Timothy Mason's Site

History of Anthropology

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The following page grows out of my interest in the Australian anthropologists, Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen. If you have knowledge of any documents that are not indicated here, please let me know.

Links checked 28/10/04

Last update : 25/03/04

The Song of the Pomo Anthropologist

Now I'm an anthropologist, I study yoomen bings
I analyse their artefacts, dig up all sorts of things
But the modern anthropologist must be careful what s/he says
S/he should not mock the Mormon's spice or jeer the Parsee's fez
So when I quiz an informant beneath the spreading tree
At the back of my mind, I guess I find that I want to talk about me.

Talk about, talk about, I want to talk about me
And every single word I write - auto-bio-graphee!

Take care and don't chip grandpa's bones
Or desecrate his tomb
Don't explain away our customs
Or steal our silver spoons
You have no leg to stand upon
Nor glass with which to see
And every single word you write is auto-bio-graphee

Talk about, talk about, I want to talk about me
And every single word I write - auto-bio-graphee

Queer theory's weird and post-mod's odd
Radfem is up a tree
But I love all three, because, you see
They let me talk about me

Talk about, shout about, I love to talk about me
And every single word I write - auto-bio-grapheeeee!!

Resources for a history of anthropology

Timothy Mason

Université de Paris 8

One general resource is the Anthropology Biography Web developed by anthropology students at Minnesota State University. Short biographies of a large selection of anthropologists can be accessed. You may also consult the list of winners of the Rivers Memorial Medal which runs from Haddon in 1924 to Abrahams in 1996.

One superb resource is the set of "interviews with ancestors" filmed by Jack Goody and Alan Macfarlane and maintained on Macfarlane's marvellous web-site.

There is a page dedicated to women anthropologists which offers a short biography, bibliography and relevant links for 31 workers including Mead, Weiner, Powdermaker and Benedict. SOSIG offers an immense collection of resources in this, as in all areas of the social sciences.

Beginnings ?

Where does one begin with a history? And where? According to Margaret Hodgen(1), Herodotus 'first formulated some of the persisting problems of anthropology'. Tim Spalding's 'Herodotus on the Web' page offers articles, essays and pictures of the man, plus a set of links to the texts themselves. If Hodgen is to be beieved, the spirit of anthropological enquiry was then lost for centuries, as thinking about the Other was reduced to fabulation and tetrology. Friar John of Plano Carpini's report of his sojourn among the Mongols, dating from 1245-1247, was, she says, unusual in its detailed depiction of a non-European culture. Marco Polo later trod the same pathways, and dictated his observations to a scribe while imprisoned at the end of his life. But Sir John Mandeville's Travels was referred by the general reader as a source of information about other cultures. Today it can be enjoyed as fiction.

Carpini and Polo were motivated by more than simple curiosity ; the one sought souls, the other profit. With the discovery of the New World and its riches by Christopher Columbus, both opportunity and need for more accurate observation of the Other grew. On first contact, several so-called Indians were shipped across to Europe, and Montaigne claimed to have conversed with one.

Michael Hoffman thinks we've got the whole story of the development of anthropology wrong - indeed, we've got the whole story of the development of Western thought wrong. He suggests a Byzantine View.

Miriam Claude Meijer looks at the development of thinking about Amerindian societies in 17thC France. She cites The Jesuit Relations which consisted of the reports sent back to Paris by the Jesuit missionaries to the Canadian First Peoples.

Marvin Harris sees the roots of anthropology in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He cites ARJ Turgot's 'Plan de Deux Discours sur L'histoire Universelle' as expressing the concept of culture in its clearest expression.

L.R. Hiatt, more practically, starts his story of British anthropology (in 'Arguments About Aborigines') with Granville Sharp's efforts to free a black slave. Further links to sites on Sharp will be found at Brycchan Carey's site on the British Abolitionists. Hiatt depicts the founding of the anti-slavery movement as a direct precursor of scientific ethnology - a key figure here is James Prichard.

Lafitau's 'Moeurs des Sauvages' page images at Canadiana.org. For other texts in French, consult Gallica, where the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is making a large number of texts available

