Inside Story

Double-sided mirror

How anthropology flourished as colonialism began its decline

Martha Macintyre Books 25 January 2023 2223 words

Lively, creative and intriguing: writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1934. Carl Van Vechten/Granger Archive/Alamy

Anthropology’s association with colonialism has generated debate, guilt, self-justification and intellectual crises within the discipline for decades. Critics have emphasised how colonial interests facilitated and perhaps directed research.

During a crucial period, though, from the 1880s to the 1930s, imperialism was foundering while the study of its subjects flourished. In her new book, In Search of Us, historian Lucy Moore traces the evolution of anthropology during that time by profiling leading American and European practitioners.

Franz Boas, her opening subject, is often characterised as the “Father of American Anthropology” and his 1883 stint in the Canadian Arctic with Inuit people is considered the first real anthropological fieldwork. Proud and ambitious, he had studied physics, philosophy and geography — his thesis was on colour perception — and fought duels with several students who insulted him.

As a German Jew, Boas’s prospects of academic appointment in his own country were limited. Having collected and curated items for museum display in Germany, he emigrated to the United States in 1889 to take up an appointment at Clark University. But his research into children’s growth offended local sensibilities and his stay there proved short-lived. Anxious to remain in America, he worked for a time in museums.

Boas’s early works reflect the nineteenth-century concern with material culture and biological difference. He rejected the notion that physiological variation between human populations indicated racial characteristics that could be hierarchically ranked. He viewed physical racial differences as environmentally determined and modified by cultural factors.

Back in the academy and established as a professor at Columbia University, his focus on culture was more marked, and his students were encouraged to study language, myths, rituals and social behaviour rather than material culture. But the association between museology, ethnology and anthropology endured.

Moore documents the “moral murkiness” of anthropology’s subject matter in this pioneering period. Skulls and skeletons, along with sacred objects, clothing, tools, canoes and weapons, were routinely collected — often by ethically dubious means — for museums in Europe and America.

Among the expeditions was a British voyage to the Torres Strait, led by Alfred Cort Haddon, another of Moore’s main characters, which collected many artefacts now residing in the British Museum. Haddon’s group included the polymath William Rivers, whose training in medicine and psychology was gradually integrated into his research. Rivers’s ideas about anthropology were strongly influenced by his scientific studies and he sought to establish methodologies that were rigorous and holistic in scope.

Unlike many of his successors in British anthropology, Rivers was extremely sensitive to the impact wrought by colonialism, including the spread of venereal disease and alcoholism. He surmised, too, that its psychological effects would render people hopeless and could lead to “racial suicide.”

The idea of salvage ethnography, whereby researchers sought to describe and interpret cultures before they were contaminated by colonial intervention or faded away, dominated anthropological research in the early twentieth century. Most of the anthropologists Moore writes about coupled this concern with a concept of culture as a bounded entity, encompassing kinship systems, languages, cosmologies, rituals and myths.

Just what counted as elements of a “culture” was based on Western ideas of human capacities, though, and the teleological assumption that “civilisation” was a historical culmination. Progress from barbarism necessitated the ideal of a primitive society and the gradual evolution of social and cultural formations that constituted a civilised state.

Edvard Westermarck, a Finn who was as much a philosopher as an anthropologist, produced a book on the history of human marriage before going into the field. His work was inspired by questions of universality and cross-cultural comparison — of customs, moral values and understandings of identity.

In spite of his grandiose intellectual aspirations, Westermarck emerges from Moore’s book as a modest, tolerant and sympathetic scholar. He referred to informants as “teachers,” prefiguring the shifts in nomenclature adopted decades later by a generation of researchers eager to acknowledge their sources as at least their equals. But his academic ambitions were to some extent thwarted by his fieldwork experiences in Morocco. Entranced by the country, the people and the way of life, he might have been the first anthropologist to have “gone troppo.”

Certainly he was the first influential scholar to offer criticisms of disciplinary ethnocentrism after coming to the “somewhat disappointing but not altogether unwholesome conclusion that the belief in extreme superiority of our Western civilisation really only exists in the Western mind itself.”

