How ‘They’ Hijacked Anthropology

Early Man-natural history Museum

Perhaps the greatest shift in any academic field in the past 30 or 40 years has been in anthropology. Call it an epistemological paradigm shift away from science.

Three main influences led to this shift: One was the morphing of symbolic anthropology into interpretive anthropology under the influence of Clifford Geertz, who distanced himself from science and likened anthropology to literary criticism. The second was a Marxist and feminist commitment to political activism and advocacy. The third was the postmodern rejection of objectivity. The three influences merge, in that the removal of scientific knowledge as a goal opens the way for political activism and advocacy.

How Did Anthropology Change?

  • The goal of objectivity and the use of the insight of the cultural outsider were replaced by an exclusive belief in subjectivity and the bias of “positionality” of race, nationality, gender, religion, sexual preference, age, etc.
  • Knowledge of the author’s background through positional reflexivity would allow the reader to detect the author’s biases.
  • The responsibility of the researcher and the authority of the author were set aside in favor of local subjects’ voices and stories, so as to resolve what was called “the crisis of representation.”
  • The author’s anonymity and impersonality were substituted with autobiographical accounts of field research and the author’s experiences.
  • The search for scientific truth was deemed to be invalid because there was thought to be “many truths” of many actors, all stories equally valid.
  • The mandate of anthropology to study society and culture, and to find explanations of various forms has been negated in favor of the study of individuals and the reporting of their “stories.”
  • Scientific anthropology sought to discover social and cultural patterns, but this effort has been rejected because patterns and descriptive generalizations are deemed to be “essentialism” and “reification,” distorting “objectivist” and “positivistic”
  • The construction of theories and models to explain social and cultural similarities and differences has been abandoned because “master narratives” are deemed no longer acceptable.
  • The Enlightenment scientific epistemology as a means to discover reality is set aside and replaced by epistemological relativism that reflects “many realities.”
  • The scientific approach requiring systematic collection of standardized information through careful methodological techniques, now thought to be “positivistic,” has been jettisoned in favor of personal experiences and impressions of the researcher.
  • The seeking of objective scientific truth, and the establishment of authoritative knowledge, now deemed a futile effort for an impossible result, has been replaced by advocacy for the oppressed “subaltern,” by the activist anthropologist advancing the cause of favored categories of people.

Anthropology generally, if not every single anthropologist, has thus abandoned the quest for objective, scientific knowledge in favor of political advocacy and activism. This is seen clearly in feminist anthropology, which given that most cultural anthropologists are now females, is dominant in anthropological research and teaching in which women around the world are shown to be both victims and strong.

It is also seen in the neo-Leninist postcolonial theory, which posits that all structures and problems around the world, e.g., castes in India and tribes in Africa, have been caused by Western colonialism. This marvelously anti-historical theory allows blanket condemnation of the West and of capitalism, which appears to be the first priority of contemporary anthropologists. At the same time, celebrating cultural relativism, anthropologists refrain from condemning oppression and atrocities committed by non-Western powers, such as the oppression of women and ethnic cleansing of “infidels” in the Muslim world, and the imperialism of China in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Chinese Turkestan, and Tibet.

Anthropologists, including six of my Departmental colleagues and our Graduate Students Association, do exempt Jews from their cultural relativity, parading their antisemitism in their implacable condemnation of the Jewish national home of Israel, and in their apologetics for Palestinian terrorism. The half-million citizens recently murdered in Syria, however, fall under anthropological relativism and are never mentioned.

The rejection of scientific anthropology in favor of political advocacy and activism reflects an abandonment of academic responsibility replaced by moralizing and virtue signaling. Unfortunately, this devolution is not unique to anthropology but is representative of the state of the “social sciences,” humanities, education, and social work, and to a great degree of university administrations. Higher education has given up the attempt to understand the world and become little more than radical feminist and anti-Western political indoctrination.

Image: Early man – Natural History Museum


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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44 thoughts on “How ‘They’ Hijacked Anthropology

  1. Someone dislikes Post-Processualism. Well, as a Colin Renfrew man myself, and being trained by environmental determinists, I can sympathize. but at least in the CRM world, none of this applies.

  2. a few years back I took a look at the course offerings in Anthropology at UMASS and it was pretty horrifying. Pure Marxist critique, there was no true anthropological study offered.

