History of German and Austrian Anthropology and Ethnologies

Directed by

  • Laurent Dedryvère (EILA, Université de Paris, site Paris-Diderot)
  • Jean-Louis Georget (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris)
  • Hélène Ivanoff (Frobenius-Institut für Kulturanthropologische Forschung an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)
  • Isabelle Kalinowski (CNRS, Laboratoire Pays germaniques UMR 8547, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris)
  • Richard Kuba (Frobenius-Institut für Kulturanthropologische Forschung an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)
  • Carlotta Santini (CNRS, Ecole Normale Supérieure)
  • Céline Trautmann-Waller (Université Sorbonne nouvelle-Paris 3/IUF).

Team Member

  • Philippe Siegert (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle)


Viewed from the outside, German anthropology is often characterized by a few salient features, namely the “division into two distinct disciplines, Völkerkunde and Volkskunde”, the import of “‘intuitive’ approaches”, and the “bipolarity of the ‘material’ and the ‘spiritual’ tending to obliterate the study of social organization” (Conte 1991: 37-39). (...)

French anthropologists today refer to these features either in negative or positive terms. Philippe Descola (2005) associates German anthropology with a holistic idea of culture that helped to consolidate the contemporary dualism between nature and culture, while Emmanuel Désveaux (2007) identifies the foundations of “mega-culturalism” or “neo-culturalism”. This implies a rapprochement with a certain German anthropological tradition which was continued in the United States by Franz Boas against a universalist, Durkheimian heritage that in his view is still very present in French anthropology.

However, it is difficult to speak of a single Germanic anthropology, as there is an extremely broad and diverse spectrum of disciplines that have claimed to be anthropological and ethnological sciences in Germany and Austria since the Enlightenment. The spectrum ranges from physical anthropology – from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach to Rudolf Virchow and Eugen Fischer – to so-called philosophical anthropology – from Johann Gottlieb Herder to Max Scheler or Helmut Plessner. It includes significant clashes between different “schools” and currents that have since been erased or blurred. What do Blumenbach’s collection of skulls, the purely bookish anthropology of Theodor Waitz and the “grand tour” of ethnologists like Adolf Bastian, a specialist in collecting and musealization, have in common from a methodological point of view? And what about Volkskunde, which was initially linked to prehistory? Think, for example, of the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, a learned society founded in 1869 by Bastian and Virchow.

And yet, despite the internal polemics, certain characteristic features of German anthropology and certain continuities nevertheless come under scrutiny, as demonstrated a few decades ago (1996) by George W. Stocking Jr., whose work is continued by Glenn Penny (2003, 2002, 2013). Two questions are of fundamental concern to research on German ethnology from across the Atlantic. The first is the origins of American cultural anthropology which, through the Boasian humanist tradition and the transdisciplinary combination of ethnology, archaeology and physical anthropology, still reveals some of its Germanic roots today, evincing a holistic vision of what a “science of man” might be. The second seeks to determine when and to what extent ethnology – especially in combination with physical anthropology (Massin 1996) – may have been the source of a ‘scientific’ racism that ultimately promoted Nazi ideology and made the Holocaust possible (Dow 1994; Zimmerman 2001; Kramer 1995). In Germany, the interweaving of ethnology with the ideology and politics of the Third Reich has been the subject of numerous studies, especially in the 1990s (Dostal 1994; Fischer 1990; Geisenhainer 2008; Hauschild 1995; Michel 1991; Spöttel 1996; Streck 2000).

