Blog #3: Reviews in Anthropology

In Histories of Scholars, Ideas, and Disciplines of Biological Anthropology and Archaeology, Armelagos (2011) revives the seminal contributions and foundations of anthropology during the 20th century. His historical analysis focuses not only on the advances in understanding human biological variation, particularly with respect to racial classification systems, but also the social and political background these early anthropologists found themselves within. I will try not to get too carried away with the details of the article. Armelagos has indeed done a great job recanting anthropological exploration over the past 100 years, especially in physical anthropology and archaeology. Here, I will try and integrate my opinion on how he chose to formulate his essay of ideas vis a vis what I think are key developments in the discipline itself, what might otherwise be considered key elements in the development of the cannons of physical anthropological thought.

No North American historical rumination of anthropology could be complete without the mention of Franz Boas. His then counter-approach to the dominant ideas concerning the taxonomic classification of human races not only made him unpopular with the leading scientists of his time, but politically dissociated from his peers when he was blacklisted from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and removed from the National Research Council (NRC) committees in 1919. It is from here that Armelagos departs from the racist pits of our discipline at its nascence, but never completely departs from the overall theme. Armelagos extends his historiographic account to include many other influential physical anthropologists that helped shape the field, including Ales Hrdlicka, Earnest Hooton, Lewis Binford, the Leaky family, Gordon Childe, and Clark Spencer-Larsen, and how they too developed their scientific approaches to human biology during their academic zenith.

What I particularly liked about this essay was the way the author successfully weaved several themes into his writing. In my opinion, Armelagos carefully chose biographical particularities about each author that situated their overall theoretical aims – what they hoped to convey from their research – and juxtaposed them against the political climate and major paradigms that existed at that time. And by ‘theme’ I mean the sociological categories derived from metric analysis of the skeleton, namely ‘race’. His fetish with how early anthropologists dealt with these problems seemed to be the cornerstone of his analysis. I found this to be both a strength and weakness to his approach. Approximately one-third of his article is devoted to the establishment of anthropology in North America, which means focusing heavily on Boas, omitting several of his achievements in other fields of inquiry, such as his seminal research into the lives of the Kwakiutl inhabitants of British Columbia. On a positive note, though, his general interest about how successive anthropologists departed from the one-to-one intimacy of Taylor’s civilizational teleology to one’s skin pigmentation showed precisely how social ideology can manipulate hypothesis building in science. His shift from Boas’ attempts to put an end to such scientific heresy during the early 20th century where then muddled by Ales Hrdlicka’s fence-sitting position regarding the race concept. While some authors describe Hrdlicka as an anthropological hero in many respects, ultimately unscathed by racist ideology, many anthropological historians maintain that Hrdlicka himself advocated in favour of the eugenics movement.

Towards the end of his essay, the author infuses other sub-disciplinary pioneers who shaped the course of the ‘new physical anthropology’, the ‘new archaeology’, and briefly summarizes the way these early practitioners colluded to produce what we now call bioarchaeology. Moving forward in time, away from the episteme of Boasian physical anthropology, and into a cohesive framework that included many contributions from scholars like Brian Fagan, Lewis Binford, and Clark Spencer-Larsen (the latter of the three is considered a bioarchaeologists), Armelagos highlights the integration of North American anthropology (omitting linguistic anthropology and its early practitioners like Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Boas incidentally), instead of the four-field disintegration mantra that is the constant source of departmental discomfort today. I too, like Armelagos, believe that the North American tradition is fundamental to our studies, no matter what sub-field we ascribe to.

The distasteful and racially charged origin of anthropology will forever be something all fields share, whether cultural, physical, archaeological or linguistic, a common point of methodological departure that has nonetheless reshaped (and rightly so) our perceptions concerning the very origin of our species. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that physical anthropologists began thinking about ancestry in terms of geographic origin, a time when the civil rights movement was playing out full-stage in the United States. It should also not be forgotten that many of the physical sciences bare questionable beginnings, whether it be the church who blasphemed Galileo for proving the Copernican theory of heliocentricity, or early physicians disemboweling live subjects; modern scientist would never refute the historical correlation between physics, chemistry and the medical sciences, and this is one of the points I think Armelagos was trying to make. Like the Catholic church granting Galileo pardon centuries after his death (in 1992, by Pope John Paul the 2nd), it was not until June 15th, 2005, that the AAA granted pardon and uncensored Boas, almost 86 years after silencing his writings and discrediting his (very few) students for their visionary ideas that would eventually become the philosophical cornerstone of modern anthropology.

By temporally shifting his focus from one anthropological generation to the next, Armelagos constructs a narrative that orients itself towards the future of anthropological discourse. His brash undertones (anyone who has ever read anything by Armelagos can relate) paired with critical commentary and a keen sense of historical understanding leads the reader to ask: “so, what comes next?”

