When we editors of the History of Anthropology Newsletter refer to ourselves as “the HAN Dynasty,” we’re making a (bad) joke. But we have all felt the weighty presence of the ancestors. It was a strange and awful coincidence that HAN’s first two editors died in the first half of 2013: George Stocking after long preparation, Riki Kuklick with terrible suddenness.

Riki Kuklick in Amsterdam, May 2006, photograph courtesy of Donna Mehos.

The shock of Riki’s disappearance contributed a great deal to the sense I shared with a handful of graduate students that in some way we had to keep HAN alive. During those conversations— held in Riki’s former office— the graduate students convinced each other that they wanted more than just to preserve the journal’s past: they wanted to keep it going. Though I felt an enormous debt to George, who supervised my BA thesis (on anthropologists who had “gone native”), and to Riki, a generous and hilarious colleague at Penn, I hesitated. Couldn’t we just stick to the back issues? “No,” they said, “we want this journal to continue, and we want to remain part of it, to carry the field into the future.” I agreed to be chief editor— but only once we had found a way to make it a co-operative endeavor, an editorial collective. We divided the newsletter into “departments,” each with its own team; editors might come and go, but HAN would remain.

We have made it through the launch and now, with over a year online, HAN is enjoying a modest though quantifiably robust existence (reviews, essays, and reports from over 50 contributors, over 27,000 page views, over 200 subscribers). Our thoughts have turned from preserving to building. A striking moment came in early 2017 when over two dozen extremely qualified graduate students responded to an open call for volunteers: the history of anthropology, it seems, is now an important piece of the intellectual and professional landscape for many starting out on scholarly careers. HAN should be one of the places where that emerging and energetic community can meet and be visible to itself.

As we move forward, three newer directions for the discipline seem highly promising, and HAN can help foster them all.

1. As I’ve learned from my fellow editors and other contributors, the history of anthropology has become an indispensable but no longer self-contained element in transdisciplinary, transnational histories. Anthropologists and those they study appear in significant walk-on roles in larger histories of colonialism, state power, international relations, circulating practices, and expertise, including economics. Such transversal histories pass through anthropology in pursuit of narratives going well beyond national, regional, or disciplinary borders. Along the way, they may retain not only anthropology’s stories but some of its methods and insights.

2. The history of anthropology, like anthropology itself, can be a place for research and activism around “indigeneity”: the academic study of and by those anthropological subjects who, despite the pessimism of salvage anthropology, are still here— continuing and reinventing their traditions and demanding recognition and legal justice. After decades in which anthropologists paralyzingly lamented their inability to truly know the “others” they studied, or repented their complicity in their eradication, anthropology and its history can sound out and document these voices and advance their claims. Histories of ethnographic acts of possession provide historical documents and perspectives for advocacy around land rights, the ownership of artefacts, biomedical materials, intellectual property, and commodified tokens of “native cultures.”

3. The third line of development links the anthropology of science with the history of science. In the late 1990s, the anthropological study of scientific sites—weapons research institutes, particle accelerators, systems-theory think tanks, genetic and neurochemical labs—became a growth industry. Simultaneously, many historians of science were claiming that sciences of the past could only be understood with the help of anthropological concepts and methods. Both kinds of scholars connected knowledge production to ritual, everyday practice, social structure, cosmological divisions of pure and impure, sacred and profane. At times they even talked with each other. This disciplinary convergence may now have slowed (or at least taken new forms), but there remains a powerful synergy between these domains that many of us are eager to amplify. The history of anthropology is an important contact zone between history of science and anthropology of science. It shows people as they try to make sense of alien systems of knowledge, to trace connections among individual experience, institutions, power, practice, and experiment—and to develop theoretical frameworks for the ways in which these strands coalesce into self-evident worlds, modes of being, ontologies.

Anthropologists’ efforts to grasp and convey these other forms of life (while reckoning with the limitations of their own standpoints) offer powerful models, positive and negative, for current attempts to understand the present and the past. They also add up to an archive of the many ways human worlds can be put together—whether among Trobriand Islanders, Thai Buddhist monks, high-speed traders in New York, synthetic biologists in Palo Alto, Inuit hunters, Oxbridge dons, Indonesian foresters, Renaissance natural philosophers, or 20th (and 21st) century social scientists. We need to get to know these possibilities, the routes both taken and neglected—especially when the solutions we’ve habitually relied on no longer seem to work.

Anyone who thinks must at some point ask two inevitable questions. What kind of world am I helping to make? And how could it be otherwise? We would like HAN to hold these questions open, as a place to study how they have been asked and answered, again and again.


Read another piece in this series.

John Tresch: contributions / website / treschj@gmail.com / Warburg Institute, University of London