Moore explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in ethnographic research, constantly alluding to the ambiguities in fieldwork experiences. She invokes the image of a “double-sided mirror,” describing how the anthropologist “sees her own society reflected darkly back at her when she looks at another society and the society she observes begins to see itself through her eyes.”

Participant observation and immersion in others’ daily lives were the research processes that distinguished true ethnographic research from the armchair ethnology of predecessors, which had relied on reports by colonial officials, missionaries and travellers. Just what the people who had an anthropologist living among them thought remains mysterious, although a rich literature of memoirs documents diverse reactions, including amusement, astonishment and grudging tolerance.

All the anthropologists Moore writes about believed they were establishing a scientific discipline with strong theoretical underpinnings and rigorous methodologies. Observing communities and interpreting social and cultural activities were construed as activities that would produce a “science of society” based on human universals.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronisław Malinowski both used functionalism as the theoretical basis for collecting data and making anthropological claims. But where Radcliffe-Brown’s functionalism followed Durkheim’s theories about social solidarity, Malinowski focused on humans’ biological needs, arguing that all social and cultural behaviour could be understood as rational means of fulfilling them.

Both men demanded admiration and each attracted dedicated acolytes (and enemies). Radcliffe-Brown’s fieldwork in Australia between 1910 and 1912 was conducted with Daisy Bates, an enthusiastic amateur ethnologist who spoke several Aboriginal languages and had spent years collecting and recording linguistic and cultural data on many Indigenous groups. She expected a collaborative research relationship, but Radcliffe-Brown clearly considered her a mere “informant.”

Bates publicly denounced Radcliffe-Brown for plagiarising a manuscript she had given him. Her interest in Aboriginal culture was passionate and untutored, her methods those of the meticulous collector rather than the scientist. She saw herself as an advocate. Being a woman with no tertiary education, her achievements were remarkable, but they earned only disdain from Radcliffe-Brown.

Not that his academic peers fared any better. He viewed the work of most American anthropologists, especially women, as intellectually inferior. Thin-skinned when criticised, he was described as “impenetrably wrapped in his own conceit” by Ruth Benedict, the first woman to be president of the American Anthropology Association.

Malinowski inspired similar devotion from his students but emerges as a far more charismatic figure. More significantly for his long-term influence on anthropology, he supported female students, several of whom had illustrious careers. Moore dubs him “The Hero,” and his anthropological writings indicate that he too saw himself in this light — adventurous, trailblazing, courageous.

His posthumously published diaries and letters reveal that he was also hypochondriacal, self-pitying and not quite so enmeshed in the daily life of Trobrianders as he would have had his readers believe. He took with him into the field an arsenal of medicines, including quinine, cocaine, arsenic, purgatives and emetics, as well as an extraordinary quantity of tinned food.

His influence on British anthropology was immense. A century later, his Argonauts of the Western Pacific continues to inspire debate. His postgraduate students included Raymond Firth, Edmund Leach, Hortense Powdermaker, Phyllis Kaberry and Jomo Kenyatta — each of whom went on to become leaders in their areas of study (and, in Kenyatta’s case, prime minister of Kenya).

This was a time when science was revered as the vehicle of social and economic progress. Anthropologists, struggling to present their work as “useful,” argued that their clear and detailed analyses of specific societies could inform government policies and assist in maintaining peaceful relations and promoting economic development.

It was these claims that contributed to anthropology’s reputation as “the handmaid of colonialism.” But, as Moore and many others have pointed out, there is very little evidence that colonial officials drew on anthropologists’ knowledge or insights. More often, they were considered disruptive of racial boundaries and ignored.

Audrey Richards, one of Malinowski’s postgraduate students, was an advocate of utilitarian, applied research who believed Africans should be trained in all disciplines. She saw the need for sustenance as the primary human function, making food provision, understanding of nutrition and methods of cultivation crucial areas of social inquiry.

