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The radicalism of the 1960s transformed anthropology. But ours was not the racist, exoticizing, colonial project it was imagined to be.

The 1960s—Vietnam and resistance to the war; civil rights marches and the killings of marchers, King, and Kennedy; Kent State, Jackson State, and Sterling Hall; Watts; Woodstock; LSD and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society); Stonewall; The Feminine Mystique and the Women’s Strike for Equality; the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Alcatraz; La Raza and the Great Delano Grape Strike; Black Power and Black studies; student takeovers, the counterculture, and “trust no one over 30”—and that ain’t the half of it. My institution, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a sometimes radical place historically, was in a constant uproar at least from the time of the Dow riot of 1967, when police beat up students who sat in to shut down interviews by recruiters for Dow Chemical, makers of napalm.

The rebellion in the streets and universities was deeply felt in the world of American anthropology, beginning no later than 1965. The radicalization can be traced through the substance and atmosphere of the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (see Lewis 2014). While the inchoate but determined movement was led by graduate students and young faculty it was, predictably, joined and supported by older faculty of a leftist bent (see, for example, the papers in Reinventing Anthropology, 1972). And one reason that the discipline of anthropology was affected so greatly (more than any other established field in the university at that time), was that we dealt with the lives and concerns of the peoples of the world as no other discipline did. By the 1960s, we and our British colleagues were involved with populations in the remaining colonies and those who had recently gained independence from imperial rule. Cultural and social anthropology were not only on the frontlines of the revolution, we were also preadapted for it.

Cultural and social anthropology were not only on the frontlines of the revolution, we were also preadapted for it.

It started slowly. The first salvo may have been in 1965 when Marshall Sahlins electrified the Association with a scathing attack on anthropologists’ “involvement in cold war projects” inspired by the revelation of Project Camelot (Sahlins 1967; see, for example Lewis 2018). The 1966 Meeting hosted a major plenary session discussing the Beals Report, a survey sparked by the Camelot incident, considering possible harm that might come to the peoples we did research with and the damage to the field itself if anthropologists worked for agencies of the United States or other countries. (The report led to the establishment of the AAA Committee on Ethics.) The same Meeting featured the first of many resolutions against the war in Vietnam.

Some sessions at the 1967 Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, were signs of the times, including one on “Psychedelic Anthropology” and a massive symposium organized by Morton Fried, Marvin Harris, and Robert Murphy on “The Anthropology of War” that lasted for nine hours! In a different venue that year Kathleen Gough first presented her paper that launched a thousand claims: “Anthropology and Imperialism.” The pace quickened in subsequent years, not only adding calls for studies of poverty and social disorder and the development of a Black studies curriculum and the “vigorous recruitment of students of Black, Chicano, American Indian, Asian and other backgrounds…and vigorous efforts to hire and facilitate careers of such persons in the profession” (Hymes and Foster 1967), but increasingly turning the gaze of critique and recrimination on the profession itself.

The Annual Meeting in 1970 in San Diego witnessed a major and complex conflict over the alleged involvement of several AAA members with the US military in Thailand, and an insurgency of younger anthropologists who struggled (and failed) to elect a candidate of their own (Gerald Berreman) to the presidency. This Meeting also included increasing attacks on the profession itself, such as the “Symposium on Racism and Ethnocentrism in Anthropology” featuring, among others, Vine Deloria Jr. on “The Indian’s View of the Anthropologist.” Audrey Smedley asserted that “many anthropologists silently acquiesce to the grossest distortions of history, to racist foreign and domestic policies and to refined academic racism running from Morton to Jensen to Coon.” The accusations of anthropology’s complicity with colonialism and imperialism continued to grow in number and severity, and by 1971 in New York City there were sessions devoted to Marxian interpretations of anthropology’s entanglements with imperialism, discussions of ethnocentrism in anthropology, the study of women, and the prospects for decolonizing the discipline.

Thomas Kuhn began a revolution in the history of science with his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. But the point of his original work was that “revolutions” in science took place when there were so many anomalies in established or “normal” science paradigms that a younger, less well-socialized generation came along and overthrew the previously fundamental worldview. That is not what happened to anthropology in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Our revolution was a reflex of the major social and political disturbances in the United States at that time. An angry generation with plenty to be upset about turned against their field and its presumed failures and evils. The anthropology that had been developed by the early 1960s became a victim of the rage against the Establishment of the late 1960s. Subsequently, the anger and disenchantment of those years was canonized and the tropes developed then have been carried through the following generations. Unfortunately, these were too often both unjust and inaccurate, but more recent historicist studies of the history of anthropology have had little impact on the negative popular image of pre-1969 anthropology.

The trope of anthropology as the child and tool of colonialism is also celebrating its half-century of existence and it is time for a reality check.

The anthropology the rebels turned against was not the racist, ethnocentric, exoticizing, otherizing colonialist and imperialist enterprise that they imagined. American anthropology was engaged with all the peoples of the world by the early 1960s, not merely “the savage slot” (Trouillot 1991). Ethnographers studied peoples that no other fields were interested in—living with folks close up through fieldwork, trying to speak their languages and understand their needs and concerns. And for the most part these anthropologists were motivated both by a desire to understand human behavior in all of its varied manifestations (some would call it a “science”) and by a sympathetic curiosity to live with human beings behaving differently (or similarly) in interesting places. (After the revolution some anthropologists insisted that such research involves the exploitation of colonized “Others” and that the moral thing was to “bring it all back home” instead.)

