The “White Man’s Burden” and the history of anthropology

Welcome to this post about the the history of anthropology. The famous writer Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ and it characterises perfectly the attitudes of his time. And many early anthropologists shared his attitude towards the ‘primitive’ peoples of the world.

Rudyard Kipling's poem characterises the attitudes of his time
A Portrait of Rudyard Kipling by John Collier. Poem by Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White Man’s Burden-
Send forth the best ye breed-
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild-
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

In the previous post, I ended with a sneak peak at anthropology’s timeline, promising a more detailed look at its complicated history. This post is quite long, so I’ve included a brief timeline below in case you prefer to breeze through it!

The complicated history of anthropology

Anthropology, like so many disciplines, has a complicated past. If you take a look at the timeline, you may even recognise that some of the attitudes of early anthropologists seem familiar because they are still prevalent today… not among the majority of anthropologists, but among all of the people we interact with out there in daily life and cyberspace, including ourselves.

For example, early anthropologists were primarily interested in so-called ‘exotic’ or ‘primitive’ societies, and they often romanticised the ‘simple’ way of life of these societies. But by the 20th century, anthropologists began to realise that this view is not only short-sighted, but that it reduced many people around the world to a sort of infantile or less ‘civilised’ stereotype. What this might look like today is the romanticised image of Native Americans in media. Anthropologist and Native history researcher Dr David G Lewis says that he encounters it everywhere:

In my experience most people are still romanticizing Native peoples. People still believe that Indians only live on reservations, that we all hunted bison, and the tipi is our only housing, that we cannot handle our alcohol, that we are stoic, that we speak in stilted speaking patterns, and that we all know each other. To many we are the people of the forest and commune with nature on a daily basis.

In looking at Anthropology’s past, some of the attitudes will be ugly and others not so much. Each anthropologist in the timeline contributed something important to the discipline, but it came with negative consequences. The attitude of the ‘white man’s burden’ was especially negative and continues to affect societies around the world today.

So why do we need to remember them and draw attention to their ideas? My answer is that it’s all about context and self-reflection. The main reason for sharing is to recognise the harmful attitudes that came with anthropology and that continue to show up today so that we might change them

Proto-anthropology, 440 BC to Mid-1700s

A romanticised interest in the customs of different societies goes back all the way to the Greek historian Herodotus, as far as we know anyway, and he wrote about Persian customs. It may be that there have been individuals throughout human history that have been interested in describing the customs of different groups of people. Other prominent figures that we do know about include Marco Polo at the end of the 13th century and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the early 1700s.


The Travels of Marco Polo

The reason the writings of these men fall under ‘proto-anthropology’ is because, for one, they were not anthropologists. Anthropology examines the human condition in particular times and places and develops theories about what it means to be a human being, but ‘proto-anthropologists’ had no interest in theory. They were primarily concerned with so-called “exotic” societies and with documenting and reporting their customs, which is not anthropology but would be important to the development of research methods in anthropology.

The Birth of Anthropology, mid to late 1800s

The “Birth of Anthropology” could have been a film with a similar vibe to the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” The people behind the origins of anthropology…namely white Europeans…would have set out to show the “racial superiority” of white people or the “white man’s burden” of civilising “primitive” societies. This so-called burden reared its ugly head throughout the colonisation of societies and nations around the world.

Moreover, the British empire during this time was the largest empire in the world, with over 400 million people. There was a strong belief in the concept of racial superiority, which was supported by pseudo-science. Evolutionism, the prevailing theory of anthropologists at the time (not to be confused with the theory of evolution), claimed that societies evolved in a progressive manner, from simple to complex states. This belief supported imperialist efforts to ‘civilise’ other societies, which became ‘the white man’s burden.’ While Evolutionism was accepted by Victorian ‘armchair’ anthropologists, it is NOT an accepted theory in anthropology today.

An American cartoonist in 1888 depicted John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent.

Evolutionism was in some ways a response to the belief that so-called ‘primitive’ societies were examples of cultural degeneration. This belief in degeneration led to eugenics as a method for preserving ‘superior’ races and eliminating ‘inferior’ ones. Two men, Edward Tylor and James Frazer, developed the theory of evolutionism to refute the belief in cultural degeneration. They believed that ‘progress’ was possible for all humans and that all humans were ‘civilised,’ but to different degrees. We all started off as hunter-gatherers, for example, and some societies ‘evolved’ more rapidly through different stages.


These stages were often in threes: from ‘savagery’ through ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilisation,’ or from ‘magic’ through ‘religion’ to ‘science.’ Alternatively, the American Lewis Henry Morgan proposed that humans progressed from matriarchy to patriarchy, from ‘primitive promiscuity’ where the father is unknown to controlled sexuality where the father is known. These men are now called ‘armchair’ anthropologists because they mostly relied on traveller accounts of other societies instead of doing their own fieldwork. Even when they did conduct fieldwork, they interpreted the customs and behaviour of the people they met through an imperialistic and sometimes Christian frame of reference.

Do you recognise any Victorian attitudes that continue to make their mark in today’s media and politics?

Modern Anthropology, early 1900s to present

Franz Boas was a German migrant to the United States and is called the father of American anthropology. He developed a four-field approach to studying human culture and society:

Biological anthropology
Linguistic anthropology
Social/cultural anthropology

Franz Boas argued that there is no grand unifying theory of culture, that every society has its own history and that, importantly, societies cannot be described as more ‘civilised’ or more ‘primitive’ than any other. In order to understand the beliefs and behaviours of any society, one has to do so in context of time and place. Consequently, one of his most important contributions to modern anthropology was establishing cultural relativism as a method for conducting fieldwork.

