Thomas C. Patterson. A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2021. 240 pp., bibl., index.

Twenty years after its first release, Thomas Patterson, a UCLA anthropologist, brings us the second edition of his book on the history of US anthropology. The material from the first edition has been revised and updated, and the new edition contains an additional chapter which deals with the most recent developments in US anthropology.

The book narrates a history of US anthropology in six chapters. It begins in the early modern period and ends in the year 2019. This temporal frame suggests that Patterson does not view anthropology as a discipline that began with its professionalization in the twentieth century. Instead, he takes anthropology to encompass a broader set of intellectual practices that have sought to understand otherness. This allows Patterson to discuss the ideas of Franz Boas, Eric Wolf, and Eleanor Leacock on a par with those of Enlightenment philosophers, early modern naturalists, and the Founding Fathers—meaning his history of US anthropology includes anthropological ideas circulating in North America well before the United States came into being.

As the title suggests, and as Patterson makes it clear in the introduction, the book is concerned with broader social forces which shaped US anthropology throughout the last four centuries. Patterson’s account is self-avowedly externalist as opposed to internalist, meaning it locates the dynamism of US anthropology not within the discipline’s intellectual concerns, but without (p. 7). To arrive at an understanding of anthropology’s history, Patterson says we need to survey “social relations” and the “prevailing structures of power and exploitation.” Only then can we see how “power relations inflect” and shape anthropological knowledge (p. 2). However, Patterson does not go deep on this methodological choice, making it seem as if “what was social” and “what was science” can each be the focus of mutually exclusive explanatory strategies.[1]The difficulties of taking internalism and externalism as exclusive explanatory approaches to the history of science are thoroughly debated in Steven Shapin’s article “Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism–Internalism Debate,” History of Science 30 (1992): 333–369.

Each of the six main chapters represents a particular period and opens with a general discussion of the broader forces—social, economic, cultural, and political—shaping the period in question. Patterson then describes how these forces influenced the institutional development of anthropology on the one hand, and the emergence of specific anthropological topics, approaches, and theories on the other. Chapters conclude with a discussion (except, for some reason, Chapter 5).

The structure of the book gives the impression that US anthropology developed throughout several distinct periods marked from each other by some neatly bounded sets of historical conditions. Some of the dates that the book uses as a basis for differentiating between periods indicate which of the twentieth-century landmarks Patterson views as important for his externalist account: the Secession Crisis (1860), the end of Reconstruction (1877), the Great Crash (1929), the end of WWII (1945), the oil crisis (1973), and 9/11 (2001). However, Patterson does not fully elaborate on the criteria he used to identify these periods, and his rationale for choosing the particular years is only hinted at. It is therefore an open question whether the given periodization resulted from his externalist commitment or whether it was intended to serve didactic purposes. Patterson also could have made it clear why some of the periods overlap (this is the case of the first two and last two periods).

Patterson’s externalist account is useful for beginner students of anthropology who may think of the discipline as the sum of anthropologists and anthropological ideas. Patterson directs their attention elsewhere to understand how: the private funds of the Rockefellers and other entrepreneurial families made the early twentieth century professionalization of the discipline possible; the GI Bill of Rights fueled the field’s post-WWII growth; and the interests of the US government shaped anthropological research and practice in the twentieth century.  Patterson demonstrates the forces affecting the discipline’s intellectual productions through his social historical analysis of some of its key texts (for example, Marvin Harris’s landmark The Rise of Anthropological Theory, which Patterson presents as an effort to mediate between the political left and right (p. 124). Patterson also bravely ventures into the very recent past, bringing his history of anthropology right up to 2019, which is valuable for students interested in understanding some of the direct roots of current anthropological ideas and practices (for example, changing attitudes towards the ethics of anthropological research that occurred over the past thirty years, see pp. 167–172).

It is necessary to stress that Patterson’s book does not aspire to become a novel contribution to the history of anthropology. It is presented as a “comprehensive introduction” (p. i) and the book’s lucid language fully supports this aim. However, given the fact that the target audience is expected to be relative newcomers to the history of anthropology, it is appropriate to mention several shortcomings that especially beginners should be aware of when reading through the pages of Patterson’s book.

Any historical account is interesting not only because of the things which it accounts for, but also because of the things that it leaves out, or things that are at odds somehow with the author’s approach. A chapter that perfectly demonstrates the slackening of Patterson’s externalist framework is the penultimate one, which deals with the era between 1973–2000 (Chapter 5: “Crises, neoliberalism, and globalization”). After a historical characterization of the era, Patterson identifies four dominant currents in anthropological thinking in the US: (1) Marxism, (2) structuralism, (3) ecological anthropology and neoevolutionism, and (4) symbolic, interpretive, and postmodernist anthropologies. The discussion of these approaches occupies a significantly larger space than similar discussions in the previous and subsequent chapters and provides less analysis that links these theoretical developments to contemporary social conditions. This creates a first asymmetry in the book.

A second asymmetry emerges when we realize that Patterson discusses external social causes only in the case of Marxism (p. 137ff). As regards the remaining three currents, Patterson has no causes to adduce. Scattered hints at neoliberalism will not do. Thus, on closer inspection, Patterson’s discussion of the three intellectual currents looks more internalist than externalist. Moreover, given the fact that Marxist-leaning anthropologists in the US had to disguise their commitment to Marxism in the 1950s and 1960s (pp. 100, 109, 114), one is led to wonder what social change allowed anthropologists to openly express their commitment to Marx from the 1970s onwards. This is nowhere discussed.

A third asymmetry stems from Patterson’s own theoretical leanings. While he discusses the pros and cons of Marxism in a moderate and sympathetic manner, he expresses no sympathy for the other three currents. I suspect that it is owing to the author’s own Marxist bent that the book does not even mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the once influential cognitive anthropology aka ethnoscience. Similarly, the last chapter does not say a word about later developments in symbolic anthropology and structuralism (e.g., Roy Wagner, Terrence Turner) and there is not a single word on Bruno Latour, the ontological turn, or Neo-Boasianism. These omissions make it seem as if Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) approaches have been the only relevant approaches in the history of US anthropology in the past thirty years.

Had Patterson devoted more space to the discussion of social causes which brought about postmodernism or neoevolutionism, his book would not only be more faithful to his externalist commitment, but also far more useful for anthropology students trying understand why they learn about Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, Geertz’s interpretive theory, or the “post-modern” philosophy of Foucault and Derrida (and a similar oversimplification concerns earlier discussion of Durkheim’s theory (pp. 106, 113). Given the fact that this book is supposed to serve as a text for beginners, one would expect it to be a bit more discriminating and a bit less sweeping. One could also ask why Patterson decided to discuss French authors Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida without mentioning any of their US followers or the reception of their ideas by US anthropologists (in Patterson’s history, the group of mostly US anthropologists related to Writing Culture is discussed independently of structuralism and post-modernism).

To reach a final verdict, Patterson’s book is a stimulating and accessible reading of the history of US anthropology, making it a useful text for undergraduate courses. It will give students a good sense of the development of anthropology in the US, and it may also encourage them to think about the broad societal forces shaping other fields they are studying. However, anthropologists and historians will want to augment what Patterson chronicles given his Marxist bent, and provide students with additional materials to understand the anthropological theories that appear in his social history.


1 The difficulties of taking internalism and externalism as exclusive explanatory approaches to the history of science are thoroughly debated in Steven Shapin’s article “Discipline and Bounding: The History and Sociology of Science as Seen through the Externalism–Internalism Debate,” History of Science 30 (1992): 333–369.
Nikola Balaš: contributions / / The Institute of Ethnology, Czech Academy of Sciences