There is a broad consensus that German ethnology took a singular path (Sonderweg) (Streck 2009; Spöttel 1995; Kramer 1995) compared to the development of the discipline in other European countries as well as in the USA. Interpretations of what exactly made it different vary. For some observers, the defeat of 1918 and the subsequent loss of the colonies marked a turning point. According to Matti Bunzl and Glenn Penny, after the First World War the discipline shifted from a liberal agenda guided by a broadly humanistic vision, focused on efforts to document the plurality of cultures, to a discipline that was “narrowly nationalistic and overtly colonialist” (Penny & Bunzl 2003: 2; Evans 2010: 9-26, 1001; Warnecken 1999). This development could be described as the reverse of the process in other countries. There is no doubt that German and Austro-Hungarian ethnologists and anthropologists participated more intensively in the war effort than their colleagues in other belligerent countries (Gingrich 2010; Kuba 2014). Some scholars emphasize that German ethnology was a useful science for colonization (Fischer 1981 ; Kuba 2020), while others consider that most researches were often oriented towards material culture and cultural history, and were far from being applicable in the daily management of colonized peoples (Gotsch 1983 ; Steinmetz 2010). The major questions that German ethnologists asked themselves tended rather to revolve around the fundamental principles of the development of cultures and their historical convergences and divergences, following the example of the Kulturkreislehre (Joch 2000; Kulturmann 1991). This focus on cultural history certainly affected the specific methodological choices of German – and also Austrian – ethnology, and its reception outside the national context, whether in devastating mode, for example on the part of Paul Radin (1933), or in positive terms, for example by Clyde Kluckhohn (1936).

Various works on the history of German-speaking ethnology appeared in France during the 1980s (Chiva & Jeggle 1987; Rupp-Eisenreich 1984; Rupp-Eisenreich & Stagl 1995). In 1988, Utz Jeggle gave a seminar on the history of German ethnology at the École de hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris), promoting exchanges between French and German scholars. Under the leadership of Isac Chiva and the Tübingen School, it was Volkskunde that benefited above all from historiographical attention, driven by the overt ambition to make French ethnology reflect on its own past in the same way as German ethnology had done in the 1970s. These Franco-German exchanges have found a recent extension (2015-2020) with several ANR/DFG projects on the cross-history of ethnology in France and Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century and from the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1960s (Georget, Ivanoff & Kuba 2016, 2020; Georget, Hallair & Tschofen 2016; Georget, Grosos & Kuba 2020).

In Germany, it is first and foremost the studies devoted to anthropology during the Enlightenment and the episteme of the pivotal period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Sattelzeit) that have marked a renewal of historiographic research. New studies have highlighted the emergence of ethnology itself as a modern project in the context of the Enlightenment, whether in relation with various scientific expeditions (Vermeulen 2015), or stemming from the desire to do justice to the “total man” (Schings 1994), and to establish a “science of man” (Bödecker, Büttgen & Spain 2008; Sturm 2009; Nutz 2009). The tension between Kant and Herder (Zammito 2002) encapsulates these various searches for a balance between a naturalistic vision and an understanding of “human exceptionalism”, which marked much of the thinking that claimed to be anthropological.

This work needs to be continued for the nineteenth century – indeed, in recent books devoted to this century, it is rare to see anthropology treated as a separate field (Bayertz, Gerhard & Jaeschke 2007). Nevertheless, two voluminous books on the history of ethnology have been published in German, dealing mainly with the nineteenth century (Petermann 2004; Hildebrand 2003). Without focusing specifically on the developments of the discipline in Germany, they allow for a better analysis of the way in which German anthropology and ethnography influenced the genesis of structuralist ideas (Adolf Bastian, Karl von den Steinen) or the development of functionalist ideas, from psychology to anthropology (Gustav Theodor Fechner, Theodor Waitz, Wilhelm Wundt). In parallel, the in-depth study of the expeditions of Paul Ehrenreich, Konrad Theodor Preuss, Max Schmidt, Karl von den Steinen and Theodor Koch-Grünberg to the Amazon has enabled analysis of the German ideology of Bildung in its complex interaction with the fieldwork experience. This affects the ways in which the concept of “the field” was determined by the political situation in the country of origin, and how the perception of ethnological working methods was affected by career and disciplinary stakes (Kraus 2004). Indeed, German anthropology, which has immediate associations with Oceania and Africa, has also been deeply Americanist; in turn, Americanist anthropology has been deeply shaped by German anthropologists.

