Patterson: The Dialectics of Knowledge Production in Anthropology

Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

Preface, ix-x
Introduction, 1-5

Thomas Patterson opens his rather unique text on the history of US anthropology by remarking on the sense of dissatisfaction that he and some of his colleagues felt over the continued production of “internalist” accounts in the field. By this I take it he means historiography that focuses on key personalities and their ideas, the transfer and revision of their ideas by their disciples, their followers’ addition of new ideas that are then passed on to their students, and so on. The result has been the construction, teaching, and learning of certain creation myths in US anthropology, especially around the figure of Franz Boas. This is indeed a deeply dissatisfying manner of writing disciplinary history, and Patterson offers a productive change of course.

We know what a non-internalist account would eschew: the discipline was not internally self-generating; it did not develop in total autonomy; its major influences were external to the discipline, and even external to academia; and, among the more useful insights of this volume, there is no such thing as an inherently “anthropological question,” and there never has been.

Patterson calls his approach a dialectical one:

“the study of anthropology is a dialectical process. It is shaped by what the world is and who the anthropologists and the diverse peoples they study are. The three are joined together by structures and practices of domination and subordination whose appearances do not always convey the full extent of their reality. To understand the changing positions and interrelations of the anthropologists and the communities they study in the structures that organize the world, it is essential to know what those structures are, how they came to be, and how they are changing. It is also essential to realize that people and anthropologists who have different positions in these structures of power see the world differently. As a result, a knowledge of the whole is a precursor for a fuller understanding of the parts” (p. 2)

In his study, he approaches the historical development of US anthropology by examining,

  1. the circumstances that first facilitated the formation of anthropology as a set of questions and practices, and then as a discipline;
  2. the political-economic conditions in which anthropological knowledge was developed, shaped, and deployed;
  3. the appearance of practices centered in specific regions and groups of researchers;
  4. the place of anthropology within larger structures of power; and,
  5. the role of anthropology in creating/perpetuating images of past and contemporary peoples (pp. 2-3).

Completing his introductory outline, Patterson identifies the three major goals of his book, which involve:

  1. Outlining the diverse sources of inspiration that were brought together and deployed by anthropologists in the US;
  2. Restoring knowledge, or acknowledgment, of the anthropologists who were marginalized and silenced in various political crackdowns in the US; and,
  3. Showing how the production of anthropological knowledge is a dialectical process.

In these opening pages, Patterson proceeds to outline his chapters in a very succinct manner, which I shall further condense. In chapter 1 he explains how the formation of US national identity, the construction of “American exceptionalism,” territorial expansion, and slavery worked to spur and shape the first serious attempts to develop anthropological research. In particular, the work of the American School of Ethnology, the American Ethnological Society, and the Smithsonian, are highlighted, as well as the influence of various US Presidents, insurance companies, and the quest for foreign loans. Scientific racism, the debate over the importance of language versus race, the first stages of salvage ethnography (long before Boas), and the logics founding what would become the “four fields” of US anthropology, all appear in this chapter. In chapter 2, Patterson sets out to discuss the professionalization of anthropology, and how anthropological work moved from the Bureau of Ethnology to the National Museum and then to universities. This was a time of especially intense discrimination against people of colour and a struggle erupted over “the identity and direction of the field…between cultural determinists, eugenicists, and those who emphasized the biological bases of human diversity”. In chapter 3, Patterson examines the impact of the Great Depression, World War II, militarization, and the impact of the newly formed Social Science Research Council on the expansion of US anthropology. Subjects and frameworks that rose to dominance were those relating to acculturation, assimilation, national character, and area studies. In chapter 4, Patterson looks at post-WWII expansion, US hegemony, the return of evolutionism, and the impacts of the Cold War and anti-Communism on anthropology. The work of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Fulbright foundations also figures in this chapter, as well as the the role of anthropologists in counterinsurgency. Finally, in chapter 5, Patterson studies the impact of the rise of neo-liberalism–economic restructuring, privatization, the corporatization of the university, and the teaching of neoliberal doctrine–on academia and anthropology in particular, which has become increasingly fragmented.

Interestingly, Patterson also seems to be passing a baton to David H. Price, one of whose works will again conclude this seminar. Patterson does so in the following statement: “It was not my aim to write an account of the lives of anthropologists who were persecuted for their political activism. Nor was it my aim to relate the actions of anthropologists who sought to drive colleagues and students from the profession. These are chapters in the history of U.S. anthropology that remain to be written” (p. x)–in other words, areas in which Price specializes.

Finally, this book directly addresses a number of this seminar’s key questions, such as:

  • Who has been served the most by an institutionalized Anthropology in Western universities? In other words, who needs anthropologists the most?
  • What are the material conditions that influence the production of Anthropology?
  • What constitutes “an anthropological question”? In other words, which questions are asked, when and where, and who gets to ask them?
  • Is Anthropology ever really separate from politics?
  • When did ethnography become important for Anthropology, and why? Were Anthropologists the ones who conceived of, or innovated, ethnography?
  • To what extent does institutional Anthropology’s practice resemble or parallel the foreign policies of its home states?
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