Constructing the Field in Interwar Social Anthropology: Power, Personae, and Paper Technology

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Abstract

This essay draws on ideas from the history of the natural sciences— on “personae” and “paper technology”—to explain how the subculture of social anthropology emerged at the London School of Economics in the 1930s. It argues that the figure of the social anthropologist coalesced around a number of practices and symbols that Bronislaw Malinowski had done much to imbue with charisma and that his students attempted to reproduce in their own research. Historians have proposed that part of social anthropology’s success lay in its practitioners’ ability to foster a fictive individualism in their writing, cultivating an inward attitude of experience founded on acts of the self upon the self. This essay shows that the kind of knowledge produced in Malinowski’s seminar was, in fact, a highly sociable, rather than an individualistic, affair. Social anthropologists in the 1930s constructed a mutually constitutive relationship of field and seminar. These were connected spaces, held together in the act of fieldwork—a practice that transcended and linked the geographical distance between the metropole and the periphery in the crucial years of the dis-cipline’s development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)717-739
Number of pages23
JournalIsis
Volume111
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

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