Field Notes (page 1 of 5)

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Plant Identification and Ethnoscience in the Work of Rumphius

How we define ethnoscience in relation to “science” and the “history of science,” the extent to which it is a conceptual “other,” and the way knowledge moves between them, depends on our starting point. Ethnoscience is configured differently depending on context: sometimes a linguistically-rooted methodology (usually in anthropology), sometimes referencing any traditional or Indigenous knowledge that approximately matches the conventional branches of science. Here I examine plant identification in the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch naturalist Rumphius living in Ambon, comparing it to the practices of Indigenous Nuaulu people in modern Indonesia. When seeking to identify plants in our ordinary lives or as professionals, what we mean by “identification” is not the same. Differences between people in the production of identifications arise from the way material presents itself in varying socio-cultural situations, and the reasons why identifications are sought. But to begin with I shall illustrate the interplay between seventeenth-century European beliefs, emerging scientific method, and Rumphius’s appraisal of Ambonese natural history knowledge.

Plant Worlds in Seventeenth-Century Europe and Ambon

Georgius Rumphius (1627–1702) joined the Dutch East India Company in 1651, along the way acquiring some familiarity with Dutch “Protestant science.” He arrived in Ambon, the center of the spice trade, in 1654, where he remained for the rest of his life. As a merchant he took an interest in local flora. He also found a partner in Susanna, probably a mixed-race Ambonese woman who bore him three children. This fact is significant not only because it tells us much about racialized gender relations in the Indies, than because it indicates an unusual cross-cultural intimacy in the production of new plant knowledge. After a series of personal disasters, including blindness, he completed his Herbarium Amboinense. His posthumous publications came to the attention of Linnaeus in Leiden, who adopted many of his plant descriptions (see Rumphius 1741–1750 (2011); Beekman 2011; Baas and Veldkamp 2013; Yoo 2018; Snelders 1995). The titles of each “book” in Rumphius’s Herbal are a mixture of utilitarian categories, groupings referencing morphology, and ad hoc residues. The order makes sense when seen as a journey from the south shore of Ambon through forests and mountains to the north shore. There is no standard order within each book, but groups of chapters begin by describing a representative type, followed by chapters devoted to individual Rumphian taxa. Rumphius described each plant in relation to that proceeding it, using the same template: a preamble (including characteristics), followed by names, places found, and uses.

We can compare Rumphius’s scheme with the hierarchical model of folk classification introduced by Brent Berlin (Berlin, Breedlove and Raven 1974), using concepts of over- and under-differentiation to measure correspondence with scientific taxa. Rumphius had a notion of “species” or “basic category” but understood the biological relationship between taxa differently. Berlin’s approach is partly post-Darwinian hindsight: we are drawn to a semblance of phylogenesis in a folk classification being accustomed to the idea of descent with modification. For Rumphius this cannot be assumed. Rather, the logical “kind-of” relation was often the same as “similar-to.” There is evidence of taxonomic hierarchy, but he does not necessarily invoke inclusion of lesser categories into larger. He is more “agglomerative,” emphasizing greater or lesser proximity. We might envisage cross-cutting schemes along two axes: one approximating what we today think of as phylogeny, and one stressing other major morphological features. For example, he does not treat Ficus (the fig genus) as a single unit, though he sees some resemblance in the grouping of species. Instead, he appropriates Ambonese categories to model the groups of species at the lower level, while a division between trees, shrubs, and vines prevails at the highest levels, overriding genetic similarity (Peeters 1979).

Rumphius’s botanical ontology must be judged by the diverse influences upon it. He was a scholar, and in organizing his Herbal was influenced by Pliny the Elder, seventeenth-century ideas about “natural history,” and the notion that nature is planned to benefit humanity. But he was not only a post-Reformation thinker. His early life was steeped in European beliefs that we would nowadays regard as unscientific. These are reflected in his later writings. For example, he incorporated a homunculus in the nymphs of the crustacean Irona renardi (Ellen 2004), observed that overhanging mangrove leaves of Sonneratia caseolaris became fish on touching water (Rumphius 1741–1750 (2011)), and accepted the spontaneous generation of life.

Rumphius’s botany has been hitherto assessed using the framework of globalized post-Linnaean taxonomy. Indeed, Rumphius and Linnaeus make an interesting comparison, their lives and work falling around the transition between what Foucault called the natural history and biology epistemes, where traditional or scholastic knowledge became recognizably science. Both sought to confer legitimacy to their writing by deferring to Indigenousness and by appealing to the wisdom of local peoples (Foucault 1970; on the authority of Indigenous peoples see Cooper 2007). Linnaeus self-consciously revered Saami traditions, while a feature of Rumphius’s work is his trust in local knowledge authenticated through an intimate familiarity with both language and ethnography. At a time when Moluccan spice gardens were being extirpated and violence perpetrated against their owners, Rumphius frequently claimed that Ambonese know more of nature than his detractors in the East India Company. Much of his data were collected first-hand, while his descriptions systematically interweave Indigenous knowledge with his own European interpretations and experience.

Rumphian ideas among the Nuaulu

Rumphius was therefore a precursor of Linneaus, sheds light on the ethnobotany of seventeenth-century Ambon, and is also an illuminating subject for the study of European natural history at a crucial moment in its transition. His observations have impacted my own work as an anthropologist and ethnobiologist studying the classifying behavior of Nuaulu, a people of central Seram (Ellen 2020). Rumphius knew of Nuaulu, mentioning them in his history of Ambon. He traveled to West Seram, but probably not into the hills where Nuaulu were living at that time. To illustrate how Rumphius’s observations have helped me disentangle some ethnobotanical puzzles, I take the example of gender in plant nomenclature.

The terms hanaie (male) and pina (female) appear in about 40 of 597 Nuaulu plant binomials (7 percent). One might think these refer to male and female plants of dioecious species, but this is unclear. Dioecious species are infrequent in the coastal tropics, perhaps constituting 14 percent. Of the more obvious dioecious species, none reported for Nuaulu display names suggesting this. One genus divided using gender terms is Clerodendrum. Unuhutu hanaie is Clerodendrum rumphianum (with a spike-like inflorescence), while unuhutu pina is usually Clerodendrum speciosissi-mum (similar leaves to rumphianum but a shorter more open inflorescence). Neither is technically bisexual but avoids self-pollination by staggering the maturation of male and female reproductive parts. 

Things become complicated where species are optionally dioecious (male and female flowers on different plants) and monoecious (all plants bisexual), where several types of female plant are distinguished as separate kinds. This is so with the kenari nut iane (Canarium indicum), where iane hanaie is distinguished from iane hanate (larger fruit) and iane mkauke (smaller fruit). Other Canarium are either monoecious or carry both male and female flowers (Ellen 2019). Terms are rarely used by Nuaulu to specifically indicate sex types, but serve to differentiate paired species, varieties of the same species, species of the same genus, or even genera in different families. This mirrors a wider occurrence of male-female opposition in Austronesian languages, found also in Rumphius’s Herbal. He sometimes used terms to reference same species sex morphotypes, but did not recognise the male as having a role in fertilizing female flowers. The sexuality of plants was a matter for speculation in Europe while Rumphius was writing, but the issue was quite unsettled (Taiz 2017).

Communities of Practice Across Time

The term “community of practice” derives from the situated learning theory of Lave and Wenger, emphasizing identification as a socially-shared, processual, and practical task, contextually embedded and embodied (Lave 1991). It marks doing rather than thinking, outcomes achieved through everyday activity rather than abstract theorizing, where “everyday” ranges between the practices of formally-trained professionals and of Indigenous people with skills undivided by occupation. But how do Rumphius’s working practices compare to modern taxonomy or Nuaulu ethnobotany? In what community of practice was he a member or participant? He was connected with the world of Western scholarship, but interacted everyday with Ambonese and had a different vision of plant relatedness. This necessitated intra-cultural and cross-cultural translation in hybrid spaces, where different assumptions and practices met and overlapped, evoking “partial overlaps” (see Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).

Taxonomists theoretically start with a post-Linnaean model, procedurally working down a hierarchy from family to sub-species. They employ tested lexical distinctions to ensure plants are described in the same way, have articulated concepts of level, and have words defining these. Botanists share a domain of knowledge excluding many uncertainties and variables important to others identifying plants—such as use—only employing non-taxonomic distinctions at the initial stages of a decision tree to achieve effective “keying-out” (Dupré 1993). Naturalists have sought to deliberately discard “artificial” and “practical” classifications and replace them with forms dependent on logic internal to the theory of science, whether Linnaean primacy of sexual organs or Darwinian models of common ancestry. Classification as against identification is more distinct in scientific taxonomy, making identification more efficient by grouping associated characters and reducing the steps in a sequence. 

Nuaulu identification of plants is multi-sensorial, in that touch, smell, and taste are as important as visual clues (Ellen 2020). Among professional botanists, the sense that underpins taxonomic practice is primarily visual. An obvious difference between Nuaulu identifiers of plants and contemporary taxonomists is that the former do not write  descriptions to which they can refer, or create images of diagnostic characteristics. Writing, text, and the physical medium on which text is inscribed had massive impacts on conceptualizing and executing acts of identification. Something as definite as “a classification” could hardly exist before it was written down. For Jack Goody, the impulses to classify that accompany literacy encourage “over-systematisation,” overwhelming “reasonable human purposes” (Goody 1982). Science has extracted individual plants from their contexts and re-thought them through abstract features, aided by the globalization of knowledge, and the facility to store specimens and descriptions. Once inscribed, plant names become discrete “things,” and where improvised, likely to become accepted once archived, even when not shared widely (Goody 1977; Ellen 1979). In Rumphius’s Herbal, because each plant is described through a template in relation to that proceeding it, an “order” is possible but rarely achievable where knowledge is orally transmitted. Nuaulu operate as if names were stable, but in effect, the relationship between name and plant is only as good as the last identification, and its frequency of application.

Though writing simplifies sensory reality and perpetuates mistakes, by permitting an “archival” tradition it allows systematic comparison through lists, tables, and lexically-annotated diagrams (Olson 1994). Rumphius drew pictures or had pictures drawn, and by the time of Linnaeus, it was accepted that natural history demanded “arrangement and designation” (Olson 1994, 226). Even modern ethnobiological accounts retrofit the operations of folk classification within the conventions of the written mode, often distorting the significance of notions of hierarchy and level, diminishing category overlap, suppressing dimensionality, and generally constraining the fluidity otherwise enjoyed by orality. 

In Nuaulu plant identification there is built-in flexibility enabled by the absence of one ultimate physical reference specimen or tight permanent descriptions that must be matched to achieve accuracy. For both Nuaulu and professional taxonomists, plant identification involves constant revision, partly because the boundaries of taxa change depending on the criteria selected. The scientific taxonomist faces the same practical and cognitive problems as the Indigenous expert, but whereas modern taxonomists are generally specialists, Nuaulu and Rumphius are generalists. Whereas professional taxonomists always refer to earlier physical specimens and descriptions, Nuaulu identification is fluid, informed by memories established from experience, confirmed or revised with the benefit of other people’s shared experiences. Rumphius too identified plants with reference to general abstractions incorporated into his written descriptions and likely in illustrated notes never preserved (Ellen 2020, 155-59).

Rumphius provides a bridge between several worlds. His work illuminates how the history of biological theory between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries intertwined with ethnobiology as we construe it today. Existing local knowledge systems made the conditions for science possible. In moving from Rumphius to late Linnaeus (and after), European botany rode “a wave of objectification” by which specimens were wiped clean of cultural complexities in order to be “pasted neatly into folios of European herbaria…and classificatory systems” (in Schiebinger and Swan 2005, 7). A focus on the practice of identification sheds light on issues surrounding the integration of heterogeneous knowledge systems. What early ethnoscience ignored with its strict focus on linguistics was the way bodily practice and skill influence how we secure something as mundane as identification (Conklin 1962; see also Ellen 2018). Identification and classification operate in all empirical knowledge systems as distinct processes. Yet in the case of scientific literacy, the two conflate, classification effectively overwhelming identification.