  3. I have a degree in Anthropology from UMASS Amherst. Back in the early 90s I had classes with one of the earliest of the Marxist/Feminist/‘White Privilege’ peddlers. To be fair, she would engage in debate with me and not just attack me for disagreeing.

  4. I am a biological anthropologist, an osteologist, so undeniably a hard scientist (and yes I meant the joke as well). However, I was actually trained four-field because I am not young and I disagree with you entirely. What a surprise that the majority of the people who agree with your views are men! Color me surprised. Penis possession is not required to be a scientist as your undercurrent suggests. My field is dominated by women world wide and we are doing things the men of the previous generation only dreamed of. Sure, our slide shows are boring but our science is strong. We have learned so much more as a discipline by no longer subscribing to the idea that men’s voices are the only voices that matter when considering culture. We had half the picture until women went into the field. Literally 50% of how humans interact was lost to us with only male field workers, and guess what? Males did not have the authoritative right to all of the “answers.” You can’t call that science with a sample that biased. The world was bigger than we knew and more complex than we believed and instead of embracing all of our new wonders you are standing in the corner yelling at the sky. You are right, women have taken over the field and we are not sorry. We don’t misunderstand cultural relativism and we aren’t pushing a feminist agenda. We are pushing a human agenda because we are ANTHROpologists. We are interested in the human condition and that sometimes means we have to get involved. If we don’t, there will be no one left to study.

    1. So your argument is:
      Each gender is limited to understanding how their own gender interact so both genders are necessary to avoid bias.

      However now that women dominate the field and are not sorry, lets forget the negatives of domination by a single gender because our field is now normative and pushing a “human” political agenda to save the world.


      1. I doubt Alexis understands that she proved the author’s point.

        Anthropology was a shooting star. Almost extinguished now.

  5. Though in my experience, this doesn’t apply to many (or most) biological anthropologists. Scientific theory and methods is still central to this sub discipline.

  6. Well, yeah. But Franz Boas’s school, which dominated American anthropology for decades, was explicitly anti-Marxist. (Against the “stages” notion of human development, defended by Thomas Morgan, celebrated by Engels, Marx’s companion, in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”).

  7. Re: “Anthropologists, including six of my Departmental colleagues and our Graduate Students Association, do exempt Jews from their cultural relativity, parading their antisemitism in their implacable condemnation of the Jewish national home of Israel, and in their apologetics for Palestinian terrorism.”

    This is as dishonest as the concept “Islamophobia”: an attempt to conflate an ideology with a people.

    1. “parading their antisemitism in their implacable condemnation of the Jewish national home of Israel”

      Condemning Israel isn’t a form of racism – on the contrary. In any case, anthropology has surely been more philosemitic than antisemitic since the rise of the Boasian school. It’s hostile to Western civilization as a whole, not just one small outpost of it.

  8. Bought a half dozen of Professor Salzman’s books after reading this. Wish I’d come across him sooner.

  9. A thousand good causes for people to attach themselves to and they choose the Palestinians. One has to wonder why.

    As for cultural anthropology, my experience is that people only move away from the idea of objective truth when they know it is going to go against them. When folks think the research will bear them out, they cite it.

    1. A thousand good causes for people to attach themselves to and they choose the black South Africans. One has to wonder why.

    2. We know why. And don’t give an inch on the, “I’m just criticizing Israeli government policy” cover. We know what you really are.

      1. I definitely don’t claim to criticise Israeli government policy. Unlike South Africa, which merely had to change one law, introducing universal suffrage. Israel would have to change its fundamentally racist definition.

  10. Oh hell yes. Looked up my old anthropology department. Ten years later it had been absorbed into a Sociological school with womens studies and cultural studies. Complete staff changeover. No men. None. Considering how much those departments hated the anthropology department I can imagine the curriculum now.

  11. Thank you for speaking truth to power, and speaking it so articulately. The social anthropology I studied, and practiced for decades, is no longer recognizable in academia. Nor are the products of current anthropology departments adequately prepared for real-world issues, or for careers outside a small, and declining field.

