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100 years of attitude

Anthropology at Berkeley. Published in California Monthly magazine.

“Berkeley anthropologists are brilliant, sparkling, contentious, occasionally maddening, never boring,” observed dean of social sciences George Breslauer as he addressed a large gathering of faculty, students, alumni, and friends who had come to celebrate one hundred years of anthropology at Berkeley in April. Breslauer might have added “often self-critical and forever reinventing” to his description.

At 100, Berkeley’s anthropology department is one of the oldest in the country–it opened, along with the museum of anthropology, in the fall of 1901, just five years after Franz Boas opened the nation’s first department of anthropology at Columbia University. In its short history, the “uncomfortable discipline” (as anthropologist Raymond Firth called it) has adapted frequently in response to a changing world. Now, as American anthropology enters its second century, the call to reinvent is being heard once more, and nowhere more loudly than at Berkeley, where anthropologists set the trend for the discipline.

Long-time faculty member Laura Nader is among those who says it’s time for colleagues to embrace “public anthropology”–a “combination of academic anthropology and its use to enlighten discussion of public issues.” Nader herself looks to history for inspiration in defining the public anthropologist, harking back to a Golden Age of American anthropology when practitioners like Margaret Mead spoke directly to the public. “There hasn’t been an [anthropology] bestseller written for the public for a long time. When I came to Berkeley 40 years ago, Cody’s was full of anthropology, right in the front when you walked in,” she recalls. “Now it’s stuck with sociology in the back room.”

Berkeley’s department of anthropology has always been academically ranked among the top three in the nation, and its members have a long-standing tradition of engaging with issues of pressing social relevance. Alfred Kroeber, Berkeley’s first anthropologist, reluctantly entered the spotlight in 1911, when he “rescued” Ishi, the last of the Native American Yahi tribe, and brought him to the Museum of Anthropology (then in San Francisco), where Ishi spent the rest of his days as a “living exhibit.” Although Kroeber has since been harshly criticized by Native Americans and anthropologists alike for objectifying Ishi in this way (especially when it was later discovered that Kroeber had allowed Ishi’s brain to be sent to the Smithsonian Institution), others charge that such criticism has been unfairly ahistorical.

Ira Jacknis, a researcher at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology who has been documenting the history of anthropology at Berkeley, sees Kroeber as a man of his time. Yes, he could have treated Ishi differently, says Jacknis, but there is little doubt that Kroeber considered him his friend and equal–in fact, he was so devastated when Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916 that he temporarily abandoned his work. “The general view then was that Native Americans were savages, uncivilized human beings who had a lesser culture,” says Jacknis. “Kroeber showed American society that native cultures are equal. At the time this was a really radical notion.”

Believing that Native American cultures would not survive much longer, Kroeber set about recording everything he could about their culture, their languages, and their traditions and collecting their material artifacts. “He thought this was an important part of the human story, and he was trying to save what he could for all humanity,” says Jacknis.

Kroeber was the first Ph.D. student of the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, who sought to break away from his European counterparts, many of whom believed that “primitive” people were somehow less evolved than “civilized” people. In an ambitious undertaking, Boas forged American anthropology in a completely new mold, bringing together the fields of archaeology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics in a holistic science that aimed to encompass every aspect of human existence. At the heart of the enterprise he placed the principle that all cultures are equal.

In 1921, Kroeber was joined at Berkeley by another of Boas’s disciples, Robert Lowie, who helped spread these new ideas through his writings for intellectual journals. Through their work, both Kroeber and Lowie began to combat widely held racist notions.


Despite the firm foundations laid by Boas, Kroeber, and Lowie, racism continued in American anthropology well into the twentieth century. Anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1958, studied at Harvard under E. A. Hooton, a eugenicist who sought a scientific basis for racism. But Washburn flatly rejected Hooton’s teachings, and set about replacing the subfield of physical anthropology with “biological anthropology,” which was based not on abstract categories like race, but on real human populations. The principles he established in the early ‘50s are still practiced by biological anthropologists today.

Washburn was an outspoken critic of the use of race as an anthropological concept. In 1962, he used his presidential address to the American Anthropological Association to launch his most damning condemnation of racist anthropology, which was then being invoked by segregationists. Washburn realized that what anthropologists said at their academic meetings could have implications for the lives of millions of ordinary people. “Racism is based on a profound misunderstanding of culture, of learning, and of the biology of the human species,” he told his colleagues.

