt that to him the history of science was above all a history of concepts. In 1963 […] he wrote: “History of science cannot be a simple collection of biographies and even less a chronological chart decorated by anecdotes. It also has to be a history of the formation, deformation and rectification of scientific concepts”.[1]

However, there is a big difference between what I do in studying the lives of concepts and what Canguilhem did. I study how concepts participate in knowledge and culture work in the wild. The ways concepts participate in scientific texts and theories is of interest, but this is just one aspect of the study of the lives of concepts as I see it, and rather a minor one at that. For many years I have focused on the work of concepts in the wild through telling ethnographic stories.

As I tell it, concepts, as knowers’ companions, participate in happenings of knowledge and culture work. In much the same way cats, as totems of witches, are said to be the companions of witches, so concepts are the companions of analysts. In witch stories, cats participate in magic happenings as extensions of witches, in the same way concepts extend the epistemic and cultural agency of analysts. To put this in the context of this Special Focus Section, it is participations of “structure” and “relation” as conceptual companions of analysts that I attend to here.

I propose that in knowledge and culture work in the wild, and in anthropological theories, “structure” and “relation” are inseparable from each other. My proposition about the lives of “structure” and “relation,” as they participate in knowledge and culture work, is that structure implicates relations and relations embroil structure; the concepts’ lives are deeply intertwined.

Lysing the Clotted Conceptual Assemblage of “Polity” to Disentangle (and Re-entangle) Structure and Relation

In offering a glimpse of the workings of “structure” and “relation,” the analytic story of the concept of polity as assemblage, which follows, disaggregates and disassembles. The exercise interrupts the bond between the conceptual companions of “structure” and “relation.” I am seeking to flush their entanglements out into the open. It is a way of reciprocally naming the relation between the two concepts, and this is the preliminary work we need to do in order to get a clear view of these concepts at work in analysis. I ask what is inside the concept “polity” and conclude by briefly considering what more is packed inside the concept of “democratic polity.” This analytic story of polity as assemblage introduces a complexifying modification of both “structure” and “relation” as concepts. In this first step, the more complicated reciprocal concepts of “structural relationality” and “relational structurality” come into view. This analytic story of the concept “polity” is a serial lysing into the “ana-,” the entities inside polity, which collective practices of doing a polity clot. In discussing the clotted entity of “polity”, I bring “structure” and “relation” into the foreground and show the forms in which they participate in the conceptual assemblage “polity.”

We can conceptualize a polity as embedding two core entities: the citizen and the sovereign. “Citizen” and “sovereign” are the structural concepts of polity. So, what is their relation? The sovereign rules many citizens, and to know those citizens, a census might be carried out. In the logic of the practices of a census, a series of concepts are invoked: child/family/a household/a quarter/a city, and so on. Through a series of enumerative practices, a precisely defined one—the individual embodied human—becomes a precisely definable many—a generalized unit, the sovereign (these days usually a nation state rather than a monarch). All children, families, households, and so on are the same in precisely being children, families, and households. They are some of the structures of a polity. Of course, within those samenesses many interesting differences can empirically be found—between children, between families, and between households—and much anthropological work has been, and remains, dedicated to articulating those differences. In the end, such differences are interesting to the extent that they will not go away; they cannot be explained away by reifying the structural concepts. In knowing a polity through a census, structural concepts, or the samenesses, are carried to the fore, and the reasoning process is induction. Structure and relation mediate a one-to-many form.

But, there is another way of knowing a polity where relational concepts and differences are foregrounded and the reasoning process is abduction. If instead of considering citizens, we look at what a sovereign must accomplish in order to stay a sovereign, the polity becomes evident as a vague whole thing to be (re)accomplished from many parts. Many different functional entities (re)generate citizens as many different governable entities: territories, militaries, tax-collecting organizations, order-keeping groups, hospitals. The conceptualized functional units differ, all work with particular practices, although there are enough samenesses between the groups to connect them as functional units of a particular polity, even if it is only that the officers of these functional entities wear the same token embroidered onto their sleeves. This sameness, explicitly made within difference, announces a relation. Again, much anthropological work details the working of such functional units of this or that sort of polity as well as the generation of their relations. What is usually of interest here is how myriad sorts of sameness might be contrived. Here “relation” and “structure” as concepts mediate a parts-to-vague-whole form.

Polity, then, is a conceptual assemblage that embeds a precise unified concept of sovereign, where citizens are inside the sovereign, along with a vague emergent concept of sovereign as a whole, where citizens are variously accomplished as the sovereign’s outside. If, with this understanding of polity, we wish to go on to define a parliamentary democratic polity, we might imagine precise sovereignty and vague sovereignty as set within the structural relation between the electorate and the political parties of a parliament, the voter citizens and the voted-for political parties. I could adumbrate the relational structurality and the structural relationality of the concepts “electorate” and “parliament,” in just the same way that I have for polity with its “citizen” and “sovereign,” but will refrain from doing that. You get the idea.

My account of a polity as a relational processual entity is far from original, yet my adumbrating it here is not with the intent to make a claim in political philosophy. Before me, Rancière, Dewey, Hobbes, and Aristotle have explained what a polity is in these terms. My point in telling this story about polity as assemblage is to show what is inside the concept assemblage. I foreground dual relational concepts, “relational structurality” and “structural relationality,” each one being completed in their entanglement in polity’s assemblage.

Pausing for a moment here, I feel I need to make a couple of comments on this process that I’ve glossed as conceptual lysing. First, let me comment on the relation of these two derivative concepts. We might be tempted to think of the relation between these concepts as one being the inverse of the other, but that is a misnomer signalling misunderstanding. The core of the concept of inverse is transposition—like sewing the left sleeve of a blouse into the right armhole. These two concepts (relational structurality and structural relationality) are reciprocals. Each can be everted into the other. Relational structurality is inside structural relationality and vice-versa; imagine lava and volcanic mountains, or more precisely, mobius strips.

Next, noting the proliferation of metaphors, I offer an aside about the complicated grammatical acrobatics I have deployed here in naming these two concepts. How is “a relationality” different from “a relation”? Or “a structurality” different from “a structure”? Starting with the noun “relation,” a fragment of an old word is added. Relation plus –al (from an old Latin word meaning “pertaining to”) turns the naming term “relation” into a qualifying adjective—something can be said to be relational; a shared mode of existence of two entities is commented on. 

Then, in a second complicating grammatical step, -ity (a short form of a Latin word used to express a state or condition) is added; relational becomes relationality, naming the condition, or form of being that all relational things have in common. To give an example by discussing fingers: we might talk about a finger on one of our hands as having a particular relation to each of our other fingers (usually nine others). So, we can say that each and every finger is relational. Thus, relationality is a condition that all fingers share, although, as we know, every finger is different from every other finger. Albeit semantically complicated, relationality is just “a thing” that is proposed as being or existing in the world; a relationality is an entity just like each finger is an entity. As a thing, in English, relationality is said to be “abstract” because, unlike a finger, you cannot actually suck it.

Doing Things With Such Contrived Concepts

In my peculiar exercise in playing with words I have written about concepts—polities, assemblages, fingers, and grammar—and I have recklessly mixed my metaphors along the way. In a process I named conceptual flocculation, two derived concepts have floated to the top: relational structurality and structural relationality. In introducing conceptual flocculation, I suggested that the purpose and value of this analytic process lies in capacities that the derived concepts have for catalyzing divergences: not divergences from anything, but rather divergences valued for the reason that they (might) make a difference.

So now, in concluding my Field Note, I ask about using the conceptual tools that have come out of my odd little exercise in opening up the possibility of divergences in the entangled lives of structure and relation in anthropology. If this text were to become something more than a Field Note, then with the rather oddly paired concepts of “relational structurality” and “structural relationality” as my companions, I could make a reading of current anthropological theory.

What if, say, I took the work of Marilyn Strathern (linking her theory back to Radcliffe-Brown) and that of Philippe Descola (pursuing his connections back to Lévi-Strauss)? I would propose that since Strathern foregrounds relational structurality and backgrounds structural relationality, she is a relationist; Descola reverses this foregrounding/backgrounding relation, so he is a structuralist. When it comes to their epistemic practices, these anthropology theorists are very different. Of course, pointing to that is not news, albeit that there is a certain elegance to seeing the one as the reciprocal of the other. We might contrast the methodologies in this way: Strathernian theory enacts empirical relationism in contrast to Descolian theory, which performs empirical structuralism. We can accept that each in its own way is constructivist, yet also recognize the effect of the differing metaphysical commitments of these analysts: the former to a metaphysical dualism; the latter to monism.

But, to compare and contrast Strathernian and Descolian theory is not all I want to achieve with this exercise. My main purpose is to ask what an anthropology that abstained from backgrounding and foregrounding relational structurality and structural relationality would look like. Can we imagine an anthropology that is neither and both empirical relationism and empirical structuralism? Here we are feeling our way towards an analytic that has learned to keep both these derived concepts in the foreground, in generative tension. When we can do that, I propose that the name of the process would be relational experientialism. But why would we want to diverge towards epistemic practices that might properly be called relational experientialism?

As anthropological theories, Strathernianism and Descolianism offer readings of the past, with one emphasizing emergent relations and the other emergent structures. Both offer possibilities to imagine futures different than pasts. The problem with that, however, is that we are currently marooned in a regime of historicity that has rendered such imagining redundant. As French historian François Hartog (2015) points out, both futuring the present and historicizing it are currently beset with uncertainty. The world now seems lodged between two impossibilities: the impossible past and an impossible future. He proposes this aporia as a pause or a gap in time.[2] What we need today is an a-theoretical anthropology of the present that might offer a basis to intervene in a knowingful doing of the present.

Here is Adam Tooze, a political historian, on our present.

Since its inception, neoliberalism has sought not to demolish the state but to create an international order strong enough to override democracy in the service of private property…

… As long as it remains at the level of abstract gestures…the impulse of resistance mirrors what it opposes. We are still not engaging with the actual mechanisms…What we need to revive is the impulse to know. The will to intervene. The freedom to choose not privately but as a political body…

…[We must address ourselves to what the world order of neoliberalism] seeks to obscure: namely the engines both large and small through which social and economic reality is made and remade, its tools of power and knowledge ranging from cost-of-living indicators, to carbon budgets, diesel emission tests and school evaluations. It is here that we meet real, actually existing neoliberalism—and perhaps may hope to counter it.

(Tooze, 2018)

“Cost-of-living indicators,” “carbon budgets,” “diesel emission tests,” and “school evaluations” are “tools of knowledge and power” that are expressions of diverse, instituted epistemics. They name “clotted” sets of meaningful physical arrangements and routines that effect certain conditions on-the-ground. As expressions of epistemics, these “tools” are among the myriad objects of contemporary governance—concepts. They act both as mediators and intermediates in the purposeful work of contemporary governance. They govern partially as themselves as they simultaneously, and partially, transmit the intentions of a polity in conducting the conduct of a polity’s collective life—shifted today to the benefit of capital. To engage Tooze’s diagnosis, we need an anthropology of the present.

Relational experientialism, as I imagine it, is an analytic platform supporting ethnographic research and analysis of collective knowledge-making-and-doing in the wild. Knowledge generated with the support of this platform offers partial insight into and possibilities for analytically telling, the happening of a “here-and-now” as knowingful doing. Research projects mobilizing relational experientialism can be imagined as applications inquiring into various aspects of collective action in the present. Happenings of times and places in ethnographic research, understood as knowingful doing in going-on together, are researched as collective epistemics, with the aim of designing careful interventions. Of course, doing this with certain concepts as our familiar companions can be done in better rather than worse ways, so knowing how to discern and agree on the criteria for worse and better, is a crucial aspect of this work.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt, 1927.

Canguilhem, Georges. Etudes d’histoire et de philosophie des sciences. 7th edition, 2nd printing. Paris: Vrin, 2002. Pages 226-273.

Hartog, François. 2015. Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. Translated by Saskia Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schmidgen, Henning. 2014. “Concepts have a life of their own: Biophilosophy, History and Structure in Georges Canguilhem.” Inflexions 7, “Animating Biophilosophy” 62-97.

Tooze, Adam. 2018. “Neoliberalism’s World Order.” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2018.

[1] Schmidgen cites Canguilhem (2002), specifically the chapter entitled “La constitution de la physiologie comme science,” pp. 226-273.

Introduction to the New English Edition of “Twenty Days with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Korea”

Editors’ note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. The following is a new introduction written by Kang Shin-pyo. Both selected excerpts and the full seminar transcript with appendices are also available.

This book is the record of a remarkable conversation between Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of structural anthropology in the twentieth century, and a group of South Korean scholars invited as leaders in their respective disciplines. It took place in Seongnam, in the context of a seminar that was conceived as an encounter not only between scholarly generations but also between East and West and North and South. The conversation filled five days in October 1981, interrupted for eleven days while Lévi-Strauss traveled in the South Korean countryside to explore aspects of the country’s cultural traditions.

