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From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.

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Franz Boas and His Contemporaries October 15, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Franz Boas

Franz Boas’ (July 9, 1858 – December 21, 1942) The Mind of Primitive Man occupies a cherished place in not only the anthropological canon, but also in anthropology’s disciplinary self-understanding.  In its 1938, expanded edition, Boas’ chapters provide a very interesting glimpse at the landscape of ideas which defined early 20th century ethnography and other social sciences.

One of Boas’ most difficult chapters was the fifth, titled: “The Instability of Human Types.”  The roots of this chapter lay in his landmark 1916 essay, “New Evidence in Regard to the Instability of Human Types.”  Building on the claims of not only his work on immigrants and H. P. Bowditch’s important, though forgotten, 1877 study, “The Growth of Children,” he concluded that not only was human stature variable, but more importantly, there existed variability in both the cephalic index and the width of the face.  This led him to consider how far the bodily features of man can be modified by so-called physiological changes brought about by conditions in the physical and social environment.

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Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*

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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 2 October 21, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.

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Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.

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The Weirdest Guest — William Z. Ripley: Economist, Financial Historian, and Racial Theorist September 26, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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William Ripley’s (October 13, 1867 – August 16, 1941) long career as a writer, public servant, and academician presents nightmarish problems of reconstruction for the historian.  Ripley, at one time vice president of the  American Economic Association, was an expert on railroads and trusts, a competent historian of the financial history of colonial Virginia, an astute observer on the labor problem in both Europe and America, and, with the publication of the Races of Europe (1899), one of the preeminent sociologists of his day.

William Z. Ripley's Races of Europe

The longevity of Ripley’s influence poses problems for the scope of the academical truism of the “revolution” brought about by Boas’ cultural relativism, as well as the intriguing connections between the Oxford School of Anthropology and American racial theory.  Such was the enduring reputation of Ripley’s work that it was revised in 1946 by Carlton Coon, an important twentieth century physical anthropologist who taught at Harvard.  Coon’s mentor, Earnest Albert Hooton, a student of R. R. Marett, was a nasty piece of work, producing works in the same mental universe as Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). (more…)

The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness.  (more…)

Systems-Thinking and Robert Redfield November 9, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Robert Redfield

Robert Redfield (1897-1958) earned his degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1920.  More than any anthropologist of his generation, argues Clifford Wilcox, Redfield adopted a “pronounced sociological approach to anthropology.” According to Wilcox, two broad intellectual currents influenced Redfield’s development: “the deep-seated critique of civilization that emerged among European and American intellectuals following World War I,” and “his father-in-law, University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park ” (Social Anthropology, xiv.)

In contrast to the assertive Victorian belief in progress, in the period following the First World War, intellectuals began to “question the nature not only of Western civilization, but of civilization itself, particularly the equation of civilization with progress.”  Among those who penned withering critiques of civilization were Oswald Spengler and Edward Sapir. (more…)

Technological Determinism, Scientific Reasoning, and Leslie White October 1, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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For the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, the sum of technological accomplishments in contemporary civilization formed the “Technique,” which was the “new and specific milieu in which man is required to exist” and which replaced “nature.” This milieu was artificial, autonomous, self-determining, not directed towards any specific end but only established through specific means, and interconnected to such a degree that all of its elements are impervious to analysis by its constituent parts ( In Philosophy and Technology, ed. Carl Mitcham, Robert Mackey, 86.)

Leslie White (1900-1975)

Technology, according to Ellul, had become the all-pervasive material reality and rationality which defined the superstructure of contemporary society.  Culture or politics, according to Ellul, does not determine the growth and development of technology.  Rather, it is technology or technique which determines the culture or political life of a society.  Nor was the understanding of technology as autonomous rationality a concern of French philosophers.  German philosophers were as concerned with interaction of technology and human freedom and were as anxious to establish its roots in the philosophic and scientific thinking of the West.

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Human Geography and Environmental Determinism: The Arguments of Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Semple September 17, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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In the literature detailing the foundation of the discipline of human geography, it is widely argued that the opening decades of the 20th century saw this developing enterprise in the throes of “environmental determinism.”

Ellsworth Huntington

Such determinism, furthermore, developed a series of propositions which defended racial superiority through a utilization of the guise of the objective, scientific geographer.  Thus, David Livingston, in his The Geographical Tradition (1993,)concludes that Huntington, in his Character of the Races (1924) conjoined “ethnic constitution” to “climactic circumstance,” which argued that “racial character was spatially referenced and could thus be presented in cartographic form.”  This “cartographic enterprise” in which the distributions of genius, health, and civilization were conveniently tied to the percepts of “cultural imperialism,” exactly those eschewed by Franz Boas.  In Huntington’s scheme, climate influenced health and energy, which in turn influenced civilization (225-6.)  Mark Blacksell in his Political Geography (2005,) notes that, “For a time in North America, in the first half of the twentieth century, environmental determinism held greater sway, largely through the writings of Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, but its intellectual dominance there was short-lived, not least because of the racist conclusions the philosophy frequently spawned (140.)
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