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The establishment of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1902 was the culmination of a gradual process of professionalization in American anthropology that revealed subdisciplinary, regional, and theoretical tensions within the emerging discipline. The first anthropological society in the United States was the American Ethnological Society, founded in New York by Albert Gallatin (1761–1849) in 1842 and revived by Franz Boas (1858–1942) in the 1890s to balance the Washingtonbased Bureau of American Ethnology’s potential stranglehold that threatened to dominate anthropology on a national scale. Section H of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, established in 1882, already provided annual meetings for anthropologists but not visibility among the social science disciplines or discrete professional identity.
Abortive efforts to establish a separate organization in 1897 floundered over Washington hegemony, with the compromise being a new series of the Bureau of American Ethnology–based journal American Anthropologist coorganized by W. J. McGee (1853–1912) of the bureau and Boas in New York. The diverse editorial board reinforced the revamped journal’s claim to national representation and self-consciously built toward a formal professional organization in the near future. Boas wanted to wait until he had trained more professional anthropologists and solidified his organizational control over the discipline.
The American Anthropological Association that was established in 1902 compromised between Boas’s insistence on professional gatekeeping and McGee’s populism, a contrast reflecting their respective institutional frameworks of university and government. The Washington contingent, backed by Frederick Ward Putnam’s (1839–1915) archaeological bailiwick at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, supported evolutionary theory in the mode of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), whereas Boas critiqued this paradigm in favor of historical particularism.
Boas succeeded in restricting the organizational meeting to forty carefully chosen professionals, but McGee ensured that any interested person could join. The AAA began with 175 members, including sixteen women, incorporating members of the Anthropological Society of Washington. McGee became the first president, but his successors were carefully chosen to represent alternative regional and local components of the national membership. Boas served as the third president of the AAA in 1907 to 1908, succeeding Putnam, who had long been the permanent secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When the inclusive structure rapidly proved unwieldy, the establishment of an executive council further enshrined Boas’s aspirations to professionalism by limiting decision-making power to the established elite, increasingly under his patronage.
World War I (1914–1918) polarized the hyperpatriotism and racialism of the National Research Council against Boasian autonomy of science on both ethical and intellectual grounds. Boas was German and a pacifist about the war, a critic of eugenics, and ambivalent about collaboration between universities and museums. Archaeology and physical anthropology were left tacitly to Putnam at Harvard. In 1919, after the war had officially ended, Boas accused unnamed anthropological colleagues working in Mexico, representing his still powerful longterm nemeses in the Cambridge/Washington axis, of spying under cover of research. In the resulting furor, Boas was removed as anthropology’s representative to the National Research Council, censured by his own professional association, and removed from its council. Despite the apparent defeat, however, this was the last time that anti-Boasian forces would challenge successfully his organizational leadership, commitment to professional credentials, and effective critique of evolution, or that the institutional core of American anthropology would be academic. Thereafter, Boas’s former students and protégés edited the American Anthropologist, represented the AAA on the three research councils, and headed the growing number of university programs credentialing new anthropologists. The discipline and the AAA grew incrementally during the interwar years under this balanced structure.
During World War II (1939–1945), many anthropologists entered government service. At the war’s end, the discipline was poised for exponential growth. The 1945 annual meeting narrowly averted schism led by archaeologists and younger anthropologists. During the annual meeting of 1946, concurrent sessions were held for the first time. The 1946 AAA meeting introduced a distinction between members and fellows that persisted until the 1970s. The new structure maintained the inclusive subdisciplinary scope of cultural, physical, archaeological, and linguistic specialization (although the three latter also participated in independent associations). This structure was intended to render anthropology competitive among the social sciences. An AAA Research Committee was established to seek philanthropic support for anthropology in the transition to government funding and beyond. Increasingly, the competition would be interdisciplinary, seeking a place for anthropology among the social science disciplines.
The political upheavals of the 1960s initiated centrifugal as well as further numerical expansion in American anthropology. By the 1970s, the academic job market had contracted and many fledgling anthropologists found themselves working outside the ivory tower. Practicing anthropology emerged as the fifth subdiscipline in the AAA structure to accommodate this growing diversity within its membership. Increasingly, the most salient internal schism was a generational conflict between activism and objective science. Many anthropologists on both sides considered these mutually exclusive.
Under the presidency of Anthony F. C. Wallace in 1972, the AAA began its restructuring to mitigate the increasing size and cumbersomeness of the organization and to incorporate its ever more diverse versions of anthropology by establishing specialized sections, while retaining the overall organization as an umbrella. As the powerful university-based old guard was challenged by younger and more radical critics, the AAA strove to legitimize both the activists and the scientists within its membership. A new constitution in 1983 formalized this structure, producing over thirty sections and numerous interest groups and committees by the mid-1990s. Sociocultural anthropology dominated, as it had throughout the history of the AAA, but the other subdisciplines retained their affiliation with the umbrella organization.
Centripetal forces perhaps have come to the forefront again with the decision that AAA membership includes subscriptions to the American Anthropologist as well as section publications. Many AAA members belong to multiple sections and value this acknowledgement of the diversity within their profession. The organization is active in seeking a public voice for anthropology and anthropologists and in maintaining internal dialogue among anthropologists of diverse persuasions.
- Darnell, Regna. 1998. And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
- Darnell, Regna, and Frederic W. Gleach, eds. 2002. Celebrating a Century of the American Anthropological Association: Presidential Portraits. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Stocking, George W., Jr. 1992. The Ethnographer’s Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Stocking, George W., Jr. 2001. Delimiting Anthropology: Occasional Essays and Reflections. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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