[Paleopsych] CHE: Anthropologists, Few in Number, Revisit a 1919 Debate
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Wed Feb 2 22:03:50 UTC 2005
Anthropologists, Few in Number, Revisit a 1919 Debate
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
By DAVID GLENN
At a sparsely attended annual convention here last month, members of
the American Anthropological Association took steps to right an
85-year-old wrong done to a pioneer in the field and a founder of the
association. In a unanimous (but nonbinding) vote, scholars voted to
rescind the organization's 1919 censure of Franz Boas.
The censure occurred in the aftermath of World War I, when Boas
angered many of his peers by making sharp-tongued criticisms of
anthropologists who had covertly served as wartime U.S. spies in Latin
America. Boas was then a professor at Columbia University and probably
the country's best-known scholarly anthropologist. He had been among
the association's founders, in 1902.
In late 1919, Boas published a letter in The Nation in which he
announced that he had learned that "a number of men who follow science
as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as
scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their
activities as spies." Boas's letter did not name names, but among the
small circle of American anthropologists it was clear that he was
referring to an espionage ring organized in 1917 by Sylvanus G.
Morley, a leading scholar of the Maya who was then affiliated with
Harvard University's Peabody Museum. The ring's primary task was to
search for reputed German submarine bases in Mexico and Central
Two weeks later, the association's governing council voted, 20 to 10,
to censure Boas, declaring his letter un-American.
Now the association would like to make posthumous amends. Scholars at
December's conference approved a resolution that removes the censure
and affirms that it is "immoral for scientists to use their
professional identity as cover for governmental spying activities."
"This is an issue that has to be revived from generation to
generation," said Leni M. Silverstein, one of the resolution's
authors, in a telephone interview. Ms. Silverstein, a visiting scholar
at Northwestern University, pointed out that similar debates arose
during the Vietnam War and are likely to arise again in relation to
the conflicts in Iraq and Central Asia.
Not everyone agrees with the recision. In a letter that will appear in
a forthcoming issue of Anthropology News, David L. Browman, a
professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis,
suggests that Boas acted dishonorably in 1919. Among other things, Mr.
Browman writes, Boas appears to have manipulated the espionage debate
in an effort to win money and resources from the National Research
Council for his department at Columbia.
The business meeting at the convention lacked a quorum, so the vote to
renounce the censure was only advisory. It is likely that the
association's executive board will put the question to the entire
membership in a mail ballot next year. The resolution is expected to
win by a comfortable margin.
The anthropology conference, which had originally been scheduled for
San Francisco in mid-November, drew only a fraction of its usual
Less than four weeks before the conference was to have been held, the
organization voted to relocate and reschedule the meeting because of a
labor dispute at San Francisco's major hotels.
The decision was controversial. Some scholars have argued that the
association should have gone ahead with the San Francisco meeting, and
others have said that the association could have shown more solidarity
with the San Francisco hotel workers by completely breaking its
contract with the Hilton Hotels Corporation. (The move to Atlanta was
the result of a complex negotiation with Hilton, in which the
association avoided any financial penalties.)
Many people at the conference, however, said the move to Atlanta was
the least bad option under the circumstances.
More than 6,000 people had been expected to attend the San Francisco
meeting, but fewer than 800 were on hand in Atlanta. The association's
president, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, said that low attendance was
expected to cost the organization between $385,000 and $500,000.
In the original San Francisco program, 25 panels had been announced
for Friday afternoon at 1:45 -- the heart of the conference schedule.
In Atlanta at that time, only six panels actually took place, with a
combined audience of fewer than 100 people.
At the meeting, the association's executive board unanimously approved
a resolution requiring that, beginning in 2010, all association
conferences must be held in unionized hotels. That resolution, too,
will probably be brought to the entire membership in a mail ballot.
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