Anthropology provides an historical example of the difficulties of defining the boundaries of social science research. Around 1904, Franz Boas established its main divisions, and it underwent classical growth from about 1920 to 1960. Anthropology is a more flexible process in modern times, as there is a conflict of science versus humanities or postmodernism. New approaches do not fit traditional academic categories, but there is strong institutional inertia to emphasize the science aspect of social science research.
If the Executive Director’s call for reorganization focussed on “the discipline’s” internal boundaries and its relation to external audiences, an essay in the same number (under the recently instituted heading “Whither Our Subjects and Ourselves?”) instanced a heightened concern with the boundaries between anthropology’s practitioners and their traditional subject matter. Arguing that the very notion of such a boundary was “a holdover” from a colonialist era, the author quoted a previous essay in the same series to suggest that those once treated as “‘informants’ whose minds are to be mined by anthropologists” must now be seen as “co-producers of knowledge” (Mills, 1995, p. 7).
To begin with, it should be noted that in the same historical moment when “the discipline” had been recognized as a field of study in a small number of major American universities—usually in some joint department, or in conjunction with a museum—the leading figure in its academic institutionalization defined anthropology in historically contingent terms. Granting that its “historical development seems [my emphasis] to have singled out clearly a domain of knowledge that heretofore has not been treated by any other science,” Boas insisted that the appearance of bounded disciplinarity was deceptive: the origins of anthropology were “multifarious,” and there were already “indications of its breaking up.” The “biological, linguistic, and ethnologic-archeological methods” were so distinct that soon “the same man” could not be “equally proficient in all of them.” The time was “not far distant” when biological and linguistic anthropology would split off, and “anthropology pure and simple” would deal with “the customs and beliefs of the less civilized people only” (Boas, 1904, p. 35).
As Boas’ “multifarious” origins suggests, anthropology departs from several well-known models of disciplinary development: the Comtean hierarchical model, in which the impulse of positive knowledge is successively extended into more complex domains (mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology); and the genealogical model, in which modern disciplines may be visualized as growing from various undifferentiated “ur”-discourses (the biological sciences out of natural history, the humanities out of philology, and the social sciences out of moral philosophy). In contrast, anthropology may best be visualized historically as originating by processes of fusion rather than fission. Boas himself spoke of its foundations as having been laid, by the mid-nineteenth century, from three points of view—“the historical, the classificatory, and the geographical” (Boas, 1904, p. 25). Looking back a century farther, it might be suggested that anthropology represents an imperfect fusion of four modes of inquiry differing in historical origin and epistemological assumption—including not only natural history, philology, and moral philosophy, but also antiquarianism. Depending on which ancestral line one chooses to follow forward, one may start from Buffon and Linnaeus, from Vico and Herder, from Ferguson and Montesquieu, or from Stukeley and Winckelmann. And although the lines forward are complex in both their differentiation and their intertwining, distinctive intellectual inheritances may be associated with the several lineages: out of the natural history tradition came both physical anthropology and the fieldwork tradition in sociocultural anthropology; out of the philological tradition came not only anthropological linguistics, but also symbolic and hermeneutic anthropology; out of the moral philosophical tradition came psychological and social anthropology; out of the antiquarian tradition came archeology and folklore.
But as those acronyms suggest, the fusionary development sketched so far has a particular national character. In other countries, the disciplinary history of “anthropology” has been quite different. Despite the apparent inclusivity of its subject matter (anthropo-logia = the discourse, or in common parlance, the “science” of “man”), the actual content of “anthropology” has varied greatly in different times and places. In contrast to the modern Anglo-American tradition, “anthropology” came to have a different and narrower meaning in continental Europe, where the unmodified word referred to physical anthropology, either as one component of a federated field, or as claimant to disciplinary dominance. The former relationship is evident in nineteenth-century Germany, where the major anthropological organizations were called societies for “anthropology, ethnology, and prehistory”; a more contentious tradition is evident in France, where in 1859 two different societies were founded in Paris-the “anthropological” society insisting on the primacy of the physical diversity of humankind, and the other, the “ethnographic” society, insisting on the unity of humankind as a spiritual entity. Even in the Anglo-american sphere, it was only in the 1870s that “anthropology” became the encompassing disciplinary rubric—and then with differences of emphasis that were reflected in diverging and reconverging twentieth-century histories. On the European continent, the separate traditions long continued-although over the last several decades Anglo-american terminologies and organizational models have been increasingly influential in continental Europe (as they had previously been elsewhere in the world).
