Field Notes (page 2 of 4)

Field Notes is a forum for focused, engaged reflections on the history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. We are particularly interested in expanding the boundaries of the history of anthropology and challenging normative interpretations of the field. This includes, but is not limited to, decentering Western Europe and North America as the primary sites of the discipline’s development, and white, Western experts as its only arbiters of knowledge production. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at

The One-Two Punch

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

Continue reading

The Peripeteia of The Gift: Gift Exchange by Grégoire Mallard

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

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

The Role of Conferences in the Production of Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of the Birth and Constitutional Development of ASAO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ecology of Ideas

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

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

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

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

(Sweeting and Hohl 2015:3)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] ASAO Newsletters are archived online here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Faustian Bargains: The Legends and Legacies of German “Liberal Ethnology”

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

H. Glenn Penny. Im Schatten Humboldts: Eine tragische Geschichte der deutschen Ethnologie. 287 pp., 37 illus. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2019.

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the C. H. Beck Verlag for kindly providing me with an advance manuscript of this book in the original English. Parenthetical page numbers below refer to the manuscript, rather than the published translation.

Salvage anthropology has carried something of a sour reputation ever since the term was introduced by Jacob Gruber in 1970. This has good reasons. One has to do with the fatalism that this practice implies: the moral mission of early ethnographers, according to Gruber, was “not to stem the tide of civilization’s advance, but to preserve that which was about to be destroyed.”[1] Even the most humane impetus to “rescue” the pristine cultural heritage of indigenous groups took the inevitable disappearance of those groups for granted.

Continue reading

Decolonizing or Recolonizing? The (Mis)Representation of Humanity in Natural History Museums

Every Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2016, members of the activist group Decolonize This Place have gathered at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, chanting “rename the day, remove the statue, and respect ancestors.”[1] The AMNH protests have taken place in the context of a growing number of museum controversies throughout Europe and North America. These public confrontations include demands for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts; the rejection of tainted funds; calls to address historical inaccuracies in exhibits; and finally, protests against offensive, stereotypical, or otherwise problematic representations of human subjects.

Of all these conflicts, the misrepresentation of people on display has been the least discussed in the public sphere.[2] Decolonize This Place’s October 2019 protests have received minimal press coverage compared to their more successful actions—for example, calling attention to the Whitney’s acceptance of blood money from donors such as tear-gas magnate Warren Kanders. And yet the ways in which museums organize, categorize, and display the cultures of non-European peoples reflect and reify outdated cultural hierarchies which have their origins in nineteenth-century science. Natural history museum practices today are still guided by some of the key assumptions of anthropology’s founding period, including the belief in a civilizational hierarchy, with Northern European cultures figured as superior to all others; the importance of “salvage” anthropology, in which scientists sought to preserve the remnants of “primitive” cultures supposedly on the verge of extinction; and finally, the naturalization of non-European populations in specialized exhibit spaces—a segregation of the “West from the Rest.” In the words of Museum Studies scholar Ray Silverman, “Ethnography has provided the ‘scientific’ justification for much of the colonial project…. It is a mode of thinking that has proven difficult to shake off and continues to influence how Indigenous peoples are represented in museums and related cultural institutions.”[3]

The persistence of colonial visual culture is especially glaring in natural history museums. As the American political scientist and writer Danielle LaVaque-Manty has pointed out, “There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History. And there aren’t any other kinds of people.”[4] Natural history museums have been among the least responsive to decolonization efforts and, given the naturalizing effects of their ethnographic exhibits, among the most harmful.[5] Such exhibits foster the segregation, exoticization, and “Othering” of non-European cultures. Unwittingly or not, they perpetuate persistent global assumptions of human difference and hierarchy. The prominence of these museums underscores the power of cultural institutions to confront or avoid some of the most pressing issues of our day.

