Now that borders and walls are so commonplace in our daily political discourse, a reflection on our (admittedly more benign) disciplinary boundaries seems timely. I came to the history of anthropology from an early focus on post-WWII evolutionary biology; encountering the particular mix of physical and cultural anthropology that underpinned post-revolutionary indigenista politics in Mexico necessarily led me to a disciplinary identity crisis.
Like much of the history of science, the history of Mexican anthropology used to center on heroic and nationalist biographies set in the post-revolutionary decades. Thankfully, those works have been succeeded by nuanced histories that have addressed, among other topics, the connection between racism and the pragmatic perversion of Boas’s “influence” on Mexican cultural anthropology via Manuel Gamio (the “father” of Mexican anthropology) and Alfonso Caso (founder of the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia and a Viking Fund Medal recipient in 1952). Situated at the fringes of archaeology and anthropology, Gamio, Caso, and others of their generation foregrounded the relationship between the archaeological ruins of a glorious pre-Hispanic past and the perceived need to modernize its descendants. In their hands, anthropology became a favorite nationalistic tool employed to foster a more integrated country.
None of this was my original subject matter until it became clear that the history of applied anthropology provided a critical context for my inquiry into the blood sampling campaigns applied to indigenous populations in Mexico in the 1960s. Here, the history of cultural and physical anthropology became thoroughly enmeshed with the history of the life sciences, including evolutionary biology, genetics, biomedicine, and public health. But it also became part of the social and diplomatic history of a country that enthusiastically participated in international modernization programs—such as large-scale malaria eradication campaigns—in a particularly nationalistic vein. The porous borders brought to the fore by blood sampling practices in the 1960s have thus for me ultimately translated into an opportunity for boundary crossing into the field of contemporary Mexican history.
It is tempting to say that we are free to draw and choose the contours of each historical project—and to rearrange them for each conference we attend. Indeed, I have changed my disciplinary and methodological hat many times in the past. But traditionally, disciplines accommodate specific research programs which involve particular socio-professional identities and institutions. The history of anthropology is a mature field marked especially by the latter—HAN being a great example of this. Its subject matter, ranging from the very German tradition of philosophical anthropology, to the extensive studies typical of physical anthropology, has produced an open-ended research program, which, not surprisingly, has proven too attractive to resist for scholars from a variety of backgrounds. Humans, and the construction of human categories for medical, philosophical, political, scientific, and other sorts of inquiries, are just too important and appealing: we may recognize a faint boundary, but still want to cross it, back and forth, ultimately producing more than just one-book forays. It is precisely its location at the crossroads of many other inquiries, and its “open arms” attitude toward interlopers like me, which makes the history of anthropology as vital and crucial today as it was forty years ago.
Read another piece in this series.