Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
“We need anthropology now more than ever. As Ruth Benedict once noted prophetically, ‘The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.’”
Charles King has written a sweeping and dynamic history of Americanist anthropology through its origins, shaky institutionalization, and creation of ideas that upended common wisdom and challenged the dominant power structure. What emerges is a story of a discipline that was, at once, deeply academic, applied, and activist. It was an intellectual revolution.
At the dawn of the 20th century, humanity was commonly understood to be divided into a series of fixed and immutable races that arrayed along a unilinear path of social development from savage to civilized. It takes little guesswork to know that the western white world was at the pinnacle with everyone else taking a back seat or worse in this scheme veiled in the aura of science. In actuality, of course, it was pseudoscience weaponized against diverse peoples that contained a rationale for their colonization and exploitation.
Cultural diversity is at the very core of the anthropological paradigm. Cultural relativity laid the theoretical path, mandating that cultures must be understood on their own terms and not through the lens of western bias. The method of understanding was long-term immersion in distant communities along with the rigorous recording and description of all facets of life from economics, to religion, politics, kinship, marriage, and family.
All this was the brainchild of a German Jewish émigré to the U.S., Franz Boas (1858–1942). Trained in physics with an emphasis in studying how light refracts, he flips that interest on its head. He turned his attention to how people perceive those qualities, understand them, and give them meaning. His choice of light (and color) was brilliant, for it is a universal human yardstick.
Diverse peoples categorize and understanding in distinctly different ways. It was an entry point into the study of human cultural diversity. Boas started working with Baffin Island Inuit and later Salish-speaking people on the Northwest Coast, underscoring his enduring interest in Native America and its fate under the thrall of settler colonialism.
If that revelation were it, anthropology would be relegated to a footnote in some long-forgotten treatise on the history of the social sciences. Boas’ genius was his ability to institutionalize anthropology in a university setting, Columbia, along with an advanced graduate training program that sent his students to spawn yet more departments and train more students.
The discipline that had previously languished in far-flung museum outposts now had a way to produce and reproduce itself. Boas, himself, wended his way through a series of provisional museum and academic posts before reaching Columbia. Mostly he bumped into other anthropologists of a social evolutionary bent with their specious universal theory of humanity with scant supporting data.
King captures Boas’s nuanced shift in thinking about the conduct of science in the human context: “What counted as scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the worldview, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. All science was provisional, Boas was coming to believe. Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful. They either fit the observable data or they didn’t . . . The first step was to get good data and let the theory follow . . .” Context is everything in anthropology, and, therefore, researchers have to take a deep dive into the particulars to understand difference.
Anthropology was envisioned as an empirical endeavor founded on rigorous, systematic data collection from which broader theories of human behavior would eventually emerge. But, as King notes, Boas cautioned his students to resist the urge to make broad, sweeping generalizations and theoretical proclamations.
Boas also became wholly immersed as an activist on the race question, and as World War I started he also served as a committed antiwar critic. His actions cost him and the anthropology program at Columbia, but both endured.
Here King pivots in his history toward Boas’ students. If anthropology had been produced in the early 20th century by Boas (at least in some nascent form), it is the next generation that would reproduce, refine, debate, and push it forward. He turns his gaze onto three luminary women: Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), Margaret Mead (1901–1978), and Zora Neale Huston (1891–1960).
Benedict and Mead had a complicated relationship (teacher and student, then romantically involved, and finally professional colleagues). They fully understood that sex, gender, love, fulfillment were fluid categories and sought to complicate western binaries with sound cross-cultural research
Concepts were in deep play—culture, change, diffusion, subjectivity, history, methods—often hashed out over months of slow-traveling letters. Many floated in and out of their orbit pulled by the gravity of ideas and powerful personalities.
Imagine, for a moment, a young, single woman traveling to American Samoa by ship in 1925, then making her way to a farther remote island by canoe. Mead rewrites the meaning of sex, gender, and adolescence among indigenous people while upending the Freudian notion that all adolescents go through the same set of developmental stages. For this she sells lots of books, reaches a massive popular audience, makes a bit of money, and gets little respect in the anthropology community for being too popular.
Next we see Mead, Reo Fortune (her then husband), and Gregory Bateson (her soon to be husband) working together in the Sepik River basin of Papua New Guinea; more clashing and clinging of personalities arguing, challenging, and crafting ideas. In the troika, Mead comes off as wildly smart, hard-working, and analytically razor sharp; Bateson as an amiable theorist; Fortune as self-indulgent, a lazy note taker, and the most likely to go “native.” Mead leaves the jungle with Bateson, but still longing for Benedict, too. It’s complicated.
Boas also discovered the talented Zora Neale Hurston who had come from small-town Florida to New York and became an integral member and critic of the Harlem Renaissance. Boas sends her back the south to collect Black folklore in a model that had come to be known as “salvage anthropology.”*
Hurston collected all manner of folktales, histories, songs, poems, and material culture. While cultural preservation was achieved, Black folklore also demonstrated deep wisdom and a dynamic, creative adaptation to dire American experiences that scaffolded around the distant whispers of Africa. Her folklore autoethnography Of Mules and Men was “the boiled down juice of human living.”
These three professionals, many others in their orbit, and Boas put anthropology on the academic map but also the public imagination. For all were true public intellectuals.
Though retired in 1936, Boas is hardly out of the picture as the Nazis rise in Germany, and World War II looms in the distance. He was only too aware that Nazi racial ideas, policy, and politics had a distinctly American feel: segregation, miscegenation laws, racial pseudoscience, paramilitaries (the KKK), and eugenics. As King underscores, the Nazi racial Nuremberg Laws were tailored after the U.S. model.
Boas was back in action writing essays on Nazi radical extremism and the use of pseudoscience in support of their Aryan Nation model. These made their way into the German underground resistance. Whether it was through letters, speeches, or civic action, he took the opportunity to decry the rise of Nazi National Socialism. Late in life, Boas established the Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom as a platform to champion democracy, combat racism, defend open and free speech, and find academic homes for displaced intellectuals on the run.
Boas and his circle are all long gone, but their legacy lives on. Remarkably, 77 years after Boas’s death, we are still fighting racism and nationalism in a contemporary nativist-nationalist political milieu where race is rapidly being conflated with citizenship. Boas would recognize this discourse and its dire implications.
We need anthropology now more than ever. As Ruth Benedict once noted prophetically, “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.”
*Review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’ New York Journal of Books.