In 1970, UCLA Professor and first-and-a-half wave Boasian Walter Goldschmitd published On becoming an anthropologist, a career pamphlet for students, for the American Anthropological Association. As some of us head back to school this week for that very purpose, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see what’s changed and what hasn’t. Incidentally, it makes an interesting comparison with the equivalent page on the AAA website. Nor am I the first one to bump into this ancient artefact in a dusty corner of a departmental office.


What is anthropology about in 1970?

Goldschmidt’s account of what anthropology is about, unsurprisingly, largely reflects his Boasian roots. Biological variation between populations is listed first among the objects of study, with a strong emphasis on biological inheritance. But these inherited characteristics, we are assured, don’t go beyond the physical. Indeed, “Anthropologists generally are now convinced that such important elements of behavior as intelligence, loyalty, artistic ability and the like do not vary from one population to another because of inherited differences. Instead, anthropologists believe that such differences can be explained by the total circumstances in which particular peoples grow up; that is, by what anthropologists call culture” (:1). Clearly, as late as 1970, Goldschmidt felt he had to adopt a defensive attitude when presenting Boasian anthropology’s environmental argument. Perhaps he would feel even more defensive today.

Goldschmidt’s attempt to define culture in the pamphlet is necessarily less extensive than Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s (1952) discussion of the concept, but clearly inspired by it and built on the same kitchen sink model. But then, we see an early appearance of the streamlined definition now used in much of the field, especially in evolutionary anthropology and in cultural transmission studies. “In other words, culture is learned behavior” (:2).

The line between our primate ancestors and humans is “the use of stone tools, and, presumably, the use of language” (:2). The rest of human history is one of progress through cultural evolution,  “the gradual increase of man’s skills and knowledge, culminating in the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, writing and the great technological progress that has been built on the basis of these arts” (:2). A progressivist rather than progressive view, and not sentiments that are likely to appear in today’s pamphlets on the nature of the discipline.

Goldschmidt’s description of “biologic or physical anthropology” foreshadows its later centrifugal relationship with the field. “As a matter of fact, they often work in departments of biology or schools of medicine, as well as in departments of anthropology. Physical anthropologists are interested in what makes humans unique and fundamentally different from “other creatures” (:3).

He is particularly optimistic about the work of the archaeologists who dig up and analyze the scraps of the past. “Ultimately, from many such careful studies the archaeologist will give us a complete picture of the unfolding of human history from when man first came onto earth up to modern times” (:4). His confidence and enthusiasm in our work are touching, but from the perspective of a half century, I must report, sadly misplaced.

His coverage of linguistic anthropology, which he calls linguistics (period) is also laudatory, and even scientifically imperialist. “For these reasons, linguistics is a very special branch of anthropology – so special and important that it has become a science of its own. Still, many linguists are anthropologists” (:4).

For cultural anthropology, he is keen to rectify the error that “anthropology is the study of primitive people” (:5). In fact, “Many anthropologists have studied modern American communities”, and “An increasing number of students enter anthropology with such interests” (:5). This section is perhaps where he differs most from the Boasian caricature, by putting unusual emphasis on comparative studies. Anthropologists seek to understand societies and compare them to understand man, and “The uniformities and consistencies are as important to understand as the differences” (:6).

How does one become an anthropologist in 1970?

First of all, one must complete graduate studies, initially general, and culminating in “original research into some special aspect of anthropology”, usually but not always by “going to a tribe or community” (:7), and which results in the PhD thesis.

The thesis, in 1970, is still considered a demonstration that “the individual is a scholar who can place new facts and explanations before the public”. Significantly, no emphasis is put on scholars talking to each other. The purpose of graduate study is clearly to generate scholars who serves the public rather than the discipline or the academic community itself.

Shockingly for modern readers, “About 80 anthropologists out of every 100 teach in colleges or universities” (:7). Ten work in museums. “The remaining ten percent may do a wide variety of things” (:8). By contrast, in 2000, the AAA reported that 36% of 1995 PhDs were on the tenure track. By that time 49% of 1990 PhDs were tenure track and 61% of 1986 PhDs. In 2018, an even larger proportion of our colleagues “do a wide variety of things”.

Among this wide variety of things is participation in policy setting in government. “The uses of anthropology can include techniques for manipulating the behaviour of peoples [note the plural], and there are some anthropologists who feel that it is improper to give advice to governments and corporations, the usual clients for such advice, when it is not also available to those with less power and influence in their societies” (:8).

In 1970, those normative 80 out of 100 who did not do a wide variety of things could expect a starting salary of “generally between nine and eleven thousand dollars per year”. Fortunately, “as their knowledge increases” (:8), so does the salary.

In 2000, those 36 out of 100 who did not do a wide variety of things could expect, according to the AAA, a starting salary of about 42k annually. The 1970 figures adjusted for inflation give a range of 40-48k, showing a certain lack of progress in anthropological earning power over those 30 years. My own tenure-track starting salary in 2003 works out to 42k exactly.

But, as Goldschmidt reminds us, and as all of us know, “anthropologists have not entered the profession because they want to get rich… Their real interest lies in the fascination of uncovering fact about human life; in seeing how the world differs, how it has grown to be what it is, and to understand that remarkable creature we call man” (:8-9).

Of course, this monastic devotion to the life of the mind and its attendant vow of poverty are much easier to bear when “They receive enough salary to live and to raise their families” (:8), presumably on one man’s income.


The anthropology of 1970 is more confident than its descendants in its identity, its mission, and its contribution to society. Still riding the high of the rejection of scientific racism and the gains of the civil rights movement, it is outward looking and engaged. Firmly ensconced in the basic structure of the post-war public university, nourished by the seemingly inexhaustible baby boom and the ample table scraps of cold-war science funding in a permanently bipolar strategic order, it looks confidently to a bright future.

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