Thesis ID: CBB892986641

The Contradictions of Cultural Reform: Progressive Colonial Anthropology in the US and Mexico, 1930-1975 (2021)


This dissertation tells the history of progressive colonial anthropology, an ultimately-failed effort to establish cultural anthropologists as authoritative indigenous affairs policy experts in the Americas. Tracing this project in the US and Mexico from the 1930s to the 1980s, it explains how a group of anthropologists achieved the influence they sought and then lost it. The anthropologists’ temporary success illustrates the powerful role that the concept of culture played in reconciling liberal nation-states to ethnic plurality in the twentieth century. Culture allowed state-builders and experts to conceive of an assimilation process that would be partial, but stable. In theory, targeted groups would adopt new political and economic institutions while maintaining core cultural values. The anthropologists’ failure, meanwhile, reveals the limits of expert authority. Anthropologists hoped to oversee such processes of cultural adaptation, but indigenous peoples asserted claims to cultural self-determination that entailed their own authority over cultural knowledge. By the late 20th century, these claims obligated anthropologists to take an auxiliary role. Over the course of this history, the concept of culture increasingly took on the aesthetic qualities of “heritage” and the philosophical qualities of “world view.” These features make culture more distinct from other areas of life, and therefore easier both to contest and to essentialize. Consequently, cultural pluralism remains as live a debate in the present as it was a century ago.

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Authors & Contributors
Brookes, Barbara L.
Darnell, Regna
Gleach, Frederic W.
Gray, Geoffrey
Hart, Jennifer
L'Estoile, Benoît de
History and Anthropology
Science, Technology, and Human Values
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Health and History
History and Technology
Medicina nei Secoli - Arte e Scienza
Duke University Press
The MIT Press
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
University of Nebraska Press
University of Pittsburgh Press
University Press of Florida
Indigenous peoples; indigeneity
Cultural anthropology
Public policy
Cross-cultural interaction; cultural influence
Boas, Franz
Lévi-Strauss, Claude
Stanner, William Edward Hanley
Hartland, Edwin Sidney
Shternberg, Lev
Golla, Susan
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
19th century
20th century, early
Early modern
United States
New Zealand

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