The seminar was initiated by Kang Shin-pyo, then Chairman of the Department of Socio-Cultural Research at the Academy of Korean Studies. Kang had begun to apply a structuralist approach to the analysis of East Asian cultures in the course of his doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii and became acquainted with Lévi-Strauss’s work during academic sojourns in London and Paris. In this respect he was typical of a generation of South Korean humanities scholars who by the mid-1970s were internationally mobile and alert to developments in European and American theory and methodology. The 1981 seminar provided an opportunity for them to engage with Western scholars on their home ground; although Lévi-Strauss and his ideas were the focus of the seminar, other North American and European anthropologists took part by invitation: David Eyde, David Wu, Bob Scholte and Henry Lewis.

The institutional context in which these scholars came together was the work of the Academy of Korean Studies, which was sponsoring a project on the theme of Symbol and Society in Traditional Korea. The Academy had been created in 1978 by the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology under the government of President Park Chung-hee. Park had established a military dictatorship in 1963 and sealed its authoritarian character with the Yushin constitution in 1972. Under his leadership the country underwent a process of rapid forced modernization sustained by a combination of police repression and the mobilization of popular consent. The creation of the Academy was part of a strategy of “balancing” the effects of technological and economic change through the promotion of cultural or spiritual values; its name was literally Research Institute of Korean Spiritual Culture. Under the dictatorship its function was to legitimate the regime at the level of culture as well as to provide materials for the construction and dissemination of a nationalist historical narrative. Accordingly, the “Korean Studies” that it looked to develop was not an area studies of the kind that were developing in the West at the same time (although, like the Western version, it was multi-disciplinary), but rather a program of research and development directed inwards with national consciousness as its object. 

Appendix 2, Figure 3: Seminar Participants at Academy of Korean Studies.

The 1981 seminar thus took place at the heart of a significant moment in South Korea’s political economy, but the character of that moment and the paradoxes it implied for the mission of a humanities project with “traditional culture” at its center are largely absent from the conversation. When Lévi-Strauss, at his own insistence, went in search of tradition in the provinces, his attention was directed to the restored manor houses of the provincial service (양반 yangban) elite and the folk villages (민속마을 minsokmaeul) maintained as showpieces by local and regional governments. These preserved the traces of a historical way of life whose disappearance was being accelerated by forced development in the countryside; the icon of rural modernization under the banner of the New Village (새마을 saemaeul) Movement launched in 1970 was the replacement of wood and thatch roofs with corrugated iron. The author of Tristes tropiques recognized this tension when, in his concluding remarks, he expressed the “hope that Asia comes up with a solution to the problem of how to live with the free market and industrialization without the destruction of interpersonal relationships and the destruction of meaning.” And the problem of reconciling “industrialization” and tradition—the Academy’s underlying agenda—was certainly part of the conversation here, acknowledged and embraced in particular by David Eyde.

It is notable, though, that the forces challenging “tradition” appear in these conversations as impersonal and global. Eyde in particular falls easily into the language of Westernization, Americanization and (Western) imperialism. The particular circumstances of South Korea’s modernization, in which Park’s illiberal state in partnership with big corporations controlled the market and enforced low wages and poor working conditions by manipulating and criminalizing the labor movement, are unspoken here. In effect the Korean and Western speakers are talking about different things, and it is not clear how far the visitors are aware of it. Similarly striking is the candor with which Bob Scholte articulates his (generational) challenge to the authority of anthropological knowledge in “neo-Marxist” terms (along with the exchange about Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of South Asian Buddhism to Marxism). In 1981, a new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, was consolidating his position following the brutal suppression of democracy movements precipitated by Park’s 1979 assassination, and the seminar participants’ presumption of open intellectual exchange contrasts sharply with the repression of the left which was part of everyday life on South Korean campuses at the time.

These contradictions, however, reflect the inherent ambivalence of the Korean Studies project. The developmental dictatorship’s interest in state-building coincided with the intellectual ambitions of a generation of scholars who were equally committed to identifying the elements of a post-colonial national identity “from the bottom up.” The fact that most of them had completed their doctoral studies abroad is itself a marker of that post-colonial moment, and one of their shared concerns was to explore the cultural and intellectual foundations for building strong, independent and locally rooted scholarship and scholarly institutions. In this sense, Korean Studies was a declaration of independence—from Western culture, but also from a well-established East Asian Studies which originated in Europe and in which Korean traditions were overwritten by Japanese and Chinese culture—and a quest in its own terms for a counter-balancing authenticity. Accordingly (as the list of participants indicates), with the notable exception of a number of scholars of French literature, most of the Koreans who attended the seminar were already engaged in the study of Korea’s historical culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. And they were facing a complex task: first, to introduce cosmopolitan discourses while negotiating the exit from post-colonial tutelage, and then to position themselves safely (and with intellectual integrity) between the nationalist dictatorship and the people, both generally symbolized by men in uniform.

Appendix 2, Figure 5: (top) Claude Lévi-Strauss commenting on the structuralist elements in Ancient Chinese Philosophy; (bottom) Claude Lévi-Strauss having conversations with Koh Byong-ik (President, Academy of Korean Studies) and other scholars of Korean Studies.

In the light of this wider picture, what we can observe in this seminar is the Academy—in spite of the intentions of its state founders—offering a safe space for intellectual interchange. (The proceedings were published in full in Korean at the time.) The outcomes of these conversations can be seen in the ways in which the seminar participants contributed to the development of public life and the critical academy in South Korea following democratization after 1987. A few examples: Lee Gwang-Gyu and Choi Hyup were among those who contributed to establishing a research base for the institutionalized national project. They laid the foundations for research on the Korean diaspora based on Lévi-Straussian approaches to family structure, and Lee was later appointed as the first president of the Overseas Korean Foundation. Kang Shin-pyo himself became a leading voice in an ongoing debate about whether it would be possible to generate forms of social theory that were distinctly Korean, derived from the characteristic elements of Korean culture. Yu Jung Ho can stand for the literary scholars who would introduce post-structural theory to the debates, through translation and original work; he was also active in movements for civic empowerment and in discussions about the politics and ethics of engaged scholarship. Cho Hae Jung and Cho Ok La, who did their research on women in Korean society, founded the organization Alternative Culture (또 하나의 문화 Tto Hanaui Munhwa), which was the cradle of cultural feminism in the 1990s.

As the present text makes clear, the seminar was carried on mainly in English, with occasional interjections in French. The transcript is presented here in English for the first time. The Korean version was published by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1983 under the title Anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and Korean Studies (레비스트로스의 人類學과 韓國學 Lebiseuteuroseu eui Illyuhak kwa hangukak). That edition included documentation on the planning of the seminar and short reflective essays by Lee Gwang-Gyu, as well as the photographs included here. The 1981 transcription was done by Bernard Olivier, and the present edition was prepared from the original typescripts by Cheong Hee Yun (Sogang University) and Eve Rosenhaft (Sogang and Liverpool Universities).   

Selected Excerpts from October 14, 1981, “Kinship and Social Organization”

Editors note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. These are excerpts from the seminar’s first day. The full seminar transcript with appendices is also available.

Appendix 2, Figure 4: Seminar Kinship and Social Organization (October 14, 1981).

Kang, Shin-pyo: Now it’s my honor to introduce Professor Lévi-Strauss. Surely you all know that Professor Lévi-Strauss escaped from philosophy to anthropology, that his most extensive field research was with Brazilian Indians during the period 1935 to 1939 when he was professor of sociology at São Paolo University, and that after a wartime period in New York he returned to Paris, where since 1960 he has been Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. Surely you all also know that in the course of his career, Professor Lévi-Strauss has written a series of books and articles, perhaps most notably Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Anthropologie structurale, Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, La Pensée sauvage and Mythologiques, which have shown him to be one of the eminent minds not just of 20th– century anthropology, but of the intellectual life of the 20th century.

His structural anthropological approach to kinship and marriage, totemism, primitive classification, myths, and a variety of other topics has brought new perspectives and stimulated creative debates not only amongst anthropologists but throughout the social sciences and the humanities everywhere. The movement called structuralism which traces its ancestry largely to the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, even though he might well disavow some of its manifestations, is one of only a small handful of intellectual currents in the latter half of the 20th century which have generated new insights and creativity. Much of Lévi-Strauss’ thought reflects a deep awareness of process as an ongoing interplay between opposed and complementary poles. His structuralism at its most basic levels has a fundamental compatibility with traditional Asian world views. It’s therefore highly appropriate that his work with us leads off our research project on Symbol and Society in Korea.

In the interplay between data and theory, between structuralism and practical reason, between East and West, between North and South, we may hope and expect that there will be created new perspectives and insights into Korean culture, Asian culture, and human culture.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I cannot start this presentation without first of all expressing my wife’s and my own feelings of gratitude to the Academy of Korean Studies, to President Koh, and to Professor Kang, for having made our trip possible and for the marvelous welcome they have given us. And listening a moment ago to President Koh’s words, I was also a little bit confused and ashamed that you should expect me to bring you anything new in the matter of social anthropology.

For it seems to me it’s a very old tradition in Korea to be interested in this kind of studies and even older perhaps than in the Western world. I’ve been told that Korean scholars consider that anthropological studies about Korean people and culture go back to the 18th century, when a group of people, belonging to the school of Silhak if I am not mistaken, published books on rural life, folk customs, and agricultural technology. And it so happens that, by a piece of luck, last night I was given the opportunity of reading a French student’s master thesis which is an annotated French translation of an 18th-century Korean book, which I don’t dare to pronounce, Kyongdo Chapchi, and I was really amazed at the details of ethnographical information, the precision of the details it’s possible to find in your old literature. And at the same time I was wondering if the tradition of anthropological studies in Korea doesn’t go back even earlier. When I read your great book, the Samguk Yusa, I noticed that in the seventh century King Munmu wished to appoint his half brother Prime Minister and that the latter accepted on the condition that he first be allowed to travel incognito throughout the country to observe the living conditions of the people, their labor and leisure, that is, doing anthropological fieldwork.

He said that at that time, each family of informants gave him a very pretty concubine to spend the night with, something which does not very often happen to contemporary anthropologists. But I noticed too that (also in the seventh century) a monk called Wonhyo had a son, very intelligent, who, it is said, composed books on folk customs and the place names of China and Silla. This son was considered one of the sages of Silla, which really puts anthropological research on a very high level.

And I have another reason to be confused and a little bit ashamed because we have to carry out our exchange in a language which, except for a few distinguished colleagues from the USA and Canada, is not our native tongue, and as you may have noticed already, my English is rather poor and I have a very strong French accent which makes it even more difficult for you to understand. Besides, when I try to express myself in English, I feel exhausted pretty soon, so I shall ask you as a favor not to hesitate to interrupt me if you don’t understand what I say, to ask me to repeat it, and if you disagree with what I am saying, to object. Really this will be a great help to me, because it will give me some relief when I’m trying to speak to all of you.

Today we are expected to discuss problems of kinship and social organization, and it’s not particularly, or it’s not exclusively, about my own work that I wish to talk, but about the kind of research which is being carried on nowadays in France, not only by me, but also by my associates and some younger colleagues. But since this research is always in the line of structural analysis, it is perhaps suitable that I should first of all begin by explaining what I understand, what I mean, by structure. The main distinction to be made in this respect would be between two notions: system and structure. What is a system? It is a grouping of elements and relations between those elements which fit together and which brings about a certain result. Let’s say for instance that an automobile engine is a system, so that if any element is modified or breaks down, the engine will not function anymore.

Structure is something rather different, or I would say it’s a special case of a system. It is made up of elements and relations like a system but also of the whole group of their transformations. By this I mean that in a structure, if an element or relation is changed, another change or several other changes will occur in the other elements or relations, while certain propositions will remain true about the structure.

It seems to me that this idea of a structure should be very easily grasped by people like you who have been brought up in the tradition of Confucian thought, because, really, I couldn’t find a better example of structural thought than ancient Chinese tradition. In that tradition, there are different systems. There is a cosmological system which is ruled, so to speak, by the Yin-Yang opposition. But this opposition can be transformed into many other oppositions, so that it can be said that Yang is to Yin as light is to darkness, as male is to female, as sky is to Earth, as the emperor is to his subjects, as ancestors are to the living, as a father is to a son, a husband to a wife, a master to a disciple or to the servants, and so on.

So we have different systems: cosmological, sociological, political, religious, but there is a close correspondence between all these systems, and when we shift from one to the others, there is a basic relationship or several basic relationships which remain the same. And what appears to me to be a characteristic of traditional Chinese thought is also a characteristic of many other kinds of thought all over the world; for instance, in ancient Greece, we find practically the same way of thinking. It has also struck me quite often that the reason, or one of the reasons why anthropological structuralism (which contrary to what is usually believed, did not really originate in France, but was first of all expressed in the Netherlands through the work of men like Russell, Van Wouden, Josselin de Jong and several others some years before we tried to do the same in France) developed among our Dutch colleagues first is that they were studying Indonesia and that Indonesian thought is itself structural. Really, structuralism is not a creation of the Western world, impressed with technology, pseudo-scientific minds, etc. It’s a kind of thought which we received from the people whom we study. When we try to make structural analyses, what we are actually doing is to borrow the thought of the people we study, either in the distant past or in the present, and use it in order to better understand them, as if in this kind of thought, there was a kind of common denominator, a kind of common ground which extends to all mankind including ancient thinkers and contemporary native thinkers, but a real mode of thought which is best able to help us translate one way of thinking into another way of thinking.