*Read another work in this series here.*

Works Cited

Baas, P. and J.F. Veldkamp. 2013. “Dutch pre-colonial botany and Rumphius’s Ambonese Herbal.” Allertonia, 13: 9–19.

Beekman, E.M. 2011. “Introduction.” G.E. Rumphius. (1741–1750) 2011. The Ambonese Herbal, Volume 1 (translated by E. M. Beekman_. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, vol. 1, 1–169.

Berlin, B., D.E. Breedlove and P.H. Raven (1974). Principles of Tzeltal plant classification: an introduction to the botanical ethnography of a Mayan-speaking people of highland Chiapas. New York: Academic Press.

Conklin, H.C. 1962. “Lexicographical treatment of folk taxonomies.” International Journal of American Linguistics 28: 119–41.

Cooper, A. 2007. Inventing the Indigenous: Local Knowledge and Natural History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dupré, J. 1993. The Disorder of Things. Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press.

Ellen, R. 1979. Introductory essay. In Classifications in Their Social Context, edited by R. F. Ellen and D. Reason. London: Academic Press, 1–32.

———. 2004. “From ethno-science to science, or ‘What the indigenous knowledge debate tells us about how scientists define their project.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 4(3–4): 409–50.

———. 2018. “Ethnoscience.” In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by H. Callan, v4: 2086–87. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

———. 2019. “Ritual, landscapes of exchange, and the domestication of Canarium: a Seram case study.” Asian Perspectives 58 (4): 261–86.

———. 2020. The Nuaulu World of Plants: Ethnobotanical Cognition, Knowledge and Practice Among a People of Seram, Eastern Indonesia. London: Sean Kingston for the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock.

Goody, J. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1982. Cooking, Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. 1991. “Situating learning in communities of practice.” Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition, ed. L. B. Resnick, J. M. Levine and S. D. Teasley. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

Ludwig, D. and C. N. El-Hani 2020. “Philosophy of ethnobiology: understanding knowledge integration and its limitations.” Journal of Ethnobiology 40: 3–20.

Olson, D.R. 1994. The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peeters, A. 1979. “Nomenclature and classification in Rumphius’s ‘Herbarium Amboinense’.” Classifications in Their Social Context, ed. R. F. Ellen and D. Reason. London: Academic Press, 145–166.

Rumphius, G.E. (1741–1750) 2011. The Ambonese Herbal, Volumes 1-6 (translated by E. M. Beekman). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Schiebinger, L. and C. Swan. 2005. “Introduction.” Colonial Botany; Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, ed. L. Schiebinger and C. Swan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1–18.

Snelders H. A. 1995. “Naturwissenschaft und Religion in den Niederlanden um 1600.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 18 (2): 67–78.

Taiz, L. and Taiz, L. 2017. Flora Unveiled: The Discovery and Denial of Sex in Plants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yoo, G. 2018. “Wars and wonders: the inter-island information networks of Georg Everhard Rumphius.” The British Journal for the History of Science 51 (4): 559–84.

Sources for the History of Ethnosciences: James Mooney and the Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees

Formularies, or books of prescriptions, have been in circulation since the very onset of recorded history. A large part of Egyptian papyri and Assyrian-Babylonian cuneiform tablets, for example, consist of collections of medical prescriptions. This genre of literature awakened the attention of European scholars, together with the rise of philology in the nineteenth century, to gain momentum starting in the early decades of the following century. To our surprise, during research for another project, we fell upon a study of a formulary that antedates by several decades the earliest known ones. This is noteworthy not only for its temporal precedence but also because this study was carried out in the “New,” rather than in the “Old,” World and within a context entirely foreign to both philology and historical studies. Here, we are referring to James Mooney’s The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891).

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Special Focus: Histories of Ethnoscience

HAR editors are pleased to bring you this Special Focus Section, guest edited by Raphael Uchôa, Staffan Müller-Wille and Harriet Mercer. The pieces in this collection will be published on a rolling basis, and the table of contents will be updated accordingly.

In the middle of the twentieth century, a flurry of scientific sub-disciplines emerged. These went by the name of ethno-sciences and they came in numerous varieties from ethno-medicine to ethno-botany, -zoology, -biology, -medicine, -pharmacology, -astronomy, -psychology, -cartography, and more. The creation of these sub-disciplines was not, however, a strictly twentieth-century phenomenon. The development of “ethno-science” as an epistemic category that, in one way or another, involves other knowledges than science has a much longer and uneven history. This Special Focus Section aims to provide a critical historical account of the emergence of the “ethno-sciences,” largely focusing on the plant sciences as a paradigmatic example. In particular, it focuses on the ruptures and continuities that occurred from the late eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries, when Western scientists’ attitudes to the category of “Indigenous knowledge” were subject to change across space and time.

Table of Contents

Between the Ethnographic Record and the Field Diary: The Hybrid Medical Practices in Zinacantán before Ethnomedicine (Mexico, 1940s)

Most of the anthropological knowledge production on traditional medicine (TM) and ethnomedicine in Mexico is based on the assumption that there are two medical compendiums—the traditional or Indigenous and the biomedical—that are clearly distinct and between which the main dynamic is one of conflict and competition. One consequence of this premise is that ethnomedicine functions more as a means of understanding the culture or worldview of a given social collective than as an explanation of disease and therapeutic practices. As stated in one of the first ethnographies devoted to health and illness among the Tzotzil-speaking inhabitants of Chiapas: “Nowhere are the generalizations about Tzotzil philosophy and worldview more clearly verified than in their interpretation of health and disease” (Holland 1963, quoted in Menéndez 2023, 158). The alterity that traditional medicine helps to delineate is then uncritically aligned with the presumed, rather than proven, existence of internally uniform collectives—usually Indigenous—who are supposed to act in neatly distinct ways from non-Indigenous collectives. 

This is the conclusion of a review of the literature on this subject by a specialist with decades of experience in the field: “When [studies on TM] conclude that indigenous peoples have a concept of the unity of body and soul, while medicine is characterised by taking only the body into account, they do not observe whether this is also the case among the non-indigenous population” (Menéndez 2023, 165).[1]This is what José Luis Escalona (2016) calls “etnoargumento.” Moreover, cultural alterity is not only seen as a result of social practice but also as its motivation. 

An example of this appears in an excellent historical study of the first Centro Coordinador Indigenista, the regional headquarters of the recently created Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI, 1948), inaugurated in Chiapas to deal with the “backwardness” of the Indigenous population. The official documentation of this institution is dominated by testimonies of the complaints and frustrations of anthropologists and doctors who tried, in vain, to introduce biomedicine into the region. In their perspective, the main obstacle they faced was, indeed, the cultural alterity of the local inhabitants: “no dimension of the INI’s development program clashed more directly with the spiritual foundations of Tzeltal and Tzotzil culture [than biomedicine]” (Lewis 2018, 80). 

To open a dialogue with this Special Focus Section on the history of ethnosciences, I would like to discuss these explanatory models. To do so, I use a set of diaries and ethnographic records created during the first ethnographic field trip to the Tzotzil village of Zinacantán, Chiapas, in 1942-43, which are housed in the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collection (HHGSC) at the University of Chicago Library, in the Sol Tax Papers (STP) collection.[2]Gee (2017) has also written about this expedition in this journal; see also, Mentanko (2020).

Among the enormous amount of data gathered in that expedition, I am here concerned with the records collected on the medical practices of the inhabitants of Zinacantán, at a time before the rise of ethnomedicine in Mexico. The documentary evidence from this expedition suggests that the exercise of demarcating a different Indigenous medical corpus that would index the Indigeneity of the inhabitants results more from the anthropologists’ research practices than from the lived experience of the inhabitants of Zinacantán. This article is therefore an invitation to reflect on how the link between traditional medicine and Indigeneity has been consolidated through the scientific practices of anthropologists.[3] This commentary is part of a broader research project that draws on the anthropology of the state and the cultural history of science in a transnational dimension to analyze the spaces, materialities, contingencies, interactions, and subjectivities, experienced by anthropologists and—as far as the sources allow—Native inhabitants, when doing intensive field research in Mexico between 1940 and 1960.

Healing Espanto and Taking Aspirins

In January 1943, nine students from the National School of Anthropology of Mexico, led by the American professor Sol Tax, had already been in Zinacantán, a Tsotsil village in Los Altos de Chiapas, for a month in order to carry out one of the first ethnographic field trips for educational purposes in Mexico. Among them was the young Pedro Carrasco (1921- 2012), a Spaniard in his early twenties who had recently arrived as an exile from the war in his home country, and who would eventually become a well-known expert on the Mesoamerican world. In Zinacantán, Carrasco produced one of the first records on the theory of disease and healing techniques in the area, cataloged as “theory of disease” following George Murdoch’s guide (Murdoch 1938).[4]In 1938, G.P. Murdock, an American anthropologist, published his Outline for Cultural Materials. This book soon became a popular tool for cataloging cultural items collected during ethnographic fieldwork, using numerals and scientific categories. The data obtained through this method was later centralized into the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University, starting from the 1950s. The aim of this integration was to enable comparisons between different cultures and populations. He began with the first letter of his name to identify the author of the file, the page number, and the number attributed by Murdoch to the subject the file dealt with, before recording the description:



543 Theory of disease

When a person falls, he is frightened [espanto], but only if it was in the place of enchantment. When he falls, his soul goes out of him. He gets a fever, headache, and pain in the body. […] To cure the fright they call the [Indigenous] doctor […] bringing him a gift, mostly bread, sometimes alcohol […] The doctor finds out about the illness by feeling the pulse [pulsar]. If it turns out to be espanto, they look for two 5-cent candles, the white ones. With them, the doctor goes with other boys from the sick person’s house to the place where he was frightened to pray. […] He brings incense which he lights in front of the candles in a basket. […] He stays there for about 30 minutes. […] While he is praying, he starts to whistle with a tecomatillo [flute]. When he leaves, he hits the place where [the sick person] was frightened, calling him by his name and saying that he was frightened there, that he has to get up, and let’s go, etc. On arriving at the house, he stops whistling. […] The sick person stays in bed for three days, starting to count the day of the cure (STP, Box 101, F.4, p. 20).

The norm that anthropology had established for itself was realized in files like this one. This ethnographic record, imagined as a newly “discovered” element, was noted, filed, and cataloged as part of the results of the research—ready to be compared and ordered, following the modernizing and evolutionary paradigm that characterized the discipline at that time. This data, a fragment of lived experiences, thus transcended the chaos of everyday life to be fixed and delimited as an object from which cultural specificity could emerge. 

But alongside these “ethnographic notes,” the field diaries document less predictable information that was left out of the demarcation exercise implicit in those records. In addition to Carrasco, the expedition included Ann Chapman, a 20-year-old American student, and Miguel Acosta (1908-1989), a Venezuelan doctor in exile like Carrasco who began his studies as an anthropologist upon his arrival in Mexico in 1941. Chapman and Acosta worked in tandem throughout the expedition. Just two days after settling in Zinacantán, Chapman met Antonia, a Native woman from Zinacantán who spoke Spanish and told Chapman that her son was ill. Chapman, who had been looking for an informant, seized the opportunity, offering to visit them with her medical companion. For the next two months, Chapman and Acosta visited Antonia daily to obtain ethnographic information and help her sick son.

Little by little, word began to spread in the village, and by the end of December, the doctor-anthropologist already had two rounds of patients that he visited every day. Acosta provided them with asprin, sulfates, and quinine for malaria. He injected some of them, for example, Juana, who had a severe infection in her foot caused by a wound that had not been treated in time. Chapman, excited, speculated in her diary: “It looks like we’re going to have a hospital and that will be very good, to really help them a bit and also to learn. I see the absolute necessity of knowing something about medicine” (STP, B. 101, F 5, p. 13). 

