Histories of anthropology in Brazil

Directed by

  • Stefania Capone (CNRS, UMR 7227 CREDA)
  • Fernanda Arêas Peixoto (Universidade de São Paulo).

Team Members

Antonio Carlos de Souza Lima (Universidade federal do Rio de Janeiro)
Christiano Tambascia (Unicamp)
Gustavo Rossi (Unicamp)


There is a great diversity of anthropological practices in Brazil. (...)

They are indeed a plural reality due to the themes and fields, problems and orientations involved. While Brazilian anthropology is best known for its studies on Amerindian populations and Afro-Brazilian religions, it is not limited to these major traditions of study, but also includes urban and rural anthropology and political anthropology, among others. It is thus difficult to embrace this complex whole at a single glance and to articulate it in a single historical trajectory. To produce a unified history of anthropology in Brazil would be a misleading goal, considering its ever-challenging chronological landmarks – whether the “discovery”, in 1500, of the territory later called Brazil, or the creation of the first scientific institutions in the 19th century, or even the late emergence of universities in the 1930s, when specialities and disciplines emerged more clearly. Our choice is to reconstruct the ramifications that led to the consolidation of different research traditions by retracing matrices of thought and lines of divergence across space and time. The first challenge, in order to reflect this multiple framework, is to let this heterogeneity and complexity appear and to make these differences a compass.

The aim is to draw a map that respects the regional diversity of a country with multiple centres of intellectual production, taking into account epochal and institutional differences (museums, institutes, associations and universities), without neglecting the diversity of the actors themselves: Brazilian or foreign, male or female, black, white, mixed or Amerindian. We must take into account the border areas, the circulation between “scholarly” and “artistic” knowledge, “erudite” and “popular”, “professional” and “amateur”. All these forms are at the heart of the anthropological relationship between “researchers” and “informants”. On the one hand, the essentialization of any of these categories should be avoided; on the other hand, they are an integral part of the reflection on the history of anthropology in Brazil. Attention must also be paid to the ways in which ideas and practices circulate from one disciplinary territory to another (history, sociology, archaeology, literary studies, etc.), and even between areas defined as “scientific” and “political”.

To reconstruct the dense nature of the characters, outcomes and landscapes in this panorama of anthropologies practised in Brazil, it is important to trace both individual and collective projects and to sketch the fields in which they gravitate. Even before there were any institutional loci devoted to the training of anthropologists stricto sensu, there was a production of ethnographic or anthropological knowledge by naturalists, chroniclers, missionaries and painters, who travelled all over Brazil from the 16th century onwards. They were the first to identify and analyse some of the fundamental dimensions of the Brazilian natural landscape, social life and cultural manifestations. Then it is also necessary to take into account folklorists and other learned figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The generation of thinkers who produced important essays on the process of formation of the Brazilian nation in the 1920s and 1930s – such as Euclides da Cunha, Paulo da Silva Prado, Francisco José de Oliveira Vianna, Gilberto Freyre and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda – profoundly influenced anthropological studies in Brazil, but also abroad. Similarly, figures who studied in Brazilian universities, which had just been founded in the 1930s, are at the origin of seminal anthropological studies despite their roots in other disciplines. Let us add some other names from the national literary canon, such as the poets of modernism of 1922, Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade, to whom we owe original theories on national culture, still fruitful for contemporary anthropology. Brazil has also been one of the privileged lands of several generations of foreign ethnographers and ethnologists who have sometimes influenced local scholarly practices, such as the Germans Karl von den Steinen and Curt Nimuendajù, or the Frenchmen Roger Bastide and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In addition to the authors and their works, it is also necessary to highlight the various centres of production of anthropological knowledge, as well as the scientific institutions, centres and associations that have built ethnographic collections and organized training courses. Similarly, research missions, conferences and journals allow us to rediscover personalities and matrices of anthropology that have now been forgotten. This work of analysing the formation of the anthropological field cannot, of course, be done without the study of the links between Brazilian and foreign researchers, as between scholars and institutions that actually precede the institutionalization of anthropology in Brazil. In this presentation of the “Histories of Anthropology in Brazil” as a research theme, the priority of creating an intellectual mapping also allows us to highlight the historical milestones and political events that have influenced the production of knowledge in general and anthropology in particular, both in terms of its actors and its centres of activity. In other words, space and time are the parameters of this mapping of anthropologies practised in Brazil from yesterday to nowadays, which can only be understood through their international connections. Without attempting to provide an exhaustive picture or synthesis, the dossiers that enrich this research programme are intended to identify paths and trajectories that BEROSE readers will follow in the order and direction they consider most appropriate, each one in turn being free to create new links and connections between them.

Stefania Capone
Fernanda Arêas Peixoto

This presentation is an abridged version of Capone, Stefania & Fernanda Arêas Peixoto, 2019. “Anthropologies in Brazil: A Short HistoricalIntroduction”, in BEROSE - International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

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