Cultural Anthropologists as Public Intellectuals

Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century is a marvelous book, creative and engaging. A collective biography of a number extraordinarily influential scholars who came together to define an academic field and to reshape thinking, inside the academy and out, it’s also about the evolution of a discipline and its broader societal impact. It is an ambitious agenda, for a life’s work or a monograph. Nonetheless King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, delivers. Expertise in the social sciences or history is not needed. Curiosity and appreciation of how thinking changes over time, though, greatly helps.

In the latter part of the 1800s, racial thinking was at the very core of the social sciences. It was a time of nation-building, empire-expansion and an every-increasing innovation. Race was a factor in binding countries and peoples, as well as for “othering” and facilitating conflict. It proved a handy tool for explanation, motivation and power. Why did some groups of people or countries profit and grow more powerful while others lagged? It’s essential to appreciate that race was a significant part of how people thought about these issues at that point in time. This held true for scholars, scientists, politicians and the “man on the Clapham omnibus,” the person on the street. King rightfully grounds his book with this historical emphasis. Without it, one does not appreciate the “radical” nature of cultural anthropologists. Remember, too, that racial thinking has remained extraordinarily persistent – from then through World War II to contemporary debates.

The core member and founding father of these cultural anthropologists was Franz Boas. A German-born non-practicing Jew with a doctorate in physics from Berlin University, Boas was a geographer by initial inclination. He loved to explore. Early research on Baffin Island led to a book on the Eskimo peoples. Museum work, travel and settling in the United States, and a fascinating stint with the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago gave the prolific, connected, and ambitious scholar a strong foundation for entrepreneurial academic work. A teaching appointment at Columbia University led to a long-standing professorial role, administrative responsibilities, and the opportunity to attract, hire, teach and train talent. Boas took full advantage, building up a network of extraordinarily important thinkers and doers in the nascent field of anthropology and then cultural anthropology. King doesn’t have enough time or space to detail this aspect of Boas’s incredible career.

Under-girding all of Boas’s thinking was a commitment to rigor, to science, and a reluctance to acquiesce to all-to-present racial stereotypes. His studies of other peoples and cultures reinforced to him the imperative to fight racism and racist thinking. Boas’s emphasis on cultural relativism, a re-framing of the study of peoples that acknowledges their humanity and subjectivity, became central to the growing discipline of anthropology. With vivid prose, King shares all of this before turning to the leading lights in Boas’s orbit. They include Margaret Mead, perhaps the heart of the book, and her complicated personal and professional life. Mead remains one of the most famous and influential anthropologists of all time, a public intellectual whose work we are still considering. Edward Sapir, a pioneer in anthropology and linguistics, Elsie Parsons, an anthropologist/folklorist and co-founder of the New School, Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American anthropologist, author and film-maker, and several other extremely influential social scientists were his students, as were many of his hires and colleagues, such as Ella Cara Deloria. As a multi-character biography, King focuses on one, then another, tying these figures together from events, relationships, publications and ideas. It is handled in an unforced manner, appearing organic, giving the reader a collective sense of how the discipline and field grew. These are also tremendous characters, people who challenged themselves and the status quo. Stated simply, they are interesting people.

Boas once remarked that his strongest students were all women. King picks up on this and offers insights into how these strong thinkers found support through Boas and the network he developed. It reinforces the relevance and difference of cultural anthropology’s effectiveness at re-centering narratives and asking different kinds of questions. A culture need not be defined by male perspective. Women are equally important and can offer equally valid, and distinct, paths to greater understanding. It’s about more than just perspective; it’s about values. The global reach of anthropologists made the world are suitable site for study and cross-cultural questioning and comparison. Unfortunately for many of the female anthropologists, though they may have made significant gains while working with Boas and his network, consistently faced steeper hurdles when it came to finding long-term professional and financial success.

The latter part of the book takes aim at changes within the discipline and efforts of these thinkers to combat Nazism, an issue that is well worthy longer and more detailed study. The legacy of cultural anthropology has remained relevant to this day – and sometimes, I wonder, if it is even more important than we realized. It is a powerful corrective to common group-think, to nationalism, tribalism, and the self-satisfied assurance that most political leaders draw upon to build and maintain power. And in that role, cultural anthropology and its proponents will always face criticism.

Gods of the Upper Air highlights and elevates a group of people and their work to illustrate the importance of ideas. That’s history worth reading.

David Potash

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