In this essay, I compare the AMNH in New York and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, which, to varying extents, continue to “display the exotic diversity of pristine civilizations under European domination.”[6] I wish to make clear that there are two paths ahead for museum and public history spaces: one that strives for a collaborative process of decolonization and repair, and another that clings to the status quo, thereby reinforcing colonial categories. I conclude with some thoughts about why these two museums have taken different approaches to decolonial critiques, and also point out ways in which both remain stuck in nineteenth-century frameworks. Finally, I review some of the solutions offered by curators, activists, and scholars, suggesting that this crisis provides opportunities to address urgent issues of representation, memory, and justice.

The American Museum of Natural History: Stuck in the Past

Four types of museums display ethnographic material: “global” art and heritage museums, such as the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art; anthropology or ethnography museums, such as the Berlin Ethnological Museum; tribal or Native American Museums, like the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, or the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI/NMAI); and finally, natural history or field museums. Each type of institution faces its own particular challenges. Critics have discussed the need to revise European ethnographic museums, especially in light of very public controversies over provenance and repatriation.[7] Samuel J. Redman, in a recent review of the Hamburg Ethnology Museum, observed that without critical revision, ethnographic museums reveal more about the cultural history of the collectors than the objects of collection.[8] In contrast, many tribal and Native American museums, while not immune from critique and controversy, have prioritized incorporating diverse Indigenous and community narratives.[9]

Of all these types of institutions, natural history museums face unique obstacles to the decolonization process due to the entangled histories of anthropology and natural history. The AMNH was founded in 1869 and remains one of the most prestigious natural history institutions in the United States.[10]  Its history is tied to Franz Boas, who made his mark as one of the most important anti-racist scientists of the twentieth century only later. Boas’s early work at the AMNH, however, included practices that would be condemned as unethical today, including the display of “living Indians” in the Museum, stealing Indigenous peoples’ bones, and authorizing autopsies in secret. He also created the Northwest Coast Hall at the museum, today the target of the bitterest of criticism.[11]

Figure 1: Floor Plan of the American Museum of Natural History, Second Floor. Accessed December 29, 2019.

In October 2016, Decolonize This Place organized a tour and occupation of the AMNH and introduced a set of specific demands, including removal of the Roosevelt statue (which shows Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, trailed by subservient Native American and African figures), as well as an institution-wide review of cultural representations across the museum.[12] On September 25, 2017, likely anticipating the second annual protest, the AMNH announced a multi-year project to “update, restore, and conserve the Northwest Coast Hall.” Decolonize This Place responded in a press release: “While we welcome this long overdue initiative, the false and degrading representations in the rest of the culture halls remain as a present reminder of inaction and colonial violence.”[13] In the wake of the protests, the AMNH also added labels to a diorama deemed inaccurate and offensive. A New York Times article described the exhibit as “filled with historical inaccuracies and clichés of Native representation” and cited the Indigenous consultant hired by the museum, historian Bradley Pecore, who condemned the diorama as replete with harmful stereotypes that “shape the American public’s understanding of Indigenous people.”[14]

Figure 2: The website of the American Museum of Natural History, listing Human Origins and Cultural Halls. Accessed December 29, 2019.

As it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019, the AMNH has not announced an institution-wide review.[15] While it attempts to frame some of the issues it faces—including, this year, a display and website on the Roosevelt statue, featuring the debate around its history and iconography—it should not be forgotten that, in addition to the Northwest Coast Hall, the AMNH has quite a few permanent exhibits of non-European peoples (including Mexican, Plains, and Asian peoples). There is no Hall of Northern European or New England cultures. Taken together, these ethnographic exhibits perpetuate the naturalization of non-European peoples and “freeze” them in time in a way not typically imposed on European ones. The resulting impression on visitors is that only Indigenous and non-Western peoples belong on display with fauna, flora, rocks, and minerals. This outdated “West and the Rest” approach to human cultures—aligning the non-West with the natural, biological, primitive, and pre-civilized—is glaring at the AMNH, as it is in other natural history museums; it reflects a cultural vision from a century ago. The persistence of such representations is remarkable, especially after decades of critical race and postcolonial theory, not to mention the debunking of scientific racism.