These recurring situations in which Acosta and Chapman visited “their” sick people from house to house were, of course, opportunities they did not miss to discuss the medical knowledge, theories of illness, and healing techniques of the inhabitants of Zinacantán. Toward the end of the stay, word of the student’s medical work had spread to such an extent that every morning there were two or three patients at the boarding school where they were staying. Even the town council authorities and the religious authorities called on Dr. Acosta:

[A]fter lunch, José Pérez Hacienda [mayordomo saliente] came with a bad cold and [also] the policeman Manuel Hernández, who is now better from an infection in his legs. […] I was called by the PM [municipal president] who also has a bad cold. The síndico came too, and the president told me to come and give him an injection. […] When I finished injecting them, another sick person came, and someone gave him an aspirin [cafiaspirina] for some pain he was suffering (STP, B. 101, F. 2, p. 134).

It is clear from Acosta’s notes that the inhabitants turned both to biomedicine and to the traditional doctor to be healed. This heterodoxy of medical practices did not fail to surprise Chapman, who noted her amazement on several occasions at what was for her a contradiction, but which seemed to be experienced as relatively natural among her informants:

It should be noted here that Antonia seems to have a lot of faith in the medicines, as she followed all the prescriptions given to her by M[iguel] for Antonio. And she herself, before we came [to Zinacantán], went to Las Casas to consult Dr. Ochoa for Antonio. But in spite of this, she gives much account to superstitions as an explanation for illnesses and bad luck (STP, B 101, F. 5, p 101-2).

These testimonies show that biomedicine did not compete or conflict with local medical knowledge. The resource that biomedicine represented for the inhabitants of Zinacantán, at least during this expedition, did not fail to be used by a variety of actors differentiated in terms of gender, status and class within the locality. The evidence suggests, then, that the line dividing biomedicine from ethno-medicine was not isomorphic with that dividing Indigenous from non-Indigenous. The type of medicine used was not necessarily a social marker of Indigeneity.

However, in terms of anthropological research, the heterodoxy of the medical practices that the students witnessed was not relevant in ethnographic terms. Indeed, the data retained as ethnographic notes were those considered relevant as cultural norms to characterize a population. Studying the field diaries allows us to know that this was not the only information available. Actually, healing practices in Zinacantán seemed to be more pragmatic and flexible, even though this dimension was left out of the anthropological record and treated as simply anecdotal of the field experience. Maybe that explains why no cataloged file for “adoption of allopathic medicine” was ever produced.

Biomedicine vs. Ethnomedicine?

These field diaries document the porosity of the boundary between traditional medicine and biomedicine, a boundary whose imperiousness often forms the premise of ethnomedicine. Indeed, according to these diaries, believing in “superstitions”—as the anthropologists arrogantly called them—did not prevent people from also resorting to allopathic medicine. In fact, the patients/informants used various types of experts (the traditional doctor, the doctor-anthropologist) depending on who best solved their problem. This evidence invites us to develop more complex explanations, rather than reinforcing the presumed otherness of Indigenous peoples as an explanatory cause. If these two bodies of medical knowledge did not always seem to be in conflict, then a better explanation of the power relations and rivalry between them is needed. 

The diaries also show us the central role that anthropology played in establishing traditional medicine—and other cultural practices—as important social markers of Indigeneity, and thus in the development of ethnosciences. To be sure, anthropological research at the time was situated within a modernizing and evolutionary paradigm in which Indigenous cultural practices had to be recorded because they were inevitably disappearing due to their (supposed) anachronism. It is worth remembering, however, that anthropological research was uncovering cultural specificities precisely by depurating what anthropologists perceived as properly Indigenous practices. Not without paradox, then, the essentialized representations of Indigenous medicine and alterity produced by anthropologists continue to justify and legitimize traditional knowledge. Perhaps a better understanding of the roles these anthropologists played in producing such representations will serve to unpack the complexities they necessarily entail.

Read another piece in this series.


I am grateful for the support of the Programa de Apoyo a la Superación del Personal Académico (PASPA) from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Archival Sources

Museum of Traditional Medicine, located in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of the state of Chiapas. 

Sol Tax Papers in the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collection, Library of the University of Chicago (STP).

Works Cited

Ayora Díaz, Steffan Igor. 2000. “Imagining Authenticity in the Local Medicines of Chiapas, Mexico.” Critique of Anthropology, 20 (2): 173-190.

Escalona, José Luis. 2016. “Etnoargumento y sustancialismo en el pensamiento antropológico. Hacia una perspectiva relacional.” Revista INTERdisciplina, 4 (9): 71-92.

Gee, John. 2017. “Methodological Dissension on Sol Tax’s Training Expedition to Chiapas.” History of Anthropology Review. 12 July 2017.

Holland, William. 1963. Medicina maya en los Altos de Chiapas: un estudio del cambio sociocultural. México: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Lewis, Stephen. 2018. Rethinking Mexican Indigenismo: The INI’s Coordinating Center in Highland Chiapas and the Fate of a Utopian Project. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

Menéndez, Eduardo L. 2023. “Medicina tradicional mexicana: los objetivos y las formas de estudiarla.” Relaciones. estudios de historia y sociedad, 44 (174): 149-171. 10.24901/rehs.v44i174.943

Mentanko, Joshua. 2020. “The Gendered Story of Fieldwork and State Medicine in the Altos of Chiapas, 1940-1960.” History and Anthropology, 34 (2):215-233.

Page Pliego, Jaime. 2023. El mandato de los dioses: etnomedicina entre los tsotsiles de Chamula y Chenalhó. San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias sobre Chiapas y la Frontera Sur.

Pitarch, Pedro. 2010. The Jaguar and the Priest: Ethnography of Tzetzal Souls. Austin: Texas University Press.

Stocking, Georges (ed.). 1983. Observers Observed. Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. Madison and London: The University of Winsconsin Press, Coll. History of Anthropology, Vol. 1.


1 This is what José Luis Escalona (2016) calls “etnoargumento.”
2 Gee (2017) has also written about this expedition in this journal; see also, Mentanko (2020).
3 This commentary is part of a broader research project that draws on the anthropology of the state and the cultural history of science in a transnational dimension to analyze the spaces, materialities, contingencies, interactions, and subjectivities, experienced by anthropologists and—as far as the sources allow—Native inhabitants, when doing intensive field research in Mexico between 1940 and 1960.
4 In 1938, G.P. Murdock, an American anthropologist, published his Outline for Cultural Materials. This book soon became a popular tool for cataloging cultural items collected during ethnographic fieldwork, using numerals and scientific categories. The data obtained through this method was later centralized into the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University, starting from the 1950s. The aim of this integration was to enable comparisons between different cultures and populations.

Science and Its Others: Histories of Ethnoscience

HAR editors are pleased to bring you this Special Focus Section, guest edited by Raphael Uchôa, Staffan Müller-Wille and Harriet Mercer. The pieces in this collection will be published on a rolling basis, and the table of contents will be updated accordingly.

The Problem: Science and its Others

This Special Focus Section originated from a workshop that we—Raphael Uchôa, Staffan Müller-Wille, and Harriet Mercer—convened in September 2022 at Darwin College, University of Cambridge. Our workshop brought together a diverse group of scholars from the fields of history and philosophy of science and anthropology. It was the culmination of three years of studies conducted within the context of the “Science and its Others” working group, hosted by the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos) and the Ethno-science reading group at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. Initially, our ambition was to historicize the whole suite of ethnosciences, but it soon became apparent that ethnobotany and to some extent ethnomedicine would form a suitable focus because of their paradigmatic status (on other “ethno-sciences” not discussed in this Special Focus Section, see Alves and Ulysses 2017; D’Ambrosio 1985; Martín 2011; Stiles 1977).

The central purpose of the September 2022 gathering was to understand the emergence of a flurry of seemingly new scientific sub-disciplines in the mid-twentieth century: the “ethnosciences,” which ranged from ethno-medicine to ethno-botany, -zoology, -biology, -pharmacology, -astronomy, -psychology, -cartography, and more. We began with a fundamental, if naïve, question: under what historical and epistemological conditions did Western scientists start to rethink their attitudes to non-Western/Indigenous forms of knowledge, moving away from their derogatory notions of “savage” or “primitive” knowledge to the more equitable twentieth-century term “ethno-science”? In the course of our reading sessions, however, we began to appreciate that the ethnosciences represented another instantiation of a long tradition of defining science in relation to “other” knowledge systems.  

This realization raised a series of further questions: What forms of credit and intellectual property organized these intersections of Indigenous and scientific knowledges? What consequences, if any, did these intersections have for the demarcation of science from non-science? And what are the political consequences of these demarcations, not least for Indigenous communities themselves, and their own perspectives on Indigeneity and science?

To begin addressing these questions, it is helpful to revisit, if briefly, the history of the term “Indigenous” and its relationship to what is called “science.” Ironically, Renaissance herbalists and encyclopedists first deployed the term “indigenous” in relation to Central and Northern European floras and faunas. Herbalists and encyclopedists believed that these floras and faunas needed to be reevaluated vis-à-vis the classical heritage of Mediterranean lore and the flood of “exotic” remedies that inundated European markets as world trade expanded (Cooper 2007).

The survey practices that developed out of this increasing revaluation of local knowledge, and the appreciation of vernacular knowledge holders that accompanied it, soon spread to regions outside of Europe. In regions where powers like Spain and the Netherlands sought to exert imperial and/or colonial control, European naturalists increasingly directed other naturalists and travelers to include in their accounts the knowledge possessed by other cultures regarding natural products, their properties and uses, and their value and ontological significance (Fox 1995; Moravia 1980). Think, for example, of the twelve-volume Hortus Malabaricus edited by Dutch scholars on the Malabar coast from 1678 to 1693 (Manilal 1984).

The texts that resulted from these kinds of encounters between people were full of contradictions and ambiguities. From the seventeenth century, European naturalists began to routinely document Indigenous names and knowledge about the uses, behaviors, and life histories of plants and animals in a matter-of-fact manner. This was information that naturalists had gathered through their interactions with the very peoples they often derogatorily labeled “barbarian,” “uneducated,” “primitive,” or “savage” during field excursions and expeditions in the service of colonial expansion (Schiebinger and Swan 2005, 10–13).

These kinds of ambiguities where Indigenous knowledge was simultaneously derided and desired were deeply inscribed into Francis Bacon’s (1561–1621) utopian program of scientific investigation. On the one hand, the Baconian program emphasized the value of practitioners’ empirical knowledge, but on the other hand it called for the establishment of centralized institutions engaged in the systematization and verification of such knowledge. The real-world model of the Baconian program may have been the imperial institutions that both Portugal and Spain built in the sixteenth century to collate information from overseas and train pilodas accompanying their trade ships (Barrera Osorio 2006; Gascoigne 2009).

This ambiguous treatment of Indigenous knowledge also helps to explain why the subject of this volume, ethnoscience, turns out to be so historiographically unwieldy. Ethnobotany, as a named discipline, for example, seems to have a clear origin. In 1874, Stephen Powers (1840–1904) introduced the term “Aboriginal Botany” to describe the plant knowledge held by Indigenous tribes in California collectively referred to as “Diggers” (Park 1975). Subsequently, John William Harshberger (1869–1929), a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, defined ethnobotany as a field encompassing various subjects of study including “the cultural practices of tribes,” “historical plant distribution,” “ancient trade routes,” and “novel avenues of production” (Harshberger 1896, passim). But as a practice, ethnobotany seems to allow for an endless series of forebears and successors, sometimes traced back all the way to the ancient pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscurides (c. 40–90 AD; see, e.g., Davis 1995, 41).

Roy Ellen’s contribution to this Special Focus Section evinces that more is to be gained than a mere line of “predecessors” by turning back to the diverse array of European sources that predate the coining of such terms as “ethnobotany.” Ellen sheds light on the Dutch naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius (1627–1702), who studied the flora of Ambon, a small island south of Seram. Rumphius’ study was published posthumously in 1741 and Ellen reflects on how, centuries later, Rumphius influenced his own ethnobotanical research on the Nuaulu people of Seram Island, Indonesia (Ellen 2020).

