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Anthropology: Pursuing the Quaker Connection

As a graduate student in dance anthropology at London’s Roehampton University, I had my first mid‐life crisis. Actually, make that my first quarter-life crisis; I was 23 at the time and sitting in the common room of the flat I shared with six other international students. My notes were spread out on the table before me, but as I attempted to draft my term paper (on the postcolonial critiques of anthropology) I began to wish I had chosen another discipline.

I had come to Roehampton as a professional tap dancer, an arts educator, an activist, a writer and a burgeoning Quaker with an undergraduate degree in History. Although friends and family members rarely understood why I’d wanted to pursue my MA in Dance Anthropology, it made perfect sense to me: anthropology is all about understanding, and if I wanted to use my love of the performing arts for the betterment of society, this seemed to me the most logical way to do it.

As I sifted through my notes, however, I began to have to my doubts. I had just uncovered some startling facts about my chosen field; as recently as 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency turned its recruitment efforts to members of the American Anthropological Association. This was hardly the first time; in 1969 and again in 1982 AAA passed resolutions to prevent such efforts, but the issue resurfaced in 2009. According to AAA’s website, “post‐9/11, everything is different. New federal fellowships aim to provide government support for graduate work in anthropology (and other fields helpful for understanding global cultures) in return for pledges of working for the government.” As explained in an article written for the BBC by journalist Kambiz Fattahi in 2007:

The U.S. military has developed a new programme known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) to study social groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.… As with many programmes, the Pentagon has partially outsourced the HTS, and defense contractor BAE Systems [the world’s third‐largest global defense company with annual sales in excess of £18.5 billion] hires the social scientists.

As I soon learned, the use of anthropological data for political aims was nothing new. In Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, written by Talal Asad in 1973, he argued that anthropology is also rooted in an unequal power encounter between the West and the developing world. It is this encounter that gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of universal understanding but also reinforces the inequalities in capacity between European and non‐European worlds.

At best, according to the 1968 critique by Kathleen Gough, “New Proposals for Anthropologists,” published in Current Anthropology, anthropology represented “social work and community development effort for non‐white peoples.” At its worst, the discipline functioned as “an instrument of domination,” according to Dell Hymes, in Reinventing Anthropology (1972).

I was shocked. I had made the switch from history to anthropology with little knowledge of anthropology’s seemingly tainted history. I thought anthropology was supposed to promote understanding, but according to everything I had discovered the discipline was little more than the handmaiden of empire, complicit in everything from Britain’s colonization of India to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and now Afghanistan and Iraq.

I went back to the library, determined to find out if it had always been this way. I recalled one of my professors having mentioned something about an English Quaker who helped to found the Ethnological Society of London, a forerunner of today’s Royal Anthropological Institute.

“What else can you tell me about him?” I asked.

She shook her head; obscure 19thcentury Quakers were not her forte. “You might find something about him in the history of the Institute. Check their website.”

I did, and thus began the renewal of my faith—not only in anthropology but in the Quaker ideals that led, in many ways, to the founding of the discipline.

In 1837, Quaker physician Thomas Hodgkin founded the British and Foreign Aborigines Protection Society with the hope that:

By diffusing correct information concerning the character and condition of the Aborigines, by appealing to the government or to Parliament when appeal is needed, and by bringing popular opinion to exert its proper influence in advancing the cause of justice … much may be done towards the diminution of these gigantic evils, the continuance of which reflects such deep dishonor on the British name.

As noted in Ronald Rainger’s 1980 article “Philanthropy and Science in the 1830s: The British and Foreign Aborigines Protection Society,” physician and naturalist Richard King questioned Hodgkin’s humanitarian aims and urged him to cultivate science for the sake of science. Furthermore, Rainger argues, the Ethnological Society of London, founded in part by King, Hodgkin, and the British Association, served to institutionalize the separation of scientific and philanthropic aims and the Société Ethnologique de Paris, founded in part by Hodgkin, focused on science, not philanthropy.