Appendix 2, Figure 6: At National Museum of Korea; Claude Lévi-Strauss with his wife [Monique Roman] at Sungkyunkwan University.

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

Table of Contents

Special Focus: Engaging ‘The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology’

Why have Black ancestors been largely excluded from anthropology’s intellectual history and canon? In this series of pieces, Tracie Canada talks with the authors of the 2018 volume The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. Based on interviews she conducted with eleven of the fifteen contributors, Canada’s dialogue with the authors addresses these many erasures and advances ways to center, celebrate, and engage with these essential figures. Drawing on a vibrant set of current conversations in the broader field of anthropology, this series– a collaboration between HAR’s Reviews and Field Notes departments– offers a richly textured vision for new histories of anthropology and new anthropological futures.

Begin with the Table of Contents

Author’s Introduction: Engaging ‘The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology’

Why have Black ancestors been largely excluded from anthropology’s intellectual history and canon? As a Black anthropologist mentored by several historians of the discipline, I have often asked this question. This is likely why I became so interested in The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology (2018) upon its publication. Edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, The Second Generation presents the intellectual biographies of a cohort of fifteen Black anthropologists who earned their degrees between 1960 and 1969. It acts as the second volume to Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison’s African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (1999), which focuses on scholars trained after World War I.

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Reflection: Reorienting the History of Anthropology through Generations of Black Anthropologists

Friends of mine know that one of the first things I do when I buy a new academic book is read the acknowledgements. Learning about the people deemed important enough to the scholar that they are mentioned in their book—family, mentors, colleagues, editors, institutional partners—adds a textured layer to the scholarship that lies ahead. I’m always interested in those who influenced the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the work.

The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology (2018), edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, has no formal acknowledgement section, save for a short musing from one of the three co-editors. Instead, I’d argue the entire book acts as an acknowledgement to an older generation of Black anthropologists. Through intellectual biographies, a more junior group of Black anthropologists recognizes a cohort who earned their degrees between 1960 and 1969. This book gives thanks to fifteen pioneers who shaped the discipline through their administrative and leadership roles, theoretical interventions and intellectual labor, activism on and off campus, and commitment to their students and peers.

Co-editors Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

This generous presentation of a previous generation inspired me to speak with the authors who profiled these pioneers. In October 2020, I organized group interviews with eleven of the book’s contributors. I was interested to learn how these scholars chose their pioneer, what they found surprising during the research process, and what drew them to participate in a project that highlighted an older generation. Over the course of the interviews, we discussed their own work, the work of the person they wrote about, the current state of anthropology, and why the research of these Black scholars matters. The intergenerational nature of my interviews informed conversations that were temporally and historically grounded.

The book acts as a call to recognize and reclaim Black anthropologists who studied and worked during a time not too long ago. This foundation lends itself to thinking of the various histories of anthropology and rethinking the discipline’s narrative of itself to center the intellectual labor of Black scholars. I have crafted an argument that combines the contributors’ interview insights with the book’s intellectual biographies to capture the parallels between the experiences of multiple generations of Black anthropologists. All of these scholars demonstrate their commitment to calling out the impacts of white supremacy, racism, and colonialism in anthropology, institutions of higher education, and US society.

The Need to Rehistoricize Anthropology

Notions of time, history, and what constitutes the past are complicated when considering experiences of Blackness. This is particularly true when analyzed through the lens of Black studies, given, as Christina Sharpe notes, “in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (2016, 9). Through this frame, we can acknowledge the ways that events, narratives, and practices that took shape chronologically before us, particularly those rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy, have implications for contemporary Black life. Thus, living in the wake and the various afterlives of slavery (Sharpe 2016, Hartman 2007) disrupts normative notions of linear time because the past consistently reappears in the present.

The very real entanglements of the not-so-distant-past with the everyday, lived reality of Black folks has been explored ethnographically by a number of scholars. Their recent works include, but are not limited to, Deborah A. Thomas’s Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation (2019), Karla Slocum’s Black Towns, Black Futures (2019), Dána-Ain Davis’s Reproductive Injustice (2019), Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia (2019), and Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters (2020). This understanding of history, as necessary to quotidian life, further underlines the importance of The Second Generation. The stories in the book skillfully demonstrate how the discipline’s colonial and racist foundations, thought to be addressed by the liberal anti-racism of the Boasians (Anderson 2019), continued to impact Black scholars in the 1960s as they moved through the academy and larger society.

The interconnectedness of the recent past and the present is woven through this book. In the first Pioneer volume, the editors write that “Anthropology’s critical reconstruction […] can be achieved only through a rethought historicism, a rehistoricization that repossesses both exposed and hidden dimensions of the past” (Harrison and Harrison 1999, 5). This continues to be the project of The Second Generation because of its focus on Black anthropologists who were attempting to create space for themselves only a few decades ago. As these pioneers are the “black classmates and counterparts of some of American anthropology’s most recognized and esteemed (white) anthropologists” (Harrison and Harrison 1999, 8), acknowledging their accomplishments reconfigures the stories that are often told of the discipline. When we center the narratives of Black anthropologists, we shift the discipline’s historical frame and reorient our views of what counts as decisive scholarly interventions.

As Elgin L. Klugh stated in our interview, these scholars were “coming into anthropology in a highly segregated society at a time when anthropology was not necessarily as committed to the ideals of inclusion.”[1] By focusing on the lived experiences and theoretical contributions of the Black pioneers, instead of their white peers, the contributors succeed in bringing attention to often erased aspects of twentieth century intellectual life.

The contributors spoke directly to this need to rethink the discipline’s history by bringing attention to the term “pioneer.” Perhaps most importantly, the use of the term in the title acknowledges the book’s predecessor, Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison’s African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (1999), which focused on scholars trained in the period after World War I. Pioneers are those who are “the first and are forging this path for us to follow,” says Alice Baldwin-Jones. One of the book’s co-editors, Erica Lorraine Williams, points to the significance of the pioneers’ accomplishments: “They were the first Black person to be tenured, or Black woman to be tenured, the first woman president. So, they’re still occupying a lot of different roles where they were the first to do certain things.” Bertin M. Louis, Jr. adds that these were pioneering scholars because of their roles in developing different institutions, programs, and disciplinary fields. Not only were those profiled in the book foundational in shaping certain institutions, they were also creating space for future generations by leading the way forward. By claiming these under-recognized scholars as pioneers, we force the discipline to rethink the intellectuals it frequently celebrates as its founders.

Riché J. Daniel Barnes and Faye V. Harrison at AAA in 2018. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

To further emphasize the importance of rehistoricization, consider the number of interviews included in The Second Generation. Nine of the fifteen pioneers—James Lowell Gibbs Jr., Diane K. Lewis, Niara Sudarkasa, Johnnetta B. Cole, Ira E. Harrison, Audrey Smedley, Oliver Osborne, Anselme Remy, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan—were still living at the time that research was collected for the book. Therefore, rather than solely relying on an archive of texts to piece together a narrative, some contributing writers spoke directly with their pioneer and contributed interview data to their intellectual biography. The fact that this is partially an oral history project speaks powerfully to the relative newness of Black scholars in anthropology and shifts the frame of what we consider as historical and in the past.

Organizing in Professional Associations

Beyond exposing different histories of anthropology, The Second Generation highlights racist and anti-Black experiences within the discipline that are frequently written out of more liberal accounts. Many such narratives appear throughout the book. Charles Preston Warren II was a military forensic anthropologist whose work was purposely excluded from textbooks and stolen by other scholars. Diane K. Lewis experienced blatant racism and sexism at every level as she journeyed through the academy, which led her to study anthropology and contribute to the Black feminist movement. Niara Sudarkasa was initially denied promotion to full professor at University of Michigan because her courses were seen as only tangentially relevant to her department. 

It is because of these kinds of institutional and bureaucratic barriers that the Black pioneers came together in creative ways, despite their educational experiences and faculty appointments across various universities. Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson remind us that “anthropology’s resistance to the epistemologies of ethnic‐studies scholarship to examine disciplinary praxis led underrepresented anthropologists of color to create their own institutional spaces in the AAA [American Anthropological Association] from which to develop critical and theoretically informed scholarship” (2011, 551).

For Black anthropologists, this process began in 1968, when pioneers Council Taylor, Delmos Jones, Diane K. Lewis, Johnnetta B. Cole, and Oliver Osborne established the Minority Caucus in the AAA. This group, formally institutionalized in 1970 as the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), was also led by pioneers Ira E. Harrison, Vera Mae Green, Sheila S. Walker, and Glenn Jordan. Transforming Anthropology, the flagship journal for the ABA, was established in 1990 by linguistic anthropologist Arthur Spears. Its roots can be traced back to ABA newsletters, Notes from the Natives and Notes from the ABA, which first appeared in 1973 and were spearheaded by Sheila S. Walker. Together, the creation of this association and its publications demonstrate Black anthropologists’ efforts to shift “the center of authority and legitimacy in research and scholarship from those established institutions which our people do not control to more democratically structured bases which embody the interests and priorities of ordinary Black folk” (Harrison 1990, 11). With these new institutions, there was space for Black anthropologists to come together, as thinkers and as writers, to critically consider structures of power that shaped both the discipline and their lived experiences.[2]

Riché J. Daniel Barnes, A. Lynn Bolles, and Marla F. Frederick, all past or present Presidents of the ABA, at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2014. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

Even 50 years later, the need for the Association of Black Anthropologists persists—perhaps even more so now. The current President of the ABA, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, spoke to the continued importance of the organization and her role in it, saying, “the reason why I was okay with being told to run for president was because of how much ABA has done for me and I wanted to be able to continue to do that for others, and even expand our offerings. Our ability to continue to mentor young anthropologists, to continue to help mid-career anthropologists get to associate and tenure, to support our applied anthropologists and make sure they have a platform as well within anthropology and especially within the Association of Black Anthropologists.” These aims, and more, are outlined as original goals of the ABA (Harrison 2010). It is through the leadership of the association’s Presidents, several pioneers included, that the organization has been so successful over time.

Betty J. Harris, Alisha R. Winn, and Rachel Watkins at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

Black anthropologists are still working to bring representation to the field’s subdisciplines. Biocultural anthropologist Rachel Watkins recently referred to this discrepancy during a SAPIENS/Wenner-Gren panel discussion. “Western science, as an extension of western knowledge creation, is largely about racial ordering in relation to a human standard that puts people who are not white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, on the margins,” she explained. “So the people’s remains who are in laboratories and institutions reflect being on those margins. By extension, western science and western knowledge also racially order what roles different groups of people play in the production of knowledge relative to where they are to the center or the margins. Given that legacy, I think that’s a large part of the reason why there are so few folks of color in archaeology and biological anthropology, in particular.” This contemporary concern is particularly reflected amongst the pioneers, as most of the second generation were cultural anthropologists. Only a few were affiliated with subfields or subdisciplines, with Oliver Osborne in medical anthropology as a trained nurse, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan in linguistic anthropology, and Charles Preston Warren II in military forensic anthropology. 

In response to this discrepancy, groups for anthropology’s subdisciplines were recently developed. This is an interesting call back to the organizing work done by the pioneers to form the ABA. It also speaks to the importance of creating space for scholars to thrive outside of, but alongside, organizations that are racially unmarked, but coded as white:

Hope and Optimism for this Critical Moment

I ended each group interview with a question about hope. At a time of overlapping crises rooted in anti-Black racism and state and police violence which recall struggles experienced by earlier generations of Black scholars, what might be the potential of this particular moment?

The contributors’ answers addressed the chaos that has been added to the already taxing experience of being a Black anthropologist and educator. For example, Angela McMillan Howell explains that putting “out fires for Black students who are struggling right now,” as they deal with COVID-related illness, mental illness, food insecurity, and academic struggles, is a “very practiced and applied” process. Riché J. Daniel Barnes added that because of how these moments converge, “I’m trying to do so much and I think many of us are trying to do so much to move things in these moments,” but “it’s very difficult to believe in a longer lasting movement or change.” They noted how challenging it can be to remain hopeful when Black people are consistently under attack and disproportionately at risk of experiencing systemic, state-sanctioned violence. 

Still, the contributors displayed optimism. For example, they considered the idea of letting anthropology burn (Jobson 2020) to be one of great potential. “I think a lot of the new work coming out by people like Savannah Shange and Ashanté Reese is thinking about anti-Blackness in really critical ways,” said Erica Lorraine Williams. She continued, “In terms of highlighting white supremacy, highlighting Black resistance, highlighting all these different things, they’re building upon the past and the contributions and the things that we’ve learned from the past.”