The Musée de l’Homme: A Return to Anti-Racist Roots

The Musée de l’Homme, also known as the Trocadéro Museum, was built in 1878. Originally conceived as an exhibition space for the tens of thousands of objects bought or stolen during French scientific expeditions, the museum was strongly influenced by natural history methods of the day, including taxonomy and comparative display.[16] In 1928, French anthropologist Paul Rivet, a correspondent of Boas, took over as director and began to restore and modernize the collections; in 1937 he gave the museum the universalizing name Musée de l’Homme. At this point, it incorporated anthropological objects from the French Natural History Museum (of which, to this day, the Musée de l’Homme remains a branch). Reborn at a time of rising fascism in France and Europe, the Musée de l’Homme under Rivet was known as a node of resistance; some of its personnel ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis. Rivet was adamantly antiracist.[17]

This institutional memory of anti-racism would prove central in the Musée de l’Homme’s renovation seventy years later, which explicitly drew on Rivet’s humanistic approach. Consequentially, shortly before the Musée de l’Homme was renovated in 2009-2015, most of its ethnographic objects were removed and sent to the new ethnographic art museum, the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. Opening in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly’s mission was to provide access to pieces of art and ethnographic objects from “Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas” for both public and research audiences. The loss of their ethnographic items necessitated the Musée de l’Homme’s radical exhibit reorganization.

Figure 3: An exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme that displays European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

The museum’s curators shaped exhibits in distinct ways explicitly recalling Rivet’s vision. First, they created displays to historicize the museum’s historic relationship with scientific racism, including critiques of French racial science and anthropology’s role in the dehumanization of non-European peoples.[18] Second, in a major innovation, the Musée de l’Homme curators decided to organize exhibits about cultural production not by geography or tribe, but by themes, including music, language, religion, and ornamentation. In these thematic displays, diverse cultures appear side-by-side, with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and America next to European ones. Here, Europeans are a cultural group, on display, like any other. This horizontal representation is reflected on the cover of the museum’s guide as well, underscoring a philosophy of connection between all human cultures, and aiming to “unfreeze” non-European cultures and peoples.

Figure 4: A Musée de l’Homme guide displaying European and non-European artifacts side-by-side.

While the new Musée de l’Homme has received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the press, museum studies scholars have criticized aspects of the renovation. Nathan Schlanger has pointed out that the Musée de l’Homme naturalizes human society itself, filtering it through an evolutionary framework.[19] Anthropologists, as well, might raise objections to the thematic exhibits, which decontextualize the objects, removing their cultural specificity, and risk overstating universal categories. Moreover, while the Musée de l’Homme subverts human classification and advocates for multicultural and relativistic approaches to human diversity, at times, its displays come uncomfortably close to romanticizing globalization. That said, it is noteworthy that the Musée de l’Homme has, since its reopening, attempted to grapple—however imperfectly—with its racist and colonial past, connecting itself to present legacies as well as imagined futures.

Lessons and Next Steps

Why have the two natural history museums discussed here taken such different paths in the face of demands to decolonize? There are three reasons: one accidental and two systemic. A unique circumstance was triggered in the early 2000s with the transfer of ethnographic objects to the Musée du Quai Branly. This decision reduced and limited the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnographic collection and forced a reimagining of the museum as a whole. The two systemic factors have to do with the national, economic, and historical contexts in Europe and in the United States. As state-funded institutions, many European museums are spared some of the pressures of the market and can be more responsive to critical academic voices. In the United States, museums fear public controversy that might threaten dwindling streams of government funding; at the same time, dependence on private funding leaves them beholden to well-heeled donors and their frequently conservative political views.[20]

The second systemic factor relates to legacies of colonialism. While on both sides of the Atlantic, the forces of private property and Eurocentric narratives (themselves often described in neutral, naturalized tones) are powerful, responses to decolonizing critiques play out differently in the two national political cultures. European nations grapple with the tensions of empire, though these are often imagined, however falsely, as existing at a distance from national borders. In the United States, the pressures are arguably more acute. American societies are immersed in the intimate historical legacies of settler colonialism; descendants live together on contested ground. Museums, too, are located on settler colonial lands. To center Indigenous perspectives would require reckoning with Lonetree’s “hard truths.” Decolonization discourse is unsettling.