  12. Science, in general, has been hijacked by political activism. It started with Darwin and has continued at a rapid pace. Now according to left-wing wackos gender is fluid, you can change from a man to a woman on a whim. They tell us being transgender is normal. This is the same science that brought us global warming. Or the geology that says fracturing causes earthquakes. All of their theories go directly against biology, anatomy, geology, physiology and other life sciences. Psychology has especially been jacked. The only science that considers anti-social deviant behavior as normal.

  13. Professor Salzman just descibed my exact observations and conclusions made during my time in an anthropology department in the mid-90s. The physical and archeological disciplines trend more toward science but the social side, like it’s twin sociology, had nothing to do with with science or the scientific method.

  14. Patty, what a hairy troll you’ve become! Miffed that they didn’t give you credit for being in the article’s opening graphic? Now, try to refute something logically vs ad hominimly. Best regards.

  15. Our universities are busily self-selecting the institutions and fields of study with which civilization can dispense. Institutions which produce no worthwhile research, and which teach nothing but nonsense will wither and die. Departments with the same shortcomings will close. All these bastions of lunacy depend upon the federal student loan program and the utter imbecility of those who take out large loans to be indoctrinated so as to be unemployable. Neither is going to go on much longer. Then the painful reality that the demand in a free market for cultural anthropologists and their ilk is nil will become painfully apparent. Evergreen University is a harbinger.

  16. “Knowledge of the author’s background through positional reflexivity would allow the reader to detect the author’s…”

    The author’s what? Something was omitted.

  17. I’d recommend you avoid your feckless colleagues for a month, or six. The loon left will hold a grudge when called out, as it’s so rare.

    Well done.

    Go Bears!

  18. Kevin MacDonald deals more honestly with how and why the study of anthropology was changed. What Salzman fingers is downstream from that.

    1. Good reply. You’re referring to “The Culture of Critique”, especially the section about Boasian anthropology.

  19. Dr.Salzman, as a MA student in late ‘90’s and coming from the studio arts I was shocked how different the academic side of (visual) art was taught, had nothing to do with the artist per se, but ‘privileged’ (my word) any stray opinion (and my I found many opportunistic, self-serving, self-referential, narcissistic, oh let’s say delirious opinions cast as ‘expert’ interpretation and analysis) that was larded throughout every era of Art History, from Prehistory to yesterday’s PoMo delicacy. Somewhere in those torturous three years of grad school I determined NOT to pursue the full PhD (I need to be with this assortment of lunatics why?) but teach on the community college level where I am likely the only art voice my students will have and I will approach visual literacy as critical thinking meaning we start with the artists’ context first, their motivations first, they should not know my politics, my cat stories, my Chelsea Handler version of art history, but the wealth of research that USED to be done before the rot set in sometime in the 70’s (apparently) when academics assumed higher education was all about them and their world view. I left grad school (a very well known university, sad to say) with the understanding that ‘research’ and virtually everything produced academically over the last 4 decades is meaningless tripe. IF we survive as a culture in any way future generations will be aghast at the intellectual vacuity of these ‘scholars’!

  20. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics:

    1.) Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
    2.) Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
    3.) The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

  21. Genetics is going to take all interest from the leftist anthropologists. A combination of genetics and archeology will take the place of the subjective types.

  22. Greetings:

    This is a bit off you exact subject, but one of my favorite books is “Comanches: The History of a People” by T.R. Fehrenbach (of Texas). It was published back in the mid-70s. Recently, I came across the newest edition (mid-90s ???) which is entitled “Comanches: The Destruction of a People”.

    And so it goes.

  23. If Christianity was not itself in a deconstructive mode, this would be a great opportunity for the Church. If you want anthropology, I suggest you read Phillip E. Hughes: TRUE IMAGE: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ.

    The Judeo-Christian story of man as a unique creation bearing the image of the Creator is the only anthropology left to us: I pray we can recover it, together.

  24. The races and civilizations, of minimal accomplishment grasp at any straw to try to convince the modern world that race and civilization have nothing to do with the overwhelming superiority of western Civilization even when it is in their face every day of their lives. If we in the west are so bad and the vicious grotesque civilizations are so superior, they should put their money where their mouth is and go live there.

  25. Dr. Salzman, meet Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto. Dr. Peterson, please meet Dr. Salzman. You gentlemen have important things to discuss and treason to plot. Be about it please. The rest of us are counting on you.

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