Anthropological Fieldwork Challenges Scientific Racism

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read section two, “On Methods of Fieldwork” and used it to outline how anthropological fieldwork challenges scientific racism in the early 20th century:

This was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after finishing the section “On Roots of Social Difference.” Next, we read about Culture.

Summary: Anthropological Fieldwork Challenges Scientific Racism

Tumultuous Times & Scientific Racism

The 19th century was built on the colonial experience of the Americas, resulting in a racialized and gendered capitalism. These were tumultuous times of upheaval and social change. But despite the presence of anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-sexist voices, “scientific racism not only survived such changes but thrived in the West, particularly in the United States. An emergent science of eugenics drew on the most pernicious claims of social evolutionism to specify and strengthen racial classifications that were hierarchically ordered from superior to inferior” (Bolles et al., 37).

Anthropology’s Founding Questions

Anthropology emerged during this period, founded on key questions such as “Why are other people like that?”, “Are the inequalities that we see natural, given, and inevitable?”, and “Can society be changed?” Unlike other disciplines that studied their own societies, anthropology was slotted with studying all the “others” in the world. (See Anthropology and the Savage Slot.)

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many White elites in Europe and America had already decided on the answers to these questions. They believed that people were different because of their race or environment, that inequalities were natural and inevitable due to evolution or God’s will, and that society probably could not be changed, except perhaps through eugenics.

Fieldwork as a Challenge to Assumptions

When anthropologists began conducting fieldwork, they were essentially saying, “Let’s go out there and actually try to answer these questions instead of assuming that we know the answers.” They aimed to ask questions and not simply postulate them as answers.

Arthur Caswell Parker’s 1916 article “The Origin of the Iroquois as Suggested by their Archaeology” provides an early example of how anthropological fieldwork challenged the cultural evolutionism that underpinned scientific racism. As a member of the Seneca nation and an anthropologist trained by Franz Boas, Parker brought a unique perspective to the study of Iroquois culture and history. In his article, Parker draws on archaeological evidence to argue for the long-standing sophistication and complexity of Iroquois culture, challenging the notion that Native American societies were primitive or culturally inferior to European societies. As the editors of Anthropological Theory note, “Parker’s attention to Iroquois history and material culture allows Iroquois society to stand on its own as an anthropological case without attribution to a particular stage in an evolutionist system” (Bolles et al., 38). By emphasizing the importance of understanding Iroquois culture on its own terms, rather than through the lens of cultural evolutionism, Parker’s work anticipated the cultural relativism that would become a key tenet of anthropology. Despite the limitations of his time, including the use of now-outdated terminology and the influence of salvage ethnography, Parker’s research helped to lay the groundwork for a more nuanced and culturally sensitive approach to the study of Native American societies that challenged the scientific racism of the early 20th century.

Historical Particularism & Cultural Relativism

Franz Boas, often considered the founder of North American anthropology, explicitly argued against the idea of a general, uniform evolution of culture in which all parts of mankind participate. He claimed that “the hypothesis of one single general line of development cannot be maintained” (Boas, 49) and that “each cultural group has its own unique history” (Boas, 51). This perspective came to be known as historical particularism.

While the term “culture” was not yet widely used in these selections, it would later be introduced by Ruth Benedict in her book Patterns of Culture. This concept of culture provided an alternative explanation for human difference that was not racially determined, leading to the development of cultural relativism–the idea that societies should be understood within their own frameworks.

Anthropological Fieldwork Challenges Scientific Racism

In “The Methodology of Racial Testing,” Margaret Mead argued against the practice of racial testing for intelligence, which was used to justify practices such as segregation and eugenics. She pointed out the faulty measures of race, social status, and linguistic disability used in these tests, stating, “We need to have extreme caution in any attempt to draw conclusions concerning the relative intelligence of different racial or nationality groups” (Mead, 52).

In “The Methodology of Racial Testing,” Margaret Mead’s criticism of the faulty measures of race used in intelligence tests can be seen as an early recognition of the influence of colorism. Colorism refers to the preference for lighter skin tones and features associated with Whiteness, even within communities of color. Mead points out that the researchers’ assessment of “racial admixture” was based on subjective judgments of appearance, which were then correlated with test scores. This critique suggests that the perceived degree of “Whiteness” in an individual’s appearance, rather than their actual racial background, may have influenced their treatment and opportunities in society, leading to disparities in test performance. Mead’s analysis highlights the need to consider the complex social and cultural factors, such as colorism, that shape individuals’ experiences and outcomes, rather than relying on simplistic racial categories as explanations for differences in intelligence or ability.

Similarly, Edward Sapir’s fieldwork and research on language and culture played a significant role in challenging scientific racism. In his article “Language and Environment,” Sapir argues against the notion that language is determined by race or physical environment. He demonstrates that linguistic features, such as vocabulary, are shaped by a people’s social interests and cultural practices, rather than their racial identity or the natural environment they inhabit. Sapir also points out that similar phonetic features can be found in languages spoken in diverse environments and by people of different racial backgrounds, further undermining the idea of a link between race and language. By emphasizing the cultural and social factors that shape language, Sapir’s work challenges the racial determinism that was prevalent in the early 20th century and provides evidence for the cultural relativism that would become a central tenet of anthropology.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Overlooked Contributions

Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological fieldwork and writings offer another powerful example of how early anthropologists challenged scientific racism. As a student of Franz Boas, Hurston conducted extensive fieldwork in the American South and the Caribbean, documenting and celebrating African American folklore, language, and cultural practices. Her work challenged the notion that African American culture was inferior or primitive, and instead highlighted the richness, complexity, and creativity of African American traditions. Hurston’s approach to fieldwork, which emphasized the importance of understanding cultures from within and the value of insider knowledge, also challenged the dominant model of anthropological research at the time, which often relied on the objectifying gaze of white, male anthropologists. Despite facing marginalization and exclusion from both the academic anthropology community and the male-dominated Black literary establishment, Hurston’s work laid the groundwork for a more inclusive and culturally sensitive approach to anthropological research that celebrated the diversity and resilience of African American culture.

The Emergence of Anthropology as a Discipline

The anthropologists featured in this section challenged prevailing notions of racial determinism, environmental determinism, and unilineal social evolutionism through their fieldwork and writings. They laid the groundwork for the development of key anthropological concepts such as historical particularism, culture, and cultural relativism, which would go on to shape the discipline in the following decades.

Recap: Anthropological Fieldwork Challenges Scientific Racism

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read section two, “On Methods of Fieldwork” and used it to outline how anthropology challenges scientific racism in the early 20th century:

This was for The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after finishing the section “On Roots of Social Difference.” Next, we read about Culture.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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