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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.)*


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…)

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.)