How did anthropology begin?

How Did Anthropology Begin?


In fall 2015, I adopted the Robert Welsch and Luis Vivanco textbook Cultural Anthropology. The first chapter discusses “How Did Anthropology Begin?” Welsch and Vivanco detail three key concerns: “(1) the disruptions of industrialization in Europe and America, (2) the rise of evolutionary theories, and (3) the growing importance of Europe’s far-flung colonies” (2015:5).

Although it was difficult reading, I missed my previous book by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (2003). I re-assigned Trouillot for the fall 2016 version of Cultural Anthropology. I paired Trouillot with the concise version of Welsch & Vivanco.

It’s not so much that Welsch and Vivanco are completely wrong. It’s that the order of prioritization should be reversed and the historical timeframe adjusted. Otherwise, their depiction validates contemporary US-centric ideas, limiting the scope of anthropological analysis and intervention.

How Did Anthropology Begin? – Colonial Origins

The colonial origins of anthropology are hardly in dispute. In fact this should be the very first of the three key concerns. But perhaps even more important is the need to discuss the beginnings of the global system. This should start with a discussion of the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, the seafaring voyages from what is now Portugal and Spain, and the subsequent Conquista of the Americas.

The 15th and 16th centuries were crucial for how Europe became “The West,” how others would be portrayed as savage, and the establishment of transoceanic global flows that would predate academic anthropology by more than three centuries. Welsch and Vivanco discuss how “overseas the colonial period flourished from the 1870s until the 1970s.” But this refers only to the flourishing of North Atlantic colonialism, which was by that time following well-worn routes and templates established centuries earlier (see the discussion of Europe and the People Without History and Myths of the Spanish Conquest).

How Did Anthropology Begin? – Plantation Slavery & Industrialization

By not beginning their colonial account earlier, Welsch and Vivanco then re-tell a standard story-line about industrialization. The standard line is that industrialization occurs in Europe and in the United States in the nineteenth century and then from there “affected peoples in European colonies” (2015:5). Such a story ignores decades of anthropological and historical research that shows how crucial the colonies always were in the genesis of European industrialization. Specifically there is Sidney Mintz’s classic Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, which details the factory-like aspects of Caribbean slave plantations and how sugar production “fueled” the later rise of the working class and factory production in Europe (see also Mintz’s Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations). The story of industrialization is thoroughly dependent upon and entwined with colonialism. [Update 2015: See Sidney Mintz, In Memoriam, 1922-2015.]

How Did Anthropology Begin? – Darwin in the Tierra del Fuego

Darwin’s ideas about evolution were undoubtedly important to the emergence of anthropology. But they were not solely ideas about non-human biological variation. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle followed the routes of Iberian colonialism. Darwin’s observations of natives in Tierra del Fuego could now be wrapped in a narrative of savagery as “absence” and negation:

The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. . . . We have no reason to believe that they perform any sort of religious worship. . . . The different tribes have no government or chief. . . . They cannot know the feeling of having a home, and still less that of domestic affection. . . . Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals, for it is not improved by experience. (The Voyage of the Beagle 1831-1836, [2001:183, 191-2])

Darwin’s misrecognition of native societies that had by that time been thoroughly affected by prior conquests fit well within a similar erasure of the colonial contribution to European industrialization and dominance. This dominance would then be further justified by evolutionary ideas.

Who cares about “How did anthropology begin?”

What this all adds up to is what Trouillot termed “chronological amnesia”:

Now dominant North Atlantic narratives–reflecting the world domination of the English language, the expansion of Protestantism as a variant of Christianity, and the spread of Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic sensibilities–reduce the crucial role of Portugal and Spain in the creation of the West. A related emphasis on the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, and the downplay of the Renaissance as a founding moment, also lead to the neglect of the role of the Caribbean and Latin America in the production of the earliest tropes associated with modernity. That chronological amnesia crucially impedes our understanding of the North Atlantic itself. (2003:44-45; see Globalization Stories)

But this chronological amnesia does not just impede our understanding and research. Chronological amnesia impedes our understanding of culture, history, and undermines anthropological pleas for tolerance. Michael Wesch’s wonderful video-syllabus introduction to Cultural Anthropology is an eloquent appeal; but it is undermined if we don’t tell the story correctly. This US-centric and North Atlantic amnesia erases the crucial contribution of many others from the history and creation of The West. Rather than the central actors they were and are, other peoples appear as insoluble puzzles. If they are puzzles, then this sets the stage for culturalist explanations which ultimately reproduce a softer version of hierarchical ethnocentrism.

Updates and Resources

2016: See The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution for developing thoughts on global history and teaching anthropology.

2015: For a fascinating contemporary example of culturalist explanations see The Greek Crisis and the Dangers of Culture on The Human Economy Blog. Interestingly, these culturalist explanations are applied to what was once seen as the cradle of “The West.” And see also the post on Anthropology Training Outside the Anglosphere for contemporary difficulties on studying anthropology outside of the North Atlantic.

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  • Helga Vierich

    Great essay, Jason… but the chronological amnesia goes much further back, don’t you think? From Plato’s Republic onward down the ages.. all state societies are make-believe Utopias based on a core of legal violence.

    “…This just-below-the-surface violence is the crux of Graeber’s argument. He mocks the academic left who insist that violence is symbolic these days, suggesting that any grad student sitting in a university library reading Foucault and thinking about the symbolic nature of violence should consider the fact that if he’d attempted to enter that same library without a student ID, he’d have been swarmed by armed cops.

    Bureaucracy is a utopian project: like all utopians, capitalist bureaucrats (whether in private- or public-sector) believe that humans can be perfected by modifying their behavior according to some ideal, and blame anyone who can’t live up to that ideal for failing to do so. If you can’t hack the paperwork to file your taxes, complete your welfare rules, figure out your 401(k) or register to vote, you’re obviously some kind of fuckup.””

    • Hi Helga, thank you for the comment. I would agree that there are probably kinds of chronological amnesia in state societies. I guess, however, what particularly interested me is the kind of specific amnesia in the telling of the story of how “we” got here, both as a contemporary society and as anthropology. That story seems to have increasingly left out the 15th-18th centuries. Just as an example, in this textbook I’m using, they are actually quite good at going back to earlier travelers and precursors of anthropology, like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. They also, in a later chapter on Globalization have a good discussion of World Systems Theory and Eric Wolf. So it’s curious how much this particular amnesia permeates this first chapter.

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