In 1961, he hired Desmond Clark, a renowned African archaeologist who earlier had been employed as curator of a museum in Livingstone, Rhodesia, when it was still a British colony. Despite his background, Clark too realized that anthropology is not practiced in a vacuum, and he did his part to help the discipline break from its colonial past. Over the years, he personally trained numerous young African and Asian archaeologists in an attempt to end the dominance in those continents of European and American archaeologists. He was joined in 1970 by Clark Howell and, later, Tim White, both of whom shared this commitment. “There was no question that we had to have another world,” recalls Howell. “There was a recognition that, if it was possible, it would be appropriate to train indigenous people as archaeologists so that they could assume their rightful place [in their own countries], since this was their own archaeological patrimony.”

Yet many skeletons of anthropology’s past still remain in the closet. Back at home, the question of “archaeological patrimony,” for example, has been equally contentious. For many decades anthropologists and Native Americans have been at loggerheads over this most public of issues–who is the rightful keeper of bones and artifacts collected and held in museums across the country? The question seemed to be resolved in 1990 when Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act granting Native American groups the right to bury the remains of their ancestors. But in the decade since the act was passed, the disputes have continued.

Aron Crowell, Ph.D. ‘94, director of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, has been trying to heal old wounds by applying his own vision of what it means to be a public anthropologist. He’s an archaeologist who works in collaboration with the native Alutiiq people on Kodiak Island, Alaska. “Archaeology is practiced within a cultural context,” explains Crowell. “When you do it collaboratively, you’re doing it with the people whose heritage you are investigating–so there’s cultural interplay in the present and they are involved in the process of constructing the past and trying to recreate it.”

Crowell recalls that for many years he was untroubled as he walked by the drawers of human remains in the Smithsonian. “I was always rather matter of fact about it until I started working in Alaska myself,” he says. “Now it’s hard for me to have the same perspective. I realize that, very genuinely, people in native communities see those anonymous drawers of bones as ancestors, as close relatives of living communities.” Berkeley, too, was a strong influence on Crowell’s development as a public anthropologist. “It was very important for me in broadening my perspective,” he says. “There was a real encouragement of using anthropology as a tool for critical thinking, both politically and intellectually.”


If archaeology can have a political impact, other branches of anthropology can be even more controversial, says Nader. “We’re political whether we want to be or not,” she says. “So it’s a question of how far an anthropologist gets pulled into the political world, because all of our work is relevant if someone wants to make the case.” Those who do contemporary work are pulled in the furthest–at Berkeley, social and cultural anthropologists have been its most public, and its most political, anthropologists.
Cultural anthropologist George Foster, Ph.D. ‘41, established a reputation for himself as an “applied anthropologist” at the Smithsonian Institute of Social Anthropology, although he recalls that employment outside the academy was looked down upon when he was a student. “Most considered applied anthropology to be second-class anthropology, social tinkering,” recalls Foster. “University anthropologists believed that this knowledge should be used, but they weren’t the ones who were going to use it.” Foster went ahead regardless, seeing that his work might be directly useful in the lives of the people he was studying.

Foster consulted widely for such organizations as the World Health Organization and the Agency for International Development, and helped make respectable the practice of applied anthropology. Along the way, he created the new subfield of medical anthropology.

During the Vietnam War, when Foster was president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), he clashed with colleague Gerald Berreman, a leading anti-war critic and a member of the AAA Committee on Ethics, when it came out that some anthropologists had assisted the government with its counter-insurgency efforts in Indochina. “The information gathered by anthropologists was being used, for example, to identify which villages to napalm, based on the characteristic house types of different ethnic groups,” says Berreman. “We felt that was unethical; the first responsibility of an anthropologist should be to the people they study, and nothing should be done to jeopardize them.”

Foster, on the other hand, felt that those charged with unethical behavior had been unfairly accused. “It was a question of cultural lag,” he explains. “During World War II there was a great rush of patriotism, and the association voted unanimously to offer all the services of its people to the American government. During Vietnam, these people thought they were doing something that was still highly respected, as it had been in World War II.”

During this time, Berreman put forward his vision for a socially responsible anthropology in the highly influential book Reinventing Anthropology (1972), edited by former faculty member Dell Hymes. The book was an attempt by more than a dozen anthropologists to bring about a more socially relevant anthropology. Berreman’s work has always been injected with a strong dose of social justice–from his research on the caste system in India to social inequality here in the United States. Yet Berreman doesn’t see himself as a political activist. “I’ve been very active in promoting affirmative action,” says Berreman, “but I advocate for it by describing it. I say, here are consequences with affirmative action, and here are consequences without affirmative action,” he explains. Citing his favorite sociologist, C. Wright Mills, he continues: “For the social scientist, your politics is the politics of truth. In other words, you bring to the attention of people the ways things actually work.”

Laura Nader, who in 1960 became the first female anthropologist on the Berkeley faculty, also contributed to Hymes’s ground-breaking book. In it, Nader counseled her colleagues that it wasn’t enough to study peasant cultures in faraway countries; anthropologists also needed to come home and study the institutions of power here in the United States. “I said that anthropologists should study up, down, and sideways, and we had just been studying down,” says Nader. “We studied the colonized, but we didn’t study the colonizer.”

