Thomas C. Patterson – Anthropology in the Liberal Age, 1879-1929 (chapter 2)

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

In this chapter, Patterson is looking at the professionalization of the field from the creation of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 to the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Key processes of this period were the imperial interest of businesses to control foreign markets, the colonialist expansion over dark-skinned people, and the immigration of southern and eastern European people. At that time, mass-media and new policies became important channels of transmission of classism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

During the 1870s, John Wesley Powell, Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Secretary of the Interior, proposed the replacement of military campaigns by reservations that would serve the acculturation purpose.  In 1879, Congress created the Bureau of Ethnology,  under Powell’s direction, to publish work related to the Indians of North America. Powell’s extensive work, a compilation and classification of North American Indian languages and their genetic relationship advanced the organization of past data and of tribal synonymy. However, his research was constricted by lobbying groups advocating for the study of mound-builders. During the 1920s, Boas and his students critiqued cultural evolutionism and racialist theories. During the same period, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) was founded and graduate programs were created in many universities. This professionalization was opposed by Edgar Lee Hewett, founder of the Archaeological Society of New Mexico, who attracted away support given to Boas and Putnam. At the end of the First World War, Boas discovered that four anthropologists were spies in Central America and Mexico. Moreover, views on what anthropology entails were divided between Boas’ cultural determinism of behavior, Aleš Hrdlička’s stress on physical anthropology, and Charles B. Davenport’s eugenics and social Darwinism. In 1916, the National Research Council (NRC) was created to organize science and research for the war effort and, in July 1919, the Division of Anthropology and Psychology was created.

In Homo Academicus, Pierre Bourdieu (1984) described situations when professors gained power and social position because of their charismatic personality or their writings for the mainstream population. Indeed, many of the precursors of today’s field were journalists themselves or engaged in popular writing. This is the case of Powell who “wrote popular accounts for the mass media, which publicized various aspects of Indian life in the West” (Patterson 2001:37). Moreover, people who collaborated with Powell for his research came from various fields, including newspaper reporting James Mooney. These researchers were said to conduct brilliant research, which lead to much of the development of anthropology. Most importantly, at a period when mass media was used to spread discrimination and popular beliefs, it could also be used by anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, to attack these beliefs but also the occurrences of the time. Today, the use of digital media to increase social capital is seen through social platforms such as twitter,, and TED talks, which have a direct impact in the careers of social scientists.

Another aspect of reflexion is the practice of ethnographic work by individuals having personal interests in colonial or imperialist objectives, which were still very present during this period. This was the case of the colonial administrators described in The Expansive Moment by Jack Goody (1995), who walked into the field with a notebook and a gun. Within Powell’s team, one must question the interests of the people involved, for instance, but not only, the army surgeon, army officer, and missionary. Moreover, Powell’s research was of interest for the Director of the 1880 Census who believed a better understanding of linguistic relationship would facilitate the administration of Indian tribes. Finally, anthropologists conducting research abroad and simultaneously spying during the Second World War were not necessarily seen as breaching ethics by the AAA. The AAA  still struggles to assert its position regarding current conflicts because its stands result in strong debate within the association.

During the period covered by this chapter we have seen countless examples of individuals and organizations trying to control the outcome of research through their political influence or their monetary power. Lobbying seemed to be particularly strong before the professionalization of the field, as the government controlled the funds allocated to the various research teams. Research seemed to rely on political games, where the most powerful or annoying got the result they wanted. Researchers were also trying to attract individuals with money to fund their institutions and their research. This also meant that outsiders of the academic field, such as Grant at the committee of Anthropology of the NRC, were allowed in the decision making processes. Today, government and private agencies offering scholarships and grants might prioritize certain research that is beneficial to them.


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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