I remember the early days of HAN and the appearance of George Stocking’s foundational work—I still have my much-scribbled-on copies. It has been enormously gratifying to see the history of anthropology mature over the last few decades. For me, the way in which the visual and material have moved to the center of the analytical field is especially significant, because there appears to be an especially productive entanglement of visual, material, and historical studies within anthropology.

This in part emerges from the archival and bibliographic (to which I would add museological) mapping called for in 1973. At this date, museums and photograph collections were seen as either irrelevances or embarrassing deposits of former, now discredited, anthropological practices, best dead and buried. I know because I was constantly challenged early in my career as to the usefulness, validity or even desirability of the kind of work I was doing with photographs.  The astonishing resurgence of visual and material studies has, in my view, been a vital force in the history of anthropology. The work of a new generation of scholars such as Christopher Morton (2012), Amos Morris-Reich (2016), and Craig Campbell (2014) have shown how bringing photographs into the very center of analysis can complicate and reorder anthropology’s history.

The unengaged archive c. 1965. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Accession number 2001.45.3.4.

In many ways such studies have placed more emphasis on the margins of the discipline than on its canonical and linear history. This has, on the one hand, challenged those more “whiggish” and teleological accounts of disciplinary development, and on the other hand complicated the reductionist or overdetermining proclivities of some of the more energetic aspects of post-modern analysis. Material and visual thinking have also stressed the interdisciplinary imperatives of anthropology’s histories, that anthropology cannot be understood as a unified and linear practice as we perhaps imagined in 1973. Its entanglements with, for instance, the history of the colonial, medicine, science, or politics, as well as intellectual history, positions history of anthropology in much wider networks of intellectual endeavor.

This of course reflects, and is reflected in, changes in the foci and practices of anthropologists themselves. It is now accepted that “doing” history of anthropology is to do “real” anthropology, and that the archive is a “fieldwork site” in its own right.  I hope few would now accuse me—as once happened—of “polluting the purity of the discipline” (possibly one of most thrilling things anyone has ever said about me). At the same time, the interdisciplinary approaches to anthropological knowledge promise increasing richness in the field. At one level, we have hardly started.



Campbell, Craig. 2014. Agitating Images: Photography Against History in Indigenous SiberiaMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edwards, Elizabeth. 2011. “Tracing Photography.” In Made to be Seen: A History of Visual Anthropology edited by Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby, 159–189. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morton, Christopher and Elizabeth Edwards, eds. 2009. Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the FrameFarnham, UK: Ashgate.

Morton, Christopher. 2012. “Photography and the Comparative Method: The Construction of an Anthropological Archive.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18: 369–396.

Morris-Reich, Amos. 2016. Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876–1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Read more from this series here.

Elizabeth Edwards: contributions / website / ejmedwards10@gmail.com / De Montfort University