It is in this historically constituted research context that Boas in 1904, abandoning the narrower usage of continental physical anthropology, could define the domain of anthropological knowledge in the inclusive terms of the “sacred bundle.” Although anthropology was for Boas an historically contingent phenomenon, it still had a substantial unity insofar as it addressed interrelated questions to which data from several of its sub-disciplines were relevant.
The question remained, however, by what methods, and in terms of what epistemological assumptions, it was appropriately to be conducted. A certain amount of folkloristic information might be collected near at hand from European peasant groups presumed to embody “survivals” of savage custom and belief; but insofar as the savage (or “primitive” subjects of anthropological inquiry resided beyond the geographical centers of Euro-American anthropological discourse and by virtue of illiteracy produced no written records of their own, the information upon which anthropological speculation was based was largely second hand. Although surviving accounts of the peoples at the margins of the classical Mediterranean world continued to be an important source down to 1900, from the time of Rousseau on the emphasis gradually shifted to the accounts of European “travellers and residents in uncivilized lands”—systematized, where possible, by questionnaires such as the Notes and Queries on Anthropology prepared by a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874. Each of these sources of information implied a problematic disciplinary boundary: between anthropology and folklore, between anthropology and classics, and most importantly, between anthropology and the literature of travel (including that of missionaries, explorers, and colonial administrators). By the time Boas wrote, the work of the Bureau of American Ethnology and of his own early students had laid the basis for the modern tradition of ethnographic fieldwork by full-time professional and academically-trained researchers. Significantly, however, Boas himself envisioned that project as the constitution, for preliterate peoples without historical records, of a textual and artifactual archive which, as nearly as possible, might be regarded as first-hand embodiments of the native mind—the equivalent of the source materials which were the foundation of Western humanistic scholarship.
In the United States, this critique involved, in the work of Boas, a systematic reconsideration of the idea of “race” and of presumed “racial” differences of a hierarchical or evolutionary character. Physical differences were reinterpreted in terms of overlapping frequency distributions and environmental determinants; presumed mental differences were reinterpreted in terms of an emergent anthropological (that is, pluralistic and relativistic) concept of culture. Not all Boasians would have subscribed to such an extreme formulation as Kroeber’s insistence that “the determinations of biological, psychological, or natural science” had no force for the study of culture (Kroeber, 1915, p. 286). But the general effect of the Boasian critique of evolutionary racialism was not only to draw a much sharper boundary between race and culture, but simultaneously to reject biological determinism and to assert that of culture—a process which might be called the “debiologization” of anthropology. While there were in fact to be boundary-crossing investigations over the next few decades, that boundary continues—for ideological and political as well as theoretical and methodological reasons—to be defended until the present day, when the claims of “sociobiology” are regularly resisted by cultural anthropologists.
In the very period in which a “world anthropology” began to be realized, there were historical forces at work which, in the last third of the century, were to further problematize and redefine the historically shifting boundaries of anthropology. The end of colonialism (signalled by the independence of two dozen African “new nations” in the early 1960s); the overseas entanglements of the United States in the cold war against international communism (symbolized by the exposure of the Latin American counter-insurgency Project Camelot in 1965); the United States’ descent into the morass of postcolonial warfare in Southeast Asia (and the anti-Vietnam war movement); the counter-cultural and political resistance of young people in advanced capitalist countries (marked by the urban conflicts of the 1960s and early 1970s)--these and other “external” historical forces precipitated what seemed to some a “crisis of anthropology.” While that characterization would not have been accepted by most anthropologists at the time, it was clear by about 1970 that the optimistic scientific self-confidence of the “classical” period could no longer be sustained in the postcolonial world.
