SLAVES, NATIVES AND HUMANS: EARLY AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGY IS ALL ABOUT THE POLITICS OF RACE AND NATION

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

(Ch.1, p.7-34)

Chapter 1 of Patterson’s contextual overview of American anthropology covers the period of 1776 to 1879, the period during which the United States was established as an independent entity and its centralized authority consolidated itself. The topics of the day in anthropology were those of interest to the developing American nation and the anthropology  of this time is very explicitly political. The agenda is set by the strategic issues of the day and the balance of power weighs on the competing positions.

In part, this situation us caused by a major difference between the intellectual environment of the early republic and the contexts described by Bourdieu and Goody. The anthropologists of the early republic are described by Patterson as amateur. This is in contrast with the professional anthropologists and social scientists described by the other two contexts. These professional anthropologists are trained as anthropologists with specialist degrees; they are, for the most part, funded institutionally and they publish in peer reviewed journals which are the manifestation of an institutionalized methodology. Meanwhile, the anthropologists of the early republic are mostly politicians and medical practitioners, drawn into anthropological debates by the political questions of their day. They publish in books and periodicals (such as the North American Review) which also serve as sources of funding. Other sources of funding for anthropological endeavor at this time are government commissions (official anthropology) and self-funding by wealthy individuals. Although many claims to scientific legitimacy are made by all sides in any given anthropological debate of the period, these are mostly hyperbole and rhetoric. In the absence of an institutionalized methodology for conferring academic legitimacy upon ideas, there are two main sources of legitimacy: institutions of power and popularity. Institutions of power, such as government and economic interests, weigh upon the debates of the day, lending support to positions which legitimize and promote the directions they intend to take. Meanwhile, the democratic nature of the American constitution and the local political context mean that ideas must vie for support amongst those who may vote.

The strategic issues of the day which define anthropological debate during this period stem from the need for the United States to establish itself as a sovereign nation, to extend its power regionally and to consolidate its centralized power (the emerging federal government). In order to establish the United States as a viable nation in the eyes of European nations whose diplomatic support (and capital markets) were essential to American security, people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found themselves analyzing native languages. By arguing that the natives were more culturally sophisticated than Europeans had initially thought, they thought to counter European beliefs (chiefly Buffon) that the Americas were a degenerate place where nothing could thrive. As the United States took its place amongst the world’s powers, the focus shifted to arguing that the natives were in fact primitive; too primitive to be said under English traditions (essentially the doctrines of Locke) to actually occupy the land they lived upon. Such conclusions were then used to justify land seizure, reservation and relocation policies. These arguments, by people such as Lewis Cass, presented the natives as incorrigibly backwards and were the foundation for an anthropology of race which would dominate anthropological discussion during the latter part of the period which the chapter covers. On one side of these debates were polygenist ideas, based on the belief that different human races were in fact different species and that differences between races were biologically driven and inherent. There was thus an immutable hierarchy of the races. Such ideas were often based on phrenology, such as the work of Samuel G. Morton. On the other side were monogenist ideas, most prominently argued by William Dwight Whitney and Lewis Henry Morgan, which held that all human beings were of the same species and that differences were largely due to quirks of development, were therefore essentially cultural and thus, changeable.

The dominant topic of the latter portions of the period was slavery. The polygenist/monogenist debate is even more virulent here than in the context of native questions. Polygenists argue that the inferior races are inherently unhealthy and that allowing the races to combine is fundamentally wrong and dangerous. Monogenists mostly argue for education and other “civilizing” policies. Nobody seems to think the natives and the black people might be fine on their own. Nobody seems to notice the chinese workers. Nobody seems to consider it relevant that women of every race don’t matter very much. Such ideas will be for a later period.

 

References:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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