Her call was heeded by many anthropologists who began to do just that; nevertheless, Nader feels that the project got waylaid over the years. “There was a fork in the road. Was anthropology going to move towards reinventing itself or was it going to move toward the abstract, the Eurocentric social theories? It moved in the latter direction.” To the frustration of some, including Nader, anthropologists became enthralled with “theory,” and their interest shifted towards “texts” and ideas from literary criticism. “But anthropology is grounded in life, not texts,” she points out. “Unlike fictional characters, the Samoans and the Tikopeans exist, and it matters to them how they are represented.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes ‘70, Ph.D. ‘76, has taught here for 20 years and has also been troubled by this trend away from public anthropology towards a more jargon-filled discipline. “There certainly has been a move away from anything in anthropology in recent years that smacks of frank engagement with the world,” she says. She and Nader both model themselves on Margaret Mead, who gave numerous public talks during her long career and filled her regular column in Redbook with examples from other cultures to show Americans how it was possible to live their lives differently. That anthropological perspective was, and is, invaluable, says Nader: “I think that our governments would be in better shape if they had anthropologists talking to them about what’s happening in the world. We should replace the pundits.”

Scheper-Hughes takes the concept of public anthropology one step further, into what might be called political activism. “I’ve also seen it as trying to create public issues, and not just respond to them,” she explains. “I’m trying to put topics on the public agenda that have not always been very popular.” In the late ‘70s, Scheper-Hughes began studying homelessness, helping bring to public attention a then poorly recognized problem. Now, she spends much of her time working to publicize the worldwide traffic in human organs through Organs Watch, an organization she founded and runs almost single-handedly.

Through this work, Scheper-Hughes finds herself reinventing anthropology on a daily basis. “Organs Watch is a hybrid of anthropology, journalism, and human rights. I’m trying to make up something that’s really different. It’s a blend of using every skill that I have as an ethnographer, plus moving a little bit more quickly, like a documentary journalist.” Scheper-Hughes sees herself as a witness, rather than as a “participant-observer,” the traditional role of an ethnographer. “The observer stands outside, the witness is side by side,” she explains.

Some anthropologists fear that this might be taking anthropology a step too far. Professor Patrick Kirch, director of the Hearst Museum, is an archaeologist of the Pacific Islands. “I get concerned when someone tries to push the notion that anthropology must be exclusively political,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with that as part of anthropology, but I don’t think that defines the whole of anthropology.” Kirch points out that he has himself been politically active, advocating for the restoration of land to native Hawaiians. “But that’s not my primary objective. My primary objective is to understand the history of the Hawaiian settlement on that land,” he says. And without that independent, objective stance, Kirch says, he’s in danger of losing credibility in his advocacy work. “If I don’t come to the table with something that’s my real contribution as a scholar, then I’m just out there flapping in the wind.”


Louis Freedberg, M.A. ‘73, Ph.D. ‘76, is yet another breed of public anthropologist from Berkeley. He’s never worked in academia, but is a journalist with an anthropological perspective. “There are similarities between journalism and anthropology,” says Freedberg. “The big difference is the speed you have in which to do it. Sometimes I feel like a hyperanthropologist!”

His training came in handy when Freedberg was on assignment in his native South Africa some years ago; he had less than two days in which to file a story profiling a neo-Nazi town there. “I asked myself, What would an anthropologist do?” He soon won the trust of the locals and was able to write his story.

After several years covering Washington politics for the San Francisco Chronicle, Freedberg recently returned to the Bay Area. “For a long time I had to hide the fact that I had a Ph.D. Now I feel more comfortable ‘coming out’ as an anthropologist. I consciously pitched myself as the Chronicle’s Anthropologist In Residence, and they loved it,” he says. Freedberg now edits the new California Cultures section of the Sunday Chronicle, which he says uses an anthropological approach to go “beyond traditional and tired ways” of looking at society. “We’re going beyond trying to see California in terms of ethnicity. Not that that’s not important, but your ethnic identity is only a part of who you are,” he says.

One more thing about Berkeley anthropologists that Dean Breslauer might have mentioned in his talk: they’re passionate about their work. Alfred Kroeber used to say, “Anthropology is my religion.” For Laura Nader, anthropology is “a way of life.” And Nancy Scheper-Hughes says: “Warts and all, I love this discipline of anthropology. I think it has something to offer that no other discipline has. Anthropology is all about making the exotic and strange seem completely conventional and reasonable, and then making conventional thinking seem strange. That’s the job, it always has been, of anthropology–to exoticize ourselves and to render the rest of the world less strange.”


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