George W. Stocking, Jr.'s 'Culture Concept': The History of Anthropology and Disciplinary Myth-Making, 1942–1975

Danielle Stubbe, Vanderbilt University

“If I were to characterize certain aspects of your thought as neo-Boasian,” wrote the historian-anthropologist George W. Stocking, Jr. to a colleague in 1971, “would you: a) know what I meant (i.e. what I was referring to in your work) [or] b) object violently?” This paper reconstructs the dynamic theories about culture offered by practitioners of cultural anthropology in the United States following Franz Boas’s death in 1942. This is not a new project. Indeed, anthropologists by the early postwar era had begun to muse over the loose intellectual ties they shared. But why had culture, which two scholars described in a 1952 treatise as “one of the key notions of contemporary American thought,” become so elusive? Did twentieth-century anthropologists ever labor under what Stocking would later label the Boasian ‘culture concept’? And how did his interpretation become hegemonic? I use letters, lectures, essays, articles, and manuscript materials from midcentury anthropologists to weave an intellectual narrative of two distinct approaches to cultural-anthropological work. The first engaged in projects about so-called personality within national groups. The second approach engaged with culture groups on a smaller scale. Academic anthropological channels continued to value fieldwork meant to preserve the customs of indigenous peoples. This paper argues that it would not be until the 1960s and 70s, when anthropologists began to grapple with the colonial legacies of their research abroad and thereby took interest in the history of their discipline, that a singular vision of cultural anthropological work became necessary. I demonstrate that Stocking’s ‘culture concept’—rather than, for example, a competing neo-evolutionary vision—spread because of his academic positioning within a network of influential disciplinary figures. Further, it allowed contemporaries to eschew the historical racial implications of their work, and thereby offered resonance with the social movements and cultural politics of the 1960s.

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 Presented in Session 241. Knowledge Production and Culture in Historical Context