Harvesting or Gleaning: Reflections on Dumpster Diving as Historical Method

Revisiting Stocking’s 1973 essay, I found the metaphor of the field of anthropology as an agricultural field somewhat at odds with my own historical sensibility. The depiction of “unobstructed acreage” and “unplowed furrows” being gradually settled by a new discipline—or raided by historians on one-book forays—may resonate for some scholars, but not for me. If I may recast the metaphor, the way I have always approached researching the history of anthropology is through gleaning—the Old Testament-sanctioned practice of the poor combing through recently harvested fields to scavenge for leftovers.

I was an anthropology major at Portland State University in the 1980s, but only became passionate about anthropology’s history through pursuing a certificate in Black Studies. (San Francisco State developed the first academic program in Black Studies in 1968; Portland State was an integral partner to the movement, helping to advance and institutionalize it.) One of the critical rhetorical and epistemological stanchions of the burgeoning field was articulating and understanding African-American culture and history as American culture and history, while simultaneously conceptualizing these as part of larger diasporic histories.

Employing this same approach, I have always viewed anthropology’s history as part of colonial history, North American history, European history, or African history. Stated differently, I have never viewed or pursued the history of anthropology as the history of a strictly delimited social science discipline. Anthropology contributed to U.S. public policy, popular culture, and the law in enduring ways during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a particularly formative period for American nation building and race making. Immigration and naturalization policies, American Indian removal and assimilation programs, eugenics, segregation and desegregation, Chinese exclusion, advertising and tourism, U.S. expansion to the Philippines, Samoa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, all involved anthropologists—sometimes supporting these initiatives, and other times challenging them. Often their role was not clear, nor is it clear in retrospect.

Photo Credit: R. Nial Bradshaw (Creative Commons)

Historians and scholars working in Africana, Women’s, American, Latinx, and Immigration Studies have examined the policies and practices in the American experience in which anthropology has had the most profound impact. Scholars in these fields continue to produce robust scholarship on race, nation, and citizenship as well as on the history of U.S. imperialism, war efforts, American Indian sovereignty, Jim Crow, and desegregation. The harvesting of knowledge is bountiful in these fertile and well-tilled terrains. I have found it much more productive to glean in these mature fields than try to conquer unpopulated terrain. (Okay, so the metaphor is straining.)

Looking at the history of anthropology from this perspective, I have to admit that although gleaning might sound more respectable, the method I employ is actually more like dumpster diving. Such a method of scholarly subsistence can be very effective simply because so much of the work has already been done; one has to just pick up what was left behind. Even so, although it is productive, one always feels more like a scavenger than a prospector; one is always an interloper or an invader of someone else’s field, whether for a one-book foray, or, more often, for a one-essay foray. This is a challenge because good history requires facility with the historiography of these mature fields, which can be quite daunting. I would argue, however, that attaining a working familiarity is manageable—and frankly, this is the challenge anyone takes on doing multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary work in any field.

There are many ways to construe and pursue the history of anthropology. I look forward to following the different methods, genres, approaches, and styles in HAN as we collectively plant seeds, harvest, and glean knowledge in a field which has proven both reliably productive and full of unexpected finds.



Here are a few “classic” books that mention anthropology and anthropologists, but in which it is not central. However, each author has identified sources and put anthropology in solid historical context. Picking up the anthropological strands of the story that these authors don’t pursue, for example, is the sort of the method I was describing. It also is a good way to integrate or create a dialogue between history of anthropology and other broader histories.

Gossett, Thomas F. 1963. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.

Haney Lopez, Ian. 2006. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. 10th anniversary edition. New York: New York University Press.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 2001. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917. New York: Hill & Wang.

Ngai, Mae M. 2002. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tucker, Willam H. 2002. The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Read more from this series here.

Lee D. Baker: contributions / website / leedbaker@duke.edu / Duke University

1 Comment

  1. Good metaphor, Lee. These dumpsters can be amazingly rich, high-class stuff in them. There’s an autistic man in Boulder CO, whom employers disdain, so he dives after midnight behind the Whole Foods store and exchanges his cart-fulls of luxury foods for a safe place to sleep.

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