If creating accurate and inclusive exhibits is a top priority for any museum, what are some steps forward? This essay has described some recent attempts to decolonize natural history museums, both of which have had mixed receptions by public, activist, and scholarly audiences. The two “paths” described here, however, are just first steps and should open up a broader conversation about how we represent humanity in public-facing scientific museums. First, more funding for cultural institutions would help curators enact cutting edge procedures, incorporate critique from scholars, and collaborate with Indigenous people and other community members.[21] As many curators have recognized, consulting with affected communities is crucial.[22] Moreover, Indigenous scholars and elders are not just a source of historic and cultural information, but also offer specific ideas to expand museums’ horizons, including the concepts of respect, reciprocity, and repair.[23] Mutual respect in the Indigenous sense of the word goes beyond ethnicity or nation, and encompasses “social relations of its producers, including source communities and museum staff.”[24] Some institutions have recently embraced these frameworks to rebuild collaborative cultural spaces, including the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Canada Science and Technology Museum—which recently created an exhibit on First Nation astronomy called One Sky, Many Astronomies.[25]

Recognition of the value of collaboration, reciprocity, and Indigenous voice and authority is increasingly common in academic spaces adjacent to Indigenous Studies.[26] Historians of science contextualize human classification practices and remind us of the legacies of colonialism. Historians and anthropologists of settler colonialism in the United States document the “full spectrum” of life, including both survivance and “hard truths” about the past and present. Artists, too, participate in museum decolonization. Since the 1980s, performance pieces have called our attention to the temporally frozen representations of Indigenous people in natural history museums.[27] These works remind us that all people—regardless of identity—have not just a past, but also a present and a future.

After a few decades of critical engagement from activists, curators, scholars, and artists, challenges to Eurocentrism in natural history museums have met with uneven and limited success. This stagnation attests to the unfinished business of reckoning with colonialism and settler violence, including its present legacies. In turn, it reflects our failure, at national and global levels, to reach consensus about how we approach human difference, human classification, and cultural hierarchy. To the extent that museums reflect systemic inequities, misrepresentation will remain a stubborn problem. For now, museum administrators and visitors alike can be alert to normalized colonial tropes, and work towards repair by bringing to the center of exhibitions the perspectives of those who are most harmed by ethnographic displays.

[1]Open Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Decolonize This Place Blog, October 10, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[2] A recent discussion among historians about “the compromised histories of the museum and the epistemologies of public display and national narratives” can be found in “Museums, History, and the Public in a Global Age,” American Historical Review 124, no. 5 (2019) 1631-1672; 1632.

[3] Ray Silverman, “The Legacy of Ethnography,” in Susan Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 9.

[4] LaVaque-Manty was referring to the Ruthven Museum at the University of Michigan; see “There Are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” Wicazo Sa Review 15, no. 1 (2000): 71-89.

[5] Yannick Marshall recently pointed out that “colonialism’s violence is the violence of the everyday. Its most deleterious effects are those that are routinized and banal more than those that are spectacular… It is difficult to recognize the violence that has been naturalized.”; see “There is No ‘Relatively Benign’ Version of Settler-Colonialism,” Black Perspectives Blog, October 28, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

[6] Nathan Schlanger, “Back in Business: History and Evolution at the new Musée de l’Homme,” Antiquity 90, no. 352 (2016): 1092.

[7] In November 2018, French President Emanuel Macron announced that 26 objects at the Musée du Quai Branly would be returned to Benin; see Farah Nayeri, “Return of African Artifacts Sets a Tricky Precedent for Europe’s Museums,” New York Times, November 27, 2018. Recently, Germany has been fraught with controversy over the building and reorganization of ethnographic collections in the Humboldt Forum; see Graham Bowley, “A New Museum Opens Old Wounds in Germany,” New York Times, October 14, 2018. See also Philipp Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam?Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Rethinking ethnographic collections. Accessed September 18, 2018.

