Anthropologists and their Traditions (Review)

Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach, eds. Anthropologists and Their Traditions across National Borders, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2014, xi, 279 pp.

Anthropologists and Their Traditions across National Borders is an eclectic collection of essays on the history of anthropology: ostensibly integrated around ‘how anthropologists’ careers have intersected across professional generations and allowed them to navigate national boundaries and national traditions’ (ix), the reader will find it difficult to connect an account of Berthold Laufer’s early anthropological expedition to China under Boas’ auspices (Kendall), an appraisal of A. M. Hocart’s life and works (Laughlin), a critical essay on the parallels between Malinowski’s functionalism and the doctrine of indirect rule (Lamont), an institutional history of Radcliffe-Brown’s administrative practice in Cape Town and Sydney (Campbell), an intriguing story of succession to S. F. Nadel’s chair of anthropology in Australian National University (Gray and Munro), three essays in praise of Lévi-Strauss’ legacy (Darnell, Rosman and Rubel, and Asch), an application of Sahlins’ theories of history to two 19th century massacres in the United States (Rodseth), and a reflexive essay on anthropology as oral tradition (Flynn). Although the collection is eclectic, each chapter stands as an interesting addition to the wider project of the Histories of Anthropology Annual series, of which this is the 8th volume.

This volume’s interest is twofold. On one hand, it is an invaluable source of information on non-canonical trends in the anthropological tradition(s), whether or not one concurs with the generally laudatory tone (with the exception of Lamont’s critical essay on Malinowski). Laughlin, to give one example, makes a great summary of Hocart’s contributions to anthropology, showcasing how his views on myth, ritual, methodology, and political organization could be seen to anticipate the works of Malinowski and Lévi-Strauss among others. Asch, on his part, delves into Lévi-Strauss’ work on kinship to find evidence, contra the view of his works as being ahistorically rigid, that he engaged with issues in universal history, such as the origins of inequality and the origins of agriculture. Likewise, one may cite Rodseth’s in-depth engagement with Sahlins’ arguments in Apologies to Thucydides as an exemplar of the kind of little explored yet refreshing intellectual genealogies traced by the volume.

On the other hand, the collection embodies the manifold ways in which a history of anthropology can be practiced with relevance to contemporary anthropology. Lamont’s essay is a good example of critical scholarship committed to showing the insertion of anthropological theory in its wider historical context, by making a convincing case about the parallels between Malinowski’s functionalism – ‘an early example of academic branding’ (78) if there ever was one – and his promotion of social anthropology as an ally to colonial administration. The more conventional historical writings on Laufer’s early anthropological expedition in China (Kendall), or Radcliffe-Brown’s ambitious projects as a university administrator (Campbell), or the corridor intrigues behind Nadel’s succession (Gray and Munro) confer interesting lessons on the institutional settings within which anthropology was – and sometimes remains – practiced. In so doing, such essays reflexively illuminate our own insertion in academic institutions which, as much as they may invoke a language of ‘necessity’ to impose certain reforms, seem largely contingent in light of the detailed histories presented in this collection.

In a further twist of reflexivity, Flynn’s decision to publish an undergraduate essay on her university lecturers as storytellers invites us to reflect on the importance of orality in the transmission of anthropological knowledge, which tends to be overshadowed by the role of reading and writing in our pedagogical discourse. Furthermore, this essay acts as an interesting primary source to the historian of anthropology, implicitly broadening our outlook on the kinds of materials available to trace the discipline’s intellectual and institutional legacy. Upon reading this essay, one wonders, indeed, what a history of anthropological knowledge transmission through a serious examination of undergraduate student essays would look like.

The main criticisms one could address to this volume are its lack of coherence and its sometimes overly deferent tone to past theorists, as their lesser known writings become drawn into a process of canonization that may obscure their insertion in wider intellectual and institutional trends. On their own, however, both criticisms would be too harsh, considering the wider project in which this volume is inserted, as well as the wealth of insights into the discipline’s history provided by each chapter. This collection therefore acts as a series of interesting contributions to the history of anthropology, with some interesting implications for our contemporary practice. It is worth a look for anyone specializing in the history of anthropology, as well as any scholar or graduate student with an interest in exploring atypical avenues into the intellectual tradition of which s/he is becoming a part.

This review was initially published in 2016 by the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, vol. VIII, no. 2, pp. 283-284