Confronting the field: Tylor’s Anahuac and Victorian thought on human diversity

AHP readers may be interested in a new open-access piece in History of the Human Sciences: “Confronting the field: Tylor’s Anahuac and Victorian thought on human diversity,” Chiara Lacroix. Abstract:

Victorian anthropologists have been nicknamed ‘armchair anthropologists’. Yet some of them did set foot in the field. Edward Burnett Tylor’s first published work, Anahuac, or Mexico and the Mexicans, Ancient and Modern, described his youthful travels in Mexico. Tylor’s confrontation with the ‘field’ revealed significant in tensions between the different beliefs and attitudes that Tylor held towards Mexican society. Contrasts between the evidence of Mexico’s history (prior to European contact) and the present-day society of the 1850s led Tylor to see both progress and degeneration in Mexico, both ‘authentic’ culture and deep cultural mixture. In order to show that he was capable of uncovering the ‘authentic’ Mexican society, Tylor portrayed himself as a professional traveller-ethnographer, even though he was an anthropological novice. The embodied confrontation with the physical field also created tensions in Tylor’s relationship to Mexico. Despite Tylor’s mainly ethnocentric vision of foreign societies, his experiences of physically navigating the Mexican land and environment led him towards an empathetic relativism with respect to material culture and social practice. At the same time, his role as a traveller encouraged him to see the field as a fluid entity with no clear boundaries, even as he searched for a bounded and untouched Mexican society amidst cultural mixture. Drawing out the tensions resulting from a Victorian traveller’s confrontation with the foreign field allows for a more balanced engagement with the works of these Victorian scholars of human diversity, which have often been portrayed as naively ethnocentric.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.