Histories of Anthropology: Transforming Knowledge and Power, Cambridge, 2017: Conference Report


Histories of Anthropology: Transforming Knowledge and Power” was a two-day conference held at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, on 18–19 September 2017. Papers ranged widely in geographical scope, in their methodological approach, and in their focus on different anthropological subfields. This report analyses submitted abstracts to give a suggestion about the state of the field and summarizes the contributions of each of the speakers made in their presentations.

The call for papers was circulated to university departments across Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Forty respondents sent in proposals. There were doubtless many institutional and financial barriers that might have stopped historians of anthropology from applying to present at the conference. With these limitations in mind, some headline findings from the submissions will be outlined.

In general, respondents tended to be more junior than senior, based in European institutions, and working on the history of European anthropology. Sixteen of the submissions were from postgraduate students, nine were from postdocs, nine from full-time faculty, one from an emeritus/a professor, three from museum professionals, one from a research scholar, and one from an independent researcher. Twenty-two submissions came from Europe (twelve from within the UK), twelve from the USA, two from Australia, two from Mexico, and one each from Brazil and Canada.

The papers were spread fairly evenly across the chronological range outlined in the call for papers (1870–1970) and tended to cluster in three periods. The earlier period (1870–1914) saw fifteen submissions, eleven on 1914–45, and thirteen on 1945–70. In terms of geographical range, however, topics skewed towards Europe, with twenty-two papers submitted on European anthropologists or anthropology (of these, sixteen were about the UK). Seven papers were about American anthropology. Papers with a non–Euro-American focus made up eleven of the submissions. A quarter of the papers were institutional histories with the remainder focused on particular field sites in which anthropological research was carried out, or where the subjects of their research were invested in engaging in public or political debate. The report that follows gives an outline of the topics covered in the accepted papers—grouped by the themes of colonialism, postcolonialism, and power relations—and then provides a summary of the keynote address delivered by Sadiah Qureshi.

Theme 1: Anthropology and Colonialism

The first major theme to emerge from the conference was a tendency toward revisiting and revising anthropology’s role as a “handmaiden of colonialism.” Several conference participants illustrated the intricate relations, influences, and negotiations between anthropologists and colonial administrations, emphasizing the complex nature of the anthropology-colonialism nexus. Elise Smith (University of Warwick) told how craniology had an outsized influence on fin de siècle British anthropological debates regarding human evolution, racial purity, and the resistance of indigenous peoples to settler colonialism. Ultimately, craniology helped initiate a paternalistic effort to preserve the native population of Tasmania via the reinforcement of the public’s imagination of Tasmanian racial inferiority.

Thomas Simpson’s (University of Cambridge) paper demonstrated that anthropology in British Northeast India during the late Victorian period was “parasitic on, rather than constitutive of, state power.” Anthropologists working in Assam and Eastern Bengal, like J.H. Hutton, drew heavily on older ethnographic depictions of native peoples taken by colonial officers as a means to examine pre-contact social relations during a period of accelerating acculturation. Hutton’s career in India complicated the long-standing critique of amateurism within professional anthropology. Simpson showed that the viewpoints of amateur anthropologists (i.e. colonial administrators, traders, and missionaries) often profoundly influenced the assumptions of professional anthropologists.

Anthropological knowledge also affected both sides of the colonizer-colonized divide. Yannick Bauer’s (Freie Universität Berlin/Humboldt Universität) paper illustrated the influence of fin de siècle European studies of African peoples on African intellectuals. European theories, such as the Austro-German Kulturkreislehre, influenced intellectuals like Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912) and Joseph Casely Hayford (1866–1930). These men challenged the linear civilizational hierarchies underpinning colonial administrations. By proposing that African culture was a unique civilization, shaped by geographical and historical influences distinct from Europe, Blyden and Hayford utilized colonial anthropology to lay the foundations for anti-colonial Pan-Africanism.