Yuquot Whalers' Shrine or prayer house for a First Nations tribe, which had been located in Canada for centuries until Franz Boas acquired it for an American museum. Boas was criticised for this practice of 'salvage anthropology', or collecting of indigenous artefacts and human remains. Boas's collaborator was several times told no by the elders of the tribe, but Boas was relentless enough to keep pushing until he got what he wanted.

Even though Boas was incredibly important in developing our current model of anthropology, new problems would arise as a result. Boas was instrumental in debunking the idea of scientific racism: racial superiority could not be supported by science. In fact, he argued that there was no biological or scientific basis for racism, that race itself had no biological reality. This led to social anthropology becoming more and more ‘colour-blind’, which meant that anthropologists focused more on critiquing race as a scientific concept rather than investigating people’s actual beliefs and attitudes about race.

Perhaps they believed that if they could prove race did not exist and that it no longer mattered to our understanding of people, then racism would fade away. We know that it didn’t, and in many ways the concept of colour-blindness has contributed to racism because it means that we ignore its effects.

Fortunately, there are many anthropologists today that recognise the need to investigate attitudes towards race and the way racism manifests in society.

What do you think about the practice of ‘salvage anthropology’ as
indicated in the image caption above?

Other key figures in Anthropology

Bronislaw Malinowski: A Polish migrant to Britain, Malinowski is considered the father of modern fieldwork (so many fathers, right?). He developed the method of participant observation, which is one of the most important characteristics of anthropology. He spent two years in the Trobriand Islands, where his fieldwork involved learning the language and engaging in everyday life.

He famously stated:

The final goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose, briefly, to grasp the natives' point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.

Before Malinowski, there was no systematic approach to understanding culture or society, but it is now absolutely crucial to research methods.

However important he was to the development of anthropology –and he was especially important– Malinowski also had a very naïve and condescending view of the intelligence of the ‘natives’ he met on the Islands. He often described them in very negative terms in his personal diary, which he probably never meant to be published. I feel that the photograph below captures the essence of his relationship to the people on the island.

Bronislaw Malinowski conducted research on the Trobriand Island
Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand islanders

Do you think this photo is suggestive about how Malinowski related to the people on the island?

Margaret Mead: An American anthropologist, Mead was, in her time, considered to be the most famous anthropologist in the world. Consequently, she brought a lot of public visibility to anthropology and her work often challenged conventional norms in America.

Mead was more than a public intellectual; she was an icon. She was also an oracle, somebody that people turned to for opinions on everything from marijuana to nuclear war, sex to civil rights.

Mead’s research on gender roles, adolescence and sexuality were considered quite radical, and she was one of the first to argue that culture had a much more significant impact than biology on behaviour and gender.

Margaret Mead conducted research in Samoa
Margaret Mead conducting fieldwork in Samoa
We may say that many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of headdress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.

Because Mead argued that sexual norms in a society are culturally conditioned and not universal, her work was fairly controversial in America. The anthropologist Derek Freeman, for example, intensely criticised Mead’s work, arguing that her conclusions were wrong and accusing her for inspiring the 1960s sexual revolution. Despite the enormous impact Freeman’s criticism had on her reputation as an anthropologist, his own publications significantly misrepresented her work. Ultimately, his conclusions about her work were shown to be wrong.

Read more about this in Shankman’s book, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

Zora Neale Hurston: American writer and cultural anthropologist, Zora Hurston conducted much of her research in the American South. For example, she researched the traditions, history and folklore of small African-American communities in Florida.

Hurston originally studied English at Howard University and received an associate’s degree. She continued her studies at Barnard College of Columbia University and became the first black student to graduate. With a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, she continued her working alongside Franz Boas (her mentor), Ruth Benedict and fellow student Margaret Mead.

Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by.

From the introduction to ‘Mules and Men’ by Zora Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston collected African American folklore
Zora Neale Hurston playing the 'hountar', or mama drum
Zora Neale Hurston collected African American folklore
Hurston with Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown in Eastonville, Florida

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.


-Zora Neale Hurston

Claud Levi-Strauss: Life and death — light and dark — male and female — good and evil — us and them. Structuralism, applied to anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, argues that the human mind is structured in a particular way to interpret our reality through filters. He theorised that the human mind filters reality through binary opposites, that we understand a concept in relation to its opposite. We understand light in relation to dark, good in relation to evil, life in relation to death. He also argues that we have a need for the reconciliation of these opposites, and that we tend to find reconciliation through ritual and myth. Religious and burial customs reconcile life and death, marriage customs reconcile male and female. This begs the question that what if an individual identifies as non-binary? A structuralist might say that we only understand non-binary in relation to its opposite: binary.

The main pattern I see emerging throughout much of anthropology’s timeline is a sense of blind arrogance and naiveté on the part of most of these anthropologists. And it continues today in our ‘modern’ practices. This is deeply unethical and therefore really important to understand. Human digity should always be the number one priority in academic practice. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned one is – ignorance is not an acceptable exuse for unethical behaviour.




So, that’s all I have for today 🙂 A bit long-winded perhaps, and it took way too long to write.

The next post will be much less academic. I plan for most of my future posts to be less academic and more about my personal projects.



Next week, I plan to post a personal essay as part of a scholarship competition.

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