In 1842, the aims of the Aborigines Protection Society shifted from “protecting the defenseless” to recording their history. In his 1971 history, “What’s in a Name? The Origins of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1837‐ 71),” George W. Stocking noted that the Society passed a resolution essentially asserting that the best way to help aborigines was to study them. The newly formed Ethnological Society of London, comprising mainly Quaker‐Evangelical humanitarians, retained the Aborigines Protection Society’s motto of ab uno sanguine, (of one blood), and relied upon the ethnological tradition of “physical, linguistic, archaeological, and cultural” data to solve the “essentially historical problem of relating all human groups to a single original root.”

By contrast, the Anthropological Society of London, which was founded by James Hunt, concerned itself with the “basic nature of the study of man.” According to Stocking, the Society was composed of “radically racialist and in most cases marginally scientific ‘anthropologists’ ” concerned with “defining human races in the context of a pre‐Darwinian tradition of comparative anatomy.”

On the one hand, according to scholar Henrika Kuklick, were the monogenists, many of whom were abolitionists and maintained “all races derived from a single creation.” On the other hand were the polygenists, supporters of slavery who believed “diverse physical types of humankind were distinct species.” Kuklick argued that the creation of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1871 (which combined the Ethnological and Anthropological Societies) signaled the triumph of monogenism.

As I pored over the history of anthropology and Quakers in Britain, I felt a bit better—proud even. Clearly the “instrument of domination” didn’t start out that way. I finished my term paper, completed my MA dissertation a few months later, and returned to the United States where, after nearly three years of attendance, I became a member of Trenton (N.J.) Meeting.

I also joined the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, an independent group that seeks to promote ethical anthropology, and I was still interested in the connection between Quakers and the anthropological discipline. Did the Aborigines Protection Society have a U.S. counterpart? Were there any Quaker anthropologists besides Hodgkin and his colleagues?

Browsing the shelves of the Francis J. Cadbury Library in Philadelphia, I came across a series of books pertaining to Margaret Mead. Of course! Margaret Mead was a Quaker—at least her parents were. Although the woman responsible for bringing anthropology out of the academy and into the public consciousness would come to identify with the Episcopal Church, I couldn’t help but think her Quaker upbringing must have had some influence on her work.

Mead’s most famous monograph, Coming of Age in Samoa, was fraught with controversy, and critics questioned everything from her research methods to the very reasons she conducted her research. Many suspected that Mead arrived in the South Pacific with preconceived notions of what she would find and published only the data that supported her views.

Nonetheless, these “preconceived notions” sought to provide the U.S. public with an alternative way of conceptualizing adolescent sexuality and in doing so, suggested that a greater understanding of the world, as gained through anthropology, could prove beneficial even for “civilized” societies such as the pre‐ World War II United States.

My further research in the Cadbury Library yielded a resource kit produced by Canada’s Quaker Aboriginal Affairs Committee. Entitled “Aboriginal Rights, Peace and Justice,” the kit contained a guided meditation, historical information pertaining to the First Nations of Canada, a copy of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a list of current concerns and suggested actions.

I also found a volume by David Swatzler called A Friend amongst the Senecas: The Quaker Mission to Cornplanter’s People. The book chronicled the work of Henry Simmons, a Quaker missionary who worked among the Seneca in 1799. In many regards, Simmons’s work and writings deviated very little from the somewhat patronizing tone of the 18thcentury missionary. Towards the end of his time with the Seneca, he wrote:

Brothers, it has been of some satisfaction to us in riding through your town, to see the marks of industry taking place; to see that you are building better and warmer houses to live in; and to see that so much of your cleared land is planted with corn, potatoes, beans, squashes and cucumbers, etc. And, to see the article kept in good order.

Worth noting, however, is the statement that preceded Simmons’s remarks:

Brothers, you have now heard that our coming here was to see how you and our young men, who live among you, are getting along. We are glad the Good Spirit has favored us to meet you in health and [has] given us this opportunity of taking you by the hand, and brightening the chain of friendship.

Now brothers, we should like to hear from your own mouths whether or not you are entirely satisfied with our young men being amongst you.… We desire you to speak freely.