There are several dictionaries concerning the German anthropological tradition (Schweitzer, Schweitzer & Kokot 1993; Feest &Kohl 2001), as well as books dealing with the specific history of ethnology in certain German cities (Smolka 1994; Kohl & Platte 2006; Brandstetter & Lentz 2006; Geisenhainer, Bohrmann & Streck 2014; Putzstück 1995), in relation to certain cultural areas, such as Africa (Stoecker 2008; Esselborn 2018; Stelzig 2002) or focusing on an ethnological museum (Museum der Weltkulturen 2004; Gerhards & Dürrenberger 1995). In particular, the discourse on the role of ethnological museums has gained momentum in recent years with the discussion around the Berlin Humboldt Forum, the flagship of museum ethnology in Germany (Penny 2019; Bredekamp 2019; Kohl et al. 2019; Kraus & Münzel, 2003; https://boasblogs.org/humboldt/).

These epistemological perspectives have been accompanied by a new surge in research into the history of the discipline, its institutionalization, and the figures and places that have marked it. This development can be seen in the case of Adolf Bastian. This prolific but haphazard travelling anthropologist seemed destined to sink into discreet eulogy (Fiedermutz-Laun 1990, 1971), but in recent years publications on his work have multiplied, revealing unsuspected dimensions (Penny 2019, Koepping, 1983, 1995; Fischer, Bolz &Kamel 2007; Buchheit 2005; Chevron 2004).

Austrian anthropology, for its part, is emerging in a new, exciting and critical light, thanks to the research of Irene Ranzmaier (2013), among others. It shows clear parallels with developments in the discipline in Germany, while at the same time being distinguished by its own tradition and specificities (Rupp-Eisenreich/Stagl 1995, Johler 2018). Building on this new research, Andre Gingrich, for example, attempts to identify the singularities of German anthropology and its diffusion in German-speaking areas, in particular Austria and Switzerland (Gringrich, Barth, Parkin & Silverman 2005).

Several research projects have recently been devoted to the history of the discipline in the former German Democratic Republic, revealing the complex divisions that took place after 1945: the inscription of the discipline in a Marxist historical perspective and the continued encounters between ethnologists from the two Germanies (Kreide-Damani, 2020). For the second half of the twentieth century, the reader can turn to the research of Dieter Haller (2012), who explored the archives of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde and the Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, or on a study that reconstructs the place of women ethnologists (Beer 2007). German anthropology in the twenty-first century is not left out, with a 2013 publication attempting a first synthesis that opens up avenues for reflection (Bierschenk, Krings & Lentz).

Writing a history of German and Austrian anthropology and ethnology involves giving an account of the richness of research conducted from 1800 to 1945 and even beyond. By considering the individual journeys of geographers, ethnologists, philosophers, collectors, informants, translators and mediators, or the institutions such as museums, journals, and expeditions, a history of concepts also takes shape. Understanding this tradition of plural thought (Naturvölker/Kulturvölker, Kulturkreis, etc.) implies revisiting the various theoretical and ethnographic paths trodden by German-speaking anthropologists and ethnologists.

Laurent Dedryvère (EILA, Université de Paris)
Jean-Louis Georget (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris)
Hélène Ivanoff (Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main)
Isabelle Kalinowski (CNRS, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris)
Richard Kuba (Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main)
Carlotta Santini (CNRS, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris)
Céline Trautmann-Waller (Université Sorbonne nouvelle-Paris 3/IUF)


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Articles on this topic

Carl Deußen

Hélène Ivanoff

Ingrid Kreide-Damani

Karl-Heinz Kohl

Mario Marino

Davide Bondì

Richard Fardon

Richard Kuba

Michel Espagne

Céline Trautmann-Waller

Gisela Stappert

Peggy Brock

Richard Kuba

Sophia Thubauville

Viktor Stoll

Emmanuel Hourcade

Richard Kuba

Hélène Ivanoff

Peter Monteath

Ingrid Kreide-Damani

Lazar Jovanović

Karl-Heinz Kohl

Karl-Heinz Kohl

Ute Ritz-Deutch

Richard Kuba

Katja Geisenhainer

Blanka Koffer

Frederico Delgado Rosa