Armchairs and Savages

Background reading on the nineteenth century theorists, including Tylor, Maine, Morgan and Frazer has been put together by anthropology students at the university of Alabama. Another very useful site is the Internet Sacred Text Archive; along with Müller's translation of the Upanishads, you will find early twentieth-century accounts of shamanistic practices, Langloh Parker's Australian Legendary Tales, and so on.
In article published by the Marburg Journal of Religion, Benson Saler outlines Edward Tylor's theory of religion, and suggests that, although obviously faulty in many respects, it may still have something to teach us today. An early review of Tylor's 'Primitive Culture' was written by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1872 ; he is troubled both by Tylor's habit of amassing a compendium of facts, and by his ignorance of spiritism and mesmerism which, in Wallace's opinion, would have explained many of the phenomena he collected. Peter Pels, of the University of Amsterdam, looks at the controversy arising out of this review.
A web-available version of Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' (abridged edition) can be found at Bartleby's. There's an index facility which makes it easy to find the quotations you're looking for. You can read it alongside Bullfinch's 'The Age of Fable'. (Bartleby's also has Sapir's 'Language ; an Introduction to the Study of Speech'). Camille Paglia likes 'The Golden Bough' a lot, and tells us why on her web site. She calls him 'pagan-minded', which would, I suspect, have rather upset him. British folklorist, Bob Trubshaw, is rather more skeptical, concluding that Frazer's influence was for the most part misleading. A review of Ackerman's account of Frazer (The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists) gives some indications of the scholar's milieu.

Some extracts from Andrew Lang's 'Totemism' are available, with a foreward by Rodney Needham. Gaslight has his 'Book of Dreams and Ghosts' online at http://www.mtroyal.ab.ca/gaslight/langmenu.htm#dreams. Lang's interest in folklore studies is glanced at in On the history of comparison in folklore studies by Ulrika Wolf-Knuts.

Out of the Armchair

Erik Grant looks back over the ways in which Danish ethnologists have presented the Eskimo. He sees anthropological discourse as being inherently duplicitous, weaving back and forth between images of peacefulness and savagery.

Jacob Gruber, in an essay first published in "American Anthropologist" in 1959, looks at how the salvage mentality affected the development of ethnology, concluding that "The needs of salvage then, so readily recognized through an awareness of a savage vanishing on the disappearing frontier of an advancing civilization, set the tone and the method for much that was anthropology in the earlier years of its prosecution as a selfconscious discipline". This is one of a number of papers on the History of the discipline made available by the American Anthropological Association, as is the paper by Hoffman mentioned above. Notably, the site includes a section on Morgan and another on Boas.

Among a number of web-available early ethnographikc works, you will find Yarrows's 'The Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians', and David Mandelbaums' 'The Plains Cree' of 1940.

Spencer and Gillen

An article on the history of ethnology in Australia, from the IATSIS site gives useful background - this is file m0006639_a.rtf.

There are some photos from the Horn Expedition under the title 'Science from a Camel's Back' on the Southern Australia Museum web-site, where you will also find a page on Daisy Bates, one of the first women ethnologists in Australia.

Spencer was one of the earliest of anthropological film-makers. You will find an account of his predecessor, Alfred Haddon's, ethnographic use of film and of his influence on Spencer at the Haddon site, which is an on-line catalogue of early anthropological films.
An early use of Spencer & Gillen's data is to be found in W.I. Thomas's chapter on 'The Psychology of Exogamy', part of his "Sex and Society: Studies in the Social Psychology of Sex", Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1907).
Among other contemporaries who worked from the Australian ethnological studies was Andrew Lang, whose 'Myth Ritual and Religion' will be found here in Gutenburg format.
A fellow ethnologist with whom Spencer and Gillen had much argument was Carl Strehlow, a Lutheran missionary. Later his son, Theodor Strehlow, took up the cause - you may consult the Strehlow Research Foundation page for information on them and on their work. Another organization, the Strehlow Research Centre, also has a web-page. (Both these sites now seem to be off the web. If you find any trace of them, please let me know).

A critical review of Australian ethnology and anthropology, with an extensive consideration of Spencer & Gillen's work, written by Bruce Reyburn, a social activist and anthropologist, was published on the Native-l list-serve in 1993. Reyburn's articles are set in the context of the Mabo land-claim case. (Caution : there are several different posts, and it is not always easy to find one's way about from one to another, or to figure out the order in which they should be consulted).

The May/June 2000 issue of Razon y Palabra carries an article by Laura Eduardo Ayala Serrano on Durkheim's use of his sources - including some consideration of his references to Australian ethnology, Spencer and Gillen taking their place alongside Strehlow and Howitt.

It can be argued that Spencer and Gillen were later pushed into the background by both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. But Spencer, along with Fison and Howitt, was not averse to pushing himself, if we are to believe Russell McGregor's review for The Electronic Journal of New Zealand and Australian History of Malcolm D. Prentis's "Science, Race & Faith: A Life of John Mathew".

My own essays on Spencer and Gillen are on this site ; 'Incest, Frontiers and Syncretism' looks at how the concept of the incest tabu is used by S&G and by Malinowski. 'The Anthropologist's Bagmen' is an attempt to assess the contribution of Spencer and Gillen to anthropology. 'The Anthropologist's Eye for the Bushie Lubra' is more specifically concerned with the place of Gillen, caught between his friendship for the scientist, on the one hand, who sees the Arrernte as exemplars of an inevitable process of evolution, and his day-by-day understandings of the men and women who lived around Alice Springs on the other. In Extinguished Voices, I look for clues about the lives of the younger men and women, ducking and diving their way into the future. In "From Culture to Cultures", I follow through from Spencer & Gillen's work to see how Australian ethnology evolved subsequently.