Richards worked in several African colonies and in the Colonial Office, including a period as founding director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda and time at the African Studies Centre in Cambridge. Richards fostered “a unique period of discourse between high government and intellectuals black and white,” reports Moore, and her reputation as a superb teacher and fieldworker remains unsurpassed.

Although Moore calls her “The Bluestocking,” she emerges as far more down-to-earth, pragmatic and funny than any of the book’s other subjects — perhaps because she was more committed to improving the lives of others than pursuing an illustrious academic career.

Of the three American female scholars included in In Search of Us (the other two are Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict), Zora Neale Hurston is undoubtedly the most lively, creative and intriguing. Extroverted, charming and, after a considerable struggle, highly educated, she is now better known as the author of novels about the lives of poor Black Americans in the American south, including Their Eyes Were Watching God and Barracoon.

Assisted by Franz Boas and his colleague Melville Herskovits, Hurston obtained grants to work in Florida “to gather materials dealing with the traditional beliefs, legends, sayings and customs of blacks and, implicitly, to demonstrate their richness and beauty.” Notwithstanding the obvious prejudice she faced as a Black woman finding academic employment, she distanced herself from the civil rights movement. She was an individualist, libertarian and often contrarian, and opposed all forms of discrimination, affirmative or negative. She aspired to live in a world in which racial distinction was irrelevant.

If Malinowski’s hypochondria and heroism seemed self-dramatising, Claude Lévi-Strauss’s experiences in the interior of Brazil are hair-raisingly dramatic. Like his contemporaries, he sought to study — via survey rather than immersive observation — a tribe “untainted” by colonial interventions. His first expedition was almost anachronistic, as he intended to collect artefacts for the Musée de l’Homme while documenting the culture of Indigenous Amerindians. He traversed the Mato Grosso with “a caravan of fifteen mules, thirty oxen and an unreliable truck… as well as twenty local youths of Portuguese ancestry,” accompanied by his anthropologist wife Dina, a French biologist and a museologist from the Brazilian national museum, whose interests were more archaeological.

The expedition was besieged by insects, including a minuscule bee, the vector for an eye infection that affected everyone except Claude. His wife returned to Paris while he continued his journey westwards for several months. He studied the Nambikwara people, who had “one of the most rudimentary forms of social and political organisation that could be imagined,” and eventually encountered his untainted tribe, only to find that he could not understand them at all and could “make no use” of his observations.

Despondent and disillusioned, he wrote Tristes Tropiques, an account of the expedition and a personal, melancholic reflection on the human condition. It was acclaimed as a literary work. His influential anthropological writings came later, after he had developed his theory of structuralism.

Moore maintains that she is interested in the motivations — personal and intellectual — of the anthropologists about whom she writes, rather than in the critique of their colonial connections. But each individual’s biography necessarily includes descriptions of their political views, and their fieldwork experiences required interactions with, and responses to, colonialism and racial discrimination.

These twelve people emerge as having liberal, sometimes radical attitudes to controversial contemporary issues. All were humanists who emphasised the dignity of the people they described and sought to represent their cultures as complex but comprehensible to Western sensibilities. They embraced a cultural relativism that emphasised human equality. Lévi-Strauss insisted that “civilisation impoverished humanity as much as it enriched it; anthropology might just as easily be termed entropology. All one could hope to do was to spread humanism to all humanity.” Claims of scientific authority were abandoned.

Humanist anthropology insisted on the dignity and value of human beings, regardless of race, gender, colour or national status. Moore argues that the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 “were fundamentally influenced by the work done in anthropology over the previous decades.” Cultural relativism ushered in worldviews that confronted old hierarchies and celebrated difference. In the wake of the second world war, the universal “human family” that had been the foundational assumption of anthropology became the basis of the international legal recognition of “equal and inalienable rights.”

Now, however, as Moore acknowledges in her conclusion, this anthropocentric ideal of “the supreme value of the human person” is being challenged by the problems of climate change, environmental destruction and the extinction of animal and plant species, all of which threaten human survival. •

In Search of Us: Adventures in Anthropology
By Lucy Moore | Atlantic Books | $34.99 | 320 pages