The Contradictions of Cultural Reform: Progressive Colonial Anthropology in the US and Mexico, 1930-1975
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CitationGee, John. 2021. The Contradictions of Cultural Reform: Progressive Colonial Anthropology in the US and Mexico, 1930-1975. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation tells the history of progressive colonial anthropology, an ultimately-failed effort to establish cultural anthropologists as authoritative indigenous affairs policy experts in the Americas. Tracing this project in the US and Mexico from the 1930s to the 1980s, it explains how a group of anthropologists achieved the influence they sought and then lost it.
The anthropologists’ temporary success illustrates the powerful role that the concept of culture played in reconciling liberal nation-states to ethnic plurality in the twentieth century. Culture allowed state-builders and experts to conceive of an assimilation process that would be partial, but stable. In theory, targeted groups would adopt new political and economic institutions while maintaining core cultural values. The anthropologists’ failure, meanwhile, reveals the limits of expert authority. Anthropologists hoped to oversee such processes of cultural adaptation, but indigenous peoples asserted claims to cultural self-determination that entailed their own authority over cultural knowledge. By the late 20th century, these claims obligated anthropologists to take an auxiliary role.
Over the course of this history, the concept of culture increasingly took on the aesthetic qualities of “heritage” and the philosophical qualities of “world view.” These features make culture more distinct from other areas of life, and therefore easier both to contest and to essentialize. Consequently, cultural pluralism remains as live a debate in the present as it was a century ago.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37370234
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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