Anthropology, Philanthropy, and Empire

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Published yesterday in Dissident Voice, Michael Barker‘s article “Foundations and Anthropology in the United States,” could be very useful reading for students, those who may not be too familiar with the role of elites in shaping and founding key pillars of American anthropology, and members of the broader public. Speaking of the latter, this article was recommended to me by a friend in Twitter. Barker’s article relies almost exclusively on Thomas C. Patterson’s A Social History of Anthropology in the United States (Berg, 2001), well worth reading in turn.

Barker’s argument is that,

“despite the cynical manner by which philanthropic elites have dominated the field of anthropology, the fruits of its study are essential to any radical movement which is intent on eradicating capitalism….in anthropology, as in many other fields of scholarship, class conscious elites have used the power of capital to manage and harness the power of knowledge. What is clear is that knowledge producing networks must be reclaimed by the majority to serve the needs of all humans. Unfortunately, to date, within many radical circles there is a collective amnesia as to the manner by which this power has been exerted; but with ample knowledge now at our fingertips this need not be the case any longer.”

He begins his account with Franz Boas, “perhaps the most important thorn in the side of the capitalist anthropological community,” cast as a quasi-nomadic outsider who was hired by Columbia University thanks to the efforts of Frederick W. Putnam. Boas anti-racist work led him to support W.E.B. Du Bois and help to form the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Boas’ anti-racism put him in direct conflict eugenists and their powerful philanthropic supporters, such as Andrew Carnegie, Mary Harriman, John D. Rockefeller, and the Kellogg family.

What follows is an outline of political conflict and controversy between anthropologists with some, such as friends of Edgar Lee Hewett, working to cut off Boas from funding. Boas’ denunciation of anthropologists working as spies (see here), “‘incensed a majority of the anthropological community in the United States.’ Consequently in early 1920, ‘Boas was forced to withdraw his candidacy for a seat on the National Research Council which was presided over by John C. Merriam, who would soon become president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’.”

Especially interesting to me was Barker’s highlighting of the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in American anthropology, and by extension Australian academic anthropology as well, and the role of the University of Chicago (a Rockefeller institution):

It turns out that the Rockefeller fund “had the most profound effect on the development of anthropology and the other social sciences” directing tens of millions of dollars to this purpose during the 1920s and early 1930s. This influence was especially strong at the University of Chicago (which John D. Rockefeller had founded in 1892), where anthropologists “such as Fay-Cooper Cole (1881-1961), Melville J. Herskovits, Ralph Linton, Robert Redfield (1897-1958), and Edward Sapir” were to assume prominent roles in the development of the field. (For more on this, see “Foundations and the Racial Politics Of Knowledge.”) Given the key influence of elite philanthropies in guiding the evolution of the social sciences, it should not come as too much of a surprise that the sort of critical “anthropology led by anti-imperialist critic Frederick W. Starr (1858-1933) languished after the turn of the century”; even more so when he retired in 1923.

The interest of the Rockefeller philanthropies in anthropology, especially in colonial policies and the social management of natives, was apparent by 1926, when they invited Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1952) to discuss their views with colleagues at selected universities in the United States. At the end of the summer, Radcliffe-Brown sailed to Australia to assume the newly created, Rockefeller-funded chair in social anthropology at the University of Sydney.

The rest of the article, which I leave interested readers to explore further, takes us through the Depression, the formation of area studies and the American quest for geopolitical hegemony, Project Camelot, counterinsurgency in Thailand (and Margaret Mead‘s efforts to whitewash and cover up the scandal), and Barker eventually reaches the point where we take off with this blog.

4 thoughts on “Anthropology, Philanthropy, and Empire

  1. There are certainly more than a few rogues in that philanthropic gallery. Funny how the philanthropic thing can turn from “the love of humanity” into “the love of humanity as long as they’re white, rich and live in the best part of town” and anthropology as “how to make them more like us…since we’re so great.”

    The rise of eugenics because “…[t]he Anglo-Saxon race was being swamped by all of the babies that were being born to the members of inferior races — e.g. Mediterraneans, East Europeans, Jews, American Indians, Asians, Blacks, and poor people” sounds like the overheated rhetoric of the Becks and O’Reillys of this world. All that stuff about terror babies as the latest scare tactic in the U.S. sounds like a modern version of the same.

    I really like the sound of this guy:

    Madison Grant (1865-1938), “a wealthy New York lawyer, racist propagandist, and virulent antisemite”

    Just a note on the previous post about the purpose of anthropology. Sometimes it helps to decide what one shouldn’t be doing first and leave the question of what one should be doing to work itself out.

  2. If not for the “virulent antisemite” part, Madison Grant was born too soon: he would have been ideal as a Fox News commentator.

    Thanks for the last note too, like the method of a sculptor.

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