Historicizing Mid-Century American Anthropology of Korea

How to Cite

Oppenheim, R. (2021). Historicizing Mid-Century American Anthropology of Korea: Vincent S.R. Brandt, Stereoscopically. Transnational Asia, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.25615/ZTSE-MC46


Appearing originally in a turn-of-the-century lecture (cf. Whiteley 2004: 487), the prescription that Maitland, a legal historian, offered for an adjacent discipline became considerably more famous after it was taken up decades later by one of that discipline’s leading figures.  First in his 1950 Marett Lecture at Oxford, “Social Anthropology: Past and Present,” and subsequently in a 1961 address at the University of Manchester, “Anthropology and History,” E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1950: 123; 1961: 20) invoked Maitland in service of an argument that “social anthropology is a kind of historiography” and would best own up to that status.  In the face of a certain amount of opposition from both camps, Evans-Pritchard further contended that anthropological self-identification with the humanities rather than with the more positivist natural sciences might in turn enable a mutually fruitful dialogue in which historians, or at least those not singularly enamored with event-driven description for its own sake, might themselves feel more license to draw upon anthropological insights about pattern and social process.  While gallons of ink have continued to be spilled about this would-be interdisciplinary endeavor, there is some justification for arguing that Evans-Pritchard’s basic point won out.  Speaking just for anthropologists, few today would presume to write with the blithe disregard or even contempt for historical knowledge that some of his predecessors evinced.  Yet the “opportunity” to be “really empirical” that Evans-Pritchard (1950: 123) saw in his rethinking has not been exhausted, not least when it comes to the historicization of past anthropologies themselves.

            This article is intended as a prologue to a broader historical evaluation of the American social or cultural anthropology of Korea in the mid-20th century.  In terms of dates, I am referring to research conducted between 1945 and the late 1960s, albeit with some blurriness at the latter end.  In terms of research orientation, I mean to index scholarship that sought, at least in part, to provide basic ethnographic information on South Korean villages, scholarship that was rooted in long(ish)-term fieldwork and increasingly in dialogue, in a way previously impossible, with a professionalized academic Korean anthropology that had roughly similar goals.  This is to set aside some anthropology that took place in the context of the Korean War itself, which was both more instrumental in its purposes and considerably more rushed (see Oppenheim 2008, 2019).   In terms of the affordances of biography, there was a certain amount of foundational common experience of Korea among the American anthropologists of this era, accumulated during the war and the U.S. occupation in the southern zone that preceded it, as arguably there had been generational aspects to the American anthropology of Korea before 1945 (Oppenheim 2016: 9-10), and as the Peace Corps would launch several anthropological careers among the following cohort of scholars(Kim and Robinson 2020).  In terms of names, finally, leading representative figures include Cornelius Osgood, Eugene I. Knez, and Vincent S.R. Brandt.  Osgood’s summer 1947 research on Kanghwa-do, conducted under the auspices of the U.S. military occupation government, formed the basis of the initial ethnographic portion of his The Koreans and their Culture (Osgood 1951; see Biernatzki 1985).  Knez got his start in Korea as an officer in the occupation government in 1945 and did his first fieldwork in the Kimhae area in 1951, which became the basis of his dissertation (Knez 1959).  His initial research would not enjoy full publication, however, until decades later, supplemented by several follow-up studies (Knez 1997).  Brandt (2014: 1) dodged bullets as a U.S. diplomat in South Korea in 1952-53 and returned in 1966 for research as a graduate student in anthropology.

            In some respects, this mid-century American anthropology of Korea was not the most obvious candidate for Evans-Pritchard’s roughly contemporaneous critique.  Korea, of course, has a long, hyperliterate past and an indigenous historiography that foreign scholars have not failed to notice; Koreans had rarely been reckoned as among the “people without history,” to invoke the phrase that Eric Wolf (1982) would use sarcastically to characterize a central assumption of the European historical gaze.  Indeed, the academic discipline of history was (and is) much more central to the study of Korea in the United States than anthropology (cf. Lie 2016), to the extent that some anthropological scholars, such as Osgood (1951: 157-274), essentially reproduced long historical sections in their writings.  Yet it was nonetheless the case that village studies of Korea, no less than the social anthropology of Africa or Polynesia, often drew from the legacy of structural functionalism a bias toward the theorization of social homeostasis.  And when it did occur, conceptualization of ongoing economic, social, and cultural change in these anthropological works was often “mid-century modern,” American-style, which is to say that it was significantly constrained by modernization theory, with its model of and for social development that was just as streamlined and simplifying as 19th-century unilinear social evolutionism had been (see Pletsch 1981).

            At any rate, one of the powers of the history of anthropology is to render the opportunity that Evans-Pritchard sensed ever-present, available through a process of re-reading past anthropological works against the contexts of their making, the means and relations of their production, and their inclusions and exclusions, thus bringing about the further turn of the empiricist screw that he imagined possible.  An examination of the mid-century American anthropology of Korea and its leading figures through this lens reveals transnational histories of U.S. involvement that conditioned and enabled its making yet exist beyond or in the margins of ethnographic texts framed in terms of the interiority of Korean “society” or “culture” (cf. Lee in this issue).  Preliminarily, I would like to suggest that such a re-reading would be fruitful in the case of all three of the central figures I have noted, for Osgood, Knez, and Brandt alike.  For reasons of time (my own) and space (this essay), however, but also because of the limited feasibility of the sort of archival work that would be necessary fully to open up the work and careers of the first two during the Covid-19 fall of 2020 in which I write, I am going to focus here, by way of example, on Brandt.  His ethnography of the mid-century era, a classic in the field that, notwithstanding its brevity, has been the most conceptually portable and influential of works from the period, has now been joined by a memoir published forty years later, offering the expediency of reconsidering the pair together.

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