Anthropology and Colonialism (Part 2): Eugenics, Cultural Relativism and Structuralism

In the context of anthropology being a story of colonisation, anthropologists who emerged in the 20th century as a force for decolonial ends can be seen as historical disruptions. Or maybe they were just doing their discipline justice? Anthropology may have started out as the ethnological, categorical study of those deemed as savage – but in the 20th century it emerges as a discipline aimed at achieving justice through the unfalsifiable application of scientific method.

Franz Boas in Kwakwaka’wakw village, 1930.

This is certainly true of the work of Franz Boas, who began to have significant scholarly impact from the 1890s onwards. The school of American cultural anthropology that he formed, with its axiom of ‘cultural relativism’, was seminal in both the social and academic history of the Civil Rights movement, predating it by some decades, effectively laying the foundations for the scholastic dismantling of intellectual notions of racial superiority (Williams, 1996).

Varieties of scientific racism, including eugenics (the racial-genetic theory underpinning Nazi ideology), were extant in Western scholarship and popular discourse well up until the post-war period. It was common for intellectuals, scientists and cultural figures in Australia, Europe and the Americas to be fond of eugenics; to even posit it as the logical Darwinian conclusion of social science and biology. This included many academics at the University of Melbourne (Jones, 2011). It was only in 1945, when the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, that racial theory in science began to be properly discredited. Whilst it is true that many anthropologists were eugenicists, its important to understand that the earliest people discrediting scientific racism, like Boas, were also anthropologists.

The history of anthropology in Australia is full of all sorts of interesting stories; of racism and exploitation but also of justice, emancipation and cosmopolitan peace. In one important instance, the historical encounter between anthropologists A.P. Elkin and Donald Thomson, the fault line of colonialism and conscience was fought out within the discipline of anthropology itself (Moore, 2000).

Elkin was the elder and superior; an Anglican reverend and theologian-turned anthropologist who was head of the anthropology department at Sydney University in the 1930s. In his many decades of anthropological work, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Aboriginal culture and history, actually campaigned for many Aboriginal causes and, with the same logic of our appraisal of Tylor, could be considered progressive for his time. But, he was nonetheless truly an arch historical racist; a ‘racial scientist’ working for the state who used his power and influence to recommend the genocidal policy of Assimilation as a means of ‘protective’ subjugation of Indigenous people.

The Reverend A.P. Elkin

It was due to the advice and recommendation of men like him that Indigenous people in Australia saw their ultimate oppression in the nation-wide foundation of the concentration-camp-like mission system, the concurrent policy of child removal that resulted in the Stolen Generations, and many other historical crimes (Wise, 1996). This is surely an example of where anthropology was used and co-opted by Colonial governments to justify and intellectually weaponize their expansion of power, though Elkin and the other Assimilationists of his day may not have seen it like that.

Pushing against him, at great personal cost, was Donald Thomson, a younger anthropologist from here at the University of Melbourne. Thomson worked for many years in Arnhem Land with the Yolgnu community, originally setting out to resolve the Caledon Bay Crisis which he and Yolgnu elder Wonggu successfully achieved, halting the murderous advances of white vigilantes and saving the life of Dhakiyarr, a young Yolgnu man in Darwin who was to be wrongfully executed.

Wonggu and Donald Thomson

Thomson and Wonggu’s resolution of Caledon was a decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations (Reynolds, 1998). Thomson subsequently became a great friend of Wonggu and the Yolgnu community, and later the Pintupi community of Central Australia, assisting in both of their fights for justice. He used his position and skills as an anthropologist to help protect their respective communities and cultures against governmental intervention, assisting in relieving some of the trauma of their colonisation and making recommendations to parliament, among other things (Peterson, 2005). The kinds of recommendations he was making, and the insight he had into the desires of Indigenous Australian people to achieve justice and self-determination, was at least 40 years ahead of his time. He was working in the 1920s-30s, against legislation that lasted well into the 1970s.

Thomson is credited with being one of the first White Australians to fight against Assimilation policy and to champion respect and understanding of Indigenous Australians (Morphy, 2002). It was a fight which he tirelessly pursued all of his life against the power of older institutional racists like A.P Elkin, who did much to discredit and sabotage him. Elkin was ultimately successful and Thomson could do nothing to halt the advancement of Assimilation policy, yet he nonetheless helped Indigenous communities a great deal and through the discipline of anthropology as a participant observer of great conscience and respect. The film Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigurr, 2001) is based upon a series of his photos. There is today a small plaque dedicated to him on the Professor’s Walk at Melbourne University, and now an exhibition in Arts West of his photos.

