Many People still don’t know an awful lot about anthropology, so by highlighting some of the most famous anthropologists in history 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). Some of the ideas these anthropologists are famous for working with may seem obvious to many readers, but remember that the reason these ideas are accepted today are thanks to their work (for example Mead’s theory that adolescent behaviour is driven not only by biology, but also culture).
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.
Marcel Mauss (1872-1950)
Mauss was a French sociologist and nephew of Emile Durkheim, the “founder of modern sociology”. He followed in his uncle’s footsteps and assisted him with his well-renowned sociological projects. Mauss was inspired by the idea of analysing religion from a social perspective, which led Mauss to become a great proponent of “social ethnology” (usually a first-hand, and comparative, study of cultures and their social structures). He is most known for his theories about gift exchange among different groups around the world, his work, “The Gift,” described the relationship forged between the gift giver and the recipient. He explained that gifts are much more than objects, they represent moral links between people. Gifts become an obligation, whether bad or good, and the reciprocity that follows serves as a basis of social relationships.
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)
Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who earned fame for his work on symbolic (or interpretive) anthropology. His unique focus was to analyse not just the form of cultural objects, but what those objects actually meant to specific groups of people. Geertz’s field work led to his theory that “things” within a culture can hold important symbolic meaning and help to form perspectives about the surrounding world. This can be seen in his often-cited essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in which Geertz describes the intricate symbolic meaning of the cock fighting in Bali, how it represents cultural ideas of masculinity and even how it creates a sort of microcosmic representation of their society. He became a pioneer in the use of “thick description” to explain his research methods, which aims to describe actions and subjects while recognizing their context and deeper meaning. His work “The Interpretation of Culture” is still a major resource of anthropological thought and teaching today.
Edward Sapir (1884-1939)
Edward Sapir was a Prussian-American anthropologist and linguist widely considered one of the most important contributors to the development of the discipline of linguistics. A student of Boas (see below) Sapir was able to develop the relationship between linguistics and anthropology. Sapir was interested in the ways that language and culture influence each other, and the relation between linguistic differences and differences in cultural world views. Sapir also emphasised the importance of psychology in anthropological thought; the nature of relationships between individuals is important for understanding cultural development. One of Sapir’s major contributions to linguistics is his classification of indigenous languages of the Americas.
Bronisław Malinowski (1884-1942)
Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands
Malinowski was one of the most important anthropologists of the 20th century and is most famous for his emphasis on the importance of fieldwork and participant observation
. Malinowski’s ideas were a great influence and contributed to the building of modern anthropological methodology. His stress of the importance of fieldwork and in particular the concept of participant observation marked the shift from the era of so called ‘armchair anthropologists. He spent several years studying the indigenous people of the Trobriand Islands, Melanesia, and published his main work in 1922, titled ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’. This has become one of the most widely recognised texts in anthropology (ask any anthropology student!), and his ideas about immersion being the best way to observe a culture are of course still poignant today.
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881)
Although he began his professional life as a lawyer, his research in the Iroquois and other Native American peoples became his main focus. He developed a particular interest in the way that people who were related interact and refer to each other and in turn how that affects relationships and overall society (this is also known as kinship systems). Morgan’s field work and travels brought him to his theory of “social evolution”, which he explained could be classified into three stages, “savagery, barbarism and civilization,” laid out in his 1877 book, “Ancient Society”. He suggested that humans follow a social progression which parallels surpluses of food and advancements in collecting that food.
Eric Wolf (1923-1999)
Wolf was influenced by Marxist ideals and his work soon earned him attention, he was sent to gather data in rural areas of Puerto Rico, and later research took him to Mexico and Europe, where he observed peasant societies. He argued that culture needs to be studied from a global perspective and also stressed that culture, including that of non-Western people, is dynamic (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 aboriginal communities’ behaviours and practices changed as well. He argued that as powerful (capitalistic) nations expanded into new lands, the expansion inevitably caused a reaction within the native people and eventually changed their habits and ways of relating to each other.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)
Claude Lévi-Strauss is regarded as 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 the world of academia and his circle of anthropologists. He applied theories of structural linguistics to the field of anthropology and gained fame for a new way of thinking called structuralism. He put forward the idea that there are worldwide unconscious structures, or laws, that exist in everything that we do (for example, rituals, mythologies and kinship), and this gives us the means to compare and analyse cultures. His four-volume work, “Mythologiques,” examined the structure and duality of tribal myths throughout the Americas and their influence on culture. Some of his other notable works include “Tristes Tropiques” (“A World on the Wane”) and “Le Pensée Sauvage”(“The Savage Mind”).
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)
Benedict was one of the first women to earn international recognition for her work in anthropology and folklore and made huge progress in her research regarding culture and personality. She studied tribes in the American South West, and this research served as the basis for her hugely popular book, “Patterns of Culture.” She explored the connection between culture and the individual and emphasised that understanding traditional cultures could help us understand modern man. She worked as a graduate student with Franz Boas (see below) forming close bonds with him and Margaret Mead (also below).
Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
Margaret Mead, one of the most talked about anthropologists and read authors in the world.
Margaret Mead is often regarded as the original rebel anthropologist of the United States, her easy-to-follow style of writing, controversial research regarding sex and outspoken personality heightened her fame even beyond the world of anthropology. Her research brought her to the South Pacific, specifically Samoa, where she suggested that culture, not just biology, has an impact adolescent behaviour (this was published in her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa”). Through close observation of Samoan children, and the ease with which they entered adulthood, Mead came to the conclusion that teenage angst and stress had more to do with external factors than anything internal. She continued to return to Samoa for research, but also collected information in Papua New Guinea and Bali and 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.
Franz Boas (1858-1942)
Franz Boas posing for the Hamat’sa life group figures
Franz Boas is known as “the father of modern cultural anthropology”. He contributed to the establishment of an anthropology department at Columbia University that taught some of the world’s most promising students (including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead). He helped to challenge outdated beliefs and demystified advanced theories that allowed the development of entirely new and innovative ways of observing and analysing the human race. Unlike some of his peers at the time, Boas conducted research whilst considering the perspectives of other sciences, including linguistics, ethnology and even statistics, and spent time studying the Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic and Native Americans along the northern Pacific coast. Boas was a pioneer within the field of anthropology, pointing out that the individual is only as important as their social group, and that cultural settings affect people differently (even those of the same descent). He is often celebrated for refuting the notion of Western superiority with his theory of relativism, and was able to apply his theories practically 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 then it would be far too long to read! I hope you’ve enjoyed this information which I believe is essential knowledge for any aspiring anthropologist.
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Featured Image – “Wmalinowski trobriand isles 1918” Via Wikimedia Commons
Clifford Geertz – “Geertz” Via Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC-BY-3.0
Bronisław Malinowski – “Wmalinowski trobriand isles 1918” Via Wikimedia Commons
Claude Lévi-Strauss – “Levi-strauss 260” by UNESCO/Michel Ravassard is licensed under CC BY 3.0
Margaret Mead – “Margaret Mead NYWTS” Via Wikimedia Commons
Franz Boas – “Franz Boas posing for the Hamat’sa life group figures” by John Curran is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0