If this is indeed how he envisioned the reader to interpret his analysis, and I suspect he did, then the overall message may have been to convince the reader to question not only the content of anthropological literature but also the social landscape embedded within. Taken together, then, his historiographic analysis of anthropology was only one intended theme, while another may have been (and perhaps even subliminal) a social critique of the power structures that guided early modern anthropology inquiry. He managed to achieve this by first tending to the painfully misguided origins of our discipline, building through a liminal stage of anthropologists willing to change their interpretations of human adaptations on a global scale, ending on that very point of departure that begs us to ask as 21st century anthropology students: “how much does our current social atmosphere influence our ideas concerning the past, present, and future of human nature?” A very good read. Your thoughts??

Armelagos GJ. 2011. Histories of Scholars, Ideas, and Disciplines of Biological Anthropology and Archaeology. Reviews in Anthropology 40: 107-133.

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6 thoughts on “Blog #3: Reviews in Anthropology

  1. Hello Matthew!
    Once again you’ve written an exceptional piece here. I know that you were intrigued by this article and it’s captivating to see how your interests in this subject come out in your written work. You have read a lot more reviews and critiques over the years and I am curious if you felt that Armelagos’ article is formatted in the same way that other literature reviews have been. Do many theoretical articles ‘progress’ throughout their work as the authors did throughout the period in time? If that is the case, what do you think Armelagos’ overall aim was? Was it to document how we have changed, therefore providing an opportunity to reflect in order to better understand our current approaches to the field? I have read an Armelagos review before and found that his chapter highlighted the similarities from the past to present forms of analyses; I found this interesting to see which aspects had remained steadfast and were therefore necessary to our theories. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Hi Matt,

    I really enjoyed reading your summary and review of the article you chose. I appreciated your discussion about race in anthropology and how you related it to other fields and authors such as Galileo; I thought that was very clever. I agree that the discussion of race in review articles is both good and bad. It is good to state out shortcomings and problems as a discipline, but wow is it exhausting to read over and over, especially when such large sections of papers are donated to the discussion of race.

    It’s interesting that Armelagos spent so long orienting Anthropology in North America and incorporating Boas. Do you think more could have been gained out of the article if the focus was on archaeology and physical anthropology?

    It sounds like Armelagos did not have a conclusive statement for the future direction of bioarchaeology and instead asked questions about how social atmosphere influences our ideas about the past, present, and future. Did you appreciate how the article ended? Or would you have preferred a more direct response in regards to future directions?

  3. Hi Matt,
    A nice review of a review. Let’s see if we can get to the “guts” of this a bit more. So he ends with giving you a “so, what comes next?”. Building on the comment above, did he offer an answer to the “so-what question” early in his review? Did he give you a clear sense of his thread (or his “frame”) before he began? Or was it more like a mystery novel, where you are supposed to hang on his every word? (Take a look at the first couple of paragraphs…).

    Interesting point regarding Boas — although folks’ are definitely still debating his legacy. Every year it seems another book comes out re-considering one of his various anthropological positions or his ethnographic practice.

    Short stylistic suggestion (that I hope is taken in the intended spirit): Maybe try for some shorter sentences? Some of these are a bit long and tough to follow. Also, “His fetish with how early anthropologists dealt with these problems seemed to be the cornerstone of his analysis.” Hmm. Not sure about the word choice here ~ how is he fetishizing here?

    • Hi Andy,
      Yes, I do tend to run-on and on sometimes (dually noted). Unfortunately he did not answer the question I posed in my blog. It would have indeed been more interesting if he had provided an opinion about where he thought the discipline was going. To me, his analysis regarding the treatment of ethnicity throughout the history of anthropology was always framed towards a reorientation of past beliefs, which is why at the end of the article felt ‘left open’ to future questioning. I definitely could have used the word ‘obsessed’ or ‘strongly focused on’, however I thought he was rather toying with the idea itself, poking fun at it as if it were an object, hence the word fetish. But I do agree with you, other words could have been substituted for this! Thank you for your response!

  4. Wow Matt, well done! I think you have covered the article very well. Aside from the cultural memory of our discipline’s unsavoury origins, do you think the discriminatory undertones may still be present in the any or all of the subdisciplines? I certainly still encounter elements of othering in archaeological discourse though not blatantly along racial lines.

  5. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for another interesting post! I’m curious about what you make of the Armelagos’ emphasis on the relationship between the biographical history of individual anthropologists and the social/intellectual history of the milieu they were working in.
    Is he using biography as a tool for structuring his narrative or trying to find a causal explanation for different anthropologists’ theoretical (re)orientations in their life histories? And is what he is doing convincing?

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