Saturday, December 13, 2008

History of Anthropology

The anthropologist Eric Wolf once characterized anthropology as "the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the social sciences." Understanding how anthropology developed contributes to understanding how it fits into other academic disciplines.

Contemporary anthropologists claim a number of earlier thinkers as their forebears and the discipline itself has many sources. One view sees anthropology as an outgrowth of the Age of Enlightenment, when European thinkers began systematically examining human behavior and institutions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fields of study that eventually gave rise most directly to modern anthropology attempted to deal with Europeans' (and their colonists') expanded awareness in three broad areas:1) a greater appreciation of their own past, new discoveries regarding Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Near Eastern antiquities, and the social changes with the growth of cities and industry (Classics, Egyptology, folklore, etc.); 2) encounters with non-European people, whose customs, appearance, languages, religious beliefs, and social organization often differed strikingly from those of Europeans (ethnology, philology, etc.); and 3) growing curiosity about the biological history of humanity, the historical relationships among existing populations, and the relatively new idea that human beings could be related to other primates (Natural history, Zoology, Biological Anthropology, etc.).

Scholarly traditions of jurisprudence, history, philology and sociology developed during this time and informed the development of the social sciences of which anthropology was a part. At the same time, the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment produced thinkers such as Herder and later Wilhelm Dilthey whose work formed the basis for the culture concept which is central to the discipline.

These intellectual movements in part grappled with one of the greatest paradoxes of modernity: as the world is becoming smaller and more integrated, people's experience of the world is increasingly atomized and dispersed. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed in the 1840s: All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.

Ironically, this universal interdependence, rather than leading to greater human solidarity, has coincided with increasing racial, ethnic, religious, and class divisions, and new – and to some confusing or disturbing – cultural expressions. These are the conditions of life with which people today must contend, but they have their origins in processes that began in the 16th century and accelerated in the 19th century.

Institutionally anthropology emerged from natural history (expounded by authors such as Buffon). This was the study of human beings - typically people living in European colonies. Thus studying the language, culture, physiology, and artifacts of European colonies was more or less equivalent to studying the flora and fauna of those places. It was for this reason, for instance, that Lewis Henry Morgan could write monographs on both The League of the Iroquois and The American Beaver and His Works. This is also why the material culture of 'civilized' nations such as China have historically been displayed in fine arts museums alongside European art while artifacts from Africa or Native North American cultures were displayed in Natural History Museums with dinosaur bones and nature dioramas. This being said, curatorial practice has changed dramatically in recent years, and it would be wrong to see anthropology as merely an extension of colonial rule and European chauvinism, since its relationship to imperialism was and is complex.

Anthropology in the Muslim World
Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (973-1048), a Muslim scholar who carried out extensive, personal investigations of the people, customs, and religions of the Indian subcontinent, has been described as "the first anthropologist." Like modern anthropologists, he engaged in extensive participant observation with a given group of people, learnt their language and studied their primary texts, and presented his findings with objectivity and neutrality using cross-cultural comparisons. He wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures in the Middle East, Mediterranean and especially South Asia. Biruni's anthropology of religion was only possible for a scholar deeply immersed in the lore of other nations. Biruni and Ibn Khaldun have also been praised by several scholars for their anthropology of Islam.

Biruni developed a sophisticated methodology for his anthropological studies. For example, he wrote the following in the opening passages of his India: "No one will deny that in questions of historic authenticity hearsay does not equal eyewitness; for in the latter the eye of the observer apprehends the substance of that which is observed, both in the time when and in the place where it exists, whilst hearsay has its peculiar drawbacks." He was also aware that there are limitations to eye-witness accounts: "The object of eye-witness can only be actual momentary existence, whilst hearsay comprehends alike the present, the past and the future".

Biruni was a pioneer in comparative religion and the anthropology of religion. According to Arthur Jeffery, "It is rare until modern times to find so fair and unprejudiced a statement of the views of other religions, so earnest an attempt to study them in the best sources, and such care to find a method which for this branch of study would be both rigorous and just." In the introduction to his India, Biruni himself writes that his intent behind the work was to engage dialogue between Islam and the Indian religions, particularly Hinduism as well as Buddhism. He writes: "Abu-Sahl at-­Tiflisi incited me to write down what I know about the Hindus as a help to those who want to discuss religious questions with them, and as a repertory of information to those who want to associate with them. We think now that what we have related in this book will be sufficient for anyone who wants to converse with the Hindus, and to discuss with them questions of religion, science or literature, on the very basis of their own civilization."

Biruni was aware that statements about a religion would be open to criticism by its adherents, and insisted that a scholar should follow the requirements of a strictly scientific method. According to William Montgomery Watt, Biruni "is admirably objective and unprejudiced in his presentation of facts" but "selects facts in such a way that he makes a strong case for holding that there is a certain unity in the religious experience of the people he considers, even though he does not appear to formulate this view explicitly." Biruni's tradition of comparative cross-cultural study continued in the Muslim world through to Ibn Khaldun's work in the 14th century.

