Primitivism and Cosmopolitanism: Anthropology between the Wars in Germany, France, and China

AHA Session 198
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Fairfield Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Suzanne L. Marchand, Louisiana State University
Suzanne L. Marchand, Louisiana State University

Session Abstract

Primitivism and cosmopolitanism were defining concepts for the young field of anthropology during the interwar years.  While primitivism had existed during the prewar years in artistic movements like Expressionism and the development of ethnological collections, the fascination with traditional (“tribal”) communities was more broadly diffused in Europe and the United States after 1918 and found new institutional homes in the emerging discipline of anthropology; primitivism was fundamentally redefined by the shattering effects of world war on European colonial empires.  At the same time, anthropology was cosmopolitan, motivated by a growing though incomplete criticism of European racism, greater respect for the cultures of non-European peoples, and a striking level of cooperation between scholars from different countries.  A fascination with local, traditional and ancient human institutions – the so-called “primitive” – went hand in hand with a cosmopolitanism that in varying degrees criticized prewar anthropology and emphasized conversation across national borders.  This panel uses three different yet related examples to explore primitivism and cosmopolitanism as defining terms of interwar anthropology.

Alice Conklin’s research on French anthropology during the interwar years reveals the close connections between anthropology and France’s embattled yet robust republican culture.  The passionate humanitarianism of many of the scholars gathered around Marcel Mauss, their dedication to fieldwork and respect for indigenous cultures represent new, or newly strengthened, attitudes compared to fin de siècle scholarship; French anthropology was emancipating itself from older philological traditions and sociological models to develop a new disciplinary and intellectual autonomy.  Sarah Frazer’s study of Ling Chunsheng and the search for “primitive” origins of modern Chinese peoples raises many questions for comparison and contrast  regarding the role of non-European intellectuals in interwar Paris, the meaning of the “primitive” for Chinese anthropologists, and the influence of republican politics and neo-colonial Chinese expansion on the formation of anthropology in China.  Harry Liebersohn’s work on Germany invites comparison and contrast from a different direction: Richard Thurnwald was a right-wing intellectual, hostile to the Weimar Republic and later compromised by his collaboration with the Nazi regime.  Yet he, too, sought to dignify the “primitive” in his writings from the teens and early twenties and was a surprisingly cosmopolitan intellectual who spent several years during and after World War I in the United States; his research entered the international discussion of gift exchange and was mentioned admiringly by Marcel Mauss in his famous essay, The Gift.    Taken together, the three papers suggest the importance of Paris and the urbane Marcel Mauss as an intellectual center of an interwar anthropology defined by the conceptual poles of primitivism and cosmopolitanism. 

This session will appeal to many audiences: French historians, German historians, Chinese historians, twentieth-century specialists, historians of empire, historians interested in colonialism and decolonization, intellectual historians, historians interested in visual culture, and historians of anthropology.

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