Transnational Circulations and Social Uses of Anthropological Knowledge in the Americas

Directed by

  • Thomas Grillot (CNRS)
  • Sara Le Menestrel (CNRS)


This research theme explores the making of anthropological knowledge by focusing on its circulation within and outside the academic sphere. Born from a reflection developed within the research centre Mondes américains (UMR 8130, EHESS/CNRS), it fosters a pan-American approach. (...)

The aim is to account for the interactions, negotiations, reinterpretations, and rivalries of the various social actors involved in the making of knowledge and its uses in and beyond academic anthropology. To evoke ‘anthropological knowledge’ is to propose following the circulation of concepts and theories about humankind, as well as questionnaires and methods. This circulation takes place within academic anthropology and its disciplinary subfields, namely cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology, but also between anthropology and other sciences, from medicine to psychology, from ethnobotany to sociology. It encompasses non-academic spheres, for example museums, the general press, and NGOs. We intend to examine the appropriations of which anthropology has been the object, but also the ways in which the discipline has been constituted in the confrontation with vernacular knowledge, practical knowledge, and knowledge rooted in rival or divergent theoretical approaches.

This plural approach is justified by the founding heterogeneity of the discipline, as well as by the early and varied application of anthropology in American societies. Whatever its institutional import in the different countries, anthropology has considered the specificity of indigenous populations, but also of urban societies born of the colonisation of the continent. Therefore, it has served extremely varied projects: strengthening nation-building, supporting the development of collective rights specific to certain groups, legitimising minority or deviant practices, etc. Our theme is thus oriented towards various social situations ranging from education to religious proselytism, from developmental humanitarian expertise to the preservation of tangible or intangible cultural heritage, from indigenist activism to the fight against poverty. The aim is to identify the actors and networks that contribute to the production of anthropological knowledge and to examine the way in which they are mobilised. The study of the role played by experts from the USA in both North and South America is an important starting point, inseparable from the attention that should be given to the circulation of different kinds of groups (economic migrants, students, economic and intellectual elites) between the north and the south of the American continent, but also within Spanish-speaking or Latin America: the Andes and the Amazon, the Caribbean and the US-Mexican border.

Our interests include the uses of anthropological knowledge by official authorities as a tool for validation and legitimisation of public policies, the contrasting political trends of ‘public’ or ‘applied’ anthropology, and the impact of anthropological concepts and paradigms on ethnic and other identity claims.

The articles published in the framework of this research theme focus on institutions that have played a pivotal role in the circulation of anthropological knowledge in the Americas, as places of encounter and exchange between teachers, missionaries, activists, scholars and the general public. Universities, museums, festivals, private foundations, national programmes for the collection and promotion of folklore, training centres, learned societies, universal exhibitions, anthropological expeditions, development companies and networks of scientific sociability can all be studied as drivers of this kind of circulation. We note, for example, the decisive role played by the American Wenner-Gren, Melon and Rockefeller foundations in the development of the discipline, in the transnational circulation of paradigms, and in the legitimisation of researchers and students through the funding allocated. We will also look at short-term events contributing to the transmission of knowledge: intensive courses, workshops, seminars, meetings, training camps, religious assemblies and summer schools are places where disparate activities coexist, such as artistic and therapeutic practices, spiritual and bodily experiences, anthropological and psychological reflections. These encounters allow participants to share bibliographical references, an overarching rhetoric and even the names of influential figures in the history of anthropological thought, all of which contribute to the development of a common language and the circulation of a specific form of knowledge.

Our approach makes it possible to highlight the importance of particular venues as fundamental meeting places, (for example, the Esalen Institute in California), of missionary institutions as global enterprises (for example, the Summer Institute of Linguistics), and of certain research sites (such as the Vicos hacienda, which was taken over by Cornell University in the 1960s and 1970s) as favouring the combination of applied anthropology with the training of doctoral students and experts in development.

The research theme is also focused on individual trajectories and pathways (or groups of individuals whose trajectories intersect). This is a particularly fruitful methodological tool in the situational perspective adopted here, as it offers the possibility of following the involvement of certain individuals in several spheres of social life, avoiding confining them to a specific role or context. It makes it possible to follow their paths and to distinguish the variety of ‘social roles’ that individuals take on in the course of their lives, as scholars, experts, activists or practitioners. We are interested in the conjunction of these various roles, in the ways in which different statuses influence the position assigned or refused to these actors in the endorsement or marginalisation of their praxis according to the contexts taken into account (academic, political, religious, etc.).

These crossings allow us to better grasp the opportunities and constraints at play in the production of anthropological knowledge in the Americas. This approach concerns both influential anthropologists who founded departments and sub-disciplines (for example, John Murra, who played a key role in the creation of Latin American Studies) and lesser-known figures with no academic ties, such as the Brazilian indigenous evangelical pastor Henrique Terena, leader of the Conselho Nacional de Pastores e Líderes Evangélicos Indígenas, at the forefront of a synthesis of evangelical Christianity and the defence of indigenous rights in Amazonia. Entries that cross-reference the itineraries of actors from different countries (e.g. schoolteachers deploying both folkloric expertise and environmental activism) also fit perfectly into our interests.

Thomas Grillot (CNRS)
Sara Le Menestrel (CNRS)

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