10 Famous Cultural Anthropologists

Many People still don't know an awful lot about anthropology, so by highlighting some of the most famous anthropologists I hope I can give you a little more insight into the subject. This list is by no means exhaustive, and only includes 10 of the biggest names (and this list isn't ordered in any way). 

I have also included a little information as to why these anthropologists are famous (their famous works etc.), just to provide a little background, and to point you in the direction of some research/texts to look out for if you are interested in the subject.

10. Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)

Mauss was the nephew of Emile Durkheim, the "founder of modern sociology," and followed in his uncle's footsteps by assisting him with his well-respected sociological projects. The idea of religion analyzed with a social perspective led Mauss to become a great proponent of "social ethnology" (the comparative, usually first-hand, study of cultures and their social structures). His fame, in particular, comes from his theories regarding gift exchange among groups throughout the world. His work, "The Gift," described the intrinsic bond forged between giver and recipient: Much more than just an object, a gift is a magical and moral link between people. The gift becomes an obligation, whether bad or good, and reciprocity serves as a basis of social relationships

9. Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

American anthropologist Clifford Geertz earned fame for his work on symbolic, or interpretive, anthropology. He made a name for himself analyzing not just the form of cultural objects, but what they meant to specific groups of people. Geertz's field work led to his theory that "things" within a culture can possess important symbolic meaning and contribute to perspectives about the surrounding world. He became a proponent and pioneer of the use of "thick description" to explain his research methods. The process aims to describe actions and subjects while recognizing their context and deeper meaning.

8. Paul Farmer (1959-)

Paul Farmer has made a name for himself beyond the realm of cultural anthropology. He is an avid human rights activist and physician, fighting to provide health care for the world's poorest people. In a subfield of cultural anthropology known as medical anthropology (examining cultural, social and other factors to discover their influence on overall health), Farmer has become something of a celebrity. Farmer has also worked on controlling infectious diseases and promoting basic human rights in Peru and Russia. Being a physician and medical anthropologist has offered Farmer unique insight into understanding native healers, while offering his own treatments. Additionally, Farmer has received many illustrious awards, including the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award.

7. Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942)

Malinowski was a Polish anthropologist, and one of the most important of the 20th century, often being dubbed 'the father of modern anthropology'. Malinowski stressed the importance of fieldwork and in particular the concept of participant observation, marking the shift from the era of so called 'armchair anthropologists. After spending several years studying the indigenous people of the Trobriand Islands, Melanesia, Malinowski published his main work in 1922, titled 'Argonauts of the Western Pacific'. This title has become one of the most widely recognised texts in anthropology, and his ideas about immersion being the best way to observe a culture are still poignant today.

Malinowski during fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands

6. Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)

Though he began his professional life as a lawyer, his interest and research in the Iroquois and other Native American peoples overtook most of his time. He developed a particular interest in the way that related people (specifically indigenous groups) interact and refer to each other and how that affects relationships and overall society (also known as kinship systems). Morgan's travels and field work brought him to theorize that social evolution could be classified in three stages, "savagery," "barbarism" and "civilization," laid out in his 1877 book, "Ancient Society". He suggested that human social progression parallels surpluses of food and advancements in collecting that food.

5. Eric Wolf (1923-1999)

Wolf's work, influenced by Marxist ideals, earned him the attention of certain faculty members, and he was eventually sent to gather data in rural sections of Puerto Rico. His research later took him to Mexico and Europe, where he observed peasant societies in those regions. Besides his argument that culture needs to be studied with a global perspective, he also stressed that culture, including that of non-Western people, is dynamic and doesn't stay the same for long. In his book, "Europe and the People Without History," Wolf theorized that as European society grew, affecting natives throughout areas such as Africa and the Americas, the latter aboriginal communities' behaviors and practices changed as well. Wolf argued that as powerful, capitalistic nations expanded into new lands, the expansion unavoidably caused a chain reaction within the native people and eventually changed their habits and ways of relating to each other. 

4. Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009)

Claude Levi-Strauss is one of the most famous, respected and important social anthropologists of all time. He's known as the "founder of structuralism" and made a name for himself far beyond academia and his circle of anthropologists. Applying the theories of structural linguistics to the field of anthropology, Levi-Strauss gained fame for a new way of thinking called structuralism. The idea he put forth was that worldwide unconscious structures, or laws, exist in everything that we do (for example, kinship, mythologies and rituals), providing a means for comparing and analyzing cultures. His formidable four-volume work, "Mythologiques," examined the structure and duality of primitive tribes' myths throughout the Americas and their influence on culture. His other notable works include "Tristes Tropiques" ("A World on the Wane") and "Le Pensee Sauvage"("The Savage Mind").

Claude Levi-Strauss, founder of structuralism

3. Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

One of the first women to earn international recognition for her work in anthropology and folklore, Ruth Benedict made huge strides in her research regarding culture and personality. Benedict studied tribes in the American Southwest, which served as the basis for her hugely popular book, "Patterns of Culture." She emphasized that understanding primal cultures could help us understand modern man, and she also explored the connection between culture and individual. 

2. Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

If there's such a thing as a rebel anthropologist, Margaret Mead is probably the closest thing the U.S. has produced. Her easy-to-follow style of writing, controversial research regarding sex and outspoken personality only heightened her fame, especially beyond the world of anthropology. Her research brought her to the South Pacific, specifically Samoa, where she suggested that culture, not just biology, impacts adolescent behavior (published in her first book, "Coming of Age in Samoa"). Mead's startling observations of Samoan children, and the ease with which they entered adulthood, drew her to the conclusion that teenage angst and stress had more to do with external factors than anything going on internally. Mead continued to return to Samoa for research, also collecting information in Papua New Guinea and Bali. This breadth of information led her to publish more than 30 books and hundreds of other works. 
Her openness about her own methodologies as well as her addressing of sensitive research topics such as sexuality, made her one of the most talked about anthropologists and read authors in the world.

One of the most talked about anthropologists, Margaret Mead

1. Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Boas (1858-1942) eventually became known as "the father of modern cultural anthropology". He helped establish an anthropology department at Columbia University that nurtured some of the world's brightest students (including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead), demystified outdated beliefs and advanced theories that helped develop entirely new ways of observing and analyzing the human race. Unlike some of his peers at the time, Boas made note of research with an eye to other sciences, including linguistics, ethnology and even statistics. He spent time in the field, studying the Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic and Native Americans along the northern Pacific coast. 
Boas was a pioneer within the field of anthropology, emphasizing that an individual is only as important as his or her social group, and that every cultural setting affects people differently, even those of the same descent. He refuted the notion of Western civilization's superiority with his theory of relativism. He was also able to practically apply his theories in the form of disproving racist beliefs of the time.

So there you have it, 10 of the most famous anthropologists of all time. There are many, many more noteworthy Anthropologists that deserve to be part of this list, but I fear the list would be far too long to read! I hope you've enjoyed this information which I believe is essential knowledge for any aspiring Anthropologist.

[Image Credits:

Featured ImageBy Unknown (maybe Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1885-1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Malinowski - By Unknown (maybe Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1885-1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Levi-StraussBy UNESCO/Michel Ravassard (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
MeadBy Edward Lynch, World-Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Please don't forget to follow this blog (which you can do via the sidebar) to keep up to date with anthropological and scientific news and research, and check out Harris Anthropology on FacebookTwitter and Google+ too, Thanks.

Labels: , , ,