Anthropologists habitually regard the history of anthropology as a “subfield,” a hobby for retired anthropologists. Yet the first “Histories of Anthropologies International Conference” (HOAIC), taking place online, December 47, 2023, with the support of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) and the University of Pisa, Italy, shows that this is an outdated view: the subfield has become a genuine and lively field in its own right.

The conference was organized by HOAN convenors Fabiana Dimpflmeier (University of Chieti-Pescara, Italy) and Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Goethe University, Germany). They were supported by ten stakeholders in this growing field, including HAR and the HOA Interest Group of the American Anthropological Association; History of Anthropology Working Groups in the US (CHSTM) and Germany (DGSKA); the Historical Approaches to Cultural Analysis Working Group (HACA) of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF); the Royal Anthropological Institute in London; the International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology BEROSE in Paris; as well as three book series: “Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology” and the “Histories of Anthropology Annual” (both University of Nebraska Press), and “Anthropology’s Ancestors” (Berghahn Books).

The European initiative updates efforts in the US, the UK and elsewhere to professionalize the history of anthropology as a subject worth pursuing internationally. Fifty years ago, George W. Stocking, Jr. established the History of Anthropology Newsletter in Chicago. He and several colleagues used the logo “HoA” (History of Anthropology) on the cover of the first HAN, in the Fall of 1973. This newsletter went digital in Pennsylvania in June 2016, to be soon converted into the History of Anthropology Review (HAR). That same year, the History of Anthropology Network (HOAN) was founded at the EASA conference in Milan in July 2016, and the online encyclopedia BEROSE was refounded in Paris in September 2016. Since then, the field has become dynamic and transnational. HAR and BEROSE have been very productive, publishing articles and volumes online and in print. And now, at the initiative of HOAN convenors, key stakeholders in the history of anthropology came together for an online conference in virtual Pisa, which produced nine scholarly panels, one roundtable, two keynotes, and many conversations. Out of a total of 133 submitted papers, 98 were accepted and 87 were actually presented. They provoked lively discussions, online, with hundreds of conversations that were managed and recorded with the technical assistance of NomadIT. The recordings are now available online.

Opened by a keynote lecture by Solimar Otero (Indiana University Bloomington) and closed by a keynote lecture by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (University of Oslo), the nine parallel panels were chaired by an international team of convenors. The roundtable titled “Writing Transnational Histories of Anthropologies” was chaired by Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (Autonomous Metropolitan University, Mexico) and Susana Narotzky (University of Barcelona). Lins Ribeiro reminded us that there are national styles of writing, that Spanish is the second most important language today, and that there is a need for “global histories of anthropology” (some pluralize the latter concept). This call for global histories was taken up throughout the talks, which considered a remarkable diversity of regions, eras, and styles of research—and which were presented by scholars from around the world. As many of the panels were scheduled in parallel, it was not possible to attend all of them, but I would like to mention a few that stood out to me as particularly noteworthy for sketching a trend.

Many talks highlighted the risks of applying present-day categories and critiques to earlier paradigms in anthropology, highlighting the importance of considering overlooked figures and developments. Panel 3, “Historicizing Anachronistic Motives,” held on Monday 4 December, included papers about Alfred Haddon, Erland Nordenskiöld, Paul Radin, Luidmila S. Danilova, Fernando Henriques and other early ethnographers. Anne Gustavsson (Umeå University, Sweden) talked about Erland Nordenskiöld (1877–1932) who carried out five research expeditions to South America but is “not [regarded] a forerunner of the current anthropological tradition in Sweden.” Despite his early work, the school he founded in Gothenburg from 1913 on is now considered “old museum stuff” – a “surpassed paradigm of defeated anthropology.” Similarly, Zsofia Szoke (University of New Mexico) presented a paper entitled “Through the Speculum of the Psyche: Paul Radin at the Eranos Tagungen.” For Szoke, “this maverick anthropologist has been systematically marginalized within his own discipline, as his ideas and methods fell outside the academic canon.” During the discussion, Herbert S. Lewis (University of Wisconsin,) remarked that “Radin, Lowie, Boas are all marginalized — the current generation doesn’t know their work.”

Lewis’s own paper, “A Historicist versus a Presentist View of American Anthropology and Colonialism,” delivered in Panel 4 on “History’s Lessons: Uses of the History of Anthropology,” generalized his point. The author of a seminal article on “The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences” in 1998, Lewis lamented the lack of attention to the history of anthropology among current anthropologists in the US: “UC Berkeley’s course description for ‘History of Anthropological Thought,’” Lewis noted, “only cites W. E. B. DuBois and Franz Boas as well as Marx, Freud, Fanon—and Strathern. (Not clear which Strathern.) Apparently students at this institution never need to know about Kroeber, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Mead, Benedict, Firth, Radin, Steward, Turner, Evans-Pritchard, Barth, or Leach.” With a deep sigh, he posed the question: “What is the use of the historiography of anthropology if fifty years of such writing has had so little impact on the popular mind of today’s anthropologists?” Despite the liveliness of the field on display at HOAIC this past December, contemporary anthropologists in the USA evidently have different interests and use other discourses than many historians of anthropology.