Although Simmons did not conceive of his work as anthropological in nature, his journal also contained many examples of ethnographic writing. In describing a “worship dance” performed to celebrate the community’s decision to ban alcohol from the village, Simmons wrote:

Men, women and children wearing their best apparel were dancing in a circle around a wooden image, or god. There seemed to be no designated dancers. Those, who had a mind to step into the ring, did so, facing the image. Two men were seated flat on the ground, face to face within the circle, engaged with musical instruments.… The men in the circle, always moving round at a slow pace, dance and shout greatly. The women dance chiefly by keeping their feet set close together and moving them sideways, first the toes and then the heels, as they move round with the men.

Swatzler points out that the eminent dance ethnographer Gertrude Kurath would later describe the same movement as “a smooth swivel twist of parallel feet.” Even though I knew nothing of Simmons or the 1799 Quaker mission prior to my research, I was familiar with the work of Kurath. My training in dance anthropology, I felt, was finally starting to make sense.

Returning to my graduate work, I recalled the name of an early African American anthropologist, St. Clair Drake, whom I had stumbled upon during earlier research on choreographer/ anthropologist Katherine Dunham. Drake, as it turned out, although not a Quaker, began his work in anthropology at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, which housed the Joint Committee of Race Relations, connected to both the Hicksite and the Orthodox Philadelphia yearly meetings. He worked under civil rights activist Rachel Davis DuBois on an “experiment” designed to counter racism.

Drake later wrote of himself as “Exhibit A” within DuBois’ research, but his career and association with Pendle Hill remain a testament to the humanitarian anthropology espoused by men such as Thomas Hodgkin. In an interview in 1988, Drake stated his belief in the discipline’s power to “aid in dissipating stereotypes about black people and in eliminating errors based on confusion between biological and environmental factors in accounting for observed racial differences.” A year earlier, in the forward to his 1987 monograph Black Folk Here and There: an Essay in History and Anthropology, Drake wrote, “May the eventual end of racism make any such champions for either side unnecessary.”

Turning to the Quaker Collection at Haverford College, I found a document in the papers of Anthony Benezet (1713‐ 1784) entitled “Observations of Indians.” In its proposal to compile a history of Native Americans for the sake of removing prejudices against them, the document echoed the desires of both Drake in the 20th century and Hodgkin in the 19th.

Further research revealed an Australian anthropologist, Olive Pink, who campaigned for the rights of Aboriginal Australians in the 1940s and ‘50s. Pink, a Quaker, conducted an anthropological study of the Arrernte and Warlpiri peoples to inform her work as an activist.

It wasn’t until I returned to the UK this past summer that I realized the true significance of my attempts to reconcile my beliefs as a Quaker and as a pacifist with the somewhat controversial history (and present‐day abuses) of my chosen field. Although the purpose of my trip to London centered on my studies, I decided to fly out two weeks early to attend the summer retreat of Britain’s Young Friends General Meeting.

I arrived at Heathrow on a Friday morning, headed up to Norwich Friends Meetinghouse, and spent my first 24 hours catching up with old friends. Due to the time zone differences, I was one of the last to crawl into my sleeping bag that night, and by Saturday afternoon I was in dire need of a little shut‐eye.

I found a quiet corner in the children’s library of the meetinghouse and closed my eyes, but not before my gaze fell upon a picture book entitled The Value of Understanding: The Story of Margaret Mead. Part of the somewhat dated children’s collection, the ValueTales Series, the book and its inclusion in the children’s library at a Quaker meetinghouse in Norwich served to erase all the doubts inspired by my quarter‐life crisis.

At times, anthropology has indeed functioned as an “instrument of domination,” but it didn’t start out that way, nor need it persist as the so‐called handmaiden of empire. There is hope, and as a relative newcomer to the Religious Society of Friends, I felt blessed to uncover this little‐known aspect of Quaker history. I can only hope that by “diffusing correct information” about our sisters and brothers around the world, anthropology and its associated emphasis on understanding may put an end to racism and cultural prejudices.

Kat Richter, a member of Trenton (N.J.) Meeting and a former intern at Friends Journal, holds an MA in Dance Anthropology. She recently published "Anthropology with an Agenda: Four Forgotten Dance Anthropologists" in the Journal of Research in Dance Education. She lives in Philadelphia and divides her time between writing and teaching dance.

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