[8] Samuel J. Redman, “Have Anthropology Museums Become History Museums? A visit to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg, Germany,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 40 (2016).

[9] Amy Lonetree addresses the multiplicity of perspectives in tribal museums, arguing for the inclusion of “hard truths” of settler colonialism such as violence and trauma in addition to stories of survivance in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native American in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

[10] The four best-known natural history museums in the United States are the AMNH in New York City, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Even though I only discuss the AMNH in this essay, all of these institutions have similar approaches to ethnographic exhibits. In October 2018, the Chicago Field Museum announced the first major renovation of the Native North America Hall in sixty years; the press release emphasized Indigenous participation in the project, but did not address the question provoked by LaVaque-Manty’s statement about “Indians in the museum.” See Accessed December 23, 2019.

[11] On Boas, see David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, eds., Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[12] In 2019, the AMNH installed a plaque next to the Roosevelt statue on the front steps of the museum. The plaque read: “This statue was unveiled to the public in 1940, as part of a larger New York State memorial to former N.Y. governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy. You can learn more about this statue inside the Museum and at” For an image of the plaque, see Nick Mirzoeff, “How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?” September 24, 2019. Accessed December 29, 2019.

[13]Public Letter on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” October 4, 2017. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[14] Ana Fota, “What’s Wrong With This Diorama? You Can Read All About It,” New York Times March 2, 2019. “The labels were quietly added in October [2018], after three years of protests…. The museum consulted with outside experts, but not the protest group.” Azi Paybarah, “Museum of Natural History: When an Exhibit Offends,” New York Times March 21, 2019.

[15] For information on the Roosevelt statue at the AMNH see Accessed December 23, 2019.

[16] Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 32-34.

[17] Alice L. Conklin, Exposer l’humanité: Race, ethnologie et empire en France (1850-1950) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), chapter 6.

[18] The Musée de l’Homme also curated a special exhibit on racism and racial science called “Us and Them” in 2017-18.

[19] Schlanger, “Back in Business,” 1096. See also Claude Blanckaert (dir.), Le Musée de l’Homme: histoire d’un musée laboratoire (Paris: Muséum national d’histoire naturelle/Éditions Artlys, 2015).

[20] The Whitney-Kander story has received a great deal of press; also, in 2018, the AMNH was forced by public outcry to cancel an event featuring the right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an open racist who has attacked Indigenous rights. See also Michael Massing, “How the Superrich Captured the Art World,” New York Times, December 15, 2019.

[21] As H. Glenn Penny has pointed out, curators often want to decolonize, but lack funding to complete their vision; see H. Glenn Penny, “Exasperation: An outsider’s take on (some of) the current debates surrounding the Humboldt Forum,” Blog: How to move on with Humboldt’s Legacy? Accessed September 30, 2019.

[22]  They also strive to include the viewpoints of other community members who have a stake in cultural representation, such as museum staff and children/youth visitors. See Schorch, “Why has the ethnographic museum run out of steam”; Ahdaf Soueif, “On Resigning from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees,” LRB blog, July 15, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.

[23] Reconciliation—a process currently embraced more in Canada than the United States—rests on the Indigenous concepts of mutual respect (including Indigenous definitions of community and rights) and reciprocity (a shared and equitable process that includes sharing and the principle of “right relations”). See Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019).

[24] Jennifer Shannon, “The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian,” in Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge, 240. See also Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds., The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).

[24] Christie Taylor, “Relearning the Star Stores of Indigenous People.” Accessed November 1, 2019.

[25] Public historians have taken the lead in calls to decolonize professional spaces; see, for example, The Inclusive Historian Handbook. Recent historical scholarship includes Susan Sleeper-Smith, et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). See also “Decolonizing the AHR,” American Historical Review 123, no. 1 (2018): xiv–xvii.

[27] Two well-known examples of critical Indigenous and Latinx performance art in museum spaces include James Luna, The Artifact Piece (1986); and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Americans Visit the West (1992).

