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Author: Derek P. Brereton
Title: Preface
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Preface
Derek P. Brereton

vol. 16, no. 1, 2006
Issue title: Retrospectives: Works and Lives of Michigan Anthropologists
PDF: Link to full PDF [109kb ]


In 1930 Leslie White became chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of Anthropology, and engineered the department’s early expansion. This collection of retrospectives on the lives and works of seven other University of Michigan anthropologists partly chronicles that growth as it took place after the war. The victors tended to attribute their success to populism, the people’s power to overcome totalitarianism in its fascist form. The post-war, federally sponsored surge in undergraduate and graduate education echoed this populist theme. But soon the post-war era became the Cold War era. Then not populism but its antinomy, elitism, reflected in the advanced training of top specialists in both the natural and social sciences, was presented with the task of defeating the other form of totalitarianism: centralized collectivism. First the people had overcome fascist tyrants; now expertise would overcome communism. Both White and Norma Diamond had clear socialist sympathies. Yet this generally politicized atmosphere made education a high national priority in the 1950s and 1960s, the period during which these seven people entered anthropology and came to Michigan.

My invitation to the authors of these pieces was to weave together a summary of the anthropologist’s career out of threads spun from their personal and professional lives. All primary authors but me were once graduate students of the mentor–advisors of whom they write. All still draw steadily from their mentors’ work and admire them professionally, as is obvious from the insight and respect informing their accounts. What little may be lost here in dispassionate objectivity is more than made up for in the depth of familiarity that only the protégé can bring to a scholarly life and work. I asked that the pieces strive for neither exhaustiveness nor a blaring exposition of controversy; rather, I hoped for an empathic rendering of a major scholar’s contribution to anthropology from the unique perspective of one who knew and had worked with him or her. Several authors chose to balance their views with impressions gleaned from other of the anthropologist’s colleagues and former students.

This project began when, to strengthen my grasp of the history of anthropology, I decided to write a retrospective on Rob Burling’s life and work. After several brief encounters with Rob over the years, based largely on our mutual interest in Southeast Asia, I finally got to really know and appreciate his work when in the late 1990s I audited a seminar, “The Evolution of Mind,” that he co-taught with physical anthropologist Milford Wolpoff. I soon grasped the power of Rob’s interdisciplinary approach to questions of humanness. My interest in doing one retrospective struck a chord in the department and grew into this collection of retrospectives on Michigan anthropologists from each of the four sub-disciplines: ethnology, linguistic anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology. Reading about these scholars’ work we can appreciate some of the tectonic shifts in approaches to the study of humanness that have occurred during their lifetimes. Burling and Diamond first focused on the study of remote villages; today the very notion of location is so disrupted that such studies would seem, to some, quixotic. Yet just how much these scholars did learn and communicate can be readily grasped by reading the village studies they produced.

Jeff Parsons’s development of the survey technique in archeology was crucial to the description not just of prehistoric villages but also of entire regional settlement patterns in relation to landscape, resources, sociopolitical entities, and their respective boundaries. Frank Livingstone and Loring Brace worked out solutions to problems of adaptation to disease, and social changes wrought by technological ones that were themselves adaptive responses to environmental challenges. Skip Rappaport gave the traditional village study a thoroughly ecological anchor in his exploration of how, in one community, energy capture translated into ritual cycles and their implications for social structure, warfare, and cosmology. Ray Kelly has lately shown that, in the struggle for homeostasis described by Skip, the emphasis cannot be confined to homeostasis; it is struggle between self-identified groups, among other things, that defines the human condition in all forms of social organization other than that based on foraging. Social segmentation and war-like violence entirely co-vary, so far as we can tell, throughout space and time. All these approaches derive to some extent from White’s emphasis on the harnessing of energy as the crux of human development.

These various contributions to the store of human knowledge have garnered for their authors many professional honors and distinctions, as noted in what follows. If humans have evolved as information-seeking creatures, it is to those who identify, collate, and systematize information about the world and our human relation to it that we owe our deepest debt of gratitude. It has become clear that the mere harnessing of increasing amounts of energy is, by itself, not the long-term solution to the central twin problems of our age: What will be, and what should be, the nature of humans’ relation to the world? Answers not rooted in the best possible descriptions of human adaptations throughout space and time have no chance of helping us devise really good approaches to these problems. It is just such anthropological work toward good description and explanation that is recounted here. Four-field anthropology has been aptly termed “real anthropology” by a former Michigan anthropology graduate-student-turned-tenured-professor, quoted herein. As the center of four-field anthropology struggles to hold against the widening gyre of sub-disciplinary sectarianism, students of humanity can look to the forbears discussed in this issue of MDIA for encouragement.

The guidance of graduate student Managing Editor Josh Reno, and the professionalism of MDIA’s general staff, especially graduate students Jessica Robbins and Kate Graber, were crucial in bringing this project to fruition. To them, to the authors of these pieces, and to the anthropologists that have inspired the authors and articles, I offer heartfelt thanks.


Ann Arbor

14 February 2006