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. added, “I see it as not really like anthropology burning, but more as a moment of restructuring. In the ashes of not just the discipline but also of the world that’s burning now to hopefully do something better with this. I think Black studies and Black anthropologists have a lot to say about this tradition of not just preserving Black life, but preserving our species.” He continues by saying that simultaneous to arguments for restructuring, “we also need to pay attention to these folks who are part of this Black anthropological lineage and what they do with their anthropological knowledge outside of the discipline to affect other parts of academia and society.” Antoinette Jackson agreed: “If you let anthropology burn, you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. So, you don’t want to throw out people like Vera Green, who spent her life inside of the academy. These are things we need to highlight and maybe we’re throwing out the canon, but not Anthropology.”

David Simmons, Ira E. Harrison, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Tony Whitehead, and Johnnetta B. Cole at the ABA Legacy Awards Ceremony in 2009. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

The most consistent hopeful response referred to the “critical mass” that currently exists within the discipline. This exact wording was repeatedly used to speak to the relative power Black anthropologists have gained through their heightened presence and intergenerational solidarity and mentoring. “We now have a critical mass of scholars who can bring attention to these things and talk about these things within anthropology,” begins Rachel Watkins. “I think that the fact that a number of the contributors to this volume are people in my cohort, in terms of when you’re in school, the fact that we’re all in anthropology departments is a manifestation of the labor that the previous generation poured into us. What they poured into us allowed us to be able to secure those positions.”

Alisha R. Winn, Elgin L. Klugh, and Erica Lorraine Williams at the AAA book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Erica Lorraine Williams.

Elgin L. Klugh continues reflecting on changes in the profession, “It’s been interesting to see that critical mass that Rachel’s talked of, these newcomers, these young folks. I see more people at the AAA conference and not just more, but more people in the subdisciplines. For example, Justin Dunnavant, the archaeologist, doing this interesting underwater archaeology. I had him come and speak to Coppin State because he’s from Maryland and he’s a graduate of Howard University. The idea that we’re actually getting so big in number we don’t even get a chance to know each other, quite frankly, and just integrating into all the various nooks and crannies of anthropology.” In short, the greater number of Black scholars with doctoral degrees in anthropology has helped to create a space in the discipline for their scholarship and voices.

Further, Alisha R. Winn points out that key to this critical mass is the visibility of Black anthropologists in various leadership positions. This provides an opportunity to take “advantage of the positions we are in to voice, or encourage, or push for incorporation.” For example, several of the contributors currently act as department chairs (Angela McMillan Howell, Antoinette Jackson, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, and Erica Lorraine Williams), department administrators (Elgin L. Klugh and Bertin M. Louis, Jr.), company founders (Alisha R. Winn and Deborah Johnson-Simon), and members of leadership boards of AAA sections (Riché J. Daniel Barnes and Bertin M. Louis, Jr.). It matters that there are more Black anthropologists present in the discipline and in these positions because it creates opportunities to guide structural change.

Emulating the Pioneers

Rachel Watkins stated that the contributors in various leadership positions are “actually emulating the pioneers” because “it was their kind of radical imaginings of anthropology that allowed them to claim anthropology, while they were doing all of these things that within the context of Western knowledge production, were not anthropology.” Watkins speaks directly to institutional and disciplinary barriers that determine what is included and excluded as anthropological theory and knowledge. Because of their positioning in relation to other disciplines, particularly Black studies, and their critiques of the need to remain “objective” to contribute critical interventions, Black anthropologists have been able to shape conversations within the field to stretch the narrow boundaries of what is classified as worthy of study and who is able to conduct this research– a potential intensified when Black anthropologists hold positions of authority.

Irma McClaurin, Johnnetta B. Cole, Bianca C. Williams, Corliss Heath, and Rachel Watkins at AAA in 2013 after presenting on a panel together. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

Their desire to reimagine the field is just one of the ways that the experiences of the pioneers and contributors mirror each other. Another is in the way that both cohorts prioritize working with and connecting with local communities, given their shared understanding that research is not meant to be circulated just within the walls of the academy. Consider, for example, Elgin L. Klugh’s work with the Laurel Cemetery project, Angela McMillan Howell’s participation in The Hill Community Project, and Antoinette Jackson’s commitment to The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.  

One of the book’s co-editors, Deborah Johnson-Simon, believes that the local Black community is integral to her work and research in Savannah, Georgia, especially because of her commitment to museum anthropology.  She desires “to work with communities enough so they see that the things you’re interested in are all the things that are of interest to them. I think that should be our guiding piece because that’s the only way we’re going to get young people to be able to come into this field and make any kind of difference. It’s to take seriously that we need to engage with communities in really meaningful ways that are important to them.”

This kind of approach is one that Cheryl R. Rodriguez credits to pioneer Diane K. Lewis: “she encouraged Black anthropologists to work in Black communities. Those ideas that Black anthropologists should work in Black communities and not only take from Black communities to create scholarship and knowledge but also contribute back to them. She talked about applied anthropology and the ways in which we should be contributing to Black communities and that has been a legacy among Black anthropologists. Many of us have really tried to do that.” Another exemplary pioneer in this respect is Vera Mae Green; Antoinette Jackson said “we’re producing and reproducing Vera Green all time” in the applied anthropology program at the University of South Florida. Through such public-facing projects, the contributors are working against a form of anthropology that extracts knowledge from people and communities in order merely to perform its theorization in the academy. As anthropologists, we should constantly be circling back to the people and the places we work with and learn from.

The contributors also emulate the work of the pioneers through their prolonged commitment to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The pioneers were deeply rooted in HBCUs: Ira E. Harrison was a graduate of Morehouse College and conducted research at Hampton University, Anselme Remy taught at Fisk University, Johnnetta B. Cole served as the president of Spelman College and Bennett College, and Niara Sudarkasa was president of Lincoln University. Not only are several in the contributors’ cohort HBCU alumni, including Alisha R. Winn, Rachel Watkins, Elgin L. Klugh, Riché J. Daniel Barnes, and Angela McMillan Howell, but several have also joined the faculty at these institutions, either previously or currently, including Alisha R. Winn, Erica Lorraine Williams, Deborah Johnson-Simon, Angela McMillan Howell, and Elgin L. Klugh. Connections to HBCUs demonstrate how important these institutions remain in educating Black undergraduates, introducing them to anthropology, and creating a pipeline to graduate programs in the discipline. 

Alisha R. Winn, Ira E. Harrison, Flordeliz T. Bugarin, Deborah Johnson-Simon, Claire Greene Crooks-Harrison, and Angela McMillan Howell pose outside after their AAA panel presentation on HBCUs in 2011. Photo courtesy of Alisha R. Winn.

An AAA panel about HBCUs and anthropology organized for the 2011 Montreal meetings included several of the contributors. Alisha R. Winn participated in the panel and explained that “we were describing the importance of having anthropology programs and anthropology courses at HBCUs because for the majority of us, anthropology was introduced to us through these HBCUs.” Despite how important these institutions have been in introducing anthropology to young Black scholars, there are now only one or two trained anthropologists employed at these institutions. This makes it difficult for the few who are there to encourage interest in the discipline and to be the discipline’s sole representatives to large groups of undergraduate students. Deborah Johnson-Simon noted that “you have to fight with people to get more anthropology. The only thing we can keep is intro, so I do everything with intro. I do it all.” Referring to the critical mass suggested by others, Elgin L. Klugh added, “I’d like to see the growth of the fields within HBCUs. I understand some of the historical context as to why anthropology is not necessarily present in HBCUs, but now is the time where that critical mass can start to spill over into that arena, too.”

Johnnetta B. Cole, Bianca C. Williams, Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Omotayo Jolaosho, David Simmons, and Karen G. Williams at an ABA mentoring event in 2012.  Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

A number of networks surfaced when tracing the intergenerational and institutional connections between the pioneers and the contributors to the volume. Johnnetta B. Cole was president of Spelman College when Riché J. Daniel Barnes was an undergraduate. Subsequently, the former was a distinguished presidential professor in anthropology at Emory University when the latter attended graduate school there. Because of his connection to Morehouse College, Ira E. Harrison was a mentor to Elgin L. Klugh. Rachel Watkins was introduced to biological anthropology at Howard University through W. Montague Cobb’s Black scholar activist tradition and Michael Blakey’s continuation of this tradition, and she also worked with Delmos Jones at that time. Antoinette Jackson and Alisha R. Winn were the first winners of The Vera Green Publication Award, an award named for the pioneer to highlight the work of public anthropologists. Alisha R. Winn and Ira E. Harrison were both archivists for the ABA, with the latter mentoring the former while she held the role. Alice Baldwin-Jones worked with Yolanda Moses as an undergraduate at City College of New York, during which time she learned of Laurence Foster, and then she worked with George Clement Bond as a graduate student at Columbia University.

This is just one way to consider the threads that link the pioneers and the contributors. By coding their institutional connections in this way, it becomes clear that the pioneers were committed not only to their own success in the academy, but to nurturing, supporting, and mentoring forthcoming generations in ways that have continued to shape the discipline.

Honoring Dr. Ira E. Harrison

When discussing mentors, I would be remiss if I did not focus on Dr. Ira E. Harrison, who passed away in April 2020. Dr. Harrison was a co-editor of both Pioneer volumes and was also profiled by Alisha R. Winn in The Second Generation. He was described as “a historian and preserver of history” with a commitment “to locate and identify past and present African American anthropologists. As the ABA’s first archivist, Harrison sought to ensure that the accomplishments and works of ABA members as well as ABA events and meetings were recorded and preserved” (Winn 2018, 121). Angela McMillan Howell affectionately referred to him as “the dean of all things Black anthropology.”

Almost every contributor shared a story about him; they collectively narrate a lighthearted personality which shines through in his love of photographs and poetry, his spirit of inclusiveness and collegiality, his unmatched approach to mentorship and community-building, and his persistence to the project of reclaiming Black scholars.

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. noted, “He was very special in the sense that he did a lot of the behind the scenes work that put things together that you don’t necessarily hear about or is published about. But he did all this behind the scenes work that kept the ABA going and he contributed something that was much bigger than himself.” As an example of this background work, several contributors described how Dr. Harrison quietly bestowed upon them a pioneer to research during the AAA meetings in Montreal in 2011. It appears that when the panelists met to discuss the relationship between HBCUs and anthropology, Dr. Harrison was already tinkering with the idea of a second Pioneers book. Co-editor Deborah Johnson-Simon describes his years-long dedication to seeing the book come to fruition as a “real labor of love.”

To celebrate Dr. Harrison’s life and legacy, Riché J. Daniel Barnes said that we must “make sure that the Association of Black Anthropologists continues to do the work of being that voice within American anthropology and also continuing the mentoring of those that are coming behind us.”

Moving Forward

It is because of this ongoing legacy that I found my conversations with the contributors to be so powerful: the President and President-elect were present as we discussed those who provided the foundation for the Association of Black Anthropologists in the 1960s; Dr. Harrison’s presence was made clear through the comments of others; anthropologists both in the academy and in the public space participated in the interviews; and, through the pioneers, the contributors, and me, sixty years of Black anthropology was represented.

Savannah Shange notes that “writing is ancestor work” (2019, ix) and this truth was felt throughout the various layers of this work. On every level, this project is an acknowledgement of the brilliance that Black anthropologists, as intellectual contemporaries, elders, and ancestors, offered a discipline that continues to participate in the erasure of their work. It is a concerted effort to write against the fact that, according to Cheryl R. Rodriguez, “we as Black people, as African Americans and as Black people throughout the diaspora, we had been so misrepresented by anthropologists, so exploited.” Even more, “Black women were brutally misrepresented or just completely invisible in anthropology.” Because of how it chronicles the pioneers’ experiences, The Second Generation is a bold and necessary celebration of all that Black anthropologists have accomplished.

But there’s still work to be done to ensure that Black anthropologists are adequately recognized for their theoretical interventions, intellectual contributions, and labor in and beyond the academy. When describing the project of anthropology for Black students and scholars, Rachel Watkins says, “There’s an intellectual prowess associated with the challenge of having to theorize yourself into humanity on a daily basis.” It is with this in mind that we must work to recognize scholars, narratives, and histories that continue to be taken for granted. 

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Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56.

Davis, Dána-Ain. 2019. Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth. Anthropologies of American Medicine: Culture, Power, and Practice. NYU Press.

Harrison, Faye V. 1990. “From The President.” Transforming Anthropology 1 (1): 10–11.

Harrison, Ira E. 2010. “The Association of Black Anthropologists: A Brief History.” Transforming Anthropology 18 (2): 120–27.

Harrison, Ira E., and Faye V. Harrison, eds. 1999. African-American Pioneers in Anthropology. University of Illinois Press.

Harrison, Ira E., Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams. 2018. The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122 (2): 259–71.

Ralph, Laurence. 2020. The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shange, Savannah. 2019. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Duke University Press.

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.

Slocum, Karla. 2019. Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West. University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2019. Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair. Durham: Duke University Press.

Winn, Alisha R. 2018. “Ira E. Harrison: Activist, Scholar, and Visionary Pioneer.” In The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Lorraine Williams, 114–25. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


[1] Volume contributors’ names are bolded throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.

[2] The association’s fiftieth year and the journal’s thirtieth year were marked in 2020. To celebrate these anniversaries, the October 2020 issue of Transforming Anthropology honors the fiftieth anniversary of the ABA through commentaries that reflect on the elders’ contributions to the discipline. The volume’s cover art includes a drawing rendition of Ira E. Harrison.

