Field Notes (page 1 of 3)

Field Notes is a forum for reflections on the state of the field of history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome a variety of contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at notes@histanthro.org.

Editors’ Introduction: Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks in the History of Anthropology

In 1973, the first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter opened with a statement of purpose from the editorial committee, called “Prospects and Problems,” by George Stocking. The editors were self-consciously defining and claiming a field. They let loose with territorial metaphors: occupation, soil, furrows, forays. Now, as we continue our relaunch of HAN, we return to this 40-year-old manifesto as a starting point for thinking about the past, present, and future of the field.

The 1973 essay noted a sense of disciplinary crisis as a spur to growth; it asked whether this history should be done by anthropologists, intellectual historians on “one-book forays,” by “anthropologists manqué,” or by a new generation of interdisciplinarians; it announced the need for “landmarks” including lists of archival holdings, bibliographic aids, research in progress, recent publications—which HAN would provide. It ended with a call for participation from readers.

Seeking to continue HAN’s role as a site for debating the field’s present state and shaping its future, in late 2016 we invited a series of scholars from various fields to respond to this manifesto. In February 2017, eight distinguished authors responded with generosity, insight, experience, good humor—and impressive speed. Continuing our reappraisal of Stocking’s inaugural editorial statement, in August 2017 we added nine additional surveys of the field’s potential terrain. These contributions cover new ground, unearth skepticisms, and sow a set of new questions.

We encourage HAN readers and subscribers to make use of the comments section to respond to individual pieces, or to the section as a whole. Dig in and leave a mark.

 

This editorial was originally published on February 1, 2017. It was updated on August 15, 2017.

Ethnographic Presents

Ethnographic presents are of course as much in history as any other phenomena, although anthropologists sometimes writing in the ethnographic present may be deliberately avoiding a historian’s trajectory. It has of course long ceased to be necessary to point to what once led anthropologists to be explicit on this point: they wanted to get away from the kinds of ‘conjectural histories’ that were then dominating explanations about human institutions. It is precisely because issues cease to be necessary that we need a history of anthropology.

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George and Me

I hope you’ll indulge a personal reminiscence.

When HAN was founded in 1973 I was a graduate student in History at Harvard, just focusing on my dissertation. George Stocking visited Harvard sometime before that and offered a seminar in the Anthropology Department. I sat in on the course—our first encounter.

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Anthropology Has a History

Why is the history of anthropology necessary and vital now? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other approaches to its content and questions)? Why the history of anthropology (instead of other human sciences or political/intellectual/material intersections)? At the risk of seeming to be a curmudgeon, I have to register my doubts that these questions merit the affirmative elaborations that they seem to presuppose. Any historical phenomenon merits its history being recorded and engaged. Anthropology has a history and so is a worthy subject of historiographical inquiry, and as Stocking amply demonstrated, a historiography that cannot legitimately be confined merely to its intellectually internal twists and turns.

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The Charge of the Untimely

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.

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Porous Borders

Now that borders and walls are so commonplace in our daily political discourse, a reflection on our (admittedly more benign) disciplinary boundaries seems timely. I came to the history of anthropology from an early focus on post-WWII evolutionary biology; encountering the particular mix of physical and cultural anthropology that underpinned post-revolutionary indigenista politics in Mexico necessarily led me to a disciplinary identity crisis. Continue reading

It’s Only the Science of Who We Are and Where We Came From

My training was in laboratory-based biological anthropology, but I was always interested in the (checkered) history of the field. So back in 1986, when I was a genetics post-doc at the University of California, Davis (during the first generation of DNA sequencing), I also co-taught a graduate anthropology seminar in the history of bio-anthropology.

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Antiquarian Responsibilities

If the truth be told, the exponential growth undergone by the history of archaeology over the past thirty years can only in part be attributed to the influence of G. W. Stocking and the History of Anthropology Newsletter—the revival of which is of course both timely and full of promise. The erstwhile debate as to whether the history of a given field (in the social sciences and humanities, at least) is best undertaken by its practitioners or by professional historians—besides raising questions as to what this “best” might possibly imply—proves rather less pertinent for a discipline such as archaeology that is, after all, an intrinsically historical one.

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On Disciplines and Their Crises–Or, the Rise and Fall of Empires

No less than epidemics or scientific facts, disciplinary crises are constructed. And just as a disease or a truth claim can also be real, so can a crisis. In all three cases, much depends on perspective and who is doing the defining. Few scholars today would contest, for instance, that anthropologists in the nineteen-sixties and seventies debated their profession’s politics and their discipline’s objects of study, or that these debates called into question tenets considered fundamental to the field (Kuklick 2008; Clifford 2005). As George Stocking put it in his original call to arms for the History of Anthropology Newsletter, anthropologists turned to historical analysis in part because of their shared “sense of disciplinary crisis.” From HAN’s brief “statement of purpose,” it was this casual yet confident emphasis on crisis that jumped out at me. Surely, this assertion needs some probing.

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Rites of Passage

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.

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