Theoretical Trends in Current Anthropology

Theoretical Trends in Current Anthropology
Elise DeCamp


Each journal examined in this larger study of the shifting trends of anthropological thought presents a different picture of which theoretical debates and themes have dominated the discipline. These pictures are often merely snapshots of a single theoretical moment taken through the narrow lens of an editor, publisher, or sponsoring foundation. By placing these pictures into a chronological sequence, however, the larger patterns of thought in the discipline come into focus. While occasionally incorporating data from the other journals in the study, this paper will concentrate mainly upon the disciplinary trends elicited through analysis of who is most cited in Current Anthropology from 1970-2005. Whether or not the authors agree with the theoretical convictions of those they cite, one can safely assume that the theories do figure in concurrent anthropological debates. Secondly, I will track the general changes in the geographical foci of the articles over the course of this period and suggest how these shifts might relate to broader theoretical patterns in anthropology. Only the journals examined for this group study of disciplinary trends are included in the data analysis.


This examination of Current Anthropology draws upon data from four of the issues in each of the following sample years: 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2005. From each of these issues, three or four randomly selected articles provide all of the cited references and geographical information used in the analysis of a sample year’s theoretical trends. The geographical concentrations are then divided into the regions of North, Central, and South America; South and East Asia; Polynesia/Pacific Islands; Africa; Europe; and the Middle East. Using the sampling method streamlined the process of this data collection and analysis without sacrificing the ultimate goal of identifying the journal’s major thematic changes through time. Once the reference pages for each of the eight years were divided into separate spreadsheets, I created corresponding top-ten lists of the anthropologists cited in the most articles. With as few as twelve or thirteen articles included in some of the years, the numbers in these lists remain relatively low. After a comparison of the most-cited anthropologists’ theoretical backgrounds and inclinations, a few, often complementary, themes emerged in each sample year.

Data Tables and Analysis – 1970

In 1970, no single anthropologist or theoretical position dominates the data (See Table 1). The most notable connection among the cited authors occurs between Ralph Linton, John Gillin, and Margaret Mead, all of whom to varying degrees approach their research through the study of culture and personality. Otherwise, most of the major theorists are represented: Clifford Geertz, cited for his early work on agricultural revolutions; Leslie White for his cultural evolution theory outlined in The Evolution of Culture and The Science of Culture; and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown for his structural-functionalist works on kinship and economic structures. Structuralism, however, notably does not appear to have made much of an impact in this year’s journal. Some of the other journals analyzed for this study such as Ethnology and Man, however, not only include structuralism, but feature it in several of their articles. This divergence might have occurred for any number of reasons, yet it largely appears to stem from the interests of Sol Tax, the founder and editor (1957-1974) of Current Anthropology. He developed “an approach known as action anthropology, which attempts to reconcile the work of the anthropologist with that of an administrator concerned with helping solve problems identified by the people being studied” [University of Chicago 1995]. This approach might explain why the more abstract and less directly applicable structuralism received little attention in the articles accepted for publication. The geographical foci of these articles resemble the data in Table 1 in that the regional studies are evenly distributed with only a slightly higher focus on cross-cultural comparison (See Table 2). The implications of these numbers become clearer through comparison with the data in the later sample years.
Table 1. 1970 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles

Cited Authors with Number of articles cited in

1. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (3)
2. John Phillip Gillin (3)
3. Ralph Linton (3)
4. Clifford Geertz (3)
5. Leslie White (3)
6. Darcy Ribeiro (2)
7. Alfred Wallace (2)
8. Robert Redfield (2)
9. Oscar Lewis (2)
10. Margaret Mead (2)

Table 2. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1970

Number of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural
2. Polynesia/Pacific Islands
3. North America
4. South America
5. Africa
6. East Asia
7. Middle East

Data Tables and Analysis-1975

During this year, George Murdock not only tops the most cited list in Current Anthropology, but also the lists in Ethnology, Man, and American Ethnologist. Murdock’s popularity likely derives from an increased interest in the cross-cultural comparisons and nomothetic approaches, which he fostered through his development of the Human Relations Area Files in the 1940s and publication of multiple articles and popular books on cross-cultural sampling. Structuralism operates on the related notion of universal, unconscious thought patterns and would qualify as nomothetic due to this generalizing tendency. This disciplinary trend may at least partially explain the presence of structuralists Edmund Leach and Claude Levi-Strauss in so many of the articles alongside George Murdock. Sol Tax’s retirement from the journal in 1974 also contributed to this shift, considering his enthusiasm for applied anthropology. A considerable majority (See Table 4) of the articles for this year also employ cross-cultural comparison instead of the regional/specific studies that characterized most of the articles in 1970.

