The Society for Cultural Anthropology was established in 1983, at a moment of organizational and intellectual renewal in the discipline of anthropology. The Society became one of the first sections of our parent organization, the American Anthropological Association, even as its members grappled with questions around the concept of culture and the subjects and objects of anthropological knowledge. David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, and Annette Weiner were among the Society’s first officers, and George Marcus was the founding editor of its journal, Cultural Anthropology. In 1988, the Society began holding regular conferences, initially structured around a series of plenary lectures meant to facilitate conversation among participants.
The SCA has evolved into a forward-looking project for critically assessing the production and consumption of anthropological knowledge, as well as its contested and shifting locations within the academy and beyond. In 2007, these commitments gave shape to an innovative website intended to expand the reach and impact of Cultural Anthropology. In the years that followed, the Society became known as a hub of experimentation with new modes of scholarly communication, and in 2014 its journal was relaunched on an open-access basis. In 2018, the Society's biennial meeting took place in a hybrid format pairing online multimedia presentations with face-to-face gatherings at nodes around the world.
The Founding of the Society for Cultural Anthropology
Founded in 1983 as one of the first sections of a reorganized American Anthropological Association, the Society for Cultural Anthropology was formed during a period of lively debate over the nature and future of anthropology as a field. Increasing specialization made many fear that anthropology was losing its disciplinary coherence. The SCA’s founders sought to create a forum for scholarly exchange at a moment of growing professionalization for academics. But a set of specific events involving the AAA made founding the SCA possible. The following short history of the SCA and its journal, Cultural Anthropology, illustrates the point that academic professional organizations, like scholarly fields themselves, are historically contingent things, subject to social and cultural forces both within and beyond institutions of higher education.
The SCA’s founders were able to act because of a strategic organizational restructuring of the AAA itself. In 1982, the tax-exempt status of the AAA was under threat. A series of audits by the Internal Revenue Service, starting in 1970, had shown the organization to violate the terms of its exemption from taxation, and to do so for essentially structural reasons. The AAA had been growing for decades, much like other large academic professional organizations in the United States, their ranks swelled by the expansion of higher education after World War II. By the 1970s, the AAA was the umbrella organization under which a large number of independent anthropological organizations maintained memberships, executive boards, journals and conferences. Even as the AAA ran its own annual conference and its own journal, it provided services—administrative, publicity, and conference-convening—to those smaller organizations. The IRS found that the AAA was effectively competing with profit-seeking businesses that could have provided those same services. It did so at a competitive advantage, and at sub-market rates. This was only one part of the problem, for the IRS determined that much of the AAA’s work was categorically unrelated to its tax-exempt purposes. The solution to the problem was to reestablish the AAA on a different footing, making most of the smaller anthropological organizations sections of the whole. This eliminated the conflict. The AAA could continue to operate more or less as it had, but now it would be providing services internally, rather than across organizational lines.
For the IRS to scrutinize a nonprofit organization interested in education was not unheard of. During the 1970s the IRS targeted other organizations involved in education, such as the National Geographic Society. But the conditions that led the IRS to scrutinize the AAA directly resulted from the growth and transformation of anthropology in the course of the mid-twentieth century. The multiplicity of professional associations in anthropology reflected not simply the mid-century expansion of what had been a small disciplinary community, but also the discipline’s increasing division into specializations, each with at least one organization (and usually several) to call its own. For many American anthropologists, including members of older generations, this was a sad circumstance, not only because it divided anthropologists’ attention, time, and resources, but for a significant intellectual reason having to do with the nature of the field. For specialists to cease addressing one another directly reflected the collapse of the “four-field” model of a distinctly American anthropology, which had once united physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and socio-cultural anthropology, both in the sense that anthropologists received some training in all areas even if they specialized in one, and in the sense that the four fields were perceived as part of the same larger intellectual project. They had a common telos, namely the understanding of the human, a project advanced by many kinds of data and analysis. But if the ideal of four-field anthropology seemed threatened by specialization, with archaeologists and physical anthropologists no longer interested in cross-field conversations, there were good reasons: the American anthropological community was no longer the small and intellectually homogenous body it had been in the earlier twentieth century. Not everyone agreed that the “four-field” model had ever been more than an ideal, or that the diverse branches of anthropology need speak to one another. As the AAA reorganized, its leadership had to consider not only professional issues, but also the intellectual coherence of the discipline itself.
