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Author: Marc Manganaro
Editors: R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms
Date: 2013
Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Modernism can generally be defined as a broad movement or set of movements, primarily though Page 554  |  Top of Articlenot exclusively in the arts, that, responding to cultural, material, and political changes in the Western world, engendered new forms of cultural and artistic expression in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the whole, modernist attitudes were those of revolt from traditional, Enlightenment (and, more recently, in Anglo-American contexts, “Victorian”) ways of viewing the world and expressing it through the arts, perhaps most pithily expressed in the poet Ezra Pound's dictum “Make it new!” World War I is generally viewed as the historical event that most profoundly gave rise to (or confirmed) disillusionment in the modern world order and in the orthodox and received ways of knowing that characterize modernist expression.

Modernist Currents in the Arts and Anthropology

Perhaps most saliently, modernism is characterized by the rejection of realism as an ideology and method and a predominance of skepticism and pessimism in philosophical outlook and in tone. Formally, modernism in the arts tends to promote and illustrate discontinuous (vs. continuous or consecutive) narrative form and innovation in modes of expression that promote subjective (rather than objective) states: specific movements and methods embodying those include, variously, stream of consciousness narrative, collage, spatialism, surrealism, cubism, Dadaism, expressionism, imagism, and primitivism. Artists considered most characteristically and prominently “modernist” include Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Max Ernst, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Langston Hughes.

If taken strictly in terms of periodization, modernist anthropology could be considered the social and cultural anthropology produced in roughly the first half of the 20th century, and as such it would coincide with the period in which anthropology as a field became institutionalized in universities and in departments of anthropology. This is, of course, also the time frame in which, in Anglo-American anthropology especially, the monograph became established as the normative discursive form of social and cultural anthropology and participant observation became the normative practice or methodology. Considered in terms of this time frame and the rise of these institutionalizing practices, the most prominent “modernist” anthropologists would include Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski in England and America and Marcel Mauss in France (acknowledging that the institutionalization of anthropology in France followed some trajectories quite different from those on the Anglo-American scene).

Given that modernism is generally defined as an artistic period or movement (or constellation of movements), it is worth considering how the rise and prevalence of modernism in the arts influenced or was related to the anthropology of that period. It is certainly the case that a number of anthropologists in the first decades of the 20th century in England and America either were practicing artists or styled themselves as such—note Malinowski's famous injunction in his notorious Diary, “I shall be the Conrad” of cultural anthropology, and also Ruth Benedict and Edward Sapir's avocation as poets. However, the interpenetration of modernist aesthetics with modern anthropology was considerably more pronounced within French anthropology, especially in the case of the Collège de Sociologie, wherein Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris, and others collectively engaged in what James Clifford has termed an “ethnographic surrealism” that was vitally related to the avant-garde aesthetic experimentation in Europe in the early decades of the century. As Clifford and Michele Richman note, the Collège's modernist aspects were hardly limited to literary styles or effects, but rather, the work, individually and collectively, of members of the Collège was vitally concerned with the role of myth and the sacred in collective life, issues that were also, arguably, central to much of modernist art. In the case of the Collège, what can be defined as “modernist” has less to do with the influence (of, say, modernist art on modernist anthropology) and more to do with a mutual interpenetration of prevalent modernist concerns and modes of expression: One could say that both artist and anthropologist, and artist as anthropologist, were vitally concerned with how to wrest individual and collective value and meaning out of the chaos and fragmentation of modern living.

On the Anglo-American scene, on the other hand, both the creators of modernist literature and subsequent critics and readers of modernist art emphasized the importance of the influence of anthropology on the arts, and on modernist literature in particular. Page 555  |  Top of ArticleThe most famous of those anthropological influences was that of James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough on modernist masterworks such as Eliot's poem The Waste Land and Joyce's novel Ulysses, both published in 1922. Eliot advertised his debt to Frazer both in the controversial “Notes” he appended to The Waste Land and in a very visible and highly quoted review (1923) he wrote of Ulysses, in which, Eliot noted, Joyce, with the aid of Frazer and others, had created a “mythical method” for modern art that would supplant the more traditional “narrative method” of creating literature that could make sense of modern life.