In line with recent successful attempts at setting the University’s history right (Dobbin, 2015), I think the John Medley building, the seat of our anthropological faculty (named after a man whose own dubious involvement with racist eugenics is still historically contested [Copp, 2017]), should be renamed in his honour.

Thomson in many ways set a global precedent, as the anthropology of the early-to-mid 20th century saw a succession of radicalization in kind. The American tradition of cultural anthropology which Boas had initiated continued emancipatory work by revolutionizing ways of thinking about Indigenous people, with the writings of Boas’ students A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and others.

Kroeber, the father of Ursula Le Guin, is cited as an important early champion for the rights of Native Americans and achieved much public support through his sympathetic collaboration with Ishi, a Native American man from California. Their collaboration and Kroeber’s continuing work with Native American communities led to successful Indian land claims.

Kroeber and Ishi

Mead’s work in Samoa and Manus Island and her subsequent commentary as a public intellectual throughout the mid-20th century had many decolonial ends. She was often called to comment on issues of racism, and by providing scholarly anthropological context was able to disprove many racial categorical prejudices common in the popular discourse of her day (Mead, 1979). This includes her collaboration with the great James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (1971).

Boas eventually died in 1942 from a heart attack – at dinner, and in the arms of a young Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Lévi-Strauss had narrowly escaped Nazi persecution in wartime Europe, and arrived in the Americas in time to befriend Boas before witnessing his poetic demise. A highly educated and motivated man, he was really a product of the French intellectual tradition, and his subsequent influence of Boas’ cosmopolitan cultural anthropology, lay the groundwork for what was to come. He eventually travelled to the Amazon for fieldwork among several Indigenous communities, subsequently developing the anthropological theory of Structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, 1955). Dry and dense and drawing upon a range of semiological and mathematical theories, Structuralism was, beyond the vague doctrine of Boas’ cultural relativism, the first anthropological attempt to truly accept Indigenous knowledge systems on their own terms, reversing centuries of ‘savage’ interpretation (Bird-David, 1999).

Lévi-Strauss in the Amazon

Structuralism’s effect on anthropology, in the pursuit of flattening all racial and cultural hierarchies towards an understanding of the interconnectedness of all humanity, was powerful going into the 1960s and ’70s (Turner, 1999), as the Boassian school similarly continued. Many anthropologists at this time continued to dismantle and denaturalize racialized, colonial thinking about Others, towards more complex and respectful understandings of cultural difference (Sahlins, 1972; Geertz, 1973; Wagner, 1975).

Anthropology thusly embarked on the long historical journey of articulating cultural equality, by actively pushing against the force of Colonialism and scientific racism. We now arrive back at the time of Said’s Orientalism; the crisis that it caused in Western scholarship, the solutions posed in anthropology with Writing Culture, and the anthropological practices that we find today.

Please see the third and final part in this series!


Bird‐David, N. (1999) ‘”Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, in Current Anthropology. 40 (S1) Special Issue Culture, February 1999, S67-S91. The University of Chicago Press.

Copp, A. (2017) ‘Link to eugenics spur Melbourne universities to rename buildings’, in SBS News, 10th April, 2017. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <>

Dobbin, M. (2015) ‘Heart of darkness: Melbourne University’s racist professors’, in The Age, November 27, 2015. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <;

Friedman, P. K. (2014) ‘Boas and the Culture of Racism’, in Savage Minds, November 11, 2014. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <;

Jones, R. L. (2011) ‘Eugenics in Australia: The secret of Melbourne’s elite’, in The Conversation, September 21, 2011. Accessed 10th June, 2019 <;

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1955) Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Librairie Plon.

Mead, M & Baldwin, J. (1971) A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Mead, M. (1979) Margaret Mead, Some Personal Views. London: Walker Press.

Moore, J. (2000) Thomson of Arnhem Land (film). Sydney: ABC. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <>

Morphy, H. (2002) ‘Thomson, Donald Finlay Fergusson (1901–1970)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Peterson, N. (2005) Donald Thomson In Arnhem Land. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.

Reynolds, H. (1998) The Whispering in Our Hearts. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. New York: de Gruyter.

Turner, T. (2009) ‘The Crisis of Late Structuralism. Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Culture, Nature, Spirit, and Bodiliness’, in Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America. 7 (1) 3-42.

Williams, V.J. (1996) Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Wise, T. (1996) Elkin, Adolphus Peter (1891–1979)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

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