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  • Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment by Han Vermeulen
  • John H. Zammito (bio)
Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment.
By Han Vermeulen. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. xxvi + 720 pages; ISBN: 978-0-8032-5542-5. 10 images, 6 maps, 12 tables. Price: $75.00, £52.00, € 53, 95. URL:,676328.aspx

The historiography of anthropology is notoriously fragmentary and fractious. In the American context, there is some confidence that a discipline came into place after Franz Boas. But before Boas, things remain far from clear. Scholars have hunted down first uses of key terms, only to be confuted by other scholars who found them earlier and elsewhere. Moreover, terms mean little without their concrete implementation, and historical inquiries have revealed not only how equivocal these terms have been, but also how disparate the implementations that evoked them. Various national traditions have taken different tacks in both rubrics and practices, adding to the blur in the overall history of the discipline. One of the most complicated historical problems has been the struggle in the nineteenth century over the very name for the whole discipline—the choice of anthropology over ethnography or ethnology. [End Page 263]

Into this very treacherous terrain Han Vermeulen has intrepidly ventured, with the aim of overthrowing much of the received wisdom (equivocal as it has been). With compelling historical-archival reconstructions and with equally persuasive theoretical clarifications, Vermeulen takes us into the intellectual world before Boas and into the most specific traditions out of which Boas in fact derived. His reconstruction offers the best history of the emergence of a research field involving what he terms the “ethnos terms,” ethnography and ethnology, indisputably at the core of the contemporary discipline of anthropology.

Along the way, Vermeulen offers us a striking illustration of the manner in which contemporary politics continually color and often obscure historical reconstructions. This proved true in an aggravated manner in the twentieth century. Vermeulen is arguing that the origin of ethnography and ethnology should be traced to the exploration of Siberia by preponderantly German scholars in the eighteenth century. But, in the course of the twentieth century, Germany and Russia lost historical respectability in the West in a number of fields, not the least of which was anthropology. After the gruesome twist into racism of German Völkerkunde under the Nazis, that whole tradition came to be discredited. And from the Bolshevik Revolution through the Cold War, mutual hostility forestalled Western awareness of, and access to, the relevant Russian archival resources (457). Ironically, within the Soviet bloc, as East German scholars sought to find points of intellectual collaboration with their Russian overlords, their research uncovered crucial archival material, opening the way for Vermeulen’s remarkable post–Cold War harvest (126). He is very scrupulous to note his reliance on their earlier research throughout his monograph.

To restate Vermeulen’s thesis: ethnography, as the description of peoples, and ethnology, as a comparative theory about them, developed out of the participation of preponderantly German scholars in the explorations undertaken by the Russian empire, over the course of the eighteenth century, of its vast territorial holdings in Siberia. The research program was then systematized in German universities, most importantly Göttingen, in the later eighteenth century. German-language terms—Völker-Beschreibung and then Völkerkunde—were articulated to formulate the new research program, and these terms were then rendered into (neo)Greek out of the conviction that “names of sciences had to be denoted in Greek” (447). Vermeulen establishes that German scholars coined the “ethnos-terms,” ethnography (for the description of a particular people) and ethnology [End Page 264] (as the general theory of peoples) by the close of the eighteenth century, something hitherto unrecognized in the history of anthropology. As these Germans envisioned and practiced it, “Völkerkunde would be the general name for a study consisting of a theoretical part (Ethnologie) and a descriptive part (Ethnographie)” (347; see also 278). Crucially, German scholars worked up the agenda of research both for individual investigations and for their theoretical integration. That...


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