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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Scientific Racism and Cultural Evolutionism
  • Franz Boas and the Anthropological Critique of Race
  • Boasian Legacies in Anthropology
  • Africana Social Science
  • From Cultural Continuities to Diasporic Identities
  • Race, Nationalism, and Globalization
  • Indigeneity, Immigration, and Citizenship
  • Identity, Embodiment, and Self-Making
  • Technology and Genomics
  • The Return of Race Science
  • Physical Anthropology, Genetics, and Human Biological Variation
  • Anthropologies of Racial Capitalism and Global White Supremacy
  • Canon Formation and Citational Politics

Anthropology Race
Ryan Cecil Jobson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0206


The study of race has defined anthropology since its formalization as an academic discipline in the 19th century. The early history of academic anthropology and the wider human sciences is pervaded by efforts to draw a causal link between race and behavior, psychology, culture, or social organization. Enforcing a racial taxonomy in accordance with the system of classification developed by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, anthropologists assigned scientific value to arbitrary racial types. Since the genesis of the discipline, however, the concept of race has been challenged by an expansive roster of scholars in anthropology and the social sciences. To this end, scholars have assembled a vast archive of empirical data in the four traditional subfields of anthropology—sociocultural, linguistic, biological, and archaeological—to disprove biologically deterministic theories of race. Nonetheless, an investment in racial essentialism endures among select professional and popular anthropologists who have revived race as an explanatory mechanism for intelligence, ability, or genetic and biomedical outcomes. In turn, debates continue over the salience of race as an object of anthropological inquiry and analysis. While some harken to earlier anthropological critiques in order to passively dismiss race as a social construction with limited analytical purchase, others have deployed anthropological methods to document and critique the consequences of race as a social construction forged through histories of colonization, racial slavery, and genocide. The anthropology of race, in this respect, remains inextricable from attendant anthropological approaches to racism and the history of racial capitalism.

General Overviews

A numbers of anthropologists and historians of science have published monographs on the origins and development of the race concept in professional anthropology. Stocking 1982 (first published in 1968) represents perhaps the first to explicitly tackle this history through a review of scientific racist theories of cultural evolutionism and polygenesis and the critiques of the race concept advanced by Franz Boas and his intellectual adherents. Smedley 1999 delves further into the development of the race concept among academics and laypersons alike. Baker 1998 and Baker 2010 expand on this tradition to demonstrate the ways in which the anthropological concept guided and responded to wider policy imperatives and political currents surrounding the control and management of black and indigenous peoples in the United States. Boas 1986 provides a general overview of Franz Boas’s critique of biological determinism, while Williams 2015 examines the history of Boasian antiracism and its influence and correspondence with African American contemporaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Douglass 1854 and Firmin 2002 provide key and long unacknowledged antecedents to Boas, penned by a 19th-century African American abolitionist and Haitian anthropologist, respectively. For undergraduate audiences, Shanklin 1994 and Goodman, et al. 2012 compile anthropological critiques of race into textbook and reference book formats.

  • Baker, Lee D. 1998. From savage to Negro: Anthropology and the construction of race, 1896–1954. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A historical survey of the production of anthropological theories of race and the paradigmatic figure of the savage in scholarship on African American peoples.

  • Baker, Lee D. 2010. Anthropology and the racial politics of culture. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive history of the development of anthropological theories of race and culture with respect to indigenous and African American peoples.

  • Boas, Franz. 1986. Anthropology and modern life. New York: Dover.

    A collection of essays that is widely regarded as a definitive text on race and the anthropological critique of biological determinism.

  • Douglass, Frederick. 1854. The claims of the Negro, ethnologically considered: An address before the Literary Societies of Western Reserve College, at Commencement, July 12, 1854. Rochester, NY: Lee, Mann & Co.

    A commencement address delivered by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, condemning the methods and conclusions of the scientific racists Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, George Gliddon, and Louis Agassiz.

  • Firmin, Antenor. 2002. The equality of human races: Positivist anthropology. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    A polemic penned in response to de Gobineau’s The Inequality of Races, originally published in French in 1885. Long out of print and ignored by anthropologists, this monograph proposes an anthropological method that eschews the racist biases and presuppositions that defined the practice of ethnology at the time of its release.

  • Goodman, Alan H., Yolanda T. Moses, and Joseph L. Jones. 2012. Race: Are we so different? Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A companion volume to the acclaimed project and multimedia exhibition, “Race: Are We So Different?”

  • Shanklin, Eugenia. 1994. Anthropology and race. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    A text prepared for undergraduate audiences on the development of the race concept and the challenges to biological determinism from the anthropological guild.

  • Smedley, Audrey. 1999. Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    A comprehensive history of the development of race as a social and scientific concept.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr. 1982. Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A collection of essays on the history of the race concept in anthropology, from scientific racism and evolutionism to Boasian critiques of race. First published in 1968 (New York: Free Press).

  • Williams, Vernon J. 2015. Rethinking race: Franz Boas and his contemporaries. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.

    A history of race science and anthropology that awards particular attention to Franz Boas, his students, and African American contemporaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois.

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