Debates about the aims of anthropology were hardly new. They had been particularly public in the decades after World War II, as anthropologists debated their field’s role in colonialisms past and present, and discussed the relationship between anthropological research and the world of applied political work. The Cold War and the Vietnam War only made these debates more heated. While anxieties about the four-field model were likewise not new—as early as 1904, Franz Boas had complained about anthropology breaking up, with the biological, archaeological, and linguistic approaches seeming to reach in different directions—the expansion of anthropology since the 1940s had raised fresh anxieties about specialization and its consequences. Between 1947 and 1962 the number of anthropologists in the United States had tripled. In 1968, the AAA opened its membership to graduate students and non-academic anthropology practitioners, further increasing the size of its meetings. In 1973 Margaret Mead remarked that “From a tiny scholarly group […] easily […] fitted into a couple of buses, we have grown into a group of tremendous, anonymous milling crowds, meeting at large hotels where there are so many sessions” that one could not easily “find […] colleagues […] interested in the same specialty” (Mead 1973). There was, indeed, a widespread sense that the AAA had simply gotten too large for the exchange of ideas, particularly across specialties. And soon, anthropologists had to worry about more than lost conviviality, the loss of four-field holism, and a rising sense of anomie.
In the early 1970s, the post-World War II expansion of higher education in the United States ended. What had been a booming market for anthropologists suddenly contracted, even as economic recession caused university administrators to consider where they could cut their budgets. And yet doctoral programs, because of their length, naturally lag behind economic trends, and behind trends in the administration of colleges and universities; in other words, the number of anthropologists seeking employment is often unfortunately out of step with the number of positions available. One report, published in 1975, suggested that by 1982, two-thirds of all Ph.D.’s in anthropology would have to seek non-academic work (see D’Andrade et al. 1975). Anthropologists had, in fact, the worst academic job prospects of any academic field, a dubious distinction (Anon. 1983). This placed the AAA under new pressures. Not only did its leaders have to think about the intellectual cohesion of their field, and the loss of a previous generation’s more intimate circumstances for scholarly exchange, they also had to consider the survival of anthropology as a profession.
The idea for the SCA did not emerge de novo in 1982 with the reorganization of the AAA. For a number of years the cognitive anthropologist Roy D’Andrade had imagined a society that could provide the intimate circumstances for scholarly exchange that the AAA could no longer offer due to its size. Engaging in conversations and correspondence with other anthropologists, D’Andrade concluded that he was not alone in hoping for a new source of intellectual community. But it was not until the AAA’s reorganization that an opportunity presented itself. Importantly, during its first decade the SCA would bring together anthropologists like D’Andrade, who was motivated by a desire for scholarly community but also committed to a scientific picture of anthropology as a discipline, with other, often younger anthropologists, for whom appeals to science were less interesting than the theoretical possibilities within the culture concept itself, possibilities that could be unlocked by building bridges with the humanities. The SCA’s Board and membership would debate these approaches as alternative futures for anthropology.
D’Andrade and his colleague David Schneider held a public meeting in December 1982 to discuss forming a new organization. Their idea met with a generally positive reception, including from members of the American Ethnological Society (founded in 1842), who could have been expected to see a new organization dedicated to cultural anthropology as a source of competition. In January of 1983 the AAA formally accepted the Society for Cultural Anthropology as a “special interest group,” and the Wenner-Gren Foundation funded a meeting of the nascent SCA’s Executive board, including James Boon, Clifford Geertz, Paul Kay, Roy Rappaport, and Annette Weiner, to draft an organizational structure, design a journal, and plan an annual meeting. In order to maintain the organization’s scholarly focus, the Board proposed a limited membership model. D’Andrade and Schneider sent out 430 letters of invitation to potential members, receiving 230 positive responses. A tier of non-voting members, and a tier of full fellows with voting rights, would make up the organization, a structure some criticized as unnecessarily hierarchical. D’Andrade had intended the “fellows” model to ensure scholarly focus, as one had to have a certain number of papers published to be accepted as a fellow. This appealed to some of D’Andrade’s colleagues, for whom the sheer openness of the AAA (particularly after the admission of graduate students in 1968) had represented a problem; in their view it inhibited discussion of a scholarly nature. The SCA would later drop its two-tier membership model, adopting a more straightforward system in which any member of the AAA could become a member of the SCA. Addressing the possible overlap of interests with the American Ethnological Society, Schneider had a simple explanation. While the AES was “concerned with all of social and cultural anthropology” the SCA “focuses on those aspects of social and cultural anthropology AS THESE RELATE TO THE CONCEPT OF CULTURE.” In other words he acknowledged overlap but not redundancy; the SCA was to be more theoretical, and more concerned with culture itself.
