I came to HAN relatively late, 20 years after it got going. But there’s a sense in which the history of anthropology is always a belated field. I caught the bug as an undergraduate in two seminars with Stocking at Chicago— he was an inspiring, exacting teacher—and I pored over HAN, even subscribed to it, in the years to come. It had an obscure, retro charm, even then: the cover, which must have been mimeographed a hundred times; the stapled pages of typed-up and dot-matrix text. It was like a church circular from 1965, a decommissioned card-catalog entry, a zine, or an indie-label 45 to which only a few were privy.

Except the more I read into the back issues, the larger that select few appeared. The “Recent Work by Subscribers” feature made the extent and industry of the HAN network clear, as did the tips sent in from all over, on archives and collections of papers newly made available. By the 1990s, there was obviously a lot going on.

Maybe there’s even more now. The first round of reflections on “Prospects and Problems” noted the maturity of the current field and its many fruits: book series, section groupings in national and international associations, new lines of inquiry, vindicated obsessions.

Nevertheless, I worry that HAN’s perennially untimely, vintage allure might have something to do with a perceived irrelevance that the history of anthropology may be intrinsically incapable of shaking. The history of a field that often defined itself by a fascination for the sidelined, the backward, the non-modern, might appear doubly dated. It seems to me that for working anthropologists today, the histories of our discipline are not only a marginal interest but, in some respects, a marginalized one.

Who, of the anthropologists among us, could recommend, in good conscience, a doctoral project—conducted in an anthropology department, at least—that focused on the history of the field, or on some major (or much less, minor) figure? That doctoral student would struggle to get a job—even more than his or her peers already do. Stocking’s own complicated professional identity, betwixt and between the disciplines of anthropology and history, might be not only troubling but professionally fatal for a scholar today. For most of the anthropologists who do some kind of anthropologically focused historical work, it is (has to be) a secondary interest, alongside their “proper” work (something Stocking, once again, often ruefully reflected upon…that he wasn’t part of the true club). This is also the case when it comes to teaching, at least in the United Kingdom. There is not a lot of coursework in which the work of Stocking, or Lee D. Baker, or Thomas Trautmann or Gillian Feeley-Harnik (at least when they’re writing about Lewis Henry Morgan), or even, say, Michael Young—with his stonking-great biography on Malinowski—gets featured. If such work appears at all, it’s in the secondary reading. And if you see a course on “History of Anthropology,” don’t expect to find back issues of HAN scattered throughout the syllabus— what that title really means is giving students some E.B. Tylor and Morgan to read.

Would that this could change. Not only because all of us (all of us reading HAN, that is) would love it; after all, we’re the converted. But also because it would greatly enrich the sensibility and scope of the discipline as a whole. Just as dozens of new musical styles and subcultures have been brought into existence by collectors, geeks and DJs trawling through stacks of discontinued and discarded vinyl, the second-hand bins of anthropological dusties contain the very treasures that can propel the field forward. Today’s retro is often tomorrow’s avant-garde. The marginality that defines the history of anthropology gives it a permanent potential to recharge the mainstream of the discipline.

We know the problems; so what are the prospects? I say keep those mimeograph machines turning, those dot-matrix printers stuttering, those staplers stapling (or their updated equivalents). More fields! More furrows! And soon enough, more landmarks—for current toilers, and for future scavengers.


Read another piece in this series.

Matthew Engelke: contributions / website / M.Engelke@lse.ac.uk / London School of Economics