UNDERTONES: Leiris, Lévi-Strauss and Opera

By Jean Jamin

Translated by Simon Torracinta

Editors' note: The editors of the History of Anthropology Review are delighted to publish this essay by Jean Jamin. As readers will know, Jamin is one of the most original historians of anthropology anywhere and a pioneer of the discipline in France. Born in 1945, he conducted ethnographic work on initiation and traditional knowledge in Côte d’Ivoire; he later pursued a singular set of studies of the intersections of anthropology with literature, visual arts, and music (notably jazz) and was one of the first to explore the intersections of surrealism and anthropology at the Musée de l’Homme. Among his works are Les Lois du silence (1977), Faulkner: le nom, le sol, et le sang (2011), and recently, Littérature et anthropologie (2018). Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales until his retirement in 2013, Jamin co-founded the review Gradhiva: Revue d’anthropologie et d’histoire des arts, now based at the Musée du quai Branly, and was editor of L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie from 1997 to 2005. His works have been frequently noted in our journal, but this is his first full-length essay here; it is a revised excerpt from Chapter IV (p. 119-135) of Littérature et anthropologie (Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2018). 
Continue reading

The Inspiration for the History of Anthropology Newsletter

A few years ago when the History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) relaunched as an online publication, a number of articles described how it was started by George Stocking in 1973. More recently, a series of 24 articles has reflected on HAN’s inaugural editorial vision statement, which had the goal of marking out and developing the history of anthropology as a field of inquiry. We know a lot about the purposes which HAN was founded to serve, but we know little about the models that might have inspired it. 

Continue reading

Special Focus: Canguilhem’s Milieu Today

Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ([1965] 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[ In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.

Click here to read the full focus section

Editors’ Introduction: As Adventurous as Life

Amidst ongoing shifts to our environments and biologies, the traditional anthropological and biological objects—human being and life, anthropos and bios—are today twined together in unprecedented ways. Witness the bourgeoning interest from bioscientists in cultural and human affairs, and the even longer standing interest from anthropologists in things biological, as former disciplinary norms are upended and new relations, forms, and understandings of life emerge.

Continue reading

The Life of the Milieu

What if we think of a milieu as a medium for living in a strong sense, as in the way that paint or color is a medium for art—both the means of art’s expression and conceptualization and its point of pragmatic-material-noumenal interest, or even obsession? The artist thinks with, in, and about color or sound or lighting or the way musical notes or words relate to each other or build something. Art-thought is a percept (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) fundamentally linked to the things in its milieu because they have qualities like rhythm or intensity, because they react to a prod or a brush stroke or they ring. Conceptualizing a milieu by acting with it and in it is an experiment with a stake, a conceptualizing channeled through form and matter that thereby ventures out, becoming both exploratory and generative. Bruno Latour (2010) tells us this is compositional thought and being, and it extends into all domains of life in which, for whatever reason, there is a sharp, even immersive, attunement to a surround that has become animated or activated enough to create something with what presents. Georges Canguilhem’s “The Living and Its Milieu” moves in this same terrain, deftly mapping out the groundwork. 

Continue reading

A Living Room

A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Sitting in her living room. What occurs here, in this space filled up with her? And despite its force, how is it that this space so easily recedes to the background once words are spoken, once words are put to bodily experience and social relations, effaced by the retelling of the things of life that tend to unravel here? These questions are by way of an introduction to moments of coming apart in the household of a woman, Beverly, who I first met in 2002.

Continue reading

Canguilhem’s Vital Social Medicine

The thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living.

Georges Canguilhem

To what extent might one consider Georges Canguilhem a scholar of social medicine? Defined as a field of study that examines health and disease from a social science perspective, social medicine has a long and complex history. It has changed over time and has taken different forms in different parts of the world. Social medicine has relevance and significance today as an interdisciplinary endeavor that includes anthropological, sociological, historical, and philosophical modes of inquiry. This piece is not an attempt to reconstruct the transnational history of social medicine and compare and contrast its various manifestations. Rather, its aim is to explore how Georges Canguilhem’s essay “The Living and Its Milieu” might be useful conceptually for contemporary work in social medicine. Given his concern with the social and the vital, we can easily see Canguilhem’s importance for the question of what social medicine might be as a field of study concerned with questions of health and disease.