Ellen shows that, being pre-Linnean and pre-Darwinian in approach, Rumphius’s work shared substantial commonalities with his Indigenous interlocutors. However, committing his explorations of Ambonese vegetation to written form fundamentally rendered his work commensurable with later taxonomic practices, occluding the situated and flexible character of oral traditions upon which it was based. This insight serves as a potent reminder of the foundation of plant identification and classification in “communities of practice,” which may be culturally and epistemologically distinct, but also remain open to bridging through practitioners’ willingness to engage with one another (see also Safier 2010).

Ellen’s investigation into the incorporation of oral traditions into naturalists’ writings illuminates a crucial facet of ethnoscience: the accessibility of Indigenous voices and the pervasive dynamics of erasure and transformation inherent in the compilation of natural history data. This thematic thread resonates with another significant contribution in this Special Focus. In “Traces of Polyvocal Botany,” Linda Andersson Burnett and Hanna Hodacs analyze the Linnaean context, focusing specifically on Lars Montin’s interactions with the Sami community in the 18th century. Their study delves into how Sami perspectives were interwoven into scholarly discourse, uncovering the disparities between Sami botanical terminology and their nuanced understanding of plants, often oversimplified in standardized botanical records like flora catalogs. Similarly, Sabina Leonelli’s paper, “Globalizing Plant Knowledge Beyond Bioprospecting?,” explores parallel inquiries within the digital realm, but with a contemporary lens on Africa. Here, she delves into the concept of ethno-data as a manifestation of ethnoscience, scrutinizing how the digitization of Indigenous knowledge perpetuates colonial legacies. Leonelli’s examination, particularly focused on the cassava research framework in Ghana, reveals how this digitization mobilizes Indigenous knowledge without adequate recognition or reciprocity for its creators, thereby perpetuating historical injustices.

The term ethnoscience itself points to yet another, epistemological rather than moral ambiguity: for practitioners, ethnoscience might be understood to designate either a science that an Indigenous group possesses, or a science that investigates Indigenous knowledge and suitably translates it into its own terms. In other words, the ethno- component might alternatively be understood as the agential subject or passive object of the ethnosciences. If we take the example of ethnobotany, we see that for some of its practitioners, ethnobotany is Indigenous peoples’ plant science, while for others ethnobotany results from extracting and translating Indigenous peoples’ knowledge into Western scientific terms.

According to anthropologist Richard I. Ford, the field has undergone a clear evolution in this respect ever since Harshberger coined its name in the 1890s, from “the study of uses of scientifically identified environmental data” to a focus on “the native’s point of view” (Ford 1978, 39). But as we will see in the following, the two perspectives—the emic and the etic, as one might also say—always remain inextricably entwined because understanding another point of view always presupposes some form of translation, while translation always hinges on understanding different points of view (Fleck 1986).

Ambiguities multiply when we turn to the changing ways that both ethnoscientists and philosophers of science have reflected on the relationship of ethnoscience and science tout court. On the face of it, practitioners of the ethnosciences simply apply science, in its latest incarnations, in their repeated efforts to register and translate what others know about a given subject. But in its disciplinary beginnings, ethnoscience was driven by a more fundamental and ambitious desire. Shaped to some extent by the research of Harold Conklin (1926–2016) on color categories among the Hanunóo, and disseminated through his fellow graduate student at Yale, ethnologist William C. Sturtevant (1926–2007), it was defined as a distinct form of ethnography centered on Indigenous classifications.

For its mid-century practitioners, Sturtevant claimed, ethnoscience aligned with earlier anthropological aspirations to “grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world” (Sturtevant 1964, 100). Continuing in the footsteps of this established tradition—which he traced back to some influential works by Franz Boas (1858–1942) (Boas 1911), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) (Durkheim and Mauss 1903), as well as Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942) (Malinowski 1922)—ethnoscientists further developed this emphasis on the “native’s point of view” by expanding the focus of their discipline to encompass both linguistic and cognitive dimensions of knowledge, all while upholding the rigorous standards of scientific inquiry: in Sturtevant’s words, making “cultural descriptions replicable and accurate” by reducing “significant attributes of … local classifications into [the] culture-free terms” of science (Sturtevant 1964, 101-103).

Ethnoscientists like Sturtevant—who was the son of the geneticist Alfred Henry Sturtevant (1891–1970)—may have believed that this mentalistic approach helped them to avoid the discriminatory methods and ideas associated with racist traditions in anthropology and the human sciences more broadly, and instead ensured a more balanced and ethically sound approach to studying cultural phenomena. Powers, in his 1873 “Aboriginal Botany,” had still categorically claimed: “Among savages, of course, there is no systematic classification of botanical knowledge” (Powers 1874, 373). It is certainly no coincidence that, in contrast to this sort of claim, the turn towards classification as a central concern of the discipline coincided with the general reorientation of the human and the life sciences following WWII, and that some of its practitioners spoke of a “new synthesis” in analogy to the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology (Ford 1978; Davis 1991).

Physical anthropologists, but above all population geneticists associated with the modern synthesis like Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975), had maneuvered very carefully in the early 1950s to dissociate their disciplines from a racist past while at the same time saving the legitimacy of studies of human racial and genetic diversity in the UNESCO Statement on Race (Brattain 2007). Moreover, promoters of the scientific anti-racism that found very public expression in the Statement remained wedded to imaginaries of development and modernization that implicitly reinstated old racial hierarchies (Gil-Riaño 2018). Sturtevant reveals the same attitude when, at the end of his article, he emphasized “the relevance of ethnoscience to the study of culture change” (Sturtevant 1964, 123).

The hierarchical understanding of science as a reservoir of “culture-free” terms that provides access to Indigenous knowledge systems while at the same time offering a superior view from “above” has of course not gone unchallenged. Since the 1970s, historical and social studies of science have increasingly revealed that “Western” or “modern” science is simply one of innumerable ways of knowing—or, put another way by Sandra Harding, European science is just another “ethnoscience” (Harding 1997; cf. Latour 1987). While certainly deflating claims to superiority, this stance poses intricate epistemological, ontological and ethical challenges to the prospect of integrating heterogeneous knowledges through collaboration (Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).

An often-overlooked alternative to this prominent stance—and one that is especially alive within the discipline of ethnoscience itself—is grounded in the foundational work of Brent Berlin (1973). Followers of Berlin place the emphasis not on differences amongst knowledge systems, but focus instead on abstract continuities, identifying cognitive structures that run across both “modern” science and traditional knowledges around the world (Atran 1991). This position, with its explicit universalism, faces its own challenge: the universal categories it produces and employs can turn into an abstract grid that again is “etic” in nature and ignores the diversity of contexts in which knowledge is produced (Ellen 1986).

Halfway between these two poles of particularism and universalism, we find Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908–2009) enigmatic proposal of a “science of the concrete” as a mode of knowing persisting alongside modern science and its abstractions (Lévi-Strauss 1962). His proposal gains perspicuity once one realizes that the French anthropologist himself engaged in ethnobotany in the mid-twentieth century (Lévi-Strauss 1952). That Lévi-Strauss was both involved in ethnobotany and in developing the concept of a “science of the concrete” is indicative of the way ethnoscience has been used to define science in relation to “other” knowledge systems.

All these emphases on ideational and cognitive dimensions, contrasting with material and embodied viewpoints, drew early criticism from materialist anthropologists, including followers of Marvin Harris (1927–2001), who deemed ethnosciences excessively mentalistic (Harris 1968). In the 1990s, the ontological turn revitalized this debate, particularly in consolidating the study of non-Western ontologies, characterized by their underlying logical relations and cosmological assumptions (Viveiros de Castro 1992; Kohn 2015; Ellen 2016; Holbraad and Pedersen 2017).

One of the most transformative outcomes of the ontological turn was the realization that modern science is steeped in deeper theological and metaphysical roots than many practitioners have been willing to concede. The ontological turn showed that these foundations fostered a commitment within the natural sciences to notions of the universality of human nature and to dichotomies between nature and culture, and body and mind. Moreover, the ontological turn has engendered productive dialogues, often adopting the form of metalogues, seeking to explore the potential (in-)commensurabilities between diverse systems of thought (Lloyd and Vilaça 2020; Lloyd and Vilaça 2023).

These dialogues serve as exemplars for this Special Focus Section, chiefly because they accentuate the inherently open-ended nature of the issues under consideration, thereby encouraging an ongoing and exploratory approach. They indicate that the conflation of subject and object in the term “ethnoscience” outlined above is not just a sign of confusion. It is constitutive of the discipline and makes it a privileged site for investigating the relationship between “Science and Its Others.”

Ethnoscience’s tendency to conflate subject and object is also illustrated by the case study presented by Raphael Uchôa and Silvia Waisse in this Special Focus Section. They cast a spotlight upon the often-overlooked contributions of James Mooney (1861–1921), a figure of considerable significance in the history of North American ethnoscience. By unraveling the layers of Mooney’s involvement with the Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891), the authors unveil the profound potential that these formulas had as pivotal historical sources compiled by one of Mooney’s informants, “Swimmer.” Although we know little about this person, it is obvious that “Swimmer” saw value in committing traditional Cherokee knowledge into a now lost manuscript reminiscent of the “formularies” of the ancient Mediterranean.

Alongside Mooney, Uchôa and Waisse engage with the perspectives of other interpreters, including Boas and Frans M. Olbrechts (1899–1858), and analyze them through the three pivotal spheres of analysis conceptualized by the Brazilian historian of chemistry Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb (2008): historiography, context, and concepts. This approach, the authors propose, can be applied beyond their immediate focus to form a versatile framework that can be effectively wielded to decipher a broader array of historical ethnoscience documentation and acts of interpretation.

The acts of interpreting and translating other knowledges that Uchôa and Waisse investigate in this way can serve as a reminder that, as a set of sub-disciplines, the ethnosciences are rooted in Western conceptual frameworks which place value on precision and accuracy. The significance of accuracy for Western science, as historian Michael Bravo has stressed (1996), cannot be understated as it underpins the Western assertion of scientific hegemony. Much like a protective barrier, it establishes a perimeter within which the criteria for evaluating other knowledge systems are defined.

Therefore, Harding’s proposal to address modern science as just another “ethnoscience” risks inadvertently obscuring the reality that the very notion of “ethnoscience” is intrinsically tied to Western ideologies relating science to other knowledges, as outlined above. Strictly speaking, there is no “ethnoscience” outside of “science” proper, however it may be understood. To overlook this relationship between ethnoscience and Western conceptual frameworks can in turn lead researchers to miss or understate the range of uneven power dynamics that have characterized the ethnosciences and continue to do so to this day.

Indeed, ethnoscience as a conceptual construct emerged from academic disciplines such as economic botany, which was developed by imperial and colonial powers like Britain, France and Spain and was used by agents of empire to try to extract commodifiable knowledge, annex territory, and at times assimilate Indigenous knowledge and practices. Typically, though not universally, as the case of Mooney shows, nineteenth-century economic botanists expended considerable energy trying to disentangle “useful knowledge”—largely, the names for plants and knowledge of the specific uses they were put to—from what they perceived as a thicket of superstitions, false beliefs and detrimental customs (see, e.g., Brown 1868, 390–396).

Twentieth-century ethnobotanists generally looked at Indigenous knowledge systems more respectfully and considered them in their own right, but the sequential application of the latest scientific approaches throughout the history of ethnosciences—in the case of ethnobotany: Linnaean botany, biochemistry, ecology and eventually molecular biology—demonstrates a dynamic that remains at least partially driven from within the sciences. With its conflation of subject and object, “ethno-science” will always include an intrinsically etic component, which is precisely why it proves to be such a dynamic and diverse field of inquiry (Ellen 2004).

These reflections speak to the inadequacies of simple dichotomies, including of trying to categorize ethnoscience as either a friend or foe of Indigenous knowledge systems. One stance, for instance, involves the recognition that colonial and extractive practices are upheld and perpetuated by the prevailing logics of “Western science” and patent laws that exploit Indigenous peoples’ rights to their knowledge and lands (Hayden 2003; Osseo-Asare 2008; Hardison and Bannister 2011; Pollock 2014).

