Chapter 3: The Search for Social Order at Home and Abroad

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

Chapter 3: Anthropology and the Search For Social Order 1929-1945, Pp. 71 to 102.

Patterson’s third chapter surveys the professionalization of anthropology during the tumultuous decades starting with the 1929 stock market crash and concluding with the end of World War II. During this period, anthropology transitioned from a privately funded, university centered discipline to one intimately incorporated to the needs of the US government. The chapter’s title, the Search for Social Order, seems to minimize the harrowing practices of American anthropology during this time in which cultural knowledge was explicitly produced and utilized to further the interests of the dominant class. Social order in this sense is the status quo and this period highlights the ways in which the minds and societies of the ‘other’ became strategic concerns. 

Three key initiatives that shaped the direction of anthropological research in the US. The first was Rockefeller money channeled through charitable foundations: the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Laura Spleman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM). The SSRC and LSRM invested approximately $50 million dollars into the advancements of the social sciences in the United States including founding the University of Chicago and supporting programs at numerous well known schools. These ‘centeres of excellence’ would help foster a more scientifically legitimate approach to the study of the social and would emphasize a practical approach to promoting economic and civil stability.

The second organization was the National Research Council (NRC) formed in 1916 and during this period focused on the so-called Negro Problem. Much like the powder keg of class war, a series of riots sparked by racism, labor competition, and segregation led black workers to self-organize through groups such as the NAACP and by charismatic individuals such as the Pan-African nationalist Marcus Garvey. Anthropologists spearheaded a series of groundbreaking community studies into African American life to challenge biological determinist views on race and to highlight the continuing effects of slavery and segregation on communities.

The third initiative was the American Council of Learned Societies’ Committee (ACLSC) on Research in American Native Languages. This group continued the the work of cataloguing indigenous language and cultural intelligence from seventy five Native American peoples. In the ACLSC culture became viewed as shared elements of a collective conscience that could be understood to better incorporate Native Americans into the cultural hegemony of the United States.

These programs were of great interest to the federal government before and during World War II as culture emerged a key front to stabilize decades of unrest. Industrial relations during this period were characterized by extreme levels of violence, not only in Rockefeller owned sites as noted in a previous post regarding the Ludlow massacre, but also during the spectacular Battle for Blair Mountain in 1921 and the Harlan County War during the early 1930s. Presumably seeking a way to resolve labour grievances without the use of machine guns, the social sciences drew upon the colonial experiences of the applied anthropological model of the British social school to provide data on working conditions across industrial America. Succinctly noted in seminar discussions was how formalized these practices have become in contemporary industrial relations to convince workers that their interests are aligned with management and owners. While this strategy avoids much of the direct violence characteristic of industrial relations in the 19th and early 20th centuries the end result of minimizing labour’s power is still achieved.  

Also reflective of the strategic importance of culture were the interest to the SSRC and the LSRM of the ways in which cultural contact changed groups. To this end, a series of studies commissioned in South America in the late 1930s sought to understand how acculturation took place between cities and rural indigenous communities. The process of which was challenged by several other anthropologists including Malinowski who noted that rarely, if ever, did acculturation take place as the term implies an exchange between two equally considered parties (Patterson; Pp. 88). In the United States, colonial capitalism dictated both the form and function of cultural exchange between white hegemony and both indigenous peoples and communities of colour. This, as noted in the seminar discussion, resembled an early iteration of the counterinsurgency logic that would become Project Camelot and later the Human Terrain System.

The Great Depression saw increased interest in anthropology from the federal government which funded several labour intensive archaeological programs through the Work Projects Administration. In the buildup to World War II language and cultural studies became strategically important to the US government to understand emerging threats abroad; notably understanding differences between ethnic and national identity with the intent of securing a population’s loyalty, or at least complicity, in the event of military occupation.

On the home front, the insight anthropology provided in the search for social order culminated with the War Relocation Authority to forcibly intern tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. The American Anthropological Association was not only silent of these endeavors, they actively encouraged participation in the war effort. Price notes: “In this war social scientists were harnessed at new levels as intelligence analysts, propagandists, guerrilla insurgents, language instructors, jungle survival specialists, saboteurs, foot soldiers, officers, and spies” (2011; Pp. 20). By the end of World War II the search for social order went global as the same tools used to mitigate class and race conflict in the US were employed abroad by the needs of American imperialism. This point marks a long period of explicit exchange between the military and anthropology that would see strategies of weaponized culture employed at home and abroad.

Price, David H. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology. Oakland: CounterPunch and AK Press.


One thought on “Chapter 3: The Search for Social Order at Home and Abroad

  1. Pingback: 2015: Just Another Year for Empire | ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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