Interview Highlights: The Book’s Contributors Describe the Pioneers

When given the opportunity to describe something surprising or particularly interesting about their pioneer, the contributors to The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology offered rich accounts that spoke to various aspects of their lives and careers. These answers echo observations that appear in the book, but in our conversations, the contributors were able to ground their insights within the context of their own experiences and those of other contributors. The fact that these were group interviews allowed the contributors to be in conversation with one another. 

These highlights are arranged in the order they appear in the book, with the corresponding chapter listed alongside the names of the contributor and the pioneer profiled. The interviews were transcribed by Alissa Rae Funderburk and these snippets were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Alice Baldwin-Jones on Charles Preston Warren II (Chapter 2)

“I guess in today’s lexicon, Charles Warren would be considered an applied anthropologist. He went to school at the University of Chicago and then he did some ethnography in the Philippines. He worked in a museum in the Philippines as well, and then he was in the military, and he worked for the military as a forensic anthropologist at the birth of forensic anthropology—so, learning and developing the methods as he went along. I think one of the things that I found surprising is we often hear these stories in school that Black people are not smart. And then I’m reading Warren’s papers, and there it is. He’s basing his [academic] work on his work for the military in identifying the dead in the Vietnam War, the Korean War. He goes to Korea. He goes to Japan, and he’s coming up with all these methodologies, but because he’s working for the military, the military has all these rules and regulations, and he can’t publish his work. He’s presenting the methodologies that he came up with during his work and oftentimes he’s working with a Japanese forensic anthropologist as well. I mean, this was the beginning of forensic anthropology, because the military made an executive order that all its war dead must be identified. Then he’s going to conferences, he’s sharing his work and then he sees his work being published by the top forensic anthropologist at the time. So, he’s having to work with people who are stealing his work and publishing it as theirs.”

Cheryl R. Rodriguez on Diane K. Lewis (Chapter 4)

“Diane Lewis is a very courageous, very brilliant, and determined woman who had such a vision for her work as an anthropologist. I wasn’t surprised at how brilliant this woman is. I am a Black person living in America who grew up with brilliant people so I know what Black people are capable of. That’s not anything I’ve ever had to be convinced of. But, more than that, what really struck me was her determination to stand up to racism and sexism, which she experienced quite vividly during her undergraduate years. And this was all in the 1950s and 60s, so you can imagine just how frustrating it must have felt for a Black intellectual at that time to be trying to break down these barriers in the midst of so much oppression and not enough protection, not enough legal protection, not enough policy protection. But one of the things that also impressed me about her was just the kinds of writing that she did. She wrote this article, “Anthropology and Colonialism,”  which has been cited so many times because she published that in 1973. It conceptualized and analyzed the historical relationship between anthropologists and the non-white people that they study. She was really looking carefully at what anthropology really meant, even though she was a part of it. She looked at its colonial context and she looked at that in many different ways. Another article that I wrote about here is her piece called “A Response to Inequality: Black Women, Racism, and Sexism” (1977), which was really pioneering at its time. This article has been published in several different places and a lot of people don’t even know that this exists, that she wrote this before many other Black feminists actually wrote about the intersection of gender, race, and class for Black women.”

Elgin L. Klugh on Delmos Jones (Chapter 5)

“To this day, I use Delmos Jones’s “Social Responsibility and the Belief in Basic Research: An Example from Thailand” (1971) in my teaching when I’m in the section about ethics. When I teach ethnography, what I want to convey to students is who you are as the ethnographer matters in terms of the kind of relationships you’re able to form in the field, the kind of information that people feel comfortable sharing with you, and the kind of biases and predispositions that you bring to your research and you’re thinking about the individuals. Delmos Jones, being somebody who was born in a sharecropping family in the South, throughout his career, his perspective was that he was able to identify with poor and marginalized people no matter where they were on the planet, whether they’re Native Americans, Australians, or individuals in the highlands of Thailand. And he put their well-being first in a real way that trumped his career goals. I find that is a really good case study that students can identify with when I’m trying to drive home the point of the personality of the ethnographer and also this right, this duty to our populations that we study. The ideas of really doing no harm and putting your people first, it’s a great example for those.”

Erica Lorraine Williams on Niara Sudarkasa (Chapter 6)

“Niara Sudarkasa was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her original name was Gloria Marshall and her parents and grandparents were from the Bahamas. I feel like her early work made really important contributions to feminist anthropology because her work pushed back against the generalization and the universalization of the feminist anthropologists who would say that “this” is how gender plays out in the world. Her work in Nigeria showed that actually, it doesn’t really play out like that. After she finished her PhD, she worked. She was assistant professor at NYU, and then she went to the University of Michigan. She was the first Black woman to earn tenure at the University of Michigan and she was also involved in the Black Action Movement, which was led by Black students who were really mobilizing and organizing on Michigan’s campus. Speaking of the impact of racism and sexism, she was actually initially denied tenure. That was really interesting to look at; I did research in the archives. There was a rich kind of documentation of the process, the different letters that were written by her pushing back against the decision because a lot of the things that the anthropology faculty said were racist. So, she ended up earning tenure and becoming full professor. And then she became the first Black woman, or the first woman, president of Lincoln University, which is the oldest HBCU in Pennsylvania. In her later work, she did a lot of work on extended families and pushing back against the universalization of the nuclear family, pushing back against the idea that Black families, single mother households, or different things like that were stigmatized. She argued that there were certain values implicit in them, that they were multi-generational, different things like that. A lot of her work was really pushing back against these dominant narratives.”

Riché J. Daniel Barnes on Johnnetta B. Cole (Chapter 7)

Johnnetta B. Cole and Riché J. Daniel Barnes at the AAA in 2017, as the two celebrate Dr. Cole’s retirement from the Smithsonian. Photo courtesy of Riché J. Daniel Barnes.

“My pioneer is Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and she has been my long, long, long time mentor and scholarly everything. One of the things that was really cool to me was the way that she changed her perspective about sexuality. It was her friendship with Audre Lorde that helped her to understand Black sexuality in a broader context. And that was really something that I would not have known to ask about because my perspective of her, having known her since I was an undergrad, has always been that she’s just been very open to every way in which you can show up as a human being. And not that she wasn’t prior. She talks about how she grew up with these images, these ways of being in community with people but had not really interrogated her own thinking around those things. And for Spelman to now have this endowed chair that is about doing work on Black sexuality, the groundwork for that kind of thing was laid while she was there because she was working with Beverly Guy-Sheftall to make those things happen. I uncovered her impact in all of these arenas, and how she got to the place of being able to unpack those things and make a substantial contribution in those arenas. And then, of course, there’s the frustration of seeing that she’s not recognized as an anthropologist. She’s recognized as an educator and now, of course, as someone in the museum world, and has always been recognized as a Black woman leader. But it’s so hard, you know, for her and so many others to be recognized as anthropologists.”

Deborah Johnson-Simon on John Langston Gwaltney (Chapter 8)

“A lot of what I did with Gwaltney was because he appeared on another list for me that I was studying with Blacks in museums and I was surprised by that directory that I received that there was even a category among museum professionals that was anthropologists. Because of his tutelage, I was able to use that with my students at an HBCU, where a lot of students coming into that class had never even heard the word ‘anthropology.’ So, they didn’t know what they were signing up for and by the end of a semester students had coined the term ‘Gwaltneyites’ because they were so passionate about the way he went about doing his work. They want to be Gwaltneyites. And doing that native anthropology and becoming African American museum anthropologists, I mean it was just amazing what you get from learning with these pioneers. So, they’re more than just theories and they become real to you when you start to do the work, when you write it, and then you start to feel like an anthropologist. And that’s what I wanted my students, even though they were just taking an introduction class, to come out of it feeling like: that they were doing something and that they could contribute to the field.”

Alisha R. Winn on Ira E. Harrison (Chapter 9)

“I didn’t know Dr. Harrison was a poet. He was like a big-time poet, he had written so many books of poems and every time I talked to him, he would quote some line in his poetry. Every single time. Or he would make up a poem right on the spot that included me, or whatever we were talking about, or something encouraging. Or as we get off the phone, he would leave me with a line. I expected it every time. He’s literally a pioneer in such a great way. [He accomplished] so many things. I didn’t know that he did a lot of his research and particularly his dissertation on the desegregation of churches and storefront churches. And that’s because he thought, initially, he was going to go into the ministry. And so, he still got a chance to look at faith and religion by doing his research on that extensively and by serving on boards related to church work in Ohio and in other places. And so, I learned that about him, being a poet and initially wanting to go into the ministry, which I found fascinating. But also, how he used all of that to build in his profession and in his life’s work. So, they weren’t these separate things. Even though someone from the outside might say, ‘Oh, he did this and this.’ No, all of those things connected together. His work with looking at HBCUs in anthropology and how Hampton got its program started in anthropology. I mean, all of these things connected to his curiosity and his pioneering work of wanting to make sure that African American anthropologists are recognized for their contributions. And so, his work is so broad, but is a holistic work that tells so much of a life’s work of someone who embodies all these things in one.”

Ira E. Harrison and Alisha R. Winn at the book launch in 2018. Photo courtesy of Alisha R. Winn.

Rachel Watkins on George Clement Bond (Chapter 11)

“We all kind of come to our research by way of exploring who we are, in some ways. I knew that I would learn about George Clement Bond as part of learning about his research and learning about his research would allow me the opportunity to do what I love to do, which is to be a biologically oriented anthropologist who’s learning more about the subfields. Bond is an Africanist anthropologist, whose work extended into education and he was based at Columbia University in the Teachers College. What I learned about him is that he was very much so a generalist. He started out as an Africanist and he used the research that he did and his particular departure from structural functionalism, he used his particular way of thinking and doing research to extend that to other questions. He thought about, ‘Okay, how can the methodological and theoretical kind of developments that come out of my research in this particular area be applied to other areas,’ to the point that he had several edited volumes he was co-authoring long before that was something that—well we still kind of struggle with that in anthropology. He was about creating space for exploring the breadth of application of the work of Black scholars and Black scholar-activists.”

Bertin M. Louis, Jr. on Oliver Osborne (Chapter 12)

“Dr. Oliver Osborne was a pioneering nurse anthropologist. He grew up in New York, his family was originally from Barbados. What was interesting about his trajectory is the odd way he came to nursing first and then anthropology. And he came to nursing, despite being in law school at the time. He decided to work in nursing and specialize in mental health issues. In his interview [with me for the book] he talked about how he was able to quench his thirst for all the different types of things he wanted to learn about through anthropology. And his studies, he wanted to do, he went on to do field work in the area of psychosocial nursing in Nigeria and he did a lot of back-and-forth trips between the United States and Nigeria. When he finished his PhD, he went on to pioneer a lot of different things within the area of psychosocial nursing. First, he was a Black man who blazed the trail for Black folks in the white women-dominated profession of nursing. He also was able to articulate a holistic view of nursing, as well as touting the utility of anthropological studies for nurses. He also was a pioneer in the sense of the different institutions that he helped to build up, like the first department that was related to psychosocial nursing at the University of Washington, as well as other professional organizations related to nursing and his emphasis on delivering mental health nursing services to the marginalized and the oppressed. Reflecting on Dr. Osborne, the main thing that really impressed me was the way that he applied good aspects of anthropological methods and knowledge towards pioneering this field of psychosocial nursing.” 

Angela McMillan Howell on Anselme Remy (Chapter 13)

Anselme Remy and Angela McMillan Howell at the AAA in 2014. Photo courtesy of Angela McMillan Howell.

“I think the most fulfilling part of Anselme Remy’s career, he would say, was the component of it which was really around Black studies and what he was able to do with Fisk University and connecting with other Black scholars who saw their research as an activist lifestyle. That it wasn’t just for the sake of curiosity, but it was about needing to connect and to radically change people’s everyday situations. And the other part that was incredibly fulfilling for him was the ways in which he worked outside of the academy directly to impact the Haitian government, to impact US policies towards Haiti, and then eventually returning to Haiti. And so these were spaces that were not mainline anthropological spaces, even though he had that masters from NYU, even though he was ABD at Brandeis. And because he chose the activist’s route and he chose to return to his home, he basically was an unknown scholar in a lot of ways. And then the last thing I wanted to just add was I believe he is the only non-American in the book. It’s really interesting as well that our perspective in anthropology is still so American-centric and Western-centric. I just think his presence in the [book] opens the door for people to also wonder. Americans are not the only anthropologists; African Americans are not the only anthropologists. How do we continue to access other people’s ways of knowing the world who are in Senegal, in Kenya, in Haiti, in wherever they are, that are anthropologists? They’re trained, they’re Black, potentially, but they’re not recognized because they’re just not even in the English canon.”

