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Review

Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology

By Regna Darnell

November 4, 2013

Review By Michael Asch

IT IS FREQUENTLY asserted that contemporary anthropology is distinctive in that it represents a radical, self-conscious departure from its earlier traditions. While accepting that this orientation has been of value particularly in exposing the baggage of earlier iterations of key themes, Regna Darnell demurs with respect to its boldest claims for, as she sees it, the field today represents less a radical shift than a historical development of themes that first emerged at the beginning of the discipline itself. It is due to “rhetoric” alone that this genealogy has been rendered “invisible.” Hence the title, Invisible Genealogies. 

While this focus provides its theme, Invisible Genealogies is not, in fact, a treatise directed solely at making this particular point; rather, in demonstrating these links between then and now, Darnell creates a lens through which she writes a history of what she describes as key features of the Americanist tradition in anthropology. This tradition, as Darnell describes it, was founded by Boas and developed through the work of his students, Kroeber and Sapir, as well as their close associates, particularly Whorf and Parsons. In her reading, this tradition is dominated by two linked analytical dynamics. The first involves the pull between a focus on exploring culture as a collective expression and a focus on examining how the personalities of individuals shape and are shaped by culture. The second involves the extent to which the focus of research is to be on the history of a culture or on the psychological/philosophical impact of language and culture on shaping “worldview.” While each analytic is relevant to establishing links that make the genealogy visible, Darnell’s case for continuity is best established through her analysis of work on the role of language and culture in shaping worldview and on the writing of life histories. This is supported by her sensitive portrayal of the role of non-social scientistic ways of reporting on cultural life (e.g., through poetic forms of discourse) – a role that has existed virtually from the outset of the field. 

Invisible Genealogies is not oriented towards regional ethnography, except in the large sense that one dimension of Americanist anthropology, as Darnell defines it, involves a regional focus on the indigenous peoples of North America. Thus, in the text, reference to the culture or language of any First Nation is provided largely in order to illustrate a general point concerning the theoretical orientations of the anthropologist whose research is under discussion. Nonetheless, for those interested in anthropological work in British Columbia, this focus provides an important aspect of the text. Depictions of First Nations, particularly Northwest Coast peoples such as the Kwakwaka’wakw, have, for better or for worse, played a significant role in the anthropology of individuals whose work Darnell addresses (and, thus, in the anthropology of those who follow in that tradition). In particular, one can, by implication, trace the link between the theoretical concerns of anthropologists and the manner in which, for example, the cultural life of First Nations in British Columbia has been represented as well as the frame within which particular institutions, such as the potlatch, have been interpreted. 

In laying out the case in Invisible Genealogies, Darnell makes an important contribution to the developing field of the history of anthropology. However, I would suggest that this work, despite the subtitle, is not “A History of Americanist Anthropology” as such. There are many strains that have remained unexplored, such as the work of Steward and the neo-evolutionists as well as that of Eggan and others from the Chicago School who, I think, are properly considered Americanists within the terms of her definition. I believe that this book’s particular contribution to the history of anthropology lies in its exploration of the development of the interpretivist and humanist strains in Americanist anthropology and, particularly, the intimate connection between those strains and that aspect of “anthropological linguistics” concerned with the social and cultural dimensions of language. This makes much sense as Darnell is one of the leading authorities on both the history of and research into that area of study. For a reader more interested in the impact of anthropology on the study of First Nations, Invisible Genealogies provides insights into how issues generated within anthropological discourse have coloured the ways in which First Nations in British Columbia and elsewhere in North America are represented. As such, it provides a glimpse into the intimate connection between a chosen intellectual orientation and what gets emphasized in anthropological description.