Continue reading

Le Vivant & Partial Pressure Milieus

The breath you just took contains about 400 parts of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million molecules (ppm) of air. 350 ppm is generally considered safe. People living at the start of the Industrial Revolution would have inhaled about 278 ppm. Since then, levels of CO2—the leading greenhouse gas driving changes in the climate—have doubled from the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is born of cellular respiration in animals and plants. Its accumulation from anthropogenic emissions in the atmosphere and oceans over the past two centuries now poses a direct threat to living beings on Earth. In a worst-case scenario that is increasingly likely, CO2 concentrations will reach 1,450 parts per million by 2150. 

Continue reading

On the Odor of Rancid Butter, a Twenty-First Century Update

In “The Living and Its Milieu,” Georges Canguilhem tells the story of Jakob von Uexküll’s tick. The tick when mature climbs to a high point, such as a branch on a bush. It falls only in response to a single stimulus, the odor of rancid butter, helpfully explained as a component of the sweat of mammals. If there is no corresponding 37-degree centigrade body to latch on to, the tick climbs back up. Apparently von Uexküll kept a tick in his laboratory for eighteen years before providing this stimulus to it, and it was still able to fall on cue, suck blood, and lay eggs when the opportunity was provided. One has to wonder about the number of ticks, and the frequency of testing. Why eighteen years? There is no detail provided about what happened to the other ticks kept “in a state of inanition” beyond 18 years, if there were any. 

Continue reading

Special Focus: História dos Índios no Brasil Dossiê

This dossier features seven of the forty papers presented at the colloquium 25 anos de História dos Índios no Brasil: balanços e perspectivas da história indígena. The event was held between December 11 and 13, 2017 in the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and organized by the Centro de Estudos Ameríndios (USP) and the Centro de Pesquisa em Etnologia Indígena of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark edited volume, Historia dos Índios no Brasil, assembled by anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, researchers and Indigenous people came together to reflect on the state of the field of Indigenous history in Brazil.

Click here to read the full focus section

Editor’s Introduction: Indigenous History and Anthropology in Brazil

The 1992 publication of the volume História dos Índios no Brasil edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha marked a turning point in scholarship on Indigenous peoples in Brazilian history and anthropology. Featuring works by twenty-seven leading scholars across the fields of social and cultural anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and genetics, it established a new baseline in the rapidly expanding field of Indigenous history.[1] Continue reading

Introduction: 25 years of História dos Índios no Brasil: Balances and Perspectives on Indigenous History

This dossier features seven of the forty papers presented at the colloquium 25 anos de História dos Índios no Brasil: balanços e perspectivas da história indígena. The event was held between December 11 and 13, 2017 in the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and organized by the Centro de Estudos Ameríndios (USP) and the Centro de Pesquisa em Etnologia Indígena of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark edited volume, Historia dos Índios no Brasil, assembled by anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, researchers and Indigenous people came together to reflect on the state of the field of Indigenous history in Brazil. Continue reading

Why Did We Publish a Book about Indigenous Peoples’ History in Brazil in 1992?

There are many ways to answer that question. A simple if not simplistic one is to recall that Indigenous history had been largely ignored in Brazil, based on a mishmash of half-cooked ideas. The Brazilian historian, Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, dismissed its very possibility in 1854 on the grounds that Indigenous peoples were stuck in an inescapable infancy: hence they had no history and were to be left to the care of ethnography. A century later, it was argued that, having no writing systems, they had produced no historical documents. Then, widespread and gross misinterpretations of the notion of “cold societies” led many to position Indigenous peoples against history. Continue reading

Indigenous History and Land Rights in the Rio Branco Valley, Northern Brazil: An Assessment