The modernist preoccupation (sometimes rising to obsession) with The Golden Bough and related evolutionary-oriented anthropological writings both greatly influenced and was a manifestation of a broad cultural and artistic fascination with the primitive and with ritual, which preoccupied and galvanized much of modernist art—both the visual arts (Picasso, Georges Braque, etc.) and the literary arts (Yeats, Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, and D. H. Lawrence, to name but a few). Theories of myth and ritual so prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in evolutionary anthropology had a great influence on modernist artists, by their own admission, having impacts on both formal and thematic aspects of their works. Such theories came from Frazer, certainly, but also from a wide range of anthropologists and classicists, perhaps most notably and influentially, on the Anglo-American scene, the Cambridge Hellenists or Ritualists, including Jane Harrison and F. M. Cornford, who asserted, often drawing from the archaeology of the period, a ritualist origin and basis for all art, ancient and modern. These theories came to have a great influence not only on modernist art but also on 20th-century theories of art, including, perhaps most prominently, the so-called myth criticism of the mid-20th century (see, e.g., the work of Joseph Campbell and Stanley Edgar Hyman) and arguably culminating in Northrop Frye's landmark work of literary criticism, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

Ironically, the literary works that most famously made the case for a modernist literature, The Waste Land and Ulysses, and were pronounced by Eliot as vitally influenced by Frazer's work, were published in the same year, 1922, in which Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific appeared, which more than any other single anthropological work changed the landscape of modern cultural anthropology. At the same moment that Eliot was making the case for the enormous influence of Frazer's brand of comparative evolutionism on modernist art, Malinowski's Argonauts was marking, and making, the shift away from evolutionism to functionalism in theory, as well as away from comparative organization and discourse to what would become the orthodox form of ethnography for decades to come: the monograph.

Now, of course, Malinowski was not the only or even the first anthropologist to put forward alternatives to evolutionary theory and to the comparative method. As early as the 1880s, Boas in America was arguing against the then prevalent evolutionary assumptions as those influenced, and organized, the comparative arrangement of artifacts in anthropological museums. However, not until Malinowski's Argonauts was there an ethnography that provided a model for the monograph, which would become the orthodox discursive form in cultural anthropology through much of the 20th century. Whereas the Frazerian comparative text provided the predominant anthropological inspiration for artistic modernism, especially in its freewheeling juxtapositions of ancient and modern, of “primitive” and “civilized,” and of magic and religion and science, within cultural anthropology itself, the modernist form par excellence was the monograph, which, in its mode of participant observation and its discursive casting of the ethnographer as narrator-hero, provided a much more narrative-based (vs. comparative based) discursive form. Just as artistic modernism (at least as articulated by Eliot) was moving from the conventional narrative method to the “mythical method,” modernism in anthropology was signified by a movement from the “mythical” and comparative methods of evolutionary anthropology to the more predominantly narrative method of the monograph, with its accounting of the experience in time of the ethnographer as hero.

A fundamental change occurring in anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the shift from a predominantly evolutionary view of culture hierarchically conceived (represented by a ladder, with “primitive culture” on the bottom rung and civilized British culture on the top rung) to a conception of “cultures,” which in the plural are conceived as not higher or lower but as distinct from one another—thus, cultural relativism was born. This dramatic shift, from hierarchically Page 556  |  Top of Articleconceived culture to relativistically regarded cultures, is witnessed in the decline in influence within anthropology of evolutionary anthropologists such as Frazer and Tylor (whose 1871 volume Primitive Culture is commonly seen as inaugurating cultural anthropology as a field) and the rise of resolutely nonevolutionary, field-based anthropologists such as Boas and his disciples in America (Robert Lowie, Margaret Mead, Sapir, Benedict, etc.) and Malinowski, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and others in England.