On the other hand, ethnoscientists played a key role in the mobilization and establishment of legal codes that have erected frameworks for protecting Indigenous knowledge from outright exploitation. Delving into the latter aspect, Graham Dutifield examines in this Special Focus Section the pivotal role of the ethnobiologist Darrell A. Posey (1947–2001) and the “Declaration of Belém”, a document that emerged from the inaugural congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology in 1988. The Declaration compellingly accentuated the importance of recognizing Native communities as stewards of 99% of the world’s genetic resources, underscoring the inseparable nexus not only between cultural and biological diversity, but also between knowledge rights and land rights.

Indeed, the interconnection of cultural and biological diversity stands out as a prominent and recurring motif within the ethnosciences narratives throughout the decades following World War II. Edvard Hviding (2003) highlights how, since the late 1950s, numerous sub-branches of anthropological investigation have emerged under the prefix “ethno-,” loosely connected by their cognitive approaches to “the native’s point of view”. This is not surprising. As discussed above, the ethnosciences consolidated their disciplinary identity in the mid-twentieth century, when colonial dominion was being challenged by new registers of national independence, development policies and autarchy. The emergence of the ethnosciences mirrors a broader paradigmatic shift in the natural sciences and international politics, accompanied by a growing global awareness and calls for the incorporation of “traditional” knowledge, previously considered “savage,” into political and scientific discourses concerning environmental issues, health policies, and related fields (Tilley 2021; Métailié 2015).

This thematic nexus between nationalism, post-colonialism, and the ethnosciences emerges as a key theme in this Special Focus Section, especially in the essays by Abigail Nieves Delgado, Daniela Sclavo and Paula López Caballero working on the Mexican context. Nieves Delgado dissects the concept of “mega-diversity,” deeply ingrained within nationalist identity discourses in Mexico, but also carrying the risk of essentializing ethnic difference. Sclavo, on the other hand, turns to the conjunction of ethnobotany and the patriotic revaluation of traditional agricultural systems in Mexico in the 1970s to counter the excesses of the Green Revolution. As Sclavo also shows, the campesino who emerged as a figure of hope and as a bearer of traditional knowledge occluded female knowledge from the sight of ethnobotanists.

Finally, Paula López Caballero takes us back to a time when the categories and frontiers introduced by the “ethno-” perspective were not yet fixed, by reviewing a set of field diaries produced during ethnographic fieldwork in the village of Zinacantán, Chiapas, in 1942-43. Her analysis of these sources brings out how anthropologists constructed “traditional” medical practices associated with a particular ethnic group, while their Indigenous informants took advantage of access to biomedical therapies from the two-month expedition. These exchanges resulted in hybrid medical practices that were excluded from the reports on the expedition in favor of establishing traditional medical practices as a “social marker of Indigeneity.”

Latin America has long been acknowledged as playing a crucial role in the transformation of the ethnosciences (Ford 1978), but the specificities brought out in the Mexican context by two contributions to this Special Focus Section suggest a cautious revaluation. Though not explicitly dealing with the ethnosciences, recent contributions to the “global” history of science and medicine cast interesting light on the role that Indigenous knowledge has played in the formulation of ethnic, national and transnational traditions of science and medicine (see, for example, Leong et al. 2021). Thus, the development of ethnoscience in Brazil and Mexico—where disparate traditions unfolded concerning the interplay between modern science and Indigenous knowledge systems—challenges the notion of a homogenized “Latin America.”

The diversity in ethnoscientific traditions is equally manifest in the European context (Svanberg et al. 2011), and has endured from much earlier times, as exemplified by the Portuguese and Dutch cases analyzed in this Special Focus Section by Ferraz and Alfonso-Goldfarb. While there was a dearth of references to Brazilian native plants in Portuguese medical writings during colonial times, including those of significant figures like the Jesuit José de Anchieta (1534–1597), Dutch sources from the short-lived seventeenth-century colony in Surinam provide a valuable perspective on Indigenous practices, accentuating the significance of medicinal plants. Intriguingly, Ferraz and Alfonso-Goldfarb’s piece also shows that appropriation of Indigenous knowledge was not a conditio sine qua non of colonialism—at least not in the form of published, formalized, “scientific” knowledge.

To date there are no sustained histories of the mid-twentieth century emergence of the ethnosciences. To be sure, the exchange of knowledge between diverse peoples has been a topic of increasing study by scholars of global history and especially global histories of science. These histories show that Western efforts to collect, curate, and convey Indigenous knowledge is not a mid-twentieth century phenomenon born with the disciplinary emergence of the ethnosciences. Instead, they demonstrate that articulations of “scientific” with “other” knowledge systems have a long history going back (at least) to early modern European state formation and colonial expansion. (Fox 1995; Moravia 1980).

But these global histories have not yet connected these earlier epistemological encounters between peoples to the mid-twentieth century efforts of (mostly) Western scientists to turn the study of Indigenous knowledge into a formalized series of disciplinary sub-fields. So far, it is the practitioners of ethno-science who have tended to give the formation of their discipline more sustained attention. Professionals in the fields of ethnobotany and ethnobiology have reflected upon its societal significance, from Richard E. Schultes’ influential edited volume, Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline (1995), to recent calls for decolonizing the field of ethnobiology (McAlvay et al. 2021).

In this context, a few scholars, largely from within the discipline, have also dedicated efforts to mapping the contributions of various authors throughout the history of ethnobotany and ethnobiology (Murray 1982; Clément 1998; Hunn 2007; Wyndham et al. 2011; D’Ambrosio 2014). Yet, whereas global histories of encounter tend to lose sight of twentieth century disciplinary developments, these practitioner-based accounts of ethnoscience have overlooked the larger context and deeper origins of their sub-fields.

Accordingly, the primary objective of this HAR Special Focus Section is to present a series of propositions, methodological challenges, and conceptual problems that reveal the rich potential that a historiography of the ethnosciences—conceptualized as “Science and Its Others”—possesses for the history and epistemology of anthropology and its complicated relationship with the sciences. Each unique context presents a plethora of historical sources and gives rise to epistemological challenges tied to the (in)commensurability of knowledge systems and classifications. Numerous issues, geographies, and institutional and political contexts remain unexplored. The essays presented in this series serve as an initial endeavor to engage researchers from the history and philosophy of science, science and technology studies, anthropology, as well as ethnobotany and the ethnosciences more generally, in explorations of this vital theme.

Read another piece in this series.

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Richard Thurnwald’s Position in the Nazi Period: Some Methodological Considerations in the History of Anthropology

At the much-noticed symposium on the Austro-German anthropologist Richard Thurnwald in Paris in July 2021, Thurnwald’s biographer Marion Melk-Koch (born 1954) presented him as an opponent of National Socialism in her keynote speech. This led to heated discussions, but also irritation, in the auditorium.[1] As far as the Nazi era is concerned, Melk-Koch’s presentation essentially followed her 1989 biography, based on her dissertation.[2] Although groundbreaking for Thurnwald research, the book was heavily criticized for its portrayal of Thurnwald during the Nazi era; one reviewer even accused the author of “lying about history and life” (Geschichts- und Lebenslüge).[3]

This article is about historical source criticism. The example of Thurnwald will be used to show why historical source criticism is methodologically necessary to dispel (self-serving) myths that persist in our discipline, especially when it comes to the infamous Nazi period. The work follows in the theoretical tradition of George W. Stocking, who explicitly prioritizes biographical, institutional, and historical contextualization over “presentist” concerns.[4] In the following, I will demonstrate on the basis of historical source criticism how the use of sources concerning Thurnwald during the Nazi era can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Born in Vienna, Richard Thurnwald (1868–1954) is considered one of the most influential anthropologists in the German-speaking world. He founded ethnosociology and was a representative of functionalism with a focus on social change. From 1931 to 1936, he taught in the United States and lectured at Harvard, Yale, and the University of California. In 1935, he was appointed honorary professor at the University of Berlin. However, his application to establish an institute was rejected because he then had already exceeded the age limit of 65. When the University of Berlin was reopened after the war in 1946, Thurnwald was appointed Professor of Ethnology and Sociology. Thurnwald was classified by the US occupation authorities as an opponent of the Nazis, who had supposedly never been active in colonial politics.

This image persisted for decades, not only in German-speaking countries, as the following three examples show. Writing from UC Berkeley in 1968, the social anthropologist Wolfram Eberhard (1909–1989) made the following claims about Thurnwald for an influential social science encyclopedia:

Thurnwald was the first German sociologist and one of the first in Europe to make special studies of processes of acculturation and adjustment in Africa. These studies, which he made with his wife, Hilde Thurnwald, avoided the ‘colonial ethnological’ approach that influenced British anthropological thinking for some time.[5]

Much more recently, the editors Alan Barnard (1949–2022) and Jonathan Spencer (born 1954) said about Thurnwald in 2010:

Although he was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis, he returned to Germany from the United States in 1936 […][6]

And finally, Viktor Stoll stated about Thurnwald in 2020:

Although Thurnwald did not openly break with Mühlmann during the war years […] the relationship between student and teacher degenerated rapidly as Mühlmann’s Nazi sympathies increased. The situation became so difficult that Mühlmann eventually ‘denounced’ Thurnwald to the government, forcing the aged ethnologist to flee from Berlin to Holstein in late 1943 for his family’s safety.[7]

In sum, from these three claims one would be tempted to derive the following picture of Thurnwald’s activities during the Nazi era: Firstly, Thurnwald allegedly did not pursue a colonial-ethnological approach (1968); secondly, Thurnwald was supposedly an explicit opponent of Nazism while living in the USA (2010); and thirdly, Thurnwald was putatively even a victim of the Nazi regime (2020). The three articles referenced here thus have one main element in common: they contain false statements. This becomes clear when one looks at the sources on which these statements are based: the authors have consistently used sources that either date from the post-war period or were not related to the Nazi era. This is a methodological failure based on a “presentist” approach which, in Thurnwald’s case, leads to completely erroneous conclusions.

In the following, I would like to show how these errors arose. Let us begin with Eberhard’s statement that Thurnwald did not use a colonial political approach. From the context of his lexical contribution, it is clear that the author is referring to Thurnwald’s book Black and White in East Africa, published in 1935, which is the result of Hilde (1890–1979) and Richard Thurnwald’s joint field research in East Africa in 1930.[8] From today’s perspective, the book is written in a surprisingly modern way and does not in fact contain any explicit colonial political agenda.[9] However, Eberhard’s concluding sentence gives the impression that Thurnwald kept his distance from colonial issues altogether. This, however, is wrong. What Eberhard completely fails to mention is his academic teacher’s involvement in colonial politics during the Nazi era.

In October 1938, Thurnwald took part in the so-called Volta Conference in Rome. The week-long conference was dedicated to Africa and was organized by the Fondazione Alessandro Volta of the Italian Academy of Sciences and by leading African and colonial scholars (some of them involved in politics and business) from fourteen European countries. With this conference, a few days after the Munich Agreement, Fascist Italy pursued the recognition of Italian conquests in Africa and the claim towards a leading role in colonial policy among the European powers.[10] It was hardly mandatory for participants to take active positions on colonial policy, as the lectures by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) and Father Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) indicate. Thurnwald, on the other hand, presented his colonial policy approach based on racial biology in the final discussion:

The separation of the races [is] an imperative that benefits white and black alike. […] By advocating against mixing and for the separation of the races, we are demonstrating our love both for the African and for ourselves, whatever European nation we belong to.[11]

The Swedish conference president Gerhard Lindblom (1887–1969), who, like Thurnwald, had conducted his ethnographic field research in British East Africa, reaffirmed Thurnwald’s colonial policy plea in his closing remarks.[12] In light of the fact that this leading anthropologist from Nazi Germany publicly argued “against mixing and for the separation of the races” at a conference in Mussolini’s Italy in 1938, post-war statements acquitting him from having pursued any active engagement for colonialism are profoundly inadequate.