Even given its tight focus on the concept of culture, the SCA Board had to consider the fact that their membership did not necessarily agree about what the culture concept meant. The influence of literary theory and postmodernism was already clear in the early 1980s, and there were questions about the relationship between ethnography and the concept of culture: was there, in fact, a contest between the two, and which would stand at the center of the anthropological endeavor? More generally, anyone trying to begin a new anthropology journal in the early 1980s faced a challenge both pragmatically and intellectually, for the field was troubled by economic and professional pressures, and by ongoing intellectual fragmentation. It would be hard to craft a journal that reflected the interests of every anthropologist, even if one limited oneself to socio-cultural practitioners.
After some deliberation, in 1984 the SCA’s Board unanimously agreed to invite George Marcus to edit their new journal. Marcus had come to prominence in part through his role in conversations about anthropology’s role in colonialism, and his interest in the relationship between anthropology and humanistic fields was clear, though he had not yet expressed the views on literary tropes in anthropology that he would in later work, such as the influential 1986 volume Writing Culture, co-edited with James Clifford (1986). Marcus and the SCA Board eventually decided upon Cultural Anthropology as a journal title, a compromise between Marcus’s wish for a short, less formal title, and his colleagues’ desire for a longer title that would be immediately legible in library catalogues and across anthropological sub-disciplines.
Marcus had several goals. In his inaugural editorial statement, Marcus explicitly positioned the journal as stemming from intellectual critique of “Formalism, positivism, and an idealized natural science model of method and progress” while reassuring readers that Cultural Anthropology would be expansive, “constituting a forum for all contemporary and emerging perspectives on culture” (Marcus 1986: 3). He hoped to incorporate contributions that placed cultural theory in conversation with other anthropological subfields, including archaeology and biological anthropology; to treat topics that got relatively little attention in other journals, such as studies of American professionals, elites, and the middle classes; and to incorporate contributions from neighboring fields like cultural studies. But he also deliberately planned the journal as one on the margins of anthropology, rather than as one helping to maintain the mainstream of research and debate. He jettisoned conventional book reviews, adopting instead review essays, including of works by non-anthropologists. The journal, he wrote, would remain “committed to the empirical research traditions of anthropology” even as it embraced “other traditions of cultural studies that anthropology has rather neglected in the past (for example, marxist theories of culture, folklore, the study of popular culture, and the treatment of culture in literary theory generally)” (Marcus 1986: 4). When SCA Board members complained that this reflected fragmentation, Marcus suggested instead the metaphor of convergence. Indeed, he sought to capture the convergence of all manner of critical trends in the study of culture, bringing together Frankfurt School critical theory, Birmingham School cultural studies, literary theory, feminist theory, and psychoanalytic and postmodern thought. Marcus believed that experimentation was Cultural Anthropology’s strength and put the journal “in a strategic position to make a contribution to the course of anthropology at a very interesting point in its intellectual history.”
It was nearly inevitable that Marcus would come into conflict with members of the SCA’s Board and with some of the journal’s readers. The significant fault lines were between an earlier generation of SCA anthropologists, such as Schneider and D’Andrade, whose careers had drawn either on an interpretive, symbolic anthropology, or on a more scientific anthropology, and the humanistic turn of younger scholars like Marcus. Those who championed science as a model were particularly frustrated by Marcus’s abandonment of positivism and objectivity. Others thought that the focus on ethnography and writing that Marcus represented actually involved abandoning the concept of culture itself. From D’Andrade’s perspective, the shift looked quite different: anthropology was being “transformed from a discipline based upon an objective model of the world to a discipline based upon a moral model of the world.” Still others would applaud a new focus on power in social relations, which they believed an influx of ideas from cultural studies provided; the old model of cultural anthropology, focused on symbols, often seemed to them to obscure power relations. Among an older generation of anthropologists, Clifford Geertz was most vocal in welcoming the newer approaches, while others feared for anthropology’s coherence and continuity as a discipline. After some relatively heated correspondence, Marcus and the Board resolved their differences, but not before everyone had registered the exigent intellectual conflict. The Board had simply hoped for a more mainstream journal than Marcus provided.