Table 3. 1975 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors with Number of articles cited in

1. George Murdock (7)
2. Edmund Leach (6)
3. Raoul Narroll (4)
4. Claude Levi-Strauss (4)
5. Fredrik Barth (4)
6. Ward Goodenough (4)
7. Bronislaw Malinowski (4)
8. John Barnes (4)
9. Clifford Geertz (4)
10. Alfred Kroeber (4)

Table 4. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1975

Regions and Nuber of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural (9)
2. Central America (2)
3. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (1)
4. Africa (1)

Data Tables and Analysis – 1980

By 1980, the nomothetic approach has not faded, but instead has extended to encompass Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism and Lewis Binford’s New Archaeology. Both of these theoretical movements arose in the 1960s and argued for the primacy of the environment and material culture in determining ideology. Julian Steward’s research in cultural ecology shares this “nomothetic approach to anthropology because it focused on the articulation between culture and nature” [Erickson and Murphy 2003:119]. Marshall Sahlins, though widely-known for his later structural and historical analyses of political and economic systems, is here cited for his co-authoring of Evolution and Culture in 1960. In this monograph, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service work to reconcile the more particularist discussion of cultural evolution in Julian Steward with the generalizing and deterministic “layer-cake model” used in Leslie White’s approach [2003:121]. The continued predominance of cross-cultural comparison in geographical foci supplies the icing for this “layer cake” of nomothetic, universalizing theories.

Table 5. 1980 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors with Number of articles cited in

1. Marvin Harris (6)
2. Julian Steward (5)
3. Lewis Binford (4)
4. E.E. Evans-Pritchard (4)
5. Geoffrey Clark (3)
6. Clifford Geertz (3)
7. Marshall Sahlins (3)
8. Karl Marx (3)
9. Oscar Lewis (3)
10. Esther Boserup (3)

Table 6. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1980
Regions with Number of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural (9)
2. Europe (2)
3. South America (1)
4. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (1)

Data and Analysis – 1985

Lewis Binford and Julian Steward return in this 1985 sample, cited for works with the same nomothetic approach. Steward’s cultural ecology influences both Roy Rappaport’s more nuanced look at the relationship between nature and culture in Pigs for the Ancestors (human ecology), and Richard Lee’s synthesis of political dynamics and ecological pressures in his research on the !Kung San (1979) in Africa (political ecology). The cited works of Carneiro retain the greater nomothetic character of Leslie White’s cultural evolutionism. Again, the majority of articles adopt a comparative, cross-cultural perspective (See Table 8), yet the citations of Rappaport and Lee hint at the growing interest in relationships of power within and between societies.

Table 7. 1985 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors & Number of articles cited in

1. Richard Lee (4)
2. Alfred Kroeber (4)
3. Stephen J. Gould (4)
4. Claude Levi-Strauss (3)
5. Lewis Binford (3)
6. Roy Rappaport (3)
7. Robert Carneiro (2)
8. Roger Brown (2)
9. Geoffrey Clark (2)
10. Julian Steward (2)

Table 8. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1985
Regions & Number of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural (8)
2. Europe (2)
3. North America (1)
4. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (1)
5. Middle East (1)

Data and Analysis – 1990

By 1990, the discipline’s growing interest in the impact of Colonialism upon the smaller societies anthropologists have studied, finally appears in Current Anthropology. This rising realization among anthropologists that their work has contributed to and been influenced by colonialism began in the 1960s and 1970s. The delay between the recognition of this ethnographic factor and its appearance in Current Anthropology suggests that this was a difficult admission and change for the many established anthropologists who had completed fieldwork without fully accounting for these political power relationships. Alongside the more myth- and ideology-centered structuralism of Levi-Strauss and the materialism of Binford’s New Archaeology, the theories of political economy and a “world-system of unequal exchange” [2003:149] in the cited works of Wilmsen and Denbow begin to draw more attention. As these nomothetic, comparative theories give a little ground to these increasingly power- and history-conscious approaches, the number of articles with generalizing, cross-cultural foci drops.

Table 9. 1990 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors & Number of Articles cited in

1. Claude Levi-Strauss (4)
2. George Murdock (4)
3. Edwin Wilmsen (3)
4. James Denbow (3)
5. Colin Renfrew (3)
6. L.L. Cavalli-sforza (3)
7. Jonathan Friedman (3)
8. Julian Steward (3)
9. Lewis Binford (2)
10. Stephen J. Gould (2)

Table 10. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1990
Regions & Number of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural (6)
2. Africa (2)
3. North America (2)
4. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (1)
5. Middle East (1)
6. Europe (1)

Data and Analysis – 1995

The top ten cited authors, similar to those listed in the data tables for 1970 and 1990 appear to carry equal weight (See Table 11) in the theoretical issues discussed in this year’s journal. The prevalence and burgeoning popularity of the issue of power dynamics among so many of the distinguished anthropologists at this time helps to explain why key theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens top the list. Bourdieu’s and Giddens’ consideration of the opposition between structurally-determined habits and individual agency ties back into the recurring theoretical focus on power relations. In the geographic data, the trend toward more specialized regional studies continues (See Table 12), while interest in cross-cultural comparisons wanes. It is no coincidence that the decline of cross-cultural comparisons among the cited theorists parallels this decreasing number of articles with a cross-cultural focus. Greater awareness and a wariness of the complications of power dynamics factor into the reduced appeal of comparative studies.