In the summer of 1939, Thurnwald published a book of almost five hundred pages entitled Koloniale Gestaltung (Colonial Design), in which he made it clear that Germany had “found itself again under National Socialist leadership.”[13] This would become Thurnwald’s main colonial work, receiving numerous laudatory reviews at the time from a wide range of disciplines in Nazi Germany. The most detailed review was written by Rudolf Karlowa (1876–1945), a former governor of German New Guinea who knew Thurnwald personally. Karlowa recommended Thurnwald’s book because of its National Socialist orientation. In contrast to the mistaken methods of Western democracies, he argued, Thurnwald delineated the principles of colonial organization that “must be striven for in the National Socialist development of the colonies.”[14] Conversely, Thurnwald also recommended Karlowa’s colonial works such as the 1939 book Deutsche Kolonialpolitik (German colonial policy), in which Karlowa argued for the “unconditional prohibition of marriages between people of white and colored race,” which also included the “prohibition of extramarital sexual intercourse between them.”[15] In his review in March 1940, Thurnwald emphasized that Karlowa had laid the foundation for “a new system of colonial policy in line with National Socialist doctrine” with this book.[16] It is well known that by contrast to his pre-1945 positions, Thurnwald then strictly avoided the colonial topic after 1945. In fact, it is this post-war legend that has shaped Thurnwald’s enduring image to this day.[17]

The second misconception — that Thurnwald was an opponent of the Nazis before his return to Berlin in 1936 — presents more of a challenge for source criticism. This is because Thurnwald’s correspondence in the American context proves that he was indeed in close correspondence on friendly terms with Franz Boas (1858–1942), Edward Sapir (1884–1939), and Robert H. Lowie (1883–1957). Thurnwald was teaching at Yale University when the Nazis took power in Germany. As is well known, Boas wrote a letter of protest to Reich President Paul von Hindenburg at the end of March 1933.[18] Thurnwald reacted by telling Boas in a supportive way that he also rejected Nazism.[19] In April 1936, he explained to Lowie that he had difficulties returning to Berlin for this same reason (Fig. 1a):

At the very same time, however, he also asked the administration of the University of Berlin to set up a separate institute for him. From New Haven, he turned to Eugen Fischer (1874–1967), the leading Nazi anthropologist, writing to him on February 9, 1936:

In the meantime, the colonial idea has been officially recognized.


I don’t need to say a word about my political views, which you have known for years.[21]

Three months later and still from the USA, Thurnwald wrote to the dean of the University of Berlin (Fig. 1b):

As I have already said, I would like to put [my] experiences, especially those of the last five years, which have not cost the German fatherland a penny, at the service of the National Socialist state.[22]

In order to increase his credibility with the dean, he fell into a racist line of argument borrowed from Nazi jargon:

I fought in the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie and in Sociologus against thoroughly contaminated marxistic-talmudistic sociology as it was represented by a group of especially Frankfurter Jews in Germany that also held others under their spell. At that time, I presented an alternative American non-Jewish dominated sociology whose research was more realistic and based on facts than was the Jewified (verjudet) German sociology.[23]

Thurnwald wrote these confessions of allegiance to National Socialism from New Haven, even using the same typewriter which he had previously used for his letters to Boas and Lowie.[24] George Steinmetz (born 1957), who first examined this contradictory evidence, has assessed Thurnwald as a “highly adaptive” personality and ascribed him a “split habitus” in Bourdieu’s sense, the profile “of a man without fixed qualities.”[25] Thurnwald also enclosed a draft with his application, from which it emerged that the planned institute was to be devoted primarily to future colonial policy. Thurnwald called for the preparation of “closed settlement areas” for whites in the highlands of the former German colony of East Africa. In order to gain plantation land for European settlers, natives were to be resettled in the lowlands. He argued:

The natives don’t mind such climate change as much as the Europeans.[26]

This type of reservation-based policy would, naturally, have to be based on strict racial segregation. Thurnwald further developed this vision after his return to Berlin, but he had already elaborated its basic draft while in the USA. From New Haven, he also submitted a prospectus for five courses for the 1936 winter semester at the University of Berlin, including two on colonial policy.[27] It is true that Thurnwald was not a member of the Nazi party (NSDAP).[28] This made it somewhat easier for him to reconnect in the post-war period with his previous networks in the USA. In turn, this also helped him to found the Institute for Ethnology and Sociology at the Free University of Berlin.

Figure 1a (above), 1b (below). On the same day, April 22, 1936, Thurnwald sent two letters from Yale University: To Lowie, he presented himself as an opponent of the Nazis who did not want to return to Berlin. To the authority of the University of Berlin, on the other hand, he described himself as a convinced National Socialist and applied for an institute for “Völkerforschung.” © University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Robert Harry Lowie Papers © Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, University Archive

In preparation for our extensive co-edited work Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (Ethnology during the Nazi era from Vienna, 2021), an important methodological insight became apparent: documents from private archives convey correspondence and network communications that may be much more authentically sincere than archives held by the authorities. During the National Socialist era, people spoke much more openly in private letters about topics not to be addressed in front of the authorities.[29] As convincing as this finding may be, however, there are exceptions. As far as Thurnwald is concerned, his private correspondence with Robert H. Lowie is a very revealing channel of communication. Thurnwald’s letters initially convey the impression that he entrusted Lowie with matters that would and should not have been accessible for the Nazi authorities because of the likelihood of reprisals. Thurnwald wrote the most revealing (and previously unpublished) letter at the beginning of September 1939 from the high Grisons in Switzerland, after he had given a lecture at the Eranos conference in Ascona.[30] His report from neutral Switzerland to the USA begins with the following words:

It was impossible to write from Germany anything which could offend an official of the Gestapo. All the letters pass the secret examination of the police. It has become still worse now.[31]

Although the argument sounds very plausible at first glance, on closer inspection it is wrong, as letters from Nazi Germany to the USA were only systematically censored after the US had entered the war at the end of 1941. Thurnwald would therefore not have had to break off his correspondence with Lowie after his return to Berlin. The letter goes into great detail about the tense political situation in Nazi Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War. It describes the Nazi regime as a “reign of terror” (Schreckensherrschaft), and explicitly rejects Adolf Hitler’s warmongering with pointed attributions:

At the moment, a crisis seems to have reached a peak. One can only wish that the whole witchcraft game of the Austrian shaman is finally coming to an end. I believe that at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the German population, if not more, would welcome the end of the reign of terror. For now, this reign of terror will be intensified and the rest of the intoxicated, the ‘drunk and possessed’, will hopefully be sobered up over time. I just fear that the awakening will be bloody.[32]

It may well be that this social analysis authentically reflects Thurnwald’s world of thought. However, it contradicts the factual level of his actions. As shown above, Thurnwald had published the book Koloniale Gestaltung just a few weeks earlier, which identifies him as an explicit supporter of the Nazis. Thurnwald thus conveyed to Lowie a political description of the situation that corresponded less to his own convictions than to the approval of his addressee. Robert H. Lowie was the son of Jewish Hungarian parents, and he had spent the first ten years of his life in Vienna.[33]

On the factual level of actual decisions and practices, it cannot be denied that as of 1936 Thurnwald decided to return to Berlin and explicitly shared the racist colonial policy of the Nazi regime in his publications. What he told his colleagues about this is therefore of secondary importance for the interpretation, and perhaps constitutes an effort to confidentially explain and justify these decisions after the actual fact. Thurnwald’s level of practical action cannot be discussed away, let alone be relativized, even if the content of his private correspondence presents apparent deviations. The statement published in one of anthropology’s most widely used reference books that Thurnwald “was an outspoken opponent to the Nazis” therefore should be discarded due to its flagrant misrepresentation of the available evidence.[34]

The third set of inadequate statements addressed at the beginning of this text concerns Thurnwald’s disciple Wilhelm E. Mühlmann (1904–1988), who had been a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA) since 1935 and was therefore banned from teaching at the University of Berlin in 1945. It has been repeatedly claimed, including in an entry (2020) to the Bérose encyclopedia, that Mühlmann denounced Thurnwald, which is why the latter had to flee from Berlin to Holstein in 1943. This picture is historically incorrect and only dates from the post-war period, as will be shown below.

First of all, there was indeed a dispute between Thurnwald and Mühlmann. However, it was not about differing views on National Socialism, but about an editorial dispute in the journal Archiv für Anthropologie, which ignited in March 1942 over a review of Mühlmann’s book Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace).[35] Thurnwald and Mühlmann were co-editors of this journal and Mühlmann accused Thurnwald of having published the review without his consent, which Thurnwald denied. The dispute escalated and in October 1942 Thurnwald and Mühlmann parted ways, leading to the closure of the oldest journal of anthropology in the German-speaking world.[36]

This break between Thurnwald and Mühlmann is documented in several letters. For example, Thurnwald wrote to the Austrian ethnologist Dominik J. Wölfel (1888–1963) in Vienna at the end of 1942:

For clarification, I would just like to inform you that all relations between me and Mühlmann have been broken off for good. The reasons lie in Mühlmann’s behavior and in his conduct towards me, namely in letters he sent to others.[37]

This dispute was about personal insults, not National Socialist statements pro or contra. The reason why Thurnwald left Berlin and moved to eastern Holstein was also different, and had nothing to do with his alleged persecution. The 74-year-old Thurnwald had contracted an inflammation of the hip joint – so he could hardly walk and had to use sticks.

Thurnwald took a leave of absence from the university in October 1943 and hoped to cure his leg/hip ailment in a secluded lake district near Lübeck. He suffered from this illness until the end of his life, as photos from the post-war period prove.[38] On October 25, 1943, he wrote to the dean of the university from Holstein (Fig. 2):

I have been taking a cure for my leg ailment here for some time, […] But I was strongly advised not to stop the cure yet and to continue for at least another four weeks. So I hope to be able to return to Berlin by beginning of December and take up my lectures.[39]

However, this did not happen. Thurnwald extended his leave because he preferred to devote himself in seclusion to the (never-published) colonial treatise upon which he was working at the time.[40] From the point of view of source criticism, it is evident that political reasons, such as persecution, played no role in this decision.

Figure 2. In the Nazi context, Thurnwald explained to the Berlin university authorities that he had moved to Holstein because of his leg ailment, but would resume his lectures in December 1943. © Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, University Archive

After the end of the war, Thurnwald, like all professors at the University of Berlin, had to answer for his activities under National Socialism. In the questionnaire used to determine his political affiliation, Thurnwald stated that he was “against National Socialism.” In July 1945, he wrote to the university management:

I had broken with Dr. habil Mühlmann when he expressed a strong National Socialist attitude […][41]

In the following months, he increasingly embellished this statement. This is particularly evident in his letters to Robert H. Lowie with whom, significantly, he had entertained no correspondence during the war even when it would have been possible (i.e. until the Pearl Harbor attacks). In October 1946 he wrote to him:

But do not think I have abandoned anthropology. I have worked much in this direction, particularly while we lived in Holstein from 1943 to end of 1944. We went there, so to speak, in flight from the Nazis, and on account of M. E. Mühlmann’s intrigues.[42]

Another letter to Lowie sent a few months later reads (Fig. 3b):

Thus I had to leave Berlin in 1943, in order to escape concentration camp.[43]

This justification sounds downright ridiculous, as it completely distorted historical events. It served solely to present himself to his US colleagues as a political opponent of the Nazis. He also wrote letters with similar content to the director of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London (Fig. 3a):

I succeeded however to escape the concentration camp.[44]

I have chosen to dwell on Thurnwald’s letters to Lowie not least because they have served as a primary source for the Bérose article from 2020. The author assesses the historical reality of the Nazi era based on post-war archival sources. As we have seen, this is methodologically completely inadmissible – especially as Thurnwald’s case involves a dramatic political transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic system after 1945.

