You Gotta Know These Anthropologists
Franz Boas (1858–1942) Often called the founder of modern anthropology, this first professor of anthropology at Columbia University trained Mead, Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, author Zora Neale Hurston, and many others. He conducted fieldwork on the Inuits of Baffin Island and the Kwakiutl (now referred to as Kwakwaka’wakw) on Vancouver Island. His publications include 1911’s The Mind of Primitive Man, which describes a gift-giving ceremony known as the “potlatch.”
Margaret Mead (1901–1978) For her best-known work, Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead interviewed young girls on the island of Ta’u, which led her to conclude that adolescence in Samoan society was much less stressful than in the United States; in The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman claimed that she was lied to in those interviews. She also studied three tribes in New Guinea — the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli — for her book on Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.
Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) A colleague and friend of Mead, Benedict studied the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl cultures in Patterns of Culture, using them to illustrate the idea of a society’s culture as “personality writ large.” She also described Japanese culture in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a work written during World War II at the request of the U.S. government.
Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) The Polish-born Malinowski, whose name is pronounced [BRAH-nuss-waf mah-lih-NAWF-skee], studied at the London School of Economics, where he would later spend most of his career. He described the “kula ring” gift exchanges found in the Trobriand Islands in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and the use of magic in agriculture in Coral Gardens and Their Magic. He also argued, in opposition to Sigmund Freud, that the Oedipus complex was not a universal element of human culture in his book on Sex and Repression in Savage Society.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) In the 1930s, Lévi-Strauss did fieldwork with the Nambikwara people of Brazil, which formed the basis for his thesis on “The Elementary Structures of Kinship.” He held the chair in social anthropology at the Collèege de France from 1959 to 1982, during which time he published such books as The Savage Mind and a tetralogy about world mythology whose volumes include The Raw and the Cooked. He pioneered in applying the structuralist methods of Ferdinand de Saussure to anthropology, which led him to study cultures as sets of binary oppositions.
Clifford Geertz (1926–2006) Geertz is best known for his work in symbolic anthropology, a view that he expounded in his book The Interpretation of Cultures. In that book, he introduced the term “thick description” to describe his method of analyzing behavior within its social context. One such “thick description” appears in his essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” in which Geertz discusses cockfighting as a symbolic display of a certain kind of masculinity.
Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955) Radcliffe-Brown is considered the founder of a school of anthropology known as structural functionalism, which focuses on identifying the groups within a society and the rules and customs that define the relationships between people. His own early fieldwork was conducted in the Andaman Islands and Western Australia, where he studied the social organization of Australian tribes. After teaching in Australia, South Africa, and at the University of Chicago, he returned to England, where he founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford.
James Frazer (1854–1941) Frazer was a Scottish anthropologist who primarily studied mythology and comparative religion. His magnum opus, The Golden Bough, analyzed a wide range of myths that center on the death and rebirth of a solar deity; the original publication controversially discussed the crucifixion of Jesus as one such myth. The work’s title refers to a gift given to Persephone by Aeneas so that he could enter the underworld in the Aeneid.
Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002) In 1947, Heyerdahl and five companions sailed across the Pacific Ocean — going from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands — on a balsa-wood raft named Kon-Tiki, after the Incan sun god Kon-Tiki Viracocha. He later built two boats from papyrus (Ra, which failed in 1969, and Ra II, which succeeded in 1970) to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. These voyages demonstrated the possibility that ancient people could have migrated around the globe using only primitive rafts.
Jane Goodall (born 1934) Goodall is a British primatologist who is best known for her work with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Her first research was carried out with Louis Leakey at Olduvai Gorge. In her pioneering work with primates, which is detailed in such books as In the Shadow of Man, she discovered that chimpanzees have the ability to use tools, such as inserting grass into termite holes to “fish” for termites.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Brad Fischer.