The History of Anthropology Between Expansion and Pluralism

The history of anthropology is coming of age as a worldwide pursuit. After its early stages in the 1960s and 1970s with the Conference on the History of Anthropology (1962), inspired by A. Irving Hallowell and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council in New York, and the History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN), published by an editorial committee of seven and edited by George W. Stocking, Jr. in Chicago from 1973 on, the field has clearly expanded both in the USA and elsewhere. The digital HAN, launched as a website in June 2016, counts 350 subscribers and the History of Anthropology Interest Group of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has 175 members. The World Anthropologies Network (WAN), founded in Brazil in 2002–03, focuses on non-hegemonic histories of anthropology. In France there was sufficient interest to publish the journal Gradhiva twice a year from 1986 on; an online encyclopedia on the history of anthropology and ethnography, named Bérose, is now being restructured by a founding team of 15 researchers and is expanding internationally to include new collaborators. In the United Kingdom the Royal Anthropological Institute is investigating its history by means of annual conferences and plans to publish four volumes. In the German-speaking countries a Working Group on the History of Anthropology has been meeting within the German Anthropological Association biannually from 1993 on. In Russia some 30 scholars regularly present papers on the subject during the biannual congresses of Russian ethnographers and anthropologists. In Europe as a whole the newly founded History of Anthropology Network (HOAN) was established within the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in November 2016; it now has 85 members and counting.

This progress is understandable. The history of anthropology is clearly important, and not only for anthropologists. The field of research concerns human diversity and unity, both in socio-cultural and biological regard. Accordingly, the subject is huge, has in principle no boundaries, in scope, era, or the regions covered.

Thus, there is every reason to applaud the initiative of the team based in Philadelphia aimed at rejuvenating HAN (previously published on paper by George Stocking from 1973 to 2003 and by Henrika Kuklick from 2004 to 2012). The newsletter can play an important role in facilitating research among scholars with an interest in the subject.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a difference between historians of anthropology in Europe and those in the USA and the UK. In continental Europe the majority of practitioners consisted of historians of anthropology who were trained as social or cultural anthropologists, whereas in the USA and the UK the field was also covered by practitioners schooled as historians, especially intellectual historians, such as Stocking, or historians of science, such as Kuklick. This discrepancy could lead to polemics, such as the exchange between Adam Kuper in London and Stocking on the latter’s edited volume, Functionalism Historicized (Stocking 1984) in the American Ethnologist (Kuper 1985, Stocking 1986). While Kuper argued for an insider’s view and presentism, Stocking promoted contextualization and historicism. Similar conflicts have broken out on other occasions, as more senior readers of HAN will surely remember. For one, the idea of a history of anthropology newsletter was first suggested to Stocking by Robert E. Bieder, an anthropologist studying the history of American ethnology (Bieder 1972, 1986), when they were both working in Chicago. Ultimately, Stocking, the historian, carried out the task, producing the Newsletter, a dozen edited volumes, and several monographs—even if some anthropologists felt excluded.

Meanwhile, the field has diversified. Practicing anthropologists, historians, and historians of science now develop the history of anthropology. Two excellent recent books were written by an historian and an historian of science (Conklin 2013, Sera-Shriar 2013). Competition is good, but cooperation is better. My wish for the future is that rifts between historians of anthropology, historians of science, and practicing anthropologists will diminish. Favoring methodological pluralism (Vermeulen 2015), the history of anthropology has an important contribution to make in highlighting anthropology’s longue durée, its enormous variability across the globe, and its continued relevance.



Bieder, Robert Eugene. 1972. “The American Indian and the Development of Anthropological Thought in the United States, 1780–1851.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota.

———. 1986. Science Encounters the Indian, 1820–1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Conklin, Alice L. 2013. In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kuper, Adam Jonathan. 1985. “The Historians’ Revenge.” American Ethnologist 12: 523–528.

Sera-Shriar, Efram. 2013. The Making of British Anthropology, 1813–1871. London: Pickering & Chatto.

Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1984. Functionalism Historicized: Essays on British Social Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

———. 1986. “The Anthropologist’s Rorschach.” American Ethnologist 13: 155–157.

Vermeulen, Han F. 2015. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Read more from this series here.

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

1 Comment

  1. Liberating, to calmly describe the longstanding tension between those, such as Stocking and Kuklick, who believed only scholars trained as historians should write histories of anthropology, and we anthropologists who are convinced that practicing within the discipline provides insights and means of evaluating data crucial in writing histories. As an anthropologist, I tried to tell Stocking that my training (Barnard and Harvard) had given me the required skills of research and evaluation, basic in all doctoral programs in the humanities and related fields. He was unbending for many years, which itself is part of the history of anthropology.

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