McGee, Boas and the organization of American Anthropology

I found this on the AAA website last week:

“The AAA has been a democratic organization since its beginning. Although Franz Boas had initially fought to restrict membership to an exclusive group of 40 “professional anthropologists,” the AAA’s first president. W. J. McGee, argued for a more inclusive membership embracing all those who expressed an interest in the discipline. McGee’s vision still guides the Association today. Business affairs, likewise comprehensive with 24 Councillors selected from the membership, and Executive Committee of 9 in 1902, are now conducted by a 38-member Section Assembly representing each of the Association’s constituent Sections, and a 17-member Executive Board. This increase in representation reflects the growing diversity of the discipline, which is viewed by many as a source of strength for the Association and for American anthropology as a whole. In Richard B. Woodbury’s words, “. . .the AAA has remained the central society for the discipline, addressing with considerable success its increasingly varied interests and speaking for anthropology to other fields, the federal and state governments, and the public” (Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, 1994). aaalogo15notext

As one suspects, the story of the AAA’s founding is more complex than a blurb on the AAA website can get over. But, it is true that Boas was in favor of organizing a core group of professional anthropologists to govern the AAA and was opposed McGee’s suggestion of a confederation of groups which would include local organizations and interested amateurs. As was the case throughout his life, Boas’ main concern was with professionalizing anthropology and securing anthropology a durable place in the academy. At stake was this question: Should the mainline of anthropological thought lie within academic departments or within a confederation of organizations which include a large contingent of interested amateurs?

One of the complexities missing from the AAA’s web verbiage is any mention of the context of the philosophical conflict between Boas and McGee. McGee was an autodidact who made important contributions to the geology of the American West, invented several agricultural implements and was instrumental in the development of irrigated agriculture. But, he was also a horrifically amateurish reader of evolutionary theory and the inventor of “The Human Zoo.”  And it was this McGee that Boas was reacting against when he proposed  tight control on membership and worked to displace evolution with culture. Despite the AAA’s protests to the contrary, it is clear that through its history the AAA has been a professional organization more in line with both the organizational and philosophical vision of Boas than with McGee, a fact which lends a bit of irony to the oedipal rage in the quote above.