Small wonder, then, that at the end of the millenium—after the category “science” itself has undergone more than three decades of relativizing critique—the problem of “Science in Anthropology” should recently have been chosen as the annual theme of the Anthropology Newsletter. The discussion was prefaced by a text attributed to the Association’s Articles of Incorporation, in which its “mission” was defined as the advancement of anthropology as “the science” that studies “humankind” [sic—in 1902?] in all its aspects, “through archeological, biological, ethnological and linguistic research”—followed immediately by the query “why has the issue of science in anthropology become so contentious?” (“Science in Anthropology,” 1995, p. 1). The immediate stimulus seems to have been the dissatisfaction, if not outrage, of self-professed “scientific” anthropologists with the editorial policies of the Association’s “flagship” journal-specifically, with an article published in 1994 that was perceived as a “postmodern” threat to the traditional “positivism” of archeology. Under the editorship of two “postmodernists” (so-labelled if not self-professed), the American Anthropologist has since completed a radical reformation, and by now sports a shiny red cover, larger pages, double columns, new type faces, striking illustrations, revised review formats, new departments, and deliberately blurred genres—including the publication of poetry (“in keeping with our pledge not to privilege any particular form of discourse as the sole means of legitimate anthropological communication” [Tedlock, 1995, p. 657). Responding to a resolution at the 1994 meeting (and to a “tremendous” volume of criticism on the internet), the Executive Board decided to seek “a common and higher ground” above the “science/postmodernism” (or “positivism /interpretivism”) conflict by recasting it in the less charged traditional terms of “science and humanism” in anthropology (Peacock, 1995, p. 1; Fernandez, 1995).
In contrast, the “re-historicization” of anthropology has been well under way for several decades, and a glance at the tables of contents of anthropological journals is enough to suggest that it has momentum enough to carry into the next century. Whether as ethnohistory, or the historical anthropology of the colonial process, or the historical study of dominated or otherwise culturally distinctive groups within “complex” societies—or as the reanalysis of existing ethnographic archives, both textual and monographic—historical materials and historical analysis are major components of contemporary anthropological inquiry.
A hundred years after Boas’ prediction that biological and linguistic anthropology would split off, “anthropology,” as a rubric of professional identification, continues nominally to embrace the subdisciplinary components of the traditional “sacred bundle”—and in “relatively stable” (Givens and Jablonski 1995, p. 306) proportions, as indicated by the percentages of doctorates over the last twenty years: 50 percent sociocultural; 30 percent archeological; 10 percent biological; 3 percent linguistic; and 7 percent “applied/other.” True, at the graduate level the once traditional requirement of significant training in each of the “four fields” has at best a vestigial character, if it has not entirely withered away. Furthermore, communication across the major subdisciplinary lines within departments is often limited and occasionally agonistically competitive. In only one or two cases, however, has this so far led to a formal institutional separation. Of about 400 academic departments listed in the Association’s Guide, 240 are separate “departments of anthropology.” While another 124 departments at smaller institutions are in some combination with sociology, the tendency of such joint entities over the last half century has been towards the separate formation of embracive anthropology departments. If the continuation of this dynamic in an era of academic downsizing is problematic, the pressure of enrollments, in number-crunching universities where “anthropology” often satisfies the “science” requirement, may help to sustain it. Whatever its boundaries, external or internal, anthropology” remains an attractive academic field: over the last seven years, the number of baccalaureate degrees has almost doubled.
How long such forces of institutional inertia within the academy will continue to sustain the embracive tradition of anthropology as a nominally distinct and unified “science of [hu]mankind” against the fragmenting and boundary blurring intellectual and historical processes of the twentieth century is to say the least problematic. They are reinforced, however, by a strong commitment to “science” as a value in various sectors of the discipline, and at a potent rhetorical level, within anthropology generally. Despite inroads of interpretation and narrativity into archeology and biological anthropology, these two subfields remain strongly committed to “science.” Similarly, “science” is still proclaimed as a value by many in the traditionally more “humanistic” moiety—albeit sometimes with a relativising redefinition that gives little reassurance to the positivistically inclined, or simply in terms of the long tradition of presumptive complementarity.
(*) This essay is a revision and elaboration of the 1990 Snyder Visiting Lecture at the University of Toronto, entitled “The Science(?)s(?) of Man(?): Historical Reflections on the ‘Sacred Bundle’ of Anthropology.” In reworking it, I have drawn on a lecture given to the Fourth Spanish Congress of Anthropology in April 1987 (“Anthropology Yesterday and Today: Thoughts on the ‘Crisis’ and ‘Reinvention’ of Anthropology” , as well as on several previously published essays cited in the list of “References.” It is informed also by discussion in a Graduate Seminar, “Exploring the Boundaries of Antropological Discourse,” given in the Winter of 1995.
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