Victorian Anthropology

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

George W. Stocking, Jr., has been described by his peers as the foremost American historian of anthropology. His book Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968) was acclaimed as a major contribution to its field. In addition, Stocking has published many uncollected essays and has edited reissues of classic texts in anthropology. He is the editor of the “History of Anthropology,” an ongoing series of annual volumes inaugurated in 1983. Victorian Anthropology focuses on contesting notions of social and cultural evolution in nineteenth century British thought—the foundation of the modern discipline of social anthropology and the matrix for late twentieth century debates concerning evolution and human culture.

While Stocking’s emphasis, as his title indicates, is on the Victorian period, he also touches on eighteenth century antecedents of Victorian thought, and a substantial concluding chapter offers “A Prospective Retrospect: The Historical Significance of Victorian Anthropology (1880-1980).” The text is supplemented by notes, an extensive bibliography (more than fifty pages long) of references cited, and an index.

In his preface, Stocking recounts the long gestation of the book, which he began as early as 1969. In part, he acknowledges, the delay in its completion can be attributed to “a predisposition toward a certain style of historiography,” a style which he terms “multiple contextualization”:Briefly stated, my goal as historian is to be as interpretively suggestive as possible without knowingly doing violence to historical particulars. Although I aspire to more than “merely” narrative or descriptive history, I feel very strongly that historical generalizations must grow out of and directly relate to concrete historical materials. However, in seeking a more general understanding of historical phenomena, I am reluctant to commit (or to limit) myself to a single interpretive point of view. Deliberately eschewing the discussion of “causes,” I prefer instead to view historical phenomena in a variety of different “contexts.”

This self-description suggests the strengths of Victorian Anthropology. Stocking’s commitment to historical particulars produces a richly nuanced narrative that repeatedly challenges the reader’s preconceptions. Particularly arresting are his concise intellectual biographies of assorted social thinkers and amateur ethnologists, some of them well-known to posterity, others now quite obscure. These sketches, full of incongruous affinities and unpredictable twists and turns, provide a corrective to the distorting simplicities of textbook history; they are also simply a pleasure to read.

Stocking begins with a brief section entitled “Prologue: A Precipice in Time,” centering on the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” held in London in 1851. Housed in a vast, greenhouselike structure in Hyde Park, this was the first great international exposition. It was a testimony to the triumph of industrialization, an entryway to a world still foreign to millions in rural England...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

American Historical Review. XCII, April, 1987, p. 380.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, March 1, 1987, p. 22.

Science. CCXXXVII, September 18, 1987, p. 1516.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 18-24, 1987, p. 1391.