Cultural relativism as it emerged in the modern, or modernist, anthropology that dominated the anthropological scene for several decades (from roughly the early 1920s through the 1940s or later) was but one of a number of relativisms emerging out of the modern era that marked, or characterized, modernist thought and expression. In this regard, cultural relativism can be seen, in a very general sense, as one of a piece with Einstein's theory of relativity or the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, both of which sought to knock off balance received notions of cosmic or psychic stability, respectively, much as cultural relativism in anthropology sought to knock off balance received notions of cultural order.


Finally, an understanding of modernism generally, or within anthropology more specifically, cannot be complete without some consideration of postmodernism, as a consequent movement (or cluster of movements) of philosophical or artistic tendencies in the past century. There have been numerous definitions and debates within the academy over the meaning of postmodernism and its relation to modernism, which in part have been concerned about whether postmodernism is a period (“post”) following a modernist period and/or whether it is a set of attitudes and strategies that are located in or arise out of modernism (and modernity generally).

Acknowledging the above debates and complications, postmodernist anthropology generally can be defined as a period of anthropology following the canonical modernist anthropology of the first half of the 20th century and characterized by the embrace of, or in any case response to, various movements within the intellectual academy of the second half of the century, including structuralism (as articulated by Claude Lévi-Strauss most prominently), post-structuralism, semiotic anthropology (à la Clifford Geertz and others), feminist anthropology, and post-colonialist anthropology.

Somewhat more specifically, and in accord with the prevailing (and sometimes contesting) definitions and characteristics of postmodernism both within the academy and in contemporary culture generally—for example, postmodernism's sense of reflexivity and play, its loss of faith in organic form, its skepticism or even hyperawareness of representational practices, its skepticism or even hyperawareness of its own ties to imperialism and colonialism—postmodernist anthropology is often defined by and associated with the somewhat vaguely termed “ethnography as text movement.” That movement was inaugurated by James Clifford and George Marcus's influential collection Writing Culture (1986), which was followed by the similarly influential Women Writing Culture (Ruth Behar & Deborah Gordon, 1995), which incorporated a feminist framework and a set of methodologies into the former collection's proclivities toward the textual/discursive and imperial/colonial nature of anthropology. These and other writings in the past several decades have themselves provided the opportunity and impetus to revisit, reassess, and redefine not only the future of cultural anthropology but also modernism as a general cultural movement and as a period or set of tendencies within cultural anthropology.

Marc Manganaro

Further Readings

Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (Eds.). (1995). Women writing culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caughie, P. L. (Ed.). (2009). Disciplining modernism. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clifford, J. (1998). The predicament of culture: Twentieth-century ethnography, literature, and art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. (Eds.). (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Dettmar, K. J. (Ed.). (1992). Rereading the new: A backward glance at modernism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Eliot, T. S. (1971). The complete poems and plays, 1909–1950. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, & World.

———. (1975). Ulysses, order, and myth. In F. Kermode (Ed.), Selected prose of T. S. Eliot (pp. 175–178). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Ellmann, R., & Feidelson, C., Jr. (Eds.). (1965). The modern tradition: Backgrounds of modern literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Evans, B. (2005). Before cultures: The ethnographic imagination in American literature, 1865–1920. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Frazer, J. (1922). The golden bough. London, UK: Macmillan.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York, NY: Basic Books.

———. (1988). Works and lives: The anthropologist as author. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hegeman, S. (1999). Patterns for America: Modernism and the concept of culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joyce, J. (1986). Ulysses (H. Gabler, Ed.). New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published 1922)

Manganaro, M. (Ed.). (1990). Modernist anthropology: From fieldwork to text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

———. (2002). Culture, 1922: The emergence of a concept. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marcus, G. E., & Fischer, M. M. J. (Eds.). (1986). Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Pound, E. (1975). Selected prose, 1909–1965 (W. Cookson, Ed.). New York, NY: New Directions.

Richman, M. H. (2002). Sacred revolutions: Durkheim and the College de Sociologie. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Snyder, C. J. (2008). British fiction and cross-cultural encounters: Ethnographic modernism from Wells to Woolf. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stocking, G. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888–1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Tylor, E. B. (1958). Primitive culture. New York, NY: Harper & Row. (Original work published 1871)

Vickery, J. B. (1973). The literary impact of The Golden Bough. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3737500194