Figure 3a (above), 3b (below). In the context of the post-war period, however, Thurnwald wrote to his colleagues that he had to flee from Berlin to Holstein in October 1943 as an opponent of the Nazis in order to escape the concentration camp. © Archive Royal Anthropological Institute; © University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Robert Harry Lowie Papers

The image of Thurnwald as an opponent of National Socialism has persisted for many decades up to the present day. It was nurtured by “presentist” sources, which may be highly problematic for assessing the Nazi era. The decisive factor was Thurnwald’s successful self-portrayal, which manifested itself in his international correspondence in the post-war period. For this reason, a number of leading representatives of anthropology were prepared to see Thurnwald as an undisputed authority who was well-connected academically in the US and was not suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis. Finally, the role of his wife Hilde Thurnwald should not be overlooked. She was instrumental in polishing up Thurnwald’s image. In 1950 she organized a festschrift for Thurnwald that included contributions from representatives of US anthropology such as Robert H. Lowie, Alfred L. Kroeber (1876–1960), and Laura M. Thompson (1905–2000).[45] This proves that Thurnwald’s post-war image “improvement” was quite successfully received during his lifetime. In the 1970s, Hilde Thurnwald also set up a foundation to promote Thurnwald’s work. The Thurnwald biography by Melk-Koch was in fact supported by the Hilde Thurnwald Foundation, which from the outset gave the entire book project the stale aftertaste of a commissioned work in the interests of the person being profiled.[46] From the late 1970s, however, counter-narratives based on historical source criticism also emerged which made clear that Thurnwald’s image as a non-colonial anthropologist and opponent of Nazism was not quite as coherent as Richard and Hilde Thurnwald had sought to suggest.[47]

[1] This study was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (P 33427-G). I would like to thank Andre Gingrich for his helpful suggestions and critical comments, Mehmet Emir for the photographic design (both: Austrian Academy of Sciences) and David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute London) for providing archival material. This is an extended version of my presentation of December 6, 2023 at the First International Conference on the History of Anthropology, “Doing Histories, Imagining Futures,” Panel 1 at the University of Pisa (Italy), see All translations are by the author unless otherwise noted.

[2] Marion Melk-Koch, “Encounters with Richard and Hilde Thurnwald” (July 8, 2021, keynote). This controversial aspect is not considered in the conference report: see Laurant Dedryvère and Christine Trautmann-Waller, “Unsichere Felder. Hilde and Richard Thurnwald’s ethnological research,” cultura & psyché – Journal of Cultural Psychology 3 (2022), 1–10.

[3] Wolfgang Müller-Limberg, “[Review:] Marion Melk-Koch, Auf der Suche nach der menschlichen Gesellschaft: Richard Thurnwald (1989),” Anthropos 87 (1992): 290–292, here 292. At the colloquium “Ethnologie und Nationalsozialismus” (Ethnology and National Socialism) at the University of Cologne in November 1990, many were also unconvinced by Melk-Koch’s lecture on Thurnwald. This shows that the controversy is not new and that Melk-Koch’s “objectivity” on this point was already being questioned more than thirty years ago; see Lothar Pützstück and Thomas Hauschild, “Ethnologie und Nationalsozialismus Bericht über das Kolloquium ‚Ethnologie und Nationalsozialismus‘, 17.–18.11.1990, Universität Köln,Anthropos 86, 4/6, 1991, 576–580, here 579.

[4] Ira Bashkow, “On history for the present: revisiting George Stocking’s influential rejection of ‘presentism’,” American Anthropologist 121:3 (2019): 709–720.

[5] Wolfram Eberhard, Thurnwald, Richard, in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Vol. 16, ed. David L. Sills (New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1968), 20–22, here 22.

[6] Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer (eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Second Edition (London: Routledge, 2010), 750.

[7] Viktor Stoll, “‘Social Scientist par excellence’: The Life and Work of Richard Thurnwald,” in Bérose – Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l’anthropologie (Paris, 2020): 1–17, here 8.

[8] Richard Thurnwald, Black and White in East Africa. The Fabric of a new Civilization in East Africa. A Study in Social Contact and Adaptation of Life in East Africa. With a Chapter on “Women” by Hilde Thurnwald (London: Routledge, 1935).

[9] Ralph Linton, “[Review:] Richard Thurnwald, Black and White in East Africa (London 1935),” American Sociological Review 1:6 (1936): 1015–1016.

[10] Holger Stoecker, Afrikawissenschaften in Berlin von 1919 bis 1945. Zur Geschichte und Topographie eines wissenschaftlichen Netzwerkes (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2008), 272.

[11] Richard Thurnwald, “Discorso,” in Convegno di Scienze Morali e Storiche: 4-11 ottobre 1938; tema: L’Africa: 2. Convegno di Scienze Morali e Storiche, 1938, Rom (Rome: Reale Accademia d’ Italia, 1939), 1570.

[12] Gerhard Lindblom, “Discorso,” in Convegno di Scienze Morali e Storiche: 4-11 ottobre 1938; tema: L’Africa: 2. Convegno di Scienze Morali e Storiche, 1938, Rom, 1570–1571.

[13] Richard Thurnwald, Koloniale Gestaltung. Methoden und Probleme überseeischer Ausdehnung (Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 1939), 13, 15.

[14] Rudolf Karlowa, “[Review:] Richard Thurnwald, Koloniale Gestaltung (Hamburg 1939),” Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft 53 (1940): 372–373, here 373.

[15] Rudolf Karlowa, Deutsche Kolonialpolitik (Breslau: Hirt, 1939), 35.

[16] Richard Thurnwald, “[Review:] Rudolf Karlowa, Deutsche Kolonialpolitik (Breslau 1939),” Deutsche Literaturzeitung. Wochenschrift für Kritik der internationalen Wissenschaft 61:9–10 (1940): 206–209, here 209.

[17] Thurnwald’s first article on the colonial topic appeared in 1905. After returning from his field research in the Solomon Islands and Micronesia (1906–09), he argued for an “applied ethnology” that should be placed at the service of “colonial policy”. He also proposed the founding of ethnological institutes, which were to be supported by “colonial policy”. Cf. Richard Thurnwald, “Angewandte Ethnologie in der Kolonialpolitik,” Internationale Vereinigung für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft und Volkswirtschaftslehre in Berlin (ed.), Verhandlungen der ersten Hauptversammlung der Internationalen Vereinigung für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft und Volkswirtschaftslehre in Berlin zu Heidelberg vom 3. bis 9. September 1911 (Berlin: Vahlen, 1912), 59–69, here 68.

[18] Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, Franz Boas: Shaping anthropology and fostering social justice. Critical studies in the history of anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022), 373.

[19] American Philosophical Society (APS), Philadelphia, Franz Boas Papers (FBP), Mss.B.B61; Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Boas, 26.03., 30.03. and from Sydney, 12.09.1933. Cf. Melk-Koch 1989, 272; George Steinmetz, “La sociologie et l’empire: Richard Thurnwald et la question de l’autonomie scientifique,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 5, 185 (2010): 12–29, here 25.

[20] University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library (UC BL), BANC MSS C-B 927, Robert Harry Lowie Papers (RHLP); Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Lowie, 22.04.1936.

[21] Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, University Archive (HU UA), Personalakten (personnel files, PA) nach 1945, Thurnwald, Richard, vol. 5, fol. 5–6, here 5; Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Fischer, 09.02.1936.

[22] Ibid., fol. 7–8, here 7; Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Dean Ludwig Bieberbach, Cover letter and draft plan for an institute for “Völkerforschung,” 22.04.1936.

[23] Ibid., fol. 8. As translated in Karla Poewe, “Liberalism, German Missionaries, and National Socialism,“ in Mission und Macht im Wandel politischer Orientierungen, eds. Holger Stoecker and Ulrich van der Heyden (Stuttgart: Steiner 2005), 633–662, here 642.

[24] For example APS, FBP, Mss.B.B61; Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Boas, 14.02.1936.

[25] George Steinmetz, “Neo-Bourdieusian theory and the question of scientific autonomy: German sociologists and empire, 1890s–1940s,” Political Power and Social Theory 20 (2009): 71–131, here 93; and Steinmetz 2010, 25.

[26] HU UA, PA nach 1945, Thurnwald, Richard, vol. 5, fol. 10.

[27] Ibid., fol. 19; Courses, Thurnwald (from New Haven) to Dean Bieberbach, 05.05.1936.

[28] Uwe Wolfradt, “Zum Psychologie-Verständnis von Richard Thurnwald,“ cultura & psyché – Journal of Cultural Psychology 3 (2022): 47–58, here 55.

[29] Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher, “Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien: Einleitung der Herausgeber,“ in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945): Institutionen, Biographien und Praktiken in Netzwerken, eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher (Vienna: Verlag der OEAW, 2021), 15–32, here 26.

[30] Richard Thurnwald, “Primitive Initiations- und Wiedergeburtsriten,“ in Vorträge über die Symbolik der Wiedergeburt in der religiösen Vorstellung der Zeiten und Völker. Eranos-Jahrbuch VII/1939, ed. Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn (Zürich: Rhein-Verlag, 1940), 321–398.

[31] UC BL, RHLP; Thurnwald (from Bernardino, Switzerland) to Lowie, 02.09.1939. Original in English.

[32] Ibid. After the first paragraph written in English, Thurnwald then switches to German: “Augenblicklich scheint ein Höhepunkt einer Krisis erreicht zu sein. Man kann nur wünschen, dass sich das ganze Hexenspiel des österreichischen Schamanen endlich dem Ende nähert. Ich glaube, dass wenigstens 2/3 bis 3/4 der deutschen Bevölkerung, wenn nicht noch mehr, das Ende der Schreckensherrschaft begrüssen würden. Denn jetzt wird diese Schreckensherrschaft noch gesteigert werden und der Rest der Berauschten, der ‘Besoffenen und Besessenen,’ wird hoffentlich mit der Zeit ernüchtert werden. Ich fürchte nur, das Erwachen wird blutig werden.”

[33] Julian H. Steward, Robert Harry Lowie 1882–1957. A Biographical Memoir (Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1974), 176.

[34] Barnard and Spencer 2010, 750.

[35] Georg Friederici, “[Review:] Wilhelm E. Mühlmann, Krieg und Frieden (Heidelberg 1940),” Archiv für Anthropologie, Völkerforschung und kolonialen Kulturwandel 27:3-4 (1942): 169–176.

[36] Cf. Udo Mischek, Leben und Werk Günter Wagners (1908–1952) (Gehren: Escher, 2002), 107f.

[37] Private archives Bettina Hainschink; Thurnwald to Wölfel, 09.12.1942. Thurnwald had already announced his break with Mühlmann to Diedrich Westermann two months earlier: “After everything that has happened, working with Mühlmann is impossible and degrading for me.” Cf. Lautarchiv of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 01/23, fol. 108; Thurnwald (from Berlin) to Westermann, 10.10.1942.

[38] Melk-Koch 1989, 283.

[39] HU UA, PA nach 1945, Thurnwald, Richard, vol. 6, fol. 208; Thurnwald to Dean Hermann Grapow, 25.10.1943. Cf. Peter Rohrbacher, “Das Ringen um Kolonialexpertise: Richard Thurnwalds Mitarbeit an kolonialen Handbüchern über Afrika während des Zweiten Weltkriegs,“ cultura & psyché – Journal of Cultural Psychology 3 (2022): 115–129, here 124.

[40] Rohrbacher 2022, 125f.

[41] HU UA, PA nach 1945, Thurnwald, Richard, vol. 7, [fol. 3]; Thurnwald to Rector Eduard Spranger, 09.07.1945.

[42] UC BL, RHLP; Thurnwald to Lowie, 15.10.1946. Original in English.

[43] UC BL, RHLP; Thurnwald to Lowie, 05.02.1947. Original in English.

[44] Archive Royal Anthropological Institute, Germany 95/20/1; Thurnwald to the President of the RAI, 07.09.1945. Original in English.

[45] Hilde Thurnwald, “Richard Thurnwald – Lebensweg und Werk,“ in Beiträge zur Gesellungs- und Völkerwissenschaft. Professor Dr. Thurnwald zu seinem achtzigsten Geburtstag gewidmet (Berlin: Gebr. Mann 1950), 9–19.

[46] Melk-Koch 1989, 9 and 285.

[47] The following are exemplary: Poewe 2005; Steinmetz 2009, 2010; see also Klaus Timm, “Richard Thurnwald: ‘Koloniale Gestaltung’ – ein ‘Apartheids-Projekt’ für die koloniale Expansion des deutschen Faschismus in Afrika,“ Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 18:4 (1977): 617–649.

“Post-Folklore”: Anthropology and Economic Development in European Peripheries, 1950–1995 

European Anthropology does not really exist.1 Or, rather, it doesn’t exist as a specific discipline with a single, agreed upon name. Instead, since the 1970s, a plethora of names marking subtle distinctions in focus and approach entered the continental academic landscape. Some examples: “European Ethnology,” found at a variety of European universities; “Empirische Kulturwissenschaften” (empirical cultural studies), especially prominent in German-speaking countries; in France, Ethnologie de France or Ethnologie et Patrimoine; at the University of Zurich, “Populäre Kulturen” (popular cultures); and at some universities, for example in Frankfurt, you’ll find amalgamations such as “Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie” (cultural anthropology and European ethnology).2

What these fields of inquiry all have in common is their origin in what was called, until the 1970s, “Volkskunde” (literally translated, the “study of the people”) in German-speaking countries, and “folklore” and “arts et traditions populaires” (popular arts and traditions) in France. Investigations in popular culture had increased especially in the nineteenth century, as an epiphenomenon of bourgeois anxiety over intensifying industrialization, most of the time attached to either associations (“Vereine”) or museums (The Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris was, for example, founded in 1937 as a – much smaller – sibling to the famous Musée de l’Homme). There were few professorships or teaching positions at universities specifically dedicated to it. Rather than the “high culture” of art, literature, and music, Volkskunde was concerned with “low culture” found predominantly in rural and peasant villages and landscapes; only a small minority of researchers was concerned with the culture of the working classes. Exhibitions, village monographs, atlases, as well as collections of artefacts, photographs, legends and fairy tales accumulated over the decades.3

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Actors – Narratives – Strategies: Constellations of Transnational Folklore Research, 1875‒1905

This essay by Frauke Ahrens and Christiane Schwab (Institute for European Ethnology and Cultural Analysis, LMU Munich) introduces their new project examining European folklore research of the late nineteenth century. It is a shortened version of a presentation from the First International Conference of the Histories of Anthropologies (HOAIC), on December 5, 2023, as part of the Panel, “Challenging Narratives and Frameworks of Knowledge in Histories of Anthropology,” convened by Robert Oppenheim (University of Texas at Austin) and Grant Arndt (Iowa State University). Thanks to Fabiana Dimpflmeier, one of the conference organizers, for commissioning this essay for HAR.


The historiography of folklore studies has been traditionally pursued within national frameworks – not at least because the interest in popular traditions and nationalism were deeply intertwined. However, especially from the 1870s onwards, folklore studies were shaped by transnational exchange. Our project “Actors ‒ Narratives ‒ Strategies: Constellations of Transnational Folklore Research, 1875‒1905,” funded by the German Research Foundation, aims to investigate folklore studies, taking into account new approaches in the history of knowledge. It scrutinizes “transnational folklore research” as both an object and an interpretative framework, allowing us to reconsider established histories of folklore and anthropologies. The project addresses the potential and scope of the concept of transnational folklore research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, inquiring into the extent to which transnational processes contributed to the formation, professionalization, and systematization of folkloristic knowledge and practice.

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The Politics of AAA in Action: From Pseudo to Epitomizing Events


When corresponding with a colleague about the 2023 American Anthropological Association Meeting in Toronto, I caught myself referring to the association’s business meeting as a “historic event.” Before sending the email, I decided to qualify my rather grand statement with the phrase “at least I think so.” The qualification did not stem from the bureaucratic sterility of academic association business meetings that most folks have come to expect. The meeting was a matter of business, but not in any mundane sense of the term. Something of note most definitely took place. Upon reflection, I realized that my decision to qualify my initial description (i.e., a historic event) had less to do with the adjective (i.e., historic) and more to do with the noun (i.e., event). The business meeting was most certainly an event, but an event composed of references to other events. More specifically, these other events were of a particular kind. At play in the business meeting was the nature and significance of nonevents and their connection to the history of the AAA as a site for political action.

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Invidious Comparison

Graham M. Jones

Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy

University of Chicago Press, 2017

240 pp., 25 halftones, notes, bibl., index

Editor’s note: This essay was originally developed for another publication in 2018, shortly after Magic’s Reason was published. HAR received the essay in 2022 and is pleased to publish it as a joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. Although Magic’s Reason is now a few years old, as Golub argues here, the conversations it animates on anthropological theory and the history of anthropology are well worth continuing.

What does it mean to “compare” two things? For Graham Jones, the answer to this question can be found in a magic show performed in Algeria in October 1856. The performer was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern magic” (Jones 2017, 12), and his goal was to demonstrate the superiority of European civilization by surpassing the mystic feats performed by the Sufi orders then popular in Algeria. And not only that: Robert-Houdin’s magic would demonstrate his superiority not just over the Sufis, but their followers as well. Algerians’ inability to distinguish entertainment magic from “real” magic would prove the superiority of French rationality over Algerian superstition. This, at least, was what Robert-Houdin thought would happen.

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Mário de Andrade, Modernism, and Brazilian Anthropology

Semana de Arte Moderna Poster,
São Paulo, 1922

This year marks the centenary of São Paulo’s 1922 Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art).[1]Funding for this article was provided by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, of which the author is currently a fellow. During this watershed moment in Brazil’s intellectual and cultural production, self-declared Modernists exhibited their paintings, performed prose, and distributed their writings at São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal and elsewhere. One of its key protagonists was Mário de Andrade (1893-1945), often considered the “pope” of Brazilian modernism. At least in Brazil, Andrade is also synonymous with the institutionalization of ethnography in São Paulo, where he founded the Sociedade de Etnografia e Folclore.[2]For a broader consideration of Andrade’s work at the Departamento de Cultura, see “Mário de Andrade no Departamento de Cultura de São Paulo,” March 24, 2022.

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1 Funding for this article was provided by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, of which the author is currently a fellow.
2 For a broader consideration of Andrade’s work at the Departamento de Cultura, see “Mário de Andrade no Departamento de Cultura de São Paulo,” March 24, 2022.

Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: An Introduction to Four Case Studies from Vienna

Note to readers: This introduction seeks to draw attention to the three-volume collection examining Socio-Cultural Anthropology in Vienna during the Nazi period (1938-1945), recently published in German and edited by Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher. The editors’ essay below is followed by brief essays in English based on a selection of chapters by Katja Geisenhainer, Lisa Gottschall, Gabriele Anderl, Ildikó Cazan-Simányi, Reinhold Mittersakschmöller, and Peter Rohrbacher. We thank the editors and authors for making their work available in this way, as a joint effort by our “Clio’s Fancy” and “Field Notes” sections, and invite readers to follow up with the complete work.– HAR editors.

Elaborating and interpreting anthropology’s history under Nazism is not only a continuing ethical, moral, and political obligation for the field today. It also represents a set of complex challenges in many of its empirical, methodological, and conceptual dimensions, open to debate and reflection by interested laypersons and experts in the relevant languages, regions, and periods but also from all other fields of anthropology and history as well. Through the present introduction to four case examples from Vienna, the authors seek to contribute to these debates by pointing out the relevance of well-researched archival evidence within sound methodological contexts. This is the indispensable prerequisite for advancing further debates and related research.

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Marginalized in Central European Anthropology and Persecuted as a Jew: The Case of Marianne Schmidl

Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

Marianne Schmidl was the first woman in a German-speaking country to obtain a doctorate in ethnology and was one of the pioneers in the field of ethnomathematics.[1] Her main interest for many years was the cultural-historical study of African baskets. Eighty years ago she was deported and murdered by the Nazis. Now a document has surfaced indicating that she tried to emigrate to the USA before her life was violently ended.[2]

The following information on her life and work is based in particular on archival material and family memories. It is as an important addition to the curriculum vitae she prepared for the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (see Fig. 1).

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Assisting in the Holocaust: Pro-Nazi Anthropologists from Vienna in Occupied Poland (1940–1944)

Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

“We do not know what measures are planned for the resettlement of the Jewish population in the next few months; under certain circumstances we could miss valuable material by waiting too long […].”[1]

In October 1941 Anton Adolf Plügel (1910–1945), an enthusiastic National Socialist and head of the Ethnology department of the section for “Racial and Folklore Research” at the Institute for German Studies in the East (IDO),[2] wrote those meaningful lines from Kraków to his Vienna-based colleague Dora Maria Kahlich (born Könner, 1905–1970). This letter, which I copied in the Kraków University archive a few years ago, testifies to how deeply involved some junior anthropologists from Vienna were in preparations for the Holocaust. At the time, Plügel, a graduate of Vienna University’s Institut für Völkerkunde (Institute of Ethnology), was preparing a collaborative study of anthropometric measurements among the Jewish residents of the southern Polish town of Tarnów (see Fig. 1)—and, apparently, he was aware of the regime’s “final solution” plans.

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Rivalries with Fatal Consequences

Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

In January 1940, the young Dutch archaeologist F. M. Schnitger found employment at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, today’s Weltmuseum Wien. The position was a substantial advancement toward his goal of becoming a famous researcher. Yet his career ended abruptly only a few years later, through a chain reaction triggered partly by himself and by one of his local rival colleagues. The name of Frederic Martin Schnitger is still familiar to scholars and to a broader audience interested in Indonesian cultural histories.[1] His best-known publication, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra (1939), is still regarded as an important account of the archaeology and traditions of this part of Indonesia.

Schnitger was born on April 22, 1912 in Malang on East Java, where his father owned a sugar cane plantation and his mother worked as a teacher. His origin would later become a concern for several authorities of the Nazi state, since Schnitger’s maternal great-grandmother was Chinese. At the age of nine, Schnitger was sent to Holland where he attended primary and grammar schools. The young Schnitger developed a keen interest in Asia’s history, religion, and archaeology. He published his first article in 1929-1930, when he was still a teenager. After studies at Leiden University, he traveled to Sumatra in 1935 to conduct archaeological research across the whole island. One of Schnitger’s goals was to find evidence that Palembang in the South was the historical capital of the Srivijaya empire. In Palembang he contributed enormously to the development of the municipal museum, where he received the professional title of “Conservator.” From 1935 to 1938, Schnitger commuted frequently between Sumatra and Europe to maintain his contacts there.[2] Disagreements with his teachers at the university in Leiden prompted Schnitger to leave the Netherlands and move to Vienna in 1935—a fateful decision, as it would later turn out.[3]

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A Priest in the Resistance: Father Wilhelm Schmidt and His Alliances in World War II

Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

In the archives of the Steyl Missionary Order in Rome I found a small blue notebook with the inscription Œuvre Caritative Pontificale. It belonged to Father Wilhelm Schmidt, the founder of the Vienna School of Ethnology. It proves that during his exile in Switzerland (1938–1954) the Austrian ethnologist was in close contact with military intelligence services and that, with the help of the Vatican, he supported Wehrmacht deserters interned in Swiss camps. Finally, he subversively used this Vatican money for intelligence operations against the Nazi state.[1]

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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. 

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von Plato, Alice. 2001. Präsentierte Geschichte: Ausstellungskultur und Massenpublikum im Frankreich des 19 Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt: Campus.

Yalçınkaya, Alper. 2015. Learned Patriots: Debating Science, State, and Society in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Young, Patrick. 2008. “From the Eiffel Tower to the Javanese Dancer: Envisioning Cultural Globalization at the 1889 Paris Exhibition.” The History Teacher 41 (3): 339–362. 


[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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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[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.

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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.

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