The volume História dos Índios no Brasil (da Cunha 1992) is the hallmark of a theoretical and methodological renewal in the historiography of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, a momentum which we are glad to be part of as authors and contributors. It is also iconic of Brazilian scholars’ commitment to the official acknowledgment of the political and land rights of Indigenous peoples. In circumstances very similar to the birth of ethnohistory in the United States during the 1940s (see Trigger 1982), the academic field of Indigenous history in Brazil consolidated in the 1980s as an answer to the political challenge of proving the historical basis for Indigenous land rights.[1] In those years, the military dictatorship took steps towards a restricted and controversial land demarcation process, which aimed to liberate lands for economic exploration, notably in opening areas of Amazonia. This meant a potential blow to Indigenous land rights claims. In reaction, Indigenous peoples established political organizations and activist movements in the 1980s. Many land demarcation cases were then taken to court, and historical evidence was crucial to guarantee constitutional Indigenous land rights (for a detailed account, see da Cunha and Barbosa 2018). Continue reading

On the Trail of Merandolino

Contemporary distribution of Indigenous peoples in the Lower Tapajos and Arapiuns valleys (Leandro Mahalem de Lima, 2018)

This piece is a case study about river-based communities adjacent to the Amazon River, and an account of their claims for Indigenous recognition since the mid-1990s. I focus on the Lower Rio Tapajos and Rio Arapiuns region, in Santarem, Pará State, Brazil, where I conducted ethnographical studies between 2008 and 2015. I trace aspects of the process of Indigenous political mobilization and its connection to Indigenous history and anthropology, focusing on the legendary and historical shaman, Merandolino, whose rediscovered history is now connecting disparate places and times. Continue reading

Indigenous Labor in Native and Brazilian Colonial History: A Historiographic Assessment

Indigenous labor and Indigenous slavery have occupied a minor place in analyses of Brazilian colonial history. Despite the fact that labor is omnipresent in social relations and is the material basis of the reproduction of societies, historians of Brazilian colonialism abandoned it as an analytic category decades ago in favor of themes such as memory and identity. This phenomenon is neither restricted to Brazil, nor to Indigenous studies, although this essay will focus on examples of Brazilian colonial and Native history.[1] Recent developments in studies of Native history were made possible by the opening of a dialogue between history and anthropology. However, Native history became a field apart and closed in on itself, with practitioners abandoning the analysis of broader historical processes and limiting their aims to the affirmation of Indigenous peoples’ agency. This affirmation fulfilled an important function, but the field should now broaden the range of questions it addresses, seeking a larger dialogue with history to attend to a new political context. Continue reading

Transformations of Mura Territoriality in the Amazon

“The Mura are everywhere,” a Mura leader, or tuxáua, of Piranha village, said to me. This statement, made during my very first days of fieldwork in Terra Indígena Cunhã-Sapucaia, highlighted the paradox of the Mura territoriality in the Amazon. This essay examines questions of Mura territoriality and mobility, and the construction and implementation of the categories used to describe and delimit Mura space. I begin with an analysis of the anthropological literature and its role in documenting bureaucratic state attempts to administrate Mura affairs. Next, I turn to the work of Mura tuxáua, teachers, and activists, who are disrupting and reclaiming old categories in the service of new claims to sovereignty. Drawing on Gallois’ conception of territoriality (2004), which considers the cultural particularities of Indigenous peoples’ relations to space in the context of contact, I explore how Mura conceptions of space are intimately tied up with the memory and mobility of ancestors, kin whose presence is still felt and known through the land. Continue reading

Archives of the Future: Issues for the Custody of Recent Documentation Concerning Indigenous Peoples in Brazil

Twenty-five years ago, Brazilian scholars came together to publish História dos Índios no Brasil. The book consolidated the work of a generation trained in the post-graduate anthropology programs established in the late sixties. While facing the repression of the military regime (1964-1985) these scholars established anthropological and historical methods, valid to this day, that are at the same time theoretically robust and legally effective in securing the rights of Indigenous people to their land and their histories in Brazil. This paradigm was the product of an implicated anthropology (Albert 1995), where scholars and Indigenous peoples fight a common struggle against the deep-seated colonial dynamics of economic expansion.[1] Continue reading

Older posts Newer posts