Why is the history of anthropology necessary and vital now? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other approaches to its content and questions)? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other human sciences or political/intellectual/material intersections)? At the risk of seeming to be a curmudgeon, I have to register my doubts that these questions merit the affirmative elaborations that they seem to presuppose. Any historical phenomenon merits its history being recorded and engaged. Anthropology has a history and so is a worthy subject of historiographical inquiry, and as Stocking amply demonstrated, a historiography that cannot legitimately be confined merely to its intellectually internal twists and turns.
I regularly teach one semester of a year-long sequence in the history of anthropology required of our graduate students at Rice. (I treat the history of the discipline from slightly before its formal establishment as a discipline up to The Second World War; my colleague Cymene Howe has to grapple with what comes after.) What I teach is, to my mind, of importance to my students for two reasons. It aids them when applying for jobs in not being snowed by disciplinary conservatives who remain convinced that Radcliffe-Brown or Alfred Kroeber remain of essential contemporary relevance. Countervailingly, it also alerts them to our unfortunate disciplinary habit of throwing babies out with the bath; even those of our predecessors who were, in hindsight, most deeply imbricated within the broader doxa of their time have sometimes yielded concepts and methodologies that do still deserve active and constructive engagement.
I could continue in this affirmative vein at some length, but my skepticism prevails. In the end, I do not think that the specific history of anthropology has any special place among the history of either what most of the Anglophone world calls the social sciences (quote-unquote) or the modulations of these sciences as they have been conceived and classified within either the French or the German traditions. Pace Stocking’s obvious investment in recording and engaging a disciplinarily specific history of anthropology, his enterprise results in nothing less (nor anything more) than a social history of the emergence and unfolding of one discipline among many others within the formation of and eventual division of labor among the broader modulations of the “social sciences,” the “sciences humaines,” and the “Geisteswissenschaften.”
Anthropology is sometimes touted as a unique synthesis of the concepts and approaches of these various modulations (“the most humanistic of the social sciences, the most social-scientific of the humanities”), but of course that’s false, at least at length. Not synthesis, but instead subdisciplinary (and sub-subdisciplinary) fragmentation has long been the prevailing order of the day. So goes anthropology. So, at length, go the rest of the social sciences (and the sciences humaines and the Geisteswissenschaften). Any adequate history of anthropology must pursue an analysis of the contestations and vagaries of that prevailing order. It is an order of the past. It marks our disciplinary contemporaneity as well.
Read another piece in this series.