Viktor M. Stoll’s (University of Cambridge) paper on the fin de siècle Bosnian research of renowned Austro-German ethnologist Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954) illuminated the role of the “mandate dilemma” on the broader Western turn toward applied anthropology in a colonial context. Faced with balancing protection of a native European people and colonial economic development, under the intense international scrutiny of the post-Berlin Congress (1878) era, Bosnia’s Habsburg administrator Benjamin von Kállay (1839–1903) pioneered the first ethnologically-informed “scientific” colonial administration in Europe. Thurnwald was tasked with studying the socio-economic impact of the administration’s agricultural modernization program on the stability of the native population. It was this focus on native acculturation that informed his later trans-imperial work within British League of Nations mandates during the interwar period. Thurnwald’s Bosnian work demonstrated that the antecedents for the West’s anthropology-colonialism nexus existed outside of the traditional Anglo-American interwar origin story.

Theme 2: Anthropology and Postcolonialism

The conference also saw a number of papers that discussed the postcolonial alliance of anthropology and international development. Branwyn Poleykett’s (University of Cambridge) paper on French anthropology during West African decolonization showed that anthropological theories and methods, shaped in the cauldron of colonialism, were appropriated by international development organizations to advise progressive policies for urbanizing African populations in postcolonial Françafrique. Such policies were used to fix populations by imposing control on nomadic peoples, expanding state control via the perpetuation of French colonial administrative principles.

Adrianna Link’s (American Philosophical Society) paper on the concept of “urgent anthropology,” developed by Dillon Ripley and Sol Tax at the Smithsonian’s Center for the Study of Man during the Cold War (1968), further demonstrated the diffusion of the anthropology-colonialism nexus into the postcolonial world of international development and environmentalism. Established as a pivotal physical and conceptual space in the field’s rejection of colonial collaboration, the Center drew on the same expertise of the colonial era, repackaging and expanding its purview into the realm of international liberalism.

Thomas Meaney (Columbia University) examined Clifford Geertz’s disillusionment with postcolonial “New Nations,” as he embraced Kenneth Burke’s and Walker Percy’s semiotic theories. The paper illuminated the continued influence of colonial anthropological assumptions of non-European capacity for self-government. Geertz’s indictment of Third World politics, widely criticized for not embracing the impact of globalization on postcolonial states, was a response to what he perceived as the political construction of an ethno-nationalist identity by indigenous power brokers in order to make the turbulent history of decolonization “intelligible and meaningful” to their constituents.

Theme 3: Anthropology and Metropolitan Power Relations

Lastly, the conference also shed light on anthropology’s influence on metropolitan power relations. During the high tide of colonialism, anthropological theories, methods and practitioners contributed disruptive influences to the knowledge/power hierarchies found in the centers of Western colonial power. Egbert Klautke (University College London) demonstrated that the late nineteenth-century German discipline of Völkerpsychologie represented the “ascendant liberalism” of the period through the idea of scientific-moral progress and the primacy of the Volk as the foundation of human societies. The transnational influence of Völkerpsychologie’s foundational theorists, like Moritz Lazarus, Heyman Steinthal, and Wilhelm Wundt, provided the intellectual framework for Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski to overcome the standing racial and hierarchical assumptions within fin de siècle Anglo-American anthropology.

Sophie Scott-Brown’s (Australian National University) paper addressed Phyllis Kaberry’s innovative research of the Nso women for the International African Institute (1945–1963). Kaberry’s career showed that applied anthropological work carried out by female researchers, often the only research conducted specifically on native women, was met with apathy by male-dominated academic institutions in the metropole. These groundbreaking studies of women, by women, are only now beginning to be incorporated into the history of anthropology.

Disruptions also came from outside the anthropological discipline. Iris I. Clever (University of California, Los Angeles) showed that physical anthropologists’ embrace of anthropometry to address racial classification was rapidly adopted by the emerging field of biostatistics. Biostatisticians like Karl Pearson and Geoffrey Morant at University College London sought to find a “Coefficient of Racial Likeness” that would allow the investigation of racial traits on a grand scale. This attempt at comparative empiricism, part of the early scientific embrace of “big data,” was roundly rejected by the older cohort of anthropologists who feared the merger of the fields as a threat to their own position in Anglophone academia.