We never thought in terms of “the Other” but rather of other cultures and other ways of being. To quote one of the most respected elders of the Establishment who retained the respect of the rebels, Sidney Mintz (2000, 189):

We anthropologists have a heritage of our own. Our predecessors not only told the world but also showed the world that all peoples are equally human, equal in what they are, equal in what they have done for humankind. Nobody else at that time had said it and demonstrated it; anthropologists did.

Anthropology spread the concept of cultural relativism, arguing that peoples should be understood in their own terms. No other intellectual enterprise had these tenets as its basis, just as anthropology was the only field of study that considered its task to know all the peoples of the world—from wealthy industrialists in India to factory workers in Guatemala, and desert foragers to Hollywood, the Dream Factory. And despite the games some commentators play with the notion, “to know” did not mean to control, to exploit, to dominate, or to feel superior.

Although the membership of the profession was no more ethnically diverse in those days than the rest of the American academy, American anthropology took the lead in the battle against racism and ethnocentrism from the days of Franz Boas and his early followers. Boas launched his attack on racial determinism and the prevailing notion of the inequality of races in 1894, and it was on his lips when he dropped dead in December 1942. The battle against racism was carried on by his students and their descendants such as Melville Herskovits, Ruth Benedict, the social psychologist Otto Klineberg, and later stalwarts Morton Fried and Marvin Harris. The arguments against racism and ethnocentrism were basic to anthropology textbooks. Many anthropologists, from Boas on, were deeply engaged in African American and American Indian causes (Herskovits, Radin, Tax, Lesser, Lurie.)

The trope of anthropology as the child and tool of colonialism is also celebrating its half-century of existence and it is time for a reality check. I have argued that the notion of anthropology as the child and tool of colonialism is even largely untrue for British anthropology (Lewis 2014), but for American anthropology it makes no sense at all. And yet American anthropologists have taken it to heart as if they each carried a large scarlet “C” as stigma. To begin with, few American anthropologists did research outside of the United States before World War II, and when we did begin to flood the world after the war most of the colonies in Asia and Africa had either won independence or were soon to do so. Most of those Americans who conducted research outside of the United States worked in independent countries like Mexico (Robert Redfield, Oscar Lewis), Guatemala (Ruth Bunzel, Sol Tax), Brazil, and Japan (although American-controlled Philippines did attract several early anthropologists, mostly doing museum collecting).

By the 1930s, American anthropologists had begun to study change and “acculturation” as well as social problems in European American and African American communities, both rural and urban, but most of the research by American cultural anthropologists before the 1940s was with American Indian communities. These days the term “settler-colonialism” is on the lips, or the keyboards, of many anthropologists but what does this mean for the realities of the work of ethnographers and linguists working with Indigenous communities? Both the pre-Boasian amateurs who worked with the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of (American) Ethnology and most of Boas’s students were devoted to recording as much of these rapidly changing cultures and disappearing languages as possible. They did this for several reasons: to try to record all the “ways of mankind,” for “science,” and, perhaps unwittingly, on behalf of the descendants of the peoples themselves. Both the amateurs and the later professionals worked for peanuts and out of devotion to their subjects. The earlier ones had no hope for institutional advancement while the professionals carried out their research with the scantest of funds, often under difficult conditions, and with relatively little prospect for academic jobs. There were only a handful of universities with anthropology departments before the 1950s and few posts in these. The institution that governed the Indians, the colonial power, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, showed little or no interest in the work of these researchers through the decades.

A standard complaint about the work of these anthropologists is that they ignored the realities of poverty, ill-health, exploitation, and expropriation. And, while this was largely (but not completely) true it was because at the time it seemed imperative to record unique and vital information before it was all lost in the face of exactly those realities as well as the loss of the buffalo, conversion to Christianity, the overpowering spread of English, and other forces of acculturation. Today these invaluable records are available as the descendants of those peoples strive to recapture, rebuild, and rework their languages and traditions.

At the time the radical transformation began in the late 1960s, American cultural anthropologists were doing research on every continent, studying all manner of societies, social questions, and problems. Contrary to popular myths of the time, neither functionalism nor Parsonian sociology reigned as hegemonic theoretical frameworks, neither the histories of the peoples we studied nor the changes taking place among them were generally ignored, nor was exoticizing “the Other” the order of the day. (Of course “universalizing the Other” would also come to be considered wicked.) As is often the case, the rebels had to invent an “object” to rebel against, and they did, rarely troubling to consider the body of work they were caricaturing. They won the day—indeed, they transformed the discipline and captured the generations since 1970. The time has come for a reevaluation and reconsideration of the past and of the things that we have lost.

Herbert S. Lewis is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work spans political anthropology, ethnicity, culture change, and the history of anthropology. He is the author of JImma Abba Jifar: An Oromo Monarchy; After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenites of Israel; Oneida Lives; and In Defense of Anthropology.

Featured image by Emily Thiessen, an illustrator and community organizer with a fire for creative troublemaking. She recently graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria. You can see more of her work at or @archipelagic on Instagram.

Cite as: Lewis, Herbert S. 2019. “The Way We Were?” Anthropology News website, April 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1135

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