Table 11. 1995 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors & Number of articles cited in
1. Pierre Bourdieu (4)
2. Anthony Giddens (3)
3. C. Loring Brace (3)
4. Clifford Geertz (3)
5. Robert Boyd (3)
6. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown ( 3)
7. L.L. Cavalli-sforza (3)
8. Lila Abu-Lughod (3)
9. Lewis Binford (3)
10. Robert Sokal (3)

Table 12. Geographical Foci of Articles in 1995
Regions & Number of Articles
1. General/Cross-cultural ( 5)
2. Africa (3)
3. North America ( 2)
4. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (2)
5. Middle East (1)
6. Europe (1)
7. South America (1)

Data Tables and Analysis – 2000

Works like Fabian’s Time and the Other (1983) and Geertz’ Interpretation of Cultures (1973) that highlight reflexive and interpretive theories, respectively, continue to receive citations in Current Anthropology. Reflexivity emerges in Eric Wolf’s political economy work Europe and the People without History (1982) and Fabian’s Time and the Other. Both address the growing concern about how anthropologists represent those they study as part of the past, living a simpler way of life in a world separate from that of the Western nations. Fabian labeled this tendency the “denial of coevalness.” Given that the cited authors from 1995 and 2000 share an interest in the influence of relationships of power, there is little surprise that the number of comparative articles remains relatively unchanged.
Table 13. 2000 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles

Cited Authors & Number of articles cited in
1. Clifford Geertz (5)
2. John and Jean Comaroff (4)
3. Claude Levi-Strauss (4)
4. Pierre Bourdieu (4)
5. Michael Taussig (4)
6. James Clifford (3)
7. Marshall Sahlins (3)
8. Johannes Fabian (3)
9. Eric Wolf (3)
10. Maurice Bloch (3)

Table 14. Geographical Foci of Articles in 2000
Regions & Number of Articles

1. General/Cross-cultural (5)
2. Europe (3)
3. Africa (2)
4. North America (1)
5. Central America (1)
6. East Asia (1)
7. South Asia (1)

Data Tables and Analysis – 2005

The most prominent theoretical trend in the literature cited for the 2005 sample year reiterates the question of whether an individual agent has the ability to alter patterns of behavior or thought. Foucault asserts through his concept of “discourses of power” that only those who dominate the relations of power in society can control knowledge and patterns of thought [2003:158]. Sahlins furthered this deconstruction of objectivity through Cultural and Practical Reason’s attack on materialism and Use and Abuse of Biology’s critique of sociobiology. Though he published these books in 1976, the continued theoretical split between the extremes of empiricism and subjectivism in anthropology has given these arguments continued salience.

Table 15. 2005 Most Cited Authors by Number of Articles
Cited Authors with Number of articles cited in
1. Marshall Sahlins (6)
2. Pierre Bourdieu (5)
3. Marcel Mauss (4)
4. Michel Foucault (3)
5. Webb Keane (3)
6. Arjun Appadurai (3)
7. Maurice Godelier (3)
8. Emile Durkheim (2)
9. Eric Wolf (2)
10. Karl Marx (2)

Table 16. Geographical Foci of Articles in 2005
Regions with Number of Articles

1. East Asia (4)
2. General/Cross-cultural (2)
3. North America (2)
4. Africa (2)
5. South Asia (1)
6. South America (1)
7. Middle East (1)
8. Polynesia/Pacific Islands (1)


Current Anthropology has not always kept up with the theoretical zeitgeist of the discipline, evidenced by its avoidance of articles that engaged with structuralism in 1970. Despite these occasional lags, CA eventually catches up – even if it falls five or more years behind some of the other journals. The top five placements of Edmund Leach and Claude Levi-Strauss among the most cited theorists in 1975 reflect this behavior. The five-year intervals chosen for the sampling of data, then, were small enough to show approximately when Current Anthropology began to incorporate some of the major theoretical issues as well as how one declining theoretical trend would often overlap or mesh with a newly emerging one. Furthermore, just as these theories merged with and transformed each other during the period from 1970-2005, so too did some of the theoretical concepts of the individual anthropologists. Recognizing this proved crucial in the case of Marshall Sahlins whose theoretical position altered considerably over the course of his career. Through this careful consideration of which works of the most cited theorists/anthropologists appeared in the article bibliographies, a more complete and nuanced picture of the theoretical trends of the discipline comes into focus.


Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2003. A History of Anthropological Theory.
Ontario: Broadview Press.
University of Chicago News Office. 1995. “Sol Tax.” Electronic Document,


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