That same day, Margaret Crump (Independent Researcher, UK), presented a paper in Panel 9 on “Countering Anachronistic Interpretations of James Cowles Prichard’s Pre-paradigmatic Anthropology.” Although neglected and misinterpreted, Prichard (1786–1848) should be considered the founding father of ethnology in Britain, a full generation before Tylor. (A plaque on his Bristol home honors him as “James Cowles Prichard, M.D. F.R.S. Ethnologist lived here 1826–1845.”) Among the reasons for this neglect, argued Crump, are a “selective and superficial sampling of his views; often anachronistic comprehension of his nomenclature; dearth of biographical material; and neglect of cultural context.” Interpreting Prichard’s multi-volume work presents complications as he avoided the term anthropology while exploring three of its four fields: physical or natural history, moral history (dealing with manners and morals, soon called “culture”), and linguistics (then called philology).

In Panel 1, Maria Beatrice Di Brizio (HOAN/EASA, France), read a paper on “Historicizing Anthropological Observation: Edward Burnett Tylor’s Methods of Data Collection and Processing.” She questioned anachronistic readings of Tylor’s anthropology as “speculative.” Focusing on his archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico (1856) as well as on his “armchair” research practices, Di Brizio demonstrated that Tylor sought to “establish anthropology as an empirical and inductive science.” She concluded by stating that “the histories of anthropologies should be approached with conceptual tools offered by both anthropology and the history of sciences”—a call that was taken up throughout the conference.

In Panel 3, “Historicizing Anachronistic Motives,” Carlotta Santini (CNRS, Paris) presented an interesting paper on “Regresses in Science: The Question of Race,” focusing on the late 19th-century anthropologists from Berlin, Adolf Bastian and Rudolf Virchow. They published “accurate and passionate critiques of the scientific inconsistency of the concept of race,” the scientific rigor of which was lost through an influx of French theories. Santini showed that Boas’s teachers anticipated objections to reductive and simplistic concepts of race. The issue of paradigm change returned in the lecture by Brooke Penaloza-Patzak (University of Vienna), “The Rise and Decline of the Natural Science of Human Culture, 1869–1920 and Thereafter.” In the late 1860s, Penaloza-Patzak argued, a “new doctrine began to crystalize, one which proponents from London to Berlin, Florence to Vienna and beyond, self-consciously framed as the natural science of human culture.” Proponents included Bastian and Virchow, who attempted to establish a school of “liberal ethnology” in Berlin and develop a more “systematic science of man.”  She followed this story from the European revolutions of 1848, the campaigns to debunk pseudoscientific race science, the creation of ethnographic collections by German and Austrian-based scientists, up to the 1887 debate between Franz Boas and O. T. Mason, as well as Boas’s turn away from morphology in anthropology by 1908.

In a concluding paper in the same panel, Jeremy MacClancy (Oxford Brookes University, UK), presented the case of Fernando Henriques, a Jamaican anthropologist working in Britain, against portrayals of British anthropology which “over-simplify history, seeing anthropology as an uneven contest between colonialist academics and silenced local intellectuals.” Too often “these accounts rely too heavily on oversimplified, hegemonic versions of our recent past.”

On Thursday, 7 December, Thomas Hylland Eriksen gave the closing keynote, titled “The Many Languages in the History of European Anthropology.” He argued that “English is dominant in the field, which places most European anthropologists at a disadvantage” when it comes to publishing, funding, networking, Yet diversity has its virtues: Fredrik Barth “spoke a different voice when addressing audiences in Norway than in the Anglo-Saxon world.”

During the open forum which followed, Christine Laurière (CNRS, Paris) made a plea for the history of anthropology, which is “not a hobby for older generations, but a duty … we must fight for the utility, the beauty—we owe this to the next generation.” Frederico Delgado Rosa (Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal) called the study of the history of anthropology a “transnational adventure.”

Looking back on these intense four days, the first HOAIC was an undeniable success. Peter Skalník, senior participant from the Czech Republic, found it “one of the best” he had attended: “It is European but actually worldwide.” Major themes included the need for historicist views on anthropology; a lively interest in “pushed out, excluded and forgotten … anthropologists, ethnologists and folklorists” (Panel 5); the strong attention to neglected, marginalized and “missing others” within anthropology itself (Panel 8); and finally “early ethnographers” (Panels 3 and 6). Clearly, the history of anthropology appeals to both historians and anthropologists, and this conference has shown that there are many histories of anthropology in its multiple incarnations. The research subject opened up by George Stocking and others in the 1970s is now, half a century later, a major interdisciplinary field of studies pursued by anthropologists, historians, and historians of science.

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Saale), Germany, 23 January 2024

Han F. Vermeulen: contributions / website / / Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology