Swans Commentary » swans.com September 20, 2010  



An Interview With Thomas Patterson


by Michael Barker





(Swans - September 20, 2010)   Thomas C. Patterson is Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of many books, a few of which include Inventing Western Civilization (Monthly Review Press, 1997), A Social History of Anthropology in the United States (Berg, 2001), and Marx's Ghost: Conversations with Archaeologists (Berg, 2003). For my review of Patterson's work on the impact of liberal foundations on the evolution of anthropology (taken from his book A Social History of Anthropology in the United States), see "Foundations and Anthropology in the United States." This interview was undertaken by e-mail in July 2010.

Michael Barker (MB):  You completed your Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964: why did you choose to undertake doctoral studies, and how did your initial intellectual studies relate to the evolution of anthropology as described in your book A Social History of Anthropology in the United States?

Thomas Patterson (TP):  I went to the newly opened campus of the University of California, Riverside in 1955 with the intention of majoring in science or engineering. I took physics, chemistry, and mathematics courses. I also had to fulfill breadth requirements, so I ended up taking an introductory anthropology course which filled a requirement and importantly met at a convenient time. Anthropology captured my interest in ways that the physical sciences had not, so I changed majors in order to explore its myriad perspectives on the human condition more thoroughly. Along the way, I took fascinating courses in history, genetics, and the theory of evolution. Over the course of two years, I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist and to undertake anthropological research on the historical anthropology of the Pacific.

I entered UC-Berkeley in the fall of 1960 and found that two of the archaeologists (John Rowe and Ted McCown) were interested in residual questions I had about history, archaeology, and the history of anthropology. I took a seminar in Peruvian archaeology from the former and had the opportunity to work on collections that had been made in coastal Peru at the turn of the century and to interact with the preparators and staff members in the museum. I did a research project on those materials that answered some questions and raised others that I wanted to pursue. I went to Peru in the summer of 1961 to formulate a dissertation project. I returned to Berkeley in the fall, and submitted an application to the Fulbright Program. In the spring of 1962, I received a year-long study grant and returned to Peru in July for thirteen months with a detour through Washington to attend a mandatory orientation program conducted by the State Department. I returned to Berkeley in the fall of 1963 to complete my dissertation and to begin teaching. Needless to say, it was an interesting time to be at Berkeley.

While I collected bibliographies and read a number of the histories of anthropology written during the period, I never really thought about writing about the history of anthropology and archaeology until the mid 1980s, after I had been teaching a required course at Temple University for about five or six years. My first foray was a piece that appeared in the American Anthropologist in 1986, which looked at the historical development of the archaeology in the United States including why it was established, who supported it, and why. I saw it as an alternative history to a volume celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Society for American Archaeology which was about to appear (American Archaeology: Past and Future..., edited by David Meltzer et al., 1986).

The paper was partly provoked by questions about the class structure and funding of archaeology that were posed over coffee by my history colleague and friend, Peter Gran. While I had a general answer to the question, there were lots of blanks that needed to be filled in more detail. This article provided the impetus to write a series of articles in the late 1980s and early '90s on the social history of archaeology in the United States and Peru/Mexico as well as books on the social history of archaeology in the United States. These writing projects converged with another writing project that resulted from being "volunteered" by a displeased department chair to teach a newly instituted course on "Western intellectual heritage" that was required of all students at Temple University, that was designed by a committee, and that was intended to provide revenue to the university. It also resulted in a book, Inventing Western Civilization, that came from developing lectures that were meaningful for the students; a few years earlier, the director of the Western intellectual history program thanked me for my services and implored my chair to find someone else to teach in the program, because my message wasn't quite on target from his perspective.

MB:  When you were undertaking the research for this book were you surprised when you discovered the critical influence that foundations exerted on your field of study?

TP:  I don't think so. I had already spent about three years in Peru and had talked with a number of social scientist and humanities people from the United States and elsewhere who were engaged in research. My own at various points was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation who did not interfere in any way with what I was doing. The National Science Foundation was incredibly flexible when a student had to change his project. I knew that the kinds of work I wanted to do then would not be funded by Social Science Research Council or the Ford Foundations that had different interests and, in my view, were definitely not interested in what I wanted to do. Fulbright was also flexible and funded a wider range of projects than the private philanthropies. Their interests were a backdrop to wider issues about which I became more reflexive as I spent more time in Peru. In the United States, my awareness was heightened after Project Camelot in the mid 1960s, which was a sort of precursor to revelations in the late 1960s about the involvement of US social scientists in counter-insurgency research in Southeast Asia.

It is important to keep in mind that (1) there was a civil war in Peru from 1959 to 1965; (2) Peru had the largest contingent of Peace Corps volunteers of any country in the world; and (3) that land reform was one of the outcomes. US anthropologists were advisors or directors to the Peace Corps, and at least one US law professor worked on drafting land reform legislation in the late 1960s and early '70s.

When I was writing in the last half of the 1980s, I was reading Edward Berman's book on The Influence of Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations of American Foreign Policy; Robert Arnove's Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, and others like them.

MB:  As a result of publishing this book did you come across any criticisms from the academic and/or philanthropic community, and if so how did you deal with these?

TP:  A Social History of Anthropology in the United States received very positive reviews in professional journals in the Anglophone world. The one exception to these was an article by Herbert Lewis in Histories of Anthropology Annual, edited by Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach, vol. 1, pp. 99-113; Herb did not like the way that I (and others) had characterized the postwar era; that I had relied on Berman's (1983) statement about the kinds of research supported by foundations; the involvement of anthropology in government policy-making; and the extent to which Marxists thought was muted. I did not respond in writing largely because his characterizations are not sustained by statements made by anthropologists who were involved in policymaking or who muted the Marxist analytical categories they used during the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

MB:  Within anthropological circles, could you identify some of the most historically prominent critics of the funding practices of elite philanthropists? You cite a number of relevant individuals in your book, but perhaps you are also aware of scholars who tended to keep their criticism off the public record.

TP:  I think David Price has written a number of thoughtful articles and two books about anthropology during the Second World War and the Cold War, using Freedom of Information Act materials he has gathered. He certainly situates the practices of some anthropologists, their interactions with the government and with funding agencies. There is some innuendo and gossip about who is doing what for whom -- and some of it may be true, but I don't want to perpetuate it.

MB:  How do you view the work of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research vis-a-vis the work of major liberal foundations?

TP:  I have always found the Wenner-Gren Foundation to be incredibly helpful. I would think that Sydel Silverman, who was president of the foundation for a number of years, would have interesting thoughts about this question. She is the first person I would ask. (1)

MB:  In your book you talk about the linkages between counterinsurgency and anthropology: could you comment on the current nature of these connections and what is being done to address this issue by concerned anthropologists?

TP:  There is a Committee of Concerned Anthropologists that has once again questioned the ethics of the participation of anthropologists in counter-insurgency, "human-terrain," and "imbedded." It is reminiscent of the late 1960s and early '70s.

MB:  Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

TP:  I think liberal academics are afraid of being seen as "biting the hand that feeds them." If they publicly criticized the research agendas of this or that foundation, then the funding for their research would be adversely affected. If the policies of the foundation are so bad, then one alternative is not to have one's name affiliated with the foundation by accepting money from it. This is a choice that a number of scholars have made in the last forty years.

MB:  Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Edward Berman's and Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

TP:  I haven't kept up with Berman's more recent work and am not familiar with Roelof's work, so I can't comment on them. I can say that I found Berman's work in the 1980s to be insightful and useful. He and others, including historian of anthropology George Stocking, helped to shape my own views about philanthropic work in anthropology.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  E-mail Exchange with Sydel Silverman (July 2010):

Michael Barker (MB):  Earlier this month [July 2010] I interviewed Professor Thomas Patterson about his thoughts on the influence of liberal foundations on the history of anthropology in the United States. One of my questions was: "How do you view the work of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research vis-a-vis the work of major liberal foundations?" Professor Patterson answered: "I have always found the Wenner-Gren Foundation to be incredibly helpful. I would think that Sydel Silverman, who was president of the foundation for a number of years, would have interesting thoughts about this question. She is the first person I would ask."

Therefore, I am writing to you in the hope that you might be able to shed some more light upon this question. With regard to the major liberal foundations I am thinking of the big three; and I am especially interested in the critical literature that deals with these foundations, particularly the work of Robert Arnove and Edward Berman.

Sydel Silverman (SS):  I find it difficult to give you any kind of response because I don't really know what you're asking. I'm not even sure what you mean by liberal foundations. And how you think Wenner-Gren is/was isn't/wasn't in that category. You'll have to give me some more guidance. Is there something that you've written that I can see? I'm afraid I don't know the "critical literature" that you mention, so that doesn't help me. What exactly are your research questions?

MB:  In his book, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States (Berg 2001), Thomas Patterson provides a detailed examination of the influence that philanthropy had on the evolution of academia in the twentieth century. Amongst other things he highlights how the big three liberal foundations (the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations) served to consolidate capitalist hegemony over anthropological research. Thus my aforementioned question was specifically referring to how the work of these big three foundations might have influenced the activities of the Wenner-Gren Foundation. For example, did the Wenner-Gren Foundation ever collaborate with any of the big three foundations?

SS:  Wenner-Gren was always a very small player, started with an endowment of only about $2 million, and is still tiny compared to the big guys (something over $100 million today). Its distinctive approach was to focus on a single, very small discipline, provide very small amounts of funding (to start up a project, finish it, publish, etc.), on the principle that a little bit of money can go a long way if it fills a real need of the scholar in a timely way, with maximum flexibility as to where the funds would go and minimal bureaucratic overload (simple application process and accounting, trusting the integrity of its grantees). Wenner-Gren has always supported a variety of programs within its modest budget: research grants, conferences, support of fledgling associations, dissertation assistance, fellowships for Third World graduate students, and publications (including the journal Current Anthropology). Its view was that it could fill niches not covered by the large foundations with small-scale assistance. I doubt that the big foundations ever paid much attention to what Wenner-Gren was doing.

Because Wenner-Gren was all about anthropology, and primarily basic research, there was rarely much congruence with what the big guys were doing. During my tenure, I made an effort to create contacts among all the funders of anthropology (by then dominated by National Science Foundation), and occasionally we co-sponsored conferences or supported different aspects of a particular project.

The other thing about Wenner-Gren that doesn't fit Tom's analysis is that it was always driven by the anthropologists themselves, who proposed areas of funding, evaluated applications, and advised the staff. The board of trustees (originally directors), which by design did not include anthropologists so as to avoid the appearance of promoting someone's own agenda, mainly handled investment and financial matters and did not determine the content of any project or activity. (The same holds today.) My impression always was that the big foundations started out with their own ideas of what they wanted to achieve, then invited scholars and others to fit into them. Wenner-Gren did the opposite: it started out with a commitment to anthropology in all its facets (and internationally) but looked at what anthropologists were actually doing or wanting to do and then decided what it thought most worthy and in need of support.

MB:  You note that you are not familiar with the "critical literature" that examines liberal foundations by the authors I mentioned: I was therefore wondering what sort of critical literature your work was informed by with respect to the funding practices of the big three foundations?

SS:  My understanding of other foundations is based on my experiences in 13 years as head of Wenner-Gren, when I of course kept up with what was going on in the funding world. I often had occasion to explain what WG was doing in relation to other foundations, so I gave the matter considerable thought. Not to defend my credentials, but over the years I served on advisory boards and committees of several funders other than Wenner-Gren and learned of their practices first-hand, not through a specific literature.  (back)


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Published September 20, 2010