News from Otherwhere

Anthropology's rise in popularity challenged previous ways of thinking about human development.

Dr. Margaret Mead in Samoan dress, with Fa'amotu.

Though hardly so central today, anthropology had some claim in the middle of the 20th century to be a kind of ‘master key’, unlocking the secrets of humanity for large swathes of the educated public. It had achieved this status in relatively short order by, if not vanquishing, at least challenging two alternative ways of thinking about human development. The first was race science – the belief that humanity was divided nearly into different species, with different innate capacities that could be arrayed on a hierarchy reflecting the power hierarchy of the modern world, with whites or Caucasians on top. The second – in some ways more insidious, more enduring – also believed that humanity could be arrayed on a hierarchy reflecting the modern world, but that all humans were – with the appropriate prods or tutelage – capable of rising up the hierarchy. There was, in short, the possibility for development for all, but it was a single path that led in a familiar direction. This latter view, particularly popular in countries with imperial ambitions such as Britain (in the 19th century) and America (in the 20th), still modelled white European men as the ideal-type human, but offered encouragement to deficient others to emulate them.

In the 19th century, anthropology had been one of the principal props of the race science view. But from late in that century some reformers, led by Franz Boas, a German-Jewish émigré to the US, began to chip away at both race science and the single path of development. Boas and his followers travelled as far away as they could from white European males to find out how those others lived – to the Arctic Circle, to South Sea islands, to the interiors of the South American and African continents. They found there not sub-humans but communities – they started to call them ‘cultures’ for the first time, in the plural – that had their own way of working, that worked best for their environments or had simply been put together from very different kinds of available material, quite different from the way in which white European males worked. They had complex barter or gift economies; their idea of gender roles was different; their family structures were sometimes fantastically different from Western norms.

This news from otherwhere came at a propitious time for Americans and Europeans. Their own societies were being challenged from within – women and ethnic minorities were questioning established norms, colonised peoples were rebelling, self-doubt was seeded internally by the conflagrations of the First World War, the Depression, the Holocaust. A famous quip of the 1920s asked, ‘What do you think of Western civilisation?’, and replied, ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ The quip is often attributed to Gandhi, probably falsely; what is revealing is how widely it circulated.

Surprisingly, no one has until now told this story of anthropology’s rise to this master key status, at least not in a non-technical form aimed at general readers. Charles King’s book, which does the job with both subtlety and panache, adopts a generally biographical approach, focusing first on Boas’ dawning enlightenment, then on his struggles against race science and Anglo-American imperialism, and, finally, on some of his students who carried on his legacy into the mid-20th century. There is plenty here on his two most famous students, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, who wrote bestselling works of anthropology – yes, really: Benedict’s Patterns of Culture sold over a million copies and Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa was not far behind. Their triumph, against the prejudices that might have marginalised two academic women, is a further testimony to the appeal of Boasian ‘cultural relativism’ in the Anglophone world between the wars and beyond.

The most original aspect of King’s book is the attention he devotes to two much less famous students of Boas, the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston and the Native American educationalist Ella Deloria. Both were welcome in Boas’ cosmopolitan circle, but, as women of colour, neither was able to make the breakthrough into academic respectability or popular acclaim. (Hurston’s fame was mostly posthumous.) King’s decision to give them leading roles lends his book two further advantages. One is that he is able to mark out not only the inclusiveness but also the explicit and implicit exclusions of Boas’ worldview. Benedict and Mead often spoke of ‘American culture’ as if it were an Anglo-Saxon monolith. They knew, of course, that America comprised many cultures, but they found it convenient to bracket them off from the mainstream. Hurston and Deloria obviously did not find it so convenient; they took some of the most denigrated cultures on the North American continent and gave them the healthy respect that Boas, Benedict and Mead had accorded to ‘vanishing tribes’. It was only much later that their work came to be appreciated, as America became a more explicitly multicultural nation.

That is the second advantage – Boasian anthropology could be seen as a precursor to multiculturalism. In some ways it was – certainly race science and the single path of development needed a good kicking before multiculturalism could blossom. But in other ways it wasn’t. King ends his story rather abruptly at the end of the Second World War, when multiculturalism was as yet a dream. Other forces intervened – not least subordinated cultures clamouring for a hearing, among whom Hurston and Deloria finally found their audiences. Anthropology actually went into popular decline just as multiculturalism was on the upswing. King’s book provides a compelling account of multiculturalism’s intellectual precursors, but it will take another book of similar scope and craft to chart the rise of multiculturalism in the second half of the 20th century.

The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture
Charles King
Bodley Head 448pp £25

Peter Mandler is Professor of Modern Cultural History at the University of Cambridge and Bailey Lecturer in History at Gonville and Caius College.