Malinowski and Beyond (British anthropology)

Malinowski's 'The Primitive Economics of the Trobriand Islanders', published in the Economic Journal in 1931 is web-available. Colin Danby, in an essay on the relationship between the economist's and the anthropologist's models of social action, discusses Malinowski's economic ideas extensively, along with those of Bourdieu and Sahlins. (This has now been taken off the web, but publication details will be found on the page flagged here). In my essay on The Anthropologist's Magician, I argue that from Malinowski to Chagnon, the relationship between the ethnologist and the chaman is a key to understanding how field-work developed.
David Goldfarb, in a paper written in 1994, argues that Malinowski's image of the Trobriander's sexual practices are in part informed by his own repressed homosexuality, as evidenced in the record of his relationship with Stanislaw Witkiewicz. He also, rather more interestingly, sees Malinowski's conception of the Savage - his insistence that underneath it all, the Trobriander is a European gentleman - as mirroring Witkeiwicz's primitivism.

Bruce Kapferer reviews Max Gluckman's critique of Malinowski's dabbling in matters African in some extracts from the First Max Gluckman Memorial Lecture. In a grant submission written by Gluckman himself, we are offered a history of the Manchester School as he saw it in 1962. From the Manchester web-site, you can also read a vitriolic attack on Malinowski and the British school of anthropologists by S.P. Reyna, who sees the whole anthropological project as tainted by hypocrisy. During the same conference,Kapferer, comparing reactions to the conflicts between, first, Leach and Gluckman, and then Sahlins and Obeyesekere, sees a bleak future for anthropology and wonders whether the post-modernists are not as guilty of complicity in colonialism as were their forebears. (A number of other papers read on this occasion, which marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Manchester Anthropology department, are worth a look.

Glucksman's essay on mortuary customs among the Bantu

Mathieu Deflem's article 'Ritual, Anti-structure, and Religion' is an intellectual biography of Victor Turner, delineating parallels between life and work, and evaluating Turner's theoretical contributions to the analysis of religion.

Back in Australia

Radcliffe-Brown seemed set to become the leading star of Australian ethnography, but seems to have tired of it rather quickly. After a brief interlude under Frith, the discipline was taken in hand by A.P. Elkin, and it was under his reign that attention was first drawn to the role of women in Aboriginal social life. Although women had taken to the field - notably Daisy Bates and Olive Pink - they had not, by and large, seen it as their role to concentrate on the distaff.

Trinity College WA provides a set of links to pages on Daisy Bates. She is a controversial figure ; a disturbed childhood, an alcoholic father and a shadowy mother seem to have spun her on her way through a life in which it is difficult to distinguish between fact and fantasy. It seems likely that she needed the Aborigines far more than they needed her. I have found Julia Blackburn's biography far from satisfactory, but this is probably due to the slippery nature of her subject.

Olive Pink was, it seems, persuaded by her encounter with Bates to take up the flame. She was far more rigourous than Bates could ever be, however, and if her contributions have been underestimated, it may be because she managed to make herself very unpopular with the anthropological establishment. Julie Marcus has brought her back to favour with her biography "The Indomitable Miss Pink" (but see Russell McGregor's critique, "The Clear Categories of Miss Pink" in Oceania 65, 1, 4-17. At one time this was on the web, but has now gone).

Mead's American generation

Peter Kloos takes the infamous argument between Mead and Fortune as one of his cases in "Multiple Images of Ethnic Reality ; Beyond Disagreement", an essay in which he attempts to account for some of the battles that occur when ethnologists check each other's work.
The Ruth Fulton Benedict papers are held at Vassar, and you will find a register if the contents, along with a short biographical essay at their web-site. Susan Hochman has a rather longer biography of her at the Woman's Page.

A short account of the life and work of William S. Willis Jr., one of the first black Americans to become an academic anthropologist, is given by Peggy Reeves Sanday. Willis, says Sanday, argued that the anthropologist should take the 'frog perspective', looking up at society from below.

Contemporary Anthropology

Chagnon and Asch's film of The Ax Fight is visible over the web - too small to be clear.


Harris, Marvin, The Rise of Anthropological Theory ; A History of theories of Culture, Updated Edition, Altamira Press, 2001.

Hiatt, L.R., Arguments About Aborigines ; Australia and the Evolution of Social Antrhopology, CUP, 1996.

Hodgen, Margaret, T., Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.


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