No less than epidemics or scientific facts, disciplinary crises are constructed. And just as a disease or a truth claim can also be real, so can a crisis. In all three cases, much depends on perspective and who is doing the defining. Few scholars today would contest, for instance, that anthropologists in the nineteen-sixties and seventies debated their profession’s politics and their discipline’s objects of study, or that these debates called into question tenets considered fundamental to the field (Kuklick 2008; Clifford 2005). As George Stocking put it in his original call to arms for the History of Anthropology Newsletter, anthropologists turned to historical analysis in part because of their shared “sense of disciplinary crisis.” From HAN’s brief “statement of purpose,” it was this casual yet confident emphasis on crisis that jumped out at me. Surely, this assertion needs some probing.

The cover page of Hymes’s 1962 article “On Studying the History of Anthropology.”

Much ink has been spilled over the last fifty years (and counting) analyzing anthropology’s flaws and coming to terms with its complicated colonial and political pasts. But what if these preoccupations have obscured other historical patterns associated with what we might label disciplinary or professional successes? I am thinking here of two kinds of interrelated measures, one institutional and the other epistemological. Both matter to our understanding of the history of anthropology and both help to explain why Dell Hymes, a UC Berkeley anthropologist reporting in 1962 on the Social Science Research Council conference on the history of anthropology (which Stocking also invoked in the statement of purpose), could assert that the field, especially in the United States, was then “flushed with success”: “course enrollments increase; jobs multiply; sources of funds expand” (Hymes 1962a, 27). More than this, he elaborated, two linchpins of the field, “cultural relativism and field work in faraway places,” had become so widespread that they were no longer anthropologists’ unique preserve (Hymes 1962a, 27). The disciplinary crisis for Hymes, at least in terms of this 1962 event, had less to do with his field’s complicity (with the powerful) or culpability (in causing social harms) and more to do with its disciplinary achievements (in spreading its ideas and methods). In Hymes’s telling, in fact, anthropologists did not turn to history because of a disciplinary crisis, but were beginning to experience a crisis, in part, because they were under newfound historical scrutiny: “as a (professional) tribe, we are about to be made rather self-conscious and uncomfortable” (Hymes 1962b, 81).[1]

This is one of anthropology’s many paradoxes: just as the field underwent greater disciplinary growth than it ever had before, many of its affiliates characterized the field (and perceived it) as being in a time of crisis. Wars—big and small, hot and cold—help to explain their attitudes since these affected their actual research and professional relationships (Mandler 2013). So too does decolonization and the proliferation of critiques of anthropology for the way its experts had misconstrued and misinterpreted people living under colonial rule. Implicit in some of these controversies was the question of whether anthropology had any right to persist, particularly if it might do (further) harm going forward.

As I have mulled over HAN’s origins and what I know about anthropology’s histories, I continue to wonder whether the field’s mixed fortunes have received fair and full treatment, or if various assumptions about its effects are accurate. Given my own focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, I remain especially curious to know if any causal relationship existed between industrial nations’ retreat from empire, in the decades following the Second World War, and anthropology’s professional ascendance in this same period. Is it just a coincidence that empires fell as anthropology rose? Indeed, as Hymes suggested in 1962, anthropologists had been more successful than adherents of any other human science in focusing elite attention on subaltern points of view, in pushing for reflexive analyses across cultures, and in calling into question a number of sociological absolutes and certainties. As these perspectives became more widespread, by the middle of the twentieth century, they also destabilized norms about appropriate and inappropriate political relations.

While there is a growing body of literature on decolonization and the human sciences, few scholars have yet examined how, if at all, anthropologists’ successes in the middle of the twentieth century played a part in undermining rationales for imperial rule. So much attention has been paid to (and assumed about) colonial complicity and epistemological violence, for instance, that other, equally important patterns appear to have been understudied. To put this in the form of a question, should scholars assign any weight to different kinds of expertise in our explanations of the end of empires? Assigning no significance to anthropology strikes me as wrong, in part because historians and anthropologists are so willing to attribute a fair amount of weight to all forms of knowledge in bolstering colonial rule. After all, if these analyses are correct, wouldn’t it be safe to assume that knowledge played some role in their dismantling too? Or, is the process of taking apart an empire immune to the forces of anthropology?


Read another piece in this series.



Clifford, James. 2005. “Rearticulating Anthropology.” In Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reconfiguring the Discipline of Anthropology, edited by Daniel Segal and Sylvia Yanagisako, 24-48. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1962a. “On Studying the History of Anthropology,” Social Science Research Council Items, 16:25-27.

Hymes, Dell. 1962b. “On Studying the History of Anthropology,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, 26:81-86.

Kuklick, Henrika, ed. 2008. The New History of Anthropology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Mandler, Peter. 2013. Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stocking, George. 2010. Glimpses Into My Own Black Box: An Exercise in Self-Deconstruction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

[1] This is an almost identical version of the original essay (see Hymes 1962a) and includes an appendix of the full list of participants, paper titles, and invited attendees at the 1962 conference. Also see Stocking, 2010: 88-89.

Helen Tilley: contributions / website / / Department of History, Northwestern University