In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Humanistic Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Works
  • Practice and Application
  • Creativity and Play

Anthropology Humanistic Anthropology
Frederic Gleach
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0101


Humanistic anthropology as a declared focus dates to the 1970s and particularly to the formation of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology (SHA) within the American Anthropological Association in 1974–1975, but its roots go back much further, and there are numerous earlier practitioners who can be recognized as working in the humanist tradition. Anthropology was not alone in marking this distinction: The Association for Humanist Sociology began in 1976, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1972. Each of these in its own way was responding to feelings that the larger disciplinary organizations were sacrificing their humanist components on the altar of a scientism seen as overly narrowing. This quite explicitly was not an antiscience or anti-intellectual move but one seeking to maintain a holistic balance that included space for a wider range of research and presentation strategies. While most scholars who wrote as humanistic anthropologists specifically rejected an antiscience perspective, there were those who rejected these more humanistic trends as overly interpretive, subjective, and unscientific. This debate continues in the discipline today, along with differing emphases on genre and content (e.g., balancing creative and analytical approaches in writing and film and whether and how to include products beyond the conventional academic genres such as musical or artistic expression). Although individuals differ in their focuses and emphases, in general, humanistic anthropology focuses on values and meanings in a holistic vision of humanity and its contexts. It is willing to draw on the creative humanities not only as data but as inspiration and genres for anthropological production, but it also demands the rigor of the sciences of humanity. It values work that bridges disciplinary splinterings to bring out the various processes of living as humans in the world, explicitly including the activities of anthropologists. It recognizes that human reality is a relational and processual thing-in-flux in which we creative primates actively participate and that our work has consequences in the world. It thus includes the potential to change social and physical environments through improved understandings of the diversely multicultural and polyvalent nature of our world. Trademarks of humanistic anthropology include emphases on writing and the creative use of language, with concern for the relevance of the discipline for the broader human world.

General Overviews

Because the foundation of humanistic anthropology as a named focus occurred both at the same time and in dialog with similar moves in other social sciences, and because there are relatively few published reflections or overviews, it is useful to also consider some of the cognates. Wilk 1991 and Anthropology and Humanism 1994 provide two overviews specifically within humanistic anthropology from a perspective well beyond its origins; Lee 1977 offers a more prospective vision from the founding period and is particularly interesting in comparison with Johnson 1989. Glass and Staude 1972 frames the parallel development of a named “humanistic sociology,” and Znaniecki 1969 collects earlier works that were influential in both disciplines.

  • Anthropology and Humanism 19.1 (1994).

    Special issue dedicated to “the place of humanism in anthropology today, liberally defined” (p. 3).

  • Glass, John F., and John R. Staude, eds. 1972. Humanistic society: Today’s challenge to sociology. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear.

    This collection highlights the sociohistorical context in which humanistic sociology, like humanistic anthropology, became a stated focus in the discipline.

  • Johnson, Norris Brock. 1989. Anthropology and the humanities: A reconsideration. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 14.3: 82–89.

    DOI: 10.1525/anhu.1989.14.3.82

    Discusses disciplinary, expressive, and developmental aspects of the humanities and anthropology’s relationships to them. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Lee, Alfred McClung. 1977. Humanism as demystification. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 2.1: 5–13.

    DOI: 10.1525/ahu.1977.2.1.5

    Discusses five related strands of humanism and their relevance for anthropology. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Wilk, Stan. 1991. Humanistic anthropology. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press.

    One of the founders of the SHA argues for anthropology as a “scientific humanism.”

  • Znaniecki, Florian. 1969. On humanistic sociology: Selected papers. Edited by Robert Bierstedt. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Collects the critical works of one of the forefathers of humanistic social science in the 20th century, developed in sociology but equally relevant to anthropology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.