Early 20th-Century Antecedents: Britain
Museums such as the British Museum weren't the only site of anthropological studies: with the New Imperialism period, starting in the 1870s, zoos became unattended "laboratories", especially the so-called "ethnological exhibitions" or "Negro villages". Thus, "savages" from the colonies were displayed, often nudes, in cages, in what has been called "human zoos". For example, in 1906, Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was put by anthropologist Madison Grant in a cage in the Bronx Zoo, labeled "the missing link" between an orangutan and the "white race" — Grant, a renowned eugenicist, was also the author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Such exhibitions were attempts to illustrate and prove in the same movement the validity of scientific racism, which first formulation may be found in Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-55). In 1931, the Colonial Exhibition in Paris still displayed Kanaks from New Caledonia in the "indigenous village"; it received 24 million visitors in six months, thus demonstrating the popularity of such "human zoos".

Anthropology grew increasingly distinct from natural history and by the end of the nineteenth century the discipline began to crystallize into its modern form - by 1935, for example, it was possible for T.K. Penniman to write a history of the discipline entitled A Hundred Years of Anthropology. At the time, the field was dominated by 'the comparative method'. It was assumed that all societies passed through a single evolutionary process from the most primitive to most advanced. Non-European societies were thus seen as evolutionary 'living fossils' that could be studied in order to understand the European past. Scholars wrote histories of prehistoric migrations which were sometimes valuable but often also fanciful. It was during this time that Europeans first accurately traced Polynesian migrations across the Pacific Ocean for instance - although some of them believed it originated in Egypt. Finally, the concept of race was actively discussed as a way to classify - and rank - human beings based on inherent biological difference.

19th-Century Antecedents: United States
Late eighteenth century ethnology established the scientific foundation for the field, which began to mature in the United States during the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). Jackson was responsible for implementing the Indian Removal Act, the coerced and forced removal of an estimated 100,000 American Indians during the 1830s to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma; for insuring that the franchise was extended to all white men, irrespective of financial means while denying virtually all black men the right to vote; and, for suppressing abolitionists’ efforts to end slavery while vigorously defending that institution. Finally, he was responsible for appointing Chief Justice Roger B. Taney who would decide, in Scott v. Sandford (1857), that Negroes were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race. . . and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." As a result of this decision, black people, whether free or enslaved, could never become citizens of the United States.

It was in this context that the so-called American School of Anthropology thrived as the champion of polygenism or the doctrine of multiple origins—sparking a debate between those influenced by the Bible who believed in the unity of humanity and those who argued from a scientific standpoint for the plurality of origins and the antiquity of distinct types. Like the monogenists, these theories were not monolithic and often used words like races, species, hybrid, and mongrel interchangeably. A scientific consensus began to emerge during this period "that there exists a Genus Homo, embracing many primordial types of ‘species’." Charles Caldwell, Samuel George Morton, Samuel A. Cartwright, George Gliddon, Josiah C. Nott, and Louis Agassiz, and even South Carolina Governor James Henry Hammond were all influential proponents of this school. While some were disinterested scientists, others were passionate advocates who used science to promote slavery in a period of increasing sectional strife. All were complicit in establishing the putative science that justified slavery, informed the Dred Scott decision, underpinned miscegenation laws, and eventually fueled Jim Crow. Samuel G. Morton, for example, claimed to be just a scientist but he did not hesitate to provide evidence of Negro inferiority to John C. Calhoun, the prominent pro-slavery Secretary of State to help him negotiate the annexation of Texas as a slave state.

The high-water mark of polygenic theories was Josiah Nott and Gliddon’s voluminous eight-hundred page tome titled Types of Mankind, published in 1854. Reproducing the work of Louis Agassiz and Samuel Morton, the authors spread the virulent and explicitly racist views to a wider, more popular audience. The first printing sold out quickly and by the end of the century it had undergone nine editions. Although many Southerners felt that all the justification for slavery they needed was found in the Bible, others used the new science to defend slavery and the repression of American Indians. Abolitionists, however, felt they had to take this science on its own terms. And for the first time, African American intellectuals waded into the contentious debate. In the immediate wake of Types of Mankind and during the pitched political battles that led to Civil War, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the statesman and persuasive abolitionist, directly attacked the leading theorists of the American School of Anthropology. In an 1854 address, entitled "The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered," Douglass argued that "by making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, [slave-owners] excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.... For let it be once granted that the human race are of multitudinous origin, naturally different in their moral, physical, and intellectual capacities... a chance is left for slavery, as a necessary institution.... There is no doubt that Messrs. Nott, Glidden, Morton, Smith and Agassiz were duly consulted by our slavery propagating statesmen." (p. 287).

20th-Century Developments
Drawing on the methods of the natural sciences as well as developing new techniques involving not only structured interviews but unstructured "participant-observation" – and drawing on the new theory of evolution through natural selection, they proposed the scientific study of a new object: "humankind," conceived of as a whole. Crucial to this study is the concept "culture," which anthropologists defined both as a universal capacity and propensity for social learning, thinking, and acting (which they see as a product of human evolution and something that distinguishes Homo sapiens – and perhaps all species of genus Homo – from other species), and as a particular adaptation to local conditions that takes the form of highly variable beliefs and practices. Thus, "culture" not only transcends the opposition between nature and nurture; it transcends and absorbs the peculiarly European distinction between politics, religion, kinship, and the economy as autonomous domains. Anthropology thus transcends the divisions between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to explore the biological, linguistic, material, and symbolic dimensions of humankind in all forms.

In the mid-20th century, American anthropology began to study its own history more systematically. In 1967 Marvin Harris published his The Rise of Anthropological Theory, presenting argumentative examinations of anthropology's historical developments, and George W. Stocking, Jr., established the historicist school, examining the historical contexts of anthropological movements.

Note: This article was taken from

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