What Is American Anthropology;4 Phases You Must Know

American (or rather United States) anthropology is a vast professional and disciplinary undertaking. It is taught in many high schools and most colleges and universities. Some ninety universities grant around 400 doctoral degrees in anthropology annually. Applied anthropologists outnumber academic anthropologists and hundreds of persons with doctorates in anthropology practise other professions such as law, medicine, public relations and government service. Over 370 academic anthropology departments, sixty-four museums, forty-two research institutes and eleven government organizations are affiliated within the American Anthropological Association whose membership of over 11,000 represents only a portion of the profession. Regional, subdisciplinary and area study associations have periodic meetings and produce journals or newsletters.

Academic publishers carry extensive lists of anthropological monographs and textbooks. Articles on anthropology appear frequently in newspapers and popular magazines. Fictional anthropologists feature in popular novels, films and cartoons. American anthropology has a †four-field academic tradition in which *archaeology, *linguistics, *biological and †cultural anthropology maintain debate around certain problems concerning humankind (Silverman 1991). This emphasis developed at the end of the nineteenth century as part of a unifying thrust by universitytrained anthropologists to succeed the disparate amateur interests represented in the government’s †Bureau of American Ethnology, local ethnological and *folklore societies and *museums.

Trends in American anthropology past and  present

American anthropology can be encapsulated thematically in the intellectual history of the discovery and passing of *modernity, not that anthropologists agree on the use of this term (Manganaro 1990). Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish three phases in modern American anthropology. Voget (1975) characterized them as ‘developmentalism’, ‘structuralism’ and ‘differentiative specialization’. Since then the onset of *postmodernism in American anthropology must also be acknowledged.

The first phase, from about 1851 to 1889, was a period when †ethnology was practised mainly through the Bureau of American Ethnology. Long periods of *fieldwork were conducted among *Native Americans using the indigenous languages. Artefacts and texts were collected, and photographs were taken. It was believed that deteriorating demographic and material conditions on the reservations necessitated a form of †‘salvage anthropology’ since the Indian way of life was fast disappearing. Evolutionary theories (specifically those of †Herbert Spencer and *Lewis Henry Morgan) were used to order the field data rapidly accumulating at the Bureau and to explain the nature of Native American society.

The second phase, from 1890 to 1940, was a formative era when academic anthropology was established, and a process of professionalization was undertaken by university departments, many with their own summer training schools, laboratories and funded research programmes. The concept of *‘culture’, as articulated by *Boas, and subsequently developed by his students (including †Mead, †Benedict, †Lowie, †Kroeber and †Sapir) who dominated professional anthropology, replaced the earlier emphasis on *‘society’; and four-field research was advocated to reconstruct the disappearing Native American cultures. The *diffusion of cultural traits was then charted through †material culture and language studies. The influence of *German anthropology (or ethnology) was quite marked throughout this Boasian period.

In the early horse-and-buggy stage of field research, the academic set out from the university to stay on a reservation, interviewing selected, knowledgeable informants. This began to change as the influence of *British †social anthropology encouraged systematic analysis of Native American tribal organization (with particular attention to *kinship and †social organization). Grounded in their continent-wide appreciation of space, place and fast-changing times, American anthropologists were resistant to the natural history methods and the sociological comparisons advanced (at Chicago, for example) by *A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Instead they advocated methods of †controlled comparison, recognizing that ecological and historical factors might account for structural similarities and differences. American anthropologists were sometimes critical of the narrow sociological focus of British anthropology, deploring its lack of attention to the work of European and American scholars, its ahistorical ethnography and its problematic beforeand-after approach to cultural change.

The third phase, from 1940 to 1964, was the period of social-scientific ascendancy when economics, *sociology and political science dominated the academy. Maintaining only a partial allegiance to the social sciences, American anthropology resisted narrower sociological definitions of the field. Nevertheless research *methodology changed. Anthropologists began to study contemporary conditions on reservations, for example relying on observation as well as elicited information. Anthropologists carrying out observational research in urban and rural American communities began to question the generalizations of sociologists and political scientists about United States society. Overseas fieldwork also expanded significantly, leading to further questioning of, for example, tradition, modernization, continuity and change. *Lévi-Strauss’s *structuralism opened the door again to European ethnology.

From the New School of Social Research in New York city, where he spent his wartime exile, Lévi-Strauss launched the structuralist movement that was to sweep the discipline in the 1950s and early 1960s. Francophone scholarship began to replace the German input into American anthropology. Thereafter, in ever quickening succession (marked by the shorter and shorter time it took for Francophone works to achieve English publication), the publications of linguists (†Saussure), Marxist anthropologists (Godelier, Meillassoux), sociologists (†Bourdieu), historians (Braudel), and philosophers (†Althusser, †Foucault) entered American anthropology. A postwar ‘brain drain’ from Britain brought several social anthropologists to American shores including †Victor Turner, †Mary Douglas (temporarily), F.G.Bailey, and Aidan Southall. A transatlantic movement in *political anthropology advocating †action theory and a similar Manchester-derived focus on symbols in action and ritual led to further shifts in American field methods. Yet, at the same time and not coincidentally, American anthropology reasserted itself in the neo-evolutionist studies of †White and †Steward, a revival of culture history, and a strong push towards cultural ecology.

The fourth phase started around 1965 and could be said to be still with us. Postmodernism is characterized by crisis and fragmentation. Experience of academic crisis during and after the Vietnam War (1965–73) led to a †paradigm shift in American anthropology towards †hermeneutics (in *symbolic or †interpretive anthropology) and history. Technical advances in the sciences and communications led to increased specialization and a contestation of the interrelationship among the traditional four fields. Further specialization within cultural anthropology increased linkage of its intellectual domains to disciplines other than anthropology, particularly history and literary criticism. New anthropological interest groups were formed within the profession for humanistic, *medical, *psychological, *urban and visual anthropology, each with its increasingly distinctive discourse.

Feminists, homosexuals, black and Hispanic anthropologists became institutionalized in programmes and centres in the universities, their research challenging the anthropological canon. Anthropological postmodernism was itself challenged by those who noted its emergence just at a time when minority and †subaltern voices were beginning to make themselves heard. American anthropology continued to be remarkably cosmopolitan, this time drawing as much on disenchanted Third-world scholars in history and the humanities, as on European émigré scholarship. The role of the United States as a leading global player and the issues raised by a critical new American anthropology underwritten by public and private funds—especially issues related to localism and globalism, postmodernism, and the literary turn—have had a marked overseas impact on the postmodern global academy

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