Revitalization and Reminiscence: On the History of the History of Anthropology Newsletter

Since its inception in 1973, the History of Anthropology Newsletter has played a major role in establishing the history of anthropology as a legitimate sub-discipline of anthropology. Under the leadership of George W. Stocking, Jr., HAN attracted a subscription list of non-specialists, mostly anthropologists, who needed historical background for their major research; readers were often contributors, as well, adding occasional pieces notable for their careful attention to the minutiae of ethnographic context. Having been in on HAN from the beginning, the revitalization of the Newsletter seems a good opportunity to reminisce and speculate on the more interdisciplinary and theoretical future we might envision for the history of anthropology.

Scholars always have had their hobby horses and priorities. George was no exception. He declined the University of Wisconsin’s invitation to establish a journal in history of anthropology, choosing instead to spearhead a series of thematic volumes subject to close editorial oversight. (And he was the most interventionist editor I have ever worked with, a predilection he freely acknowledged.) The HOA series was a sterling contribution to scholarship, although it gradually moved away from the grueling annual schedule initially envisioned. George edited eight volumes before turning it over to his former student, Richard Handler, at the University of Virginia. The momentum had dissipated, however, and the 2010 autobiographical reflections of the founding editor gave HOA a fitting close as the end of an era.

George also had the foresight to recognize the need for an open-ended channel of communication less closely tied to his own scholarship. Hence HAN. At the time, I was based at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and my then-husband Anthony L. Vanek was running a linguistics journal out of our basement. When George was nonplussed by the mechanics of issuing a newsletter without secretarial staff, we volunteered to print and mail the journal—and did so until he was able to obtain University of Chicago support for the burgeoning enterprise. In its early days HAN provided a kind of message board, essential before personal computers and the Internet. It allowed scholars whose works appeared in a wide range of journals across the social sciences and history of science to access one another’s work.

In those early years, before the University of Chicago undertook to make an anthropologist of him, George had argued for a fundamental divide between the historicism of historians and the presentism of anthropologists. This was a reasonable response to the overt presentism of many contributions from anthropologists writing disciplinary history in the sixties and seventies, but colleagues in both disciplines chipped away at the distinction and learned from each other in the process. When editorship of HAN passed to Riki Kuklick and the University of Pennsylvania (alma mater for both me and Stocking), the history of anthropology ceased to be the sole intellectual property of anthropologists (if indeed it ever really was). Historians and historians of science have made their mark and will do so even more energetically with HAN under the leadership of a new generation based on this side of the field.

I too have my hobby horses. The Newsletter in its updated form now participates in a much denser field of resources in history of anthropology. Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology, which I edit with Stephen O. Murray for the University of Nebraska Press, catalogues over 25 titles since 2001 with authorships about evenly divided between anthropologists and historians. When Frederic W. Gleach and I established Histories of Anthropology Annual to consolidate history of anthropology research in a single venue, we emphasized the standpoint of the historian, with academic discipline being only one of its key components, and celebrated the plurality of standpoints from which a given history might be constructed. We have encouraged anthropologists and ethnographers working with oral traditions to use such material in the production of collaborative alternative histories. Like George with HOA, we were swamped by the annual schedule. After seven volumes and a hiatus for reorganization within Nebraska’s book division, numbered volumes now appear with individual titles although these titles are assigned after we see what the broad editorial policy has brought in a given year. The future seems sustainable.

In addition, the History of Anthropology Interest Group within the American Anthropological Association has also provided another mode of getting many of us together. Increasingly we are joined by history of science colleagues in sharing common interests and building on cross-ties of discipline, geographic or ethnographic specialization, and theoretical proclivities. The General Anthropology Division has provided us a safe home at the AAA with guaranteed annual sessions; the one named in honor of George Stocking has ranged widely in the topics included. These sessions continue to toggle between the poles of specialized themes and incidental pieces of historical interest to the discipline.

The loss of two key figures in the history of anthropology—George and Riki—has been a serious blow. But both have left a legacy of students and ideas—as well as crucial venues for publication and communication—that bode very well indeed for our shared futures.

Regna Darnell: contributions / website / / Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Founding Director of First Nations Studies at University of Western Ontario

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Regna for this nice summary of continuity and change, and of the spirit linking these worthy endeavors.

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