Antoinette Jackson on Vera Mae Green (Chapter 14)

“Vera Green was a cultural anthropologist, very much a public anthropologist. She actually put into practice many of the anthropological tenets. In the chapter, I was really struggling to find a little bit of a different angle on her that wasn’t quite tapped into fully. And it was the fact that she was a Quaker. I decided to really focus on how that influenced part of her life. In addition to her being a public anthropologist, she seemed to always operate outside the box or go against the grain of what you typically think of as a Black person doing something. In her work she was always talking about heterogeneity, like ‘don’t look at every Black person the same.’ So, looking at the Quaker experience was a chance to highlight something different about her in the sense [of what] people typically think about Black folks’ religious practices and really figure out how that informs her. Also, she stressed looking at intersectionality before that word became a word. She was looking at the socioeconomic differences between how people experience location or parts of their life or cultural experiences. She looked at Black folk outside of the typical ways that people are talking about them. She’s looking at folk in the Netherlands Antilles. And she’s seeking out Black people in areas where people weren’t really doing a lot of research on Black folk and then looking in different contexts. Seeing how she was able to elaborate on Black people’s experiences and environments really made it okay, or just helped me hone my own way of thinking and looking. She gave me a way to do that.”

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Theory: Centering the Intellectual Labor of Black Anthropologists

Throughout the course of my interviews, I asked the contributors, “What texts should all anthropology students be familiar with by the time they complete their undergraduate or graduate programs?” I knew they would point me to the works cited throughout both African-American Pioneers in Anthropology and The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, but I was interested to learn the texts that guide their research and are incorporated in their teaching. Who are they and their students thinking alongside?

This seemingly innocuous question encouraged conversations about the circulation of particular histories of and in the discipline, and it centered our attention on canonization and citation practices. And rightfully so, given the ways that anthropologists of color, in general, and Black anthropologists, in particular, have been underrecognized in the field.

In their interrogation of anthropology’s success towards its goal of racial inclusivity, Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson concluded that anthropology departments are institutionally organized as “white public spaces,” thus participating in “a hegemonic, daily, unreflexive praxis that marginalizes faculty and students of color” (2011, 554). One of the ways departments constitute themselves in this way is by establishing clear “boundaries by theoretical perspectives and explanatory projects as well as subject matter” (552). These boundaries determine which ideas and perspectives “belong” in anthropological thought, and make it difficult to include courses, research, and writings on race and racism. For these reasons, anthropologists of color are often met with resistance and have been excluded from theory building exercises which are imperative to the perpetuation of the discipline.   

Drawing on Sylvia Wynter’s theorization of the Western Man, one could argue that disciplines are “storytellers who now storytellingly invent themselves” (Wynter and McKittrick 2015, 11) by relying upon the circulation of scholars, ideas, readings, and histories that best fit the story they are hoping to tell. In anthropology, these narratives have favored Western scholars who are white and male, often hoping to portray some authentic truth about “other” populations and cultures. Together, these theoretical boundaries and the systemic privileging of certain scholars contribute to an idealized canon that tends to over-represent the historical and contemporary scholarship of white male cis-gender thinkers.

Alternatively, as Joshua Bennett and Imani Perry brilliantly reflect, we should challenge the fraught and often fetishized canon. Instead we should consider its purpose to simply “create a set of common texts, and common texts function as ways for us to have sustained conversations.” With this in mind, a kind of deliberate curation should be invested in ensuring that “canons are elastic, or they should be, and they should make room for beauty.” We can take this as a call to uplift legacies and make visible the intellectual labor of Black anthropologists who have been pushed to the margins of the discipline or have had to find disciplinary homes in other departments.

Suggestions for how to meaningfully reimagine the discipline and the canon are plenty. Moreover, demands to decolonize and transform anthropology have circulated for decades. Ashanté Reese calls for the elevation of ethnography that draws on epistemological elsewheres, including “from Black studies, ethnic studies, women and gender studies, and the lives we lived before the academy” (2019). In her estimation, the field’s harsh disciplinary boundaries are limiting, monotonous, and uncreative.

“We need to overhaul the way we teach anthropology,” Riché J. Daniel Barnes explained (2013). “We cannot be afraid to talk about the way anthropology has been complicit in the degradation of cultures and the accompanying oppression of people. We cannot continue to begin with the ‘primitive’ and the ‘savage’ and expect students whose ancestors were part of those populations to find merit in the field.”

Angela McMillan Howell and Elgin L. Klugh considered institutional ways to combat this alienation. Howell and Klugh, both alumni and faculty members at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), believe that “their history, student characteristics, and overall learning environments uniquely position HBCUs to give voice to a number of perspectives that would add texture to the anthropological canon” (Klugh and Howell 2013). It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that students and scholars of all identities and subject positions do not feel alienated and ostracized by a discipline with a deeply colonial history.

Overall, these suggestions point to the need to combat the erasure of certain voices and highlight the theoretical interventions of those whose existence is often written out of the discipline. “We have this legacy of African American pioneers who have decolonized and we could use them to further decolonize the discipline,” Alice Baldwin-Jones explains, referring not only to those scholars profiled in the book, but to all those elders who contributed their intellectual labor to anthropology.[1] This would require an incorporation of their work in courses, as well as tangible engagement with their theory in our own writing, particularly given the importance of citation to the academic enterprise.

Erica Lorraine Williams, whose current book project deals with Black feminist activism in Bahia, expounds: “It’s really important that we document these stories and document people’s trajectories and their work, reviewing their work and the contributions that it made so that we don’t continue to be marginalized and kind of left out of the canon.” Christen A. Smith’s #CiteBlackWomen movement, a collective of which Williams is a member, is one such commitment to crediting the life and work of Black women intellectuals. Another is Black feminist anthropology, which Irma McClaurin defines as an intervention that “constructs its own canon that is both theoretical and based in the politics of praxis and poetics” and “seeks to deconstruct the institutionalized racism and sexism that has characterized the history of the discipline of anthropology” (2001, 2).

Therefore, to keep these scholars “active and alive” and to “keep building and highlighting them,” as Antoinette Jackson implores, I present a reading list curated by the volume’s contributors (with a few suggested additions of my own). This kind of list is in good company, as existing examples include the Zora’s Daughters Podcast syllabi and the Decanonizing Anthropology Syllabus Project. These collections, and others similar to them, are living documents that might shift and grow over time, but remain committed to centering the voices of marginalized folks and respecting them as knowledge producers, rather than mere research subjects. Across theories and geographies, disciplines and subfields, and methodological approaches, these texts speak to a past and present of anthropology that takes seriously the lived realities of race and racism.

Theory List

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Anderson, Ryan. 2013. “Race, Racism, Anthropology #1: Mullings on ‘Interrogating Racism.’” Savage Minds (blog). February 27, 2013.

Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———, ed. 2003. Life in America: Identity and Everyday Experience. Blackwell.

Barnes, Riché J. Daniel. 2015. Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community. Families in Focus. Rutgers University Press.

  • See also Mark Anthony Neal’s interview with Riché J. Daniel Barnes on the Left of Black video podcast (season 8, episode 12: “When Black Professional Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community”).

Bolles, A. Lynn. 2001. “Seeking the Ancestors: Forging a Black Feminist Tradition in Anthropology.” In Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics, edited by Irma McClaurin. Rutgers University Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2017. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 5th ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

Browne, Dallas. 2016. People You Should Know: Biographies of William Shack and James Gibbs. Self-published.

Buck, Pem Davidson. 2001. Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Cox, Aimee Meredith. 2015. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Duke University Press.

Fernández-Kelly, Patricia. 2015. The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press.

Franklin, Maria, and Robert Paynter. 2010. “Inequality and Archaeology.” In Voices in American Archaeology: The 75th Anniversary Volume of the Society for American Archaeology, edited by Wendy Ashmore, Dorothy T. Lippert, and Barbara J. Mills, 94–130. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology.

Harrison, Faye V. 1992. “The Du Boisian Legacy in Anthropology.” Critique of Anthropology 12 (3): 239–60.

———, ed. 2005. Resisting Racism and Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Human Rights. AltaMira Press.

Howell, Angela McMillan. 2013. Raised Up Down Yonder: Growing Up Black in Rural Alabama. University Press of Mississippi.

  • See also Angela Howell’s video introduction to the book. This video was part of a collaboration between Howell and Territa Poole, profiled here by Morgan State University.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. J.B. Lippincott.

Jackson, Antoinette T. 2012. Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites. Left Coast Press.

———. 2020. Heritage, Tourism, and Race: The Other Side of Leisure. New York: Routledge.

Kendi, Ibram X. 2016. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books.

Kincaid, Jamaica. 1988. A Small Place. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. Jossey-Bass.

Lamphere, Louise. 2004. “Unofficial Histories: A Vision of Anthropology from the Margins.” American Anthropologist 106 (1): 126–39.

Louis, Jr., Bertin M. 2014. My Soul Is in Haiti: Protestanism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas. New York University Press.

  • See also Bertin Louis’s interview with Kevin Michael Foster on Blackademics TV (Austin, PBS: 2015).

McClaurin, Irma, ed. 2001. Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. Rutgers University Press.

McKittrick, Katherine, ed. 2015. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Duke University Press.

Mullings, Leith. 1997. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African American Women. Routledge.

Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. 1999. Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. University of Chicago Press.

Remy, Anselme. 1976. “Anthropology: For Whom and What?The Black Scholar 7 (7): 12–16.

Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. 2000. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. Wiley.

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Zed Press.

Rodriguez, Cheryl R., Dzodzi Tsikata, and Akosua Adomako Ampofo, eds. 2015. Transatlantic Feminisms: Women and Gender Studies in Africa and the Diaspora. Lexington Books.

  • See also Cheryl R. Rodriguez’s interview about the book in the Black Agenda Report (2019).

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.

Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. 2011. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. 4th edition. Routledge.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1992. “The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1): 19–42.

———. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press.

Watkins, Rachel J. 2020. “An Alter(Ed)Native Perspective on Historical Bioarchaeology.” Historical Archaeology 54 (1): 17–33.

Williams, Erica Lorraine. 2013. Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements. University of Illinois Press.

Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. 2015. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick, 9–89. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Pioneers’ Papers

While interviewing the contributors and collecting these suggested readings, an interesting detail arose. Several pioneers have donated or stored their papers across sites and platforms, an act that inevitably speaks to their understanding of the importance of collecting, recording, documenting, and archiving. I have included a non-exhaustive list below:

  • Angela Gilliam’s papers have been digitized and can be found online here and here.
  • Vera Mae Green’s papers are located at the Tuskegee University library, but many of the holdings have yet to be digitized.
  • Anselme Remy’s papers, mostly published in French, can be found at the Library of Congress.
  • The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University houses both Ira E. Harrison’s papers and the archives of the Association of Black Anthropologists. Dr. Harrison also has papers at Emory University.

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Additional Works Cited

Barnes, Riché Daniel. 2013. “Anthropology Is for Us, Right? (Section News, Association of Black Anthropologists).” Anthropology News 54 (11).

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56.

Klugh, Elgin, and Angela Howell. 2013. “Decolonization Continued: Anthropology and HBCUs (Section News, Association of Black Anthropologists).” Anthropology News 54 (6).

Reese, Ashanté. 2019. “When We Come to Anthropology, Elsewhere Comes with Us (Opinion: Ethnography from Elsewhere).” Anthropology News 60 (1): e113–17.


[1] Volume contributors’ names are place in bold type throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning from Black Anthropology

Following the model of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s lesson plans, I offer a curriculum guide for The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology. This book could be assigned and incorporated into class discussion in a number of ways. Its potential lies especially in its discussion of various themes, including race and racism, gender and sexism, class and labor inequality, fieldwork and ethnographic methods, intersectionality, and decolonizing and diversifying disciplines.

I agree with Antoinette Jackson: the book “provides a means of broadening the conversation and enables students to experience different ways of critiquing and applying anthropology.”[1] Also, since all the pioneers and contributors are Black, incorporating this text onto syllabi is just one way to respond to Laurence Ralph and Aisha Beliso-De Jesús’ critique of how whiteness is privileged in anthropology syllabi.

Erica Lorraine Williams remarks that “you go through your whole graduate training and there’s still these people that you just haven’t heard of, that you don’t know about, that you haven’t been taught.” This book helps correct this silence, providing a valuable resource in its own right because of its skillful recovery of prominent anthropologists for a contemporary cohort of scholars. But the potential of the book is not limited to the text. During a recent ACLS/SSRC conversation with Alondra Nelson and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Bianca C. Williams stated, “you can’t understand race and racism and you can’t understand the utility of the humanities and social sciences if you’re not engaging the work of Black studies, Black feminist studies, and Black queer studies.” This call echoes the pioneers’ reliance on the Black Power and Black studies movements (Anderson 2019) to critique and challenge anthropology as a discipline largely implicated in colonialism and racism. We should take Williams’ contemporary assertion seriously and the pioneers’ work is a place to start.