Marcus’s work on Cultural Anthropology was largely continuous with his efforts in the very well known 1986 collection Writing Culture. There, he and Clifford gathered contributions that aligned cultural anthropology with cultural studies, and with postmodernism broadly writ. Much of Writing Culture questioned the assertions of objectivity inherent in ethnographic practice, and even questioned anthropologists’ right to write. The work of earlier anthropologists, such as Geertz, had helped to redefine anthropology from being a science in search of laws of human nature, to being an interpretive art in search of meanings. Marcus’s younger generation further redefined anthropology not as reading the text of culture, as if over the shoulder of a native informant, but constructing culture collaboratively with interlocutors who were essentially co-authors of the meanings the anthropologist would write down. As Matti Bunzl has put it, Writing Culture helped to make its titular term, “culture,” a post-disciplinary concept, rather than something whose definition and analysis required specifically anthropological tools (see Bunzl 2005: 192).
But another way to understand the shift of the 1980s, in which Cultural Anthropology participated as surely as Writing Culture, draws on the very terms D’Andrade used: a shift from a willingness to conduct social science on an empirical basis, subtended by an ideal of objectivity, to an insistence upon “a moral model of the world.” To be sure, the shift from science to morality was not one that every SCA anthropologist observed around them. Many continued to view, and to practice, anthropology as a social science first and foremost, and did not suspect their colleagues of abandoning science as an ideal in order to express their moral views instead. Yet D’Andrade’s “moral model of the world” reflected the fact that anthropology’s internal struggles since the 1960s had not simply been about the four-field model, with its subtending holism and faith in “man” as the telos of anthropological inquiry. They had also been political. Many American anthropologists, including Marcus, had been concerned about anthropology’s historical complicity with colonialism, a concern many of their European colleagues shared. During the Vietnam War many anthropologists decried their colleagues who acted as consultants to the U.S. government. It was very difficult to pretend that anthropology was a neutral science floating free of worldly political matters, and accordingly easy to accept the idea that anthropology had political potential—in other words, it was a discipline capable of, and perhaps responsible for, providing a moral model of the world. But where D’Andrade hoped that the SCA would offer a home for scholarly exchange apart from politics, many of his colleagues recognized that their expectations for their discipline were simultaneously intellectual and political. As James Clifford put it in the Introduction to Writing Culture, one could see “the poetic and the political” as “inseparable,” and science “in, not above, historical and linguistic processes” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 2).
Since the 1980s, the SCA and Cultural Anthropology have continued both of the projects latent in the organization’s founding: first, they offer collegial forums, smaller than the AAA, in which socio-cultural anthropologists and others can exchange ideas, and critically assess the production and consumption of anthropological knowledge. And second, they provide space for experimental approaches to ethnographic writing and thinking. For example, Fieldsights launched in 2012, has helped catalyze the growth of nonjournal digital publishing in anthropology. In 2014, Cultural Anthropology became a diamond open-access journal, well ahead of its peers in anthropology. And, finally, while virtual and hybrid conferences have become part of the new normal in the post-2020 adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic, SCA, in collaboration with the Society for Visual Anthropology, offered the first virtual biennial in 2018, with Displacements. Distribute followed in 2020 and The Virtual Otherwise took place in 2022.
The SCA’s history reminds us that as we continue to debate the concept of culture and the scope of anthropology, we do so within inherited organizational structures and in the pages of inherited publications. Intellectual problems arise and fall but they do not do so in a vacuum, as if working through their own internal contradictions and taking new shapes accordingly. The meaning of the concept of culture, for example, remains a live question, but one clearly influenced by the conditions under which anthropologists conduct their teaching and research. Many of us no longer reach for culture as if it were part of an imagined, lost holism for anthropology, and yet the term still remains vital, a source of motivating questions for anthropology’s future.
This short history is based on a doctoral dissertation by Lauren Kapsalakis, “The Loss of Integration Vs. Unity in Diversity: American Anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s and the Founding of the Society for Cultural Anthropology,” for the program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society, MIT, 2022. Adaptation by Ben Wurgaft.
Anon. 1983. “1983 Award for Highest Percentage of Unemployed Ph.D.’s Goes to – Anthropology,” Anthropology Newsletter 24, no. 6: 4.
Bunzl, Matti. 2005. “Anthropology Beyond Crisis: Toward an Intellectual History of the Extended Present,” Anthropology and Humanism 30, no. 2
Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
D’Andrade, R.G., E.A. Hammel, D.L. Adkins, and C.K. McDaniel. 1975. “Academic Opportunity in Anthropology, 1974-1990,” American Anthropologist 77, no. 4: 753–773.
Marcus, George E. 1986. “A Beginning,” Cultural Anthropology 1, no. 1: 3–5.
Mead, Margaret. 1973. “Changing Styles of Anthropological Fieldwork,” Annual Review of Anthropology 2: 1–27.