Anthropological knowledge also challenged power relations outside the academy. Alí Ruiz Coronel’s (National Autonomous University of Mexico) paper demonstrated that, despite the progressive and anti-racial views espoused by the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnography (founded by Boas in 1910), the Mexican government appropriated anthropology into a broader scheme of “internal colonialism.” The government sought to buttress its political legitimacy by raising the status of the inexistent Aztecs and Mayans to nearly mythical proportions, while simultaneously using the same research to disenfranchise contemporary indigenous peoples that resisted government policies.

Lastly, anthropology as a means for political legitimacy was also harnessed in an era of international ideological struggle. David G. Anderson’s (University of Aberdeen) paper focused on the Eastern Siberian research of Sergei M. Shirokogoroff’s (1887–1939) search for a “leading [Eurasian] etnos,” which roundly rejected the egalitarianism of the Bolsheviks as part of his pro-Czarist rejection of communism. With his intrinsically anti-Bolshevik theories, Shirokogoroff found sponsorship from both Nationalist China and the Japanese puppet regime in Manchukuo during the interwar period, becoming part of the struggle to counter communist ideology in the Far East.

Keynote: The Epistemologies of Extinction

The conference keynote was given by Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, who introduced attendees to her current research on the history of extinction. She sketched out the “shifting epistemologies of extinction,” particularly human extinction, in order to highlight a turning point in the nineteenth century that still reverberates in the present. Before the eighteenth century, explanations of extinction, both animal and human, revealed an awareness of the role played by humans through, for example, invasion or the importation of new predators. This awareness rested on a particular conception of nature as being the work of God and therefore a realm of perfection. A disruptive occurrence such as extinction was therefore easily traced back to human intervention.

Qureshi highlighted the impact of nineteenth-century explanations of extinction as natural, no longer something induced by humans. Over the course of the century, extinction came to encompass phenomena as diverse as demographic depletion, depopulation, and violence, and, crucially, was cast as the inevitable effect of cultural contact. A new vision of nature underpinned these explanations. Darwin’s theory of selection, particularly in the more competitive and struggle-based guises of the Social Darwinists, presented conflict, enslavement, and war as mechanisms of selection, thereby naturalising inter-group conflict and relieving actors of responsibility. The notion that the outcomes of such conflict reflected the inherent inferiority of the colonised underpinned these explanations and persisted well into the twentieth century, when it was further popularised by Daisy M. Bates in her 1938 book The Passing of the Aborigines. Here, Qureshi paused to point out that by this time populations were already recovering from their dramatic nineteenth-century demographic decline and were in fact beginning to fight for land rights and broader recognition, often with some success. This disconnect introduced the final section of the keynote lecture, which addressed the persistence of natural cause explanations for human extinction in the twentieth century, precisely at a time when increasing focus on climate change and the notion of the Anthropocene seem to have pulled human action and responsibility back into discussions of animal extinction. However, specific human groups, particularly indigenous ones, are still seen as inevitably passing or vanishing, such as uncontacted tribes in the Amazon or vanishing “ways of life” in Ireland. In these cases, extinction has remained a “natural” process, one that sets aside questions of responsibility and devalues any attempt to halt such processes. In her closing remarks, Qureshi outlined some issues that require further reflection in light of a more critical history of extinction, notably the question of accountability, and the erasure of hybrid identities that results from the assumption of group purity underpinning narratives of extinction.

1 Comment

  1. This conference looks much like one in Cambridge in 2004, organized by two postdocs and with similar younger scholars presenting. It was scheduled for Caius, and an opening dinner held there, but the sessions held in the McDonald Centre. At the conference, a Cambridge don took pains to inform me that Caius was tainted by its late Master Joseph Needham being “a Commie”. I tried to explain that he was a Christian Marxist but to deaf ears. Bruce Trigger attended the 2004 conference, he was finishing the second edition of his History of Archaeological Thought, it was soon afterward that he developed cancer and died :( One of the presenters was Koji Mizoguchi, now the President of WAC.

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