Thus, in addition to the book itself, the pioneers’ articles and books should be used to prepare new generations of scholars. Their scholarship includes, but is not limited to, ethnography across Africa and the diaspora, Black feminist thought, critiques of colonialism, white supremacy, racism, and sexism, and critical methodological interventions. With this in mind, here is just one example of how the pioneers’ areas of research could be organized and taught:

  • Military forensic anthropology: Charles Preston Warren II
  • Medical anthropology: Oliver Osborne
  • Linguistic anthropology: Claudia Mitchell-Kernan
  • Africanist scholarship: George Clement Bond, Niara Sudarkasa, James Lowell Gibbs Jr., William Shack
  • Anthropology of race: Audrey Smedley
  • Applied and public anthropology: Johnnetta B. Cole, Vera Mae Green, Ira E. Harrison, Diane K. Lewis
  • Native anthropology: Delmos Jones, John Langston Gwaltney, Anselme Remy

Now for tangible ways to assign the book itself: I’ll start this guide by offering my own idea first. Twenty-eight Black anthropologists are highlighted across both installments to the Pioneers archive. However, these are not autobiographical entries; each anthropologist is profiled by a more junior anthropologist. As a final assignment, students could provide a Pioneers-like entry for one of the contributors to either volume. For example, what would they write in a chapter about Betty J. Harris or Janis Faye Hutchinson? A student could flex multiple methodological muscles for this assignment, as oral history collection, interviews, archival research, digital ethnography, and close reading could come in handy. The final product might include an overview of the scholar’s educational background, their published works and intellectual contributions, their approach to the discipline, and their engagement with a community outside of academia. If relevant, it would also be interesting to include a reflection on the connection between the contributor and their pioneer: why might Deborah Johnson-Simon have profiled John Langston Gwaltney? What connects Dallas Browne and William Alfred Shack?

Once this research has been conducted and these biographies are written, one might encourage students to submit pieces to History of Anthropology Review. An analysis of a pioneers’ foundational work could be contributed to Generative Texts or a surprising archival detail could find a place in Clio’s Fancy. For work based on the Pioneer archive, there are plenty of outlets at HAR that could result in a student publication.

Rachel Watkins: “Thinking about how the work of scholars in the book is obscured, I like the idea of pairing chapters in The Second Generation with some of the scholars’ work—or work they inspired. I think Karen Field’s ‘Witchcraft and Racecraft’ piece in [George Clement Bond’s edited volume] Witchcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges (2001) would be great to assign alongside my podcast episode on race. I don’t think a lot of people know this—in terms of the way that our pioneers have created space for all sorts of things—in his edited volume Witchcraft Dialogues, that’s actually where Karen Fields first wrote about Racecraft. She has a chapter in there because the edited volume was focused on kind of turning this idea of witchcraft on its head and not using witchcraft to amplify this exotic African trope at what it means. There are also pieces Bond authored that frame things like ancestor worship in rather ‘decolonized’ ways that are important for students to learn sooner than later.”

Angela McMillan Howell: “I used the first Pioneers book the last time I taught anthropological theory and this is an activity that went really well in my class. Everybody was assigned certain pioneers. It was a small seminar class and we had a roundtable with the pioneers. You had to embody that person that you read about. You had to read their chapter, you had to dress like them, you had to read other stuff about them. And then I made little placards with each of their names in front of them. I was the interviewer and I asked everybody about their lives and they had to answer as if they were their person. They weren’t going to read every biography of every person, but they were able to really connect to that one person. And then they were able to hear how other people answered and asked them about their family life, where they feel like they had been recognized in the academy, and all these different things. I loved it.”

How might you choose to incorporate these scholars and their work into your courses? Perhaps you would appreciate Bertin M. Louis, Jr.’s suggestion to use both contributions to the Pioneer archive in a “Black anthropology course which charts the growth of anti-racist/pro-Black anthropological research.” Instead, if interested in discussing Black intellectual contributions to anthropology, alongside scholars’ experiences of racism and discrimination in the academy, you might consider Alice Baldwin-Jones’s approach to assign Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse with writings from Audrey Smedley, Katherine Dunham, Laurence Foster, and Louis Eugene King. Or perhaps, Zora Neale Hurston might be better suited for a discussion of ethnographic methods, as Riché J. Daniel Barnes assigns Mules and Men and centers “Hurston for a discussion on insider/outsider methodology, subjectivity, and US-based ethnographies.”

The possibilities are endless for how The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology, and the scholarship of these 28 Black pioneers could be used in a classroom and in one’s writing. As, in the words of Hortense Spillers, we strive to “rediscover” and “reassert” “all these earlier pioneers in the institutional works of the black intellectual” (2007, 301), I welcome suggestions for further pedagogical techniques that highlight this rich archive.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Mark. 2019. From Boas to Black Power: Racism, Liberalism, and American Anthropology. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Bond, George Clement, and Diane M. Ciekawy, eds. 2001. Witchcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges. Ohio University Press.

Fields, Karen E. 2001. “Witchcraft and Racecraft: Invisible Ontology and Its Sensible Manifestations.” In Withcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges, edited by George Clement Bond and Diane M. Ciekawy, 283–315. Ohio University Press.

Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan. 2007. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35 (1/2): 299–309.


[1] Volume contributors’ names are in bold type throughout these pieces and, unless otherwise noted, their quoted words are drawn from the interviews that form the basis for this series as described in the author’s introduction.


I interviewed eleven of The Second Generation’s contributing authors to better understand their motivations for participating in the volume. Since they appear numerous times throughout these texts, quick professional sketches of their current affiliations help to place them:

Alice Baldwin-Jones, an applied anthropologist at LaGuardia Community College and William Paterson University of New Jersey

Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Associate Professor and Chair of Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College, and current President of the Association of Black Anthropologists

Angela McMillan Howell, Associate Professor of Anthropology and interim Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology department at Morgan State University

Antoinette Jackson, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of South Florida

Deborah Johnson-Simon, a museum anthropologist in the social and behavioral science program at Savannah State University, and the founder and CEO of The African Diaspora Museology Institute, Inc., which specializes in Africa diaspora museums

Elgin L. Klugh, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social and Political Sciences, and Coordinator for Social Sciences and Anthropology at Coppin State University

Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Associate Professor of Anthropology and African American & Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky, and President-elect of the Association of Black Anthropologists

Cheryl R. Rodriguez, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Anthropology at the University of South Florida

Rachel Watkins, Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University

Erica Lorraine Williams, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology department at Spelman College, and the Book and Film Review Editor for Transforming Anthropology

Alisha R. Winn, an applied and practicing cultural anthropologist at Palm Beach Atlantic University and founder of Consider the Culture, a business that infuses anthropology in governmental institutions, religious institutions, and educational institutions to impact communities

Additionally, all contributor biographies from the book are reprinted below, courtesy of University of Illinois Press. Please keep in mind that these were originally published in 2018, so some details may have changed.

  • This image shows the first page of the list of contributors from the volume

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Bernhard J. Stern, an American Apologist for Stalinism

The June 1944 issue of the American Sociological Review featured an article by Bernhard J. Stern entitled “Soviet Policy on National Minorities” (Stern 1944). In it the author argued that “the Soviet Union can claim with a high degree of accuracy that it has solved the difficult problem presented by the existence of national minorities in a strongly centralized state” (ibid.: 229). In extolling the virtues of Soviet nationalities policy, Stern took at face value all of the rights that the ethnic Soviet republics supposedly enjoyed, including the right to secede from the union. Moreover, drawing on the new Soviet constitution and Stalin’s speeches, he praised the dictator, whose “skillful statesmanship” was said to have laid the foundation of the wise ideology behind this policy (ibid.: 230). Given the fact that just a few months prior to this paper’s publication, the Soviet secret police had accused entire ethnic groups, such as the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars and several others, of being Nazi collaborators and exiled them from their historic homelands in Europe to Central Asia under extremely harsh conditions, Stern’s piece was not much more than a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda. The aim of this paper is to explain why an American scholar, trained in both sociology and anthropology, and a respected pioneer of medical sociology, came to be regarded as an expert on the Soviet nationalities policy and produced a piece of such questionable scholarship. My goal is also to challenge the one-sided portrayal of Stern as an innocent victim of McCarthyism presented in the works of David H. Price (2004).


Born in Chicago in 1894 to a Jewish émigré family, Bernhard J. Stern studied for a BA and an MA at the University of Cincinnati from 1913 to 1917. In 1923 he travelled to Europe, where he studied at the University of Berlin and the London School of Economics. Returning to the US that same year, Stern entered Columbia University to study sociology under a prominent left-leaning scholar, William F. Ogburn. While sociology remained his main discipline and his doctoral thesis was in it, in 1925 he also undertook an intensive study of anthropology with Franz Boas and his degree was actually in both sociology and anthropology. Stern’s Ph.D. thesis, Social Factors in Medical Progress, completed in 1926 and published as a book in 1927, earned him a reputation as a serious medical sociologist and historian of sociology (Bloom 1990:19). In fact, he is considered one of the earliest American historians of science (see Bloom 2002 passim). While Stern’s early academic works revealed his critical attitude towards Western, and particularly American, economic systems as well as the way in which its science and medicine were organized, his left-wing views, including pro-Soviet sympathies, were even more clearly revealed in his conduct as a young college instructor. Nonetheless, in the late 1920s he was not yet a member of any leftist political organization (Bloom 1990:21). Charlotte Todes, however, whom he married in 1923, was a whole other story. A labor movement activist since the early 1920s, she joined the Communist Party USA in 1926 and encouraged her husband to become a member as well.

In 1927 Bernhard secured a three-year renewable tenure-track assistant professor position in the Sociology Department at the University of Washington. His experience at that school was similar to the one at City College: he was a popular instructor and productive researcher, but his politics made him suspect in the eyes of the administration. Hence at the end of his second year, he was put on probation by the department chair. During his sojourn in Seattle, Stern strengthened his position as a left-leaning liberal who was becoming gradually more sympathetic to Communist ideas but was not yet willing to join the Party (Bloom 1990:22). 

Despite the setback in Seattle, Stern did not break stride and managed to get a job as an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and in 1934 a part-time teaching appointment as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, known for its outstanding progressive faculty (CS, Audio Interviews 1-3). That same year he also began teaching as a lecturer in the sociology department at Columbia, initially on a single course basis as well. Two years later, after significant pressure from his senior colleagues in the department, Columbia finally appointed him Lecturer in the School of General Studies but without rank; that was the position he occupied until the end of his life in 1956 (ibid.). Thanks to the respect Stern enjoyed among his Columbia colleagues and students as a scholar and teacher he was not fired from the university during the McCarthy era, when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated him for his Communist activities (Bloom 1990:24-32; Price 2004:136-153).

Stern’s journey towards becoming a Communist appears to have begun with his joining the John Reed Club in 1932. By 1933 he had already become a member of the Club’s executive committee. Founded in 1929 by the staff members of a pro-Communist magazine The New Masses to support Marxist writers and artists, that organization was originally politically independent but in late 1930 became officially affiliated with Moscow and the Communist Party USA. In 1932 Stern also joined a group of active Communists as well as representatives of several Communist front organizations to form an American anti-war committee (Lyons 1970: 148). Delegates representing similar organizations from various countries met in Amsterdam in August 1932 to form the World Congress Against Imperialist War. The organization’s main goal was to “support the peace policies of the Soviet Union” and sabotage (through peaceful means) the war preparations in their own countries. By the mid-1930s Stern had definitively joined the Communist Party USA. This was the time of the Popular Front, when the Party, having proclaimed a new policy of cooperation with all the progressive anti-fascist groups and organization in the country, increased its membership significantly and enjoyed greater sympathy in the wider American society. It appears that Stern was a member of one of the New York branches of the Party, which was composed mainly of writers and other intellectuals. In 1936 Stern became one of the founders and editors of a Marxist social science journal, Science and Society. In addition, he contributed articles on social evolution and other anthropological subjects to a Communist periodical New Masses under a pseudonym Bennett Stevens and taught occasional courses at the Workers’ School affiliated with the Communist Party (Price 2004: 138-141). 


While still at the University of Washington, Stern developed an interest in the history of the social sciences and conducted archival research on the papers of Lewis H. Morgan. Using previously unpublished writings, journals, and correspondence from the Morgan archive preserved at the University of Rochester Library as well as his published works, Stern tried, in his words, “to cast new light on the development of Morgan’s theories and to evaluate them in light of contemporary knowledge” (Stern 1931:VI). This work resulted in a 1928 article “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist,” a 1931 monograph Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist, and several publications of valuable primary sources from the Morgan archive (Stern 1930, 1933; Kan and Arzyutov 2016). 


Given Stern’s work on Morgan and the new developments in his political orientation in the first half of the 1930s, it made perfect sense for him to be eager to establish contacts with Soviet ethnographers and visit the land of socialism. Consequently in 1931 he initiated correspondence with Mark Kosven, a Soviet anthropologist who had also been working on Morgan. By this time Morgan had already become a key “ancestor” venerated by Soviet anthropologists as the precursor of Marx’ and Engels’ theory of the evolution of human society. In his letter Stern informed Kosven that he had just published a study “of Morgan’s anthropological theories in terms of his milieu and in the light of contemporary anthropology and have told of the use of his work by Marx and Engels” (BJS. Box 1, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 2/1/1931) and claimed that his study of Morgan was written “from a historical materialist standpoint.” Eager to demonstrate to the Soviet scholar his credentials as a “fellow-traveler,” if not (yet) a Communist, for whom a critical evaluation of the book by a Soviet scholar was of particular importance, Stern wrote “As a member of the John Reed Club, an organization of revolutionary artists and writers, and as a contributor to the New Masses, I would greatly appreciate your critical comments on the book when you read it” (ibid.). Two months later Stern received a courteous response from Kosven and thus their seven-year long correspondence was established.

Stern’s next letter to Kosven, sent in early July 1932, contained an important piece of news: he and his wife were planning to visit the USSR in August on their way to Amsterdam. This was to be largely an “exploratory visit,” as Charlotte Stern called it, which was to last for two weeks. Here is how Ms. Stern described the goals of their trip: “We decided we must see the Soviet Union. I decided I must see it from the standpoint of what the Communists had achieved, and my husband wanted to see it from the standpoint of whether it was the ideal society” (CS, Audio Interviews 1-4). According to Bernhard himself, “the primary purpose of learning what the Soviet is [sic] doing in the field of anthropology and related subjects” (BJS. Box.1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 7/4/1932).

The Communist Party USA did not provide Charlotte with the names of any contact persons in Russia, but given her interests in organized labor, she and her husband asked for and were granted permission to visit several factories. While admitting that this visit had been “entirely a surface experience” and that the only people they had been able to speak to were English speakers, Charlotte asserted that both of them were very impressed with the “great spirit of achievement, and effort, and love of the society itself among all of the people that we met” (CS Audio Interview 4). As far as the political situation was concerned, she stated that they had been completely uninformed about it and did not notice anything dramatic, even though this was the time of a major internal struggle within the Communist Party as well as the expulsion of Trotsky from the USSR. Charlotte’s evidence of the general contentment among the academics they met shows how naïve she and her husband were. What made Bernhard even more enthusiastic about the USSR were the impressions he got from interacting with Soviet anthropologists and other social scientists. As his widow reminisced,

In Moscow my husband was very warmly welcomed as a young scientist—social scientist—by the anthropologists and the people in the social science field. They were very kind to him and since he was interested in anthropology, they spent many hours telling him of their plans for the native peoples—who had no written language and whose knowledge of the world outside their own little communities was absolutely primitive. The plans they had and the efforts that they made so impressed him that he became quite convinced that this was a world he could support. Furthermore, he was tremendously impressed with the developments there (CS Interview 4).

One specific experience that made an enormous impression upon Bernhard was a plenum of the Committee of the Peoples of the North he attended in Moscow as a guest of Vladimir Bogoraz, a senior Soviet scholar specializing in the ethnology of the ethnic minorities of Siberia. Without any knowledge of Russian or understanding of the true nature of the nationalities’ politics of the early Stalinist era, Stern took everything that was said from the podium at face value. As he wrote a decade later in the article being discussed here, “I was then struck by the eager exchange of data between the native leaders and the Soviet leaders on both economic and cultural problems of these pre-literate peoples” (Stern 1944: 234; cf. BJS. Box 1, f.3. Stern to Kosven, 10/24/1932). To him such active participation of ethnic minorities in the decisions and policies affecting their own lives contrasted sharply with the discriminatory and paternalistic policies of the federal and state governments in the US toward African Americans and Native Americans. 

The two and a half weeks spent in the USSR not only turned Stern into a diehard supporter of the Soviet regime but also strengthened his relationship with Soviet anthropologists. From now on, he not only looked to the Soviet Union as a model of a progressive and just society but also became a champion of its anthropology, despite some serious disagreements on specific issues. This relationship became so important for the Columbia lecturer that, following his 1932 visit to Russia and especially after a second one he made in 1937, he would frequently mention it in his public presentations and published works, and use it to legitimize his status as an expert on Soviet ethnic groups and state policies towards them.

The irony of Stern’s enthusiasm about Soviet cultural anthropology is that despite his unquestioning loyalty to the USSR, being a serious scholar, he expected Kosven and his colleagues to apply Morgan’s-Engels’-Marx’s theory of social evolution creatively and without dogmatism. In reality it was precisely the Soviet research on the evolution of “primitive” society that had already become quite dogmatic and was becoming even more so. Stern, who kept a close watch on that research had to be aware of this trend but chose to downplay and excuse it, attributing the dogmatism to the growing pains of a new and young Marxist social science. Thus, when a Russian émigré scholar alerted Stern to a senior Soviet ethnologist’s misrepresentation of the reason for Stern’s dismissal from the University of Washington and asked him whether he intended to do something about that, Stern replied, “I see no purpose in pursuing this correction further. Undoubtedly few people have even noticed it. I am certainly not in sympathy with any attempt to discredit [the] Soviet scientific endeavor, which, though in this field still crude, is making, I believe, valiant efforts and has vast potentialities which should not be gainsaid because of crudities manifested in the formative period. I therefore prefer omission” (BJS. Box 1, f. 9, Stern to Fedotov-White, 1/29/1937).


In the spring of 1937, Stern and his wife made their second trip to the Soviet Union. Stern signed up to lead a summer travel seminar/excursion to the USSR for schoolteachers and social workers, organized by the Compass Travel Bureau of New York City. The Sterns and their twelve students were supposed to arrive in Leningrad on July 19. After spending two days there, they were to travel to Moscow for a four-day stay. Their itinerary also included Kharkiv, Tbilisi, Erevan, Kiev and several other cities. They were to depart from the USSR on August 19. Since this trip was billed as an educational one, Stern was anxious to have as many Soviet scholars as possible lecture to the participants, and asked Kosven and other colleagues for help in lining up such lectures. He also asked them to arrange presentations for his group by people in the national republics who were “most likely to impress the visitors… with the great significance of the Soviet approach to the treatment of national minorities and the superiority of the socialist method as opposed to the imperialist” (BJS. Box 2, f. 3. Stern to Kosven, 3/3/1937).[1]

As for his expectations from the trip as a whole, Stern already knew he was going to be impressed. Since his previous visit, he had become an even greater fan of the USSR. In fact, in mid-1934, having finished his work at the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, he asked Kosven for assistance in arranging a long-term visit to the USSR, which would enable him to teach and possibly do research there. Despite Kosven’s efforts, this plan did not work out. Science and Society, a Marxist journal co-edited by Stern, made frequent references to the Soviet political and social system, its economy and high culture, all of them laudatory. Stern’s own scholarly paper published in that journal in 1937, which dealt with the obstacles to technological progress in capitalist societies, offered high praise to the new forms of that progress as well industrial production (e.g., the Stakhanovite movement) in the USSR. Continuing to take the propaganda generated by the Soviets at face value, he was in awe of the new (Stalin) constitution of 1936, referring to it in a letter to a Soviet colleague as “very inspiring to us here” and “having a tremendous symbolic value to the world in its struggle against Fascism” (BJS. Box 1, f. Stern to USSR, Stern to Meshchaninov, 11/27/1936). And like all of the American Communists and quite a few of the liberals, he was convinced that the Old Bolsheviks and other prominent Soviet leaders paraded in Stalin’s show trials of 1936-1937 were indeed guilty of the most heinous crimes.[2]

The Sterns must not have realized that they had picked the worst time to visit the USSR. According to Charlotte, the couple was unable to see any of the people they had met on their previous trip, because they did not want to see Americans. As she put it, “There was such a restrictive atmosphere in the country. The Soviet government was discouraging people from seeing foreigners. The fear of meeting foreigners was great” (CS, Audio Interview 4). According to Ms. Stern, she and her husband did not know what to think, but they did not suspect that some of the people they had met before had been arrested, since nobody talked to them about the purges. Despite those disappointing experiences in Moscow and Leningrad, the Sterns enjoyed their trips, especially to the outlying regions where they observed the (seeming) enthusiasm of the Soviet people continuing the construction of socialism (ibid.). Four years later, when the USSR was already fighting Hitler, Stern summed up his impression of the 1937 visit in an unpublished paper The Soviet Fight Against the Nazi Invasion as follows, 

Everywhere we saw the courageous effort of workers and farmers to build a society without the exploitation of man by man. We saw the prodigious advances in education and science, the remarkable strides in the standard of living, not merely in a small segment of the population, but in the masses of people. The efforts that were being made to enlarge the range and extent of the depth of human happiness were apparent to us . . . Beyond that we saw a nurturing of the creative forces among the people, a fostering of their senses of beauty and their love for knowledge and truth . . . [Yet] the people and the government were wisely alert to the danger of attack from abroad. They were ever vigilant and ready to sacrifice” (BJS. Box 5, f. 6).

Upon his return, Bernhard seems to have never mentioned the negative aspects of Soviet life in 1937, which he must have justified by the threat of fascism and the need to be on alert for foreign and domestic enemies. Consequently in 1938 without any hesitation he added his signature to a letter signed by 150 left-wing and liberal American scholars and artists expressing their support for the trial of Bukharin and other enemies of the USSR (Lyons 1970: 246-250). And unlike a large number of American Communists, who left the Party after Soviet Russia signed the infamous pact with Nazi Germany in August of 1939, Stern, despite being a passionate anti-fascist, remained steadfast in his pro-Soviet views, following the party-line as far as justifying and even praising Stalin’s sudden about-face. Of course, once Hitler attacked the USSR in the summer of 1941, Stern became a staunch advocate of the need for the United States to aid Soviet Russia and eventually join the anti-Nazi coalition.

In the wake of World War II, the radical Columbia sociologist produced another piece of pro-Soviet propaganda: a co-edited anthology entitled Understanding the Russians: a Study of Soviet Life and Culture (Stern and Smith 1947), which aimed at covering a variety of aspects of Soviet life, from its constitution to music.  Produced explicitly to counter a negative image of the Soviet Union widely promoted in the US during the Cold War, this collection featured either Soviet authors (including Stalin himself) or strongly pro-Soviet Western ones.  Despite being criticized as a piece of pro-Soviet propaganda by several reviewers, Understanding the Russians appears to have been read fairly widely, at least by those who still refused to believe that the USSR was not really the land of freedom and democracy.


The case of Bernhard Stern could serve as a cautionary tale for anthropologists and other social scientists who let their scholarship be guided by strong sympathies towards totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, be they right- or left-wing. In Stern’s case, his blind devotion to Communism and the Soviet Union led to a number of publications representing propaganda rather than serious scholarship. Moreover, in my opinion, it is not right to discuss the persecution suffered by leftist American scholars like Stern during McCarthyism without discussing their misguided advocacy of Stalinism, as David Price (2004: 136-153) has done.

Works Cited

Archival Collections:

BJS – Papers of Bernhard J. Stern. Archive of the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.

CS – Audio Interviews with Charlotte Stern. Archive of Columbia University.

SPF ARAN – Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Collection. St. Petersburg Branch of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Published Works

Bloom, Samuel W. “The Intellectual in a Time of Crisis: the Case of Bernhard J. Stern, 1894-1956.”  Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences 26 (1990): 17-37.

———. The World as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Kan, Sergei. “‘My Old Friend in a Dead-End of Empiricism and Skepticism’: Bogoraz, Boas, and the Politics of Soviet Anthropology of the late 1920s-Early 1930s.”  History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 2, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Kan, Sergei and Dmitry V. Arzyutov. “The Saga of the L. H. Morgan Archive, or How an American Marxist Helped Make a Bourgeois Anthropologist the Cornerstone of Soviet Ethnography.” History of Anthropology Annual, vol. 10, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederick W. Gleach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Lyons, Eugene. The Red Decade. New Rochelle: The Arlington House, 1970. 

Price, David H. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 

Stern, Bernhard J. Social Factors in Medical Progress.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1927. 

———. “Lewis Henry Morgan: American Ethnologist.”  Social Forces 6 (1928): 344-357.

———. “Selections from the Letters of Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist vol. 32, no. 2-3 (1930): 257-279; 419-453.

———. Lewis Henry Morgan: Social Evolutionist.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931.

———. “The Letter of Asher Wright to Lewis Henry Morgan.” American Anthropologist 35, no. 1 (1933): 138-145.

———. “Resistance to the Adoption of Technological Innovations.” In Technological Trends and National Policy, edited by David I. Walsh. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937. 

———. “Review of Leninism: Selected Writings by Joseph Stalin.  American Economic Review 33, no. 2 (1943): 395-397.

———. “Soviet Policy on National Minorities.”  American Sociological Review 9, no. 3 (1944): 229-235.

Stern, Bernhard J. and Samuel Smith, eds. Understanding the Russians.  New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc, 1947.

[1] This time the Communist Party USA gave the Sterns the names of some people they were to contact in the Soviet Union (CS Audio Interview 4).

[2] Not surprisingly, Stern signed the infamous “Letter to American Liberals,” published in the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker and reprinted in the pro-Soviet propaganda magazine Soviet Russia Today, which attacked the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry organized in 1936 by the Committee in the Defense of Leo Trotsky and headed by a distinguished American philosopher and educator John Dewey. The letter, signed by eighty-eight Communists, Communist sympathizers, and a few liberals warned American liberals that the Committee in the Defense of Trotsky was a Trotskyite front and hence an ally of fascist and reactionary enemies of the Soviet Union.

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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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.

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