Gabriel Tarde: Been there, done that.
In the last decade or so (earlier, if you speak French) there has been a ‘neo-Tardian revival’ as people organize conferences, write books, and otherwise advocate for Gabriel Tarde, an otherwise-forgotten thinker of France’s Third Republic. Most anthropologists think of Tarde, if they think of him at all, as one of the many guys that Durkheim defeated on his climb to the top of France’s academic heap. Today, people are interested in Tarde because he is part of the intellectual genealogy of people like Deleuze and Latour. This work is interesting and important because it moves beyond a vision of society as composed of static, coherent, superorganic social wholes to one which more adequately theorizes human conduct as a dynamic, emergent system with multiple determinants and outcomes. Except I will say one thing:
Some of the earliest anthropologists to take up Tarde’s work were American anthropologists. The first English translation (afaik) of Tarde’s Laws of Imitation was by Elsie Clews Parsons, who was (among other things) the first female president of the American Anthropological Association.
I don’t bring this up to dismiss current work on Tarde, which is very interesting. Nor do I bring it up because there was a tremendous up-take of Tarde’s thought in Boasian anthropology (there wasn’t). However, I do want to insist that Parson’s translation of Tarde is as emblematic of anthropology’s future as the more recent work I cited above.
Early Boasian anthropology is still painfully misunderstood and dramatically under-read, and yet the Boasians were tremendously clear-headed and thought deeply about issues that are still relevant to us today. Durkheimian corporatism never got off the ground in the US (even Kroeber’s version). From an American perspective, the Anglo-French need to flog Durkheim over and over (and over) just underlines how deep his influence runs.
Additionally, the fact that we can now all read Parsons’s translation for free from Archive.org indicates that power that open access scholarship can have to alter our perception of anthropological history, and thus change how we move into the future. Archive.org has the potential to revolutionize how we understand the early decades of our history, simply by making them available to everyone.
Finally, Parsons’s translation of Tarde indicates a challenge facing our scholarly future: opening the archives makes our history available to all, but the only people with the skills to discover these sources are the people who already know about them. Sites like archive.org create a desperate need for new textbooks, anthologies, indexes, finding guides, and other scholarly products which will help guide readers to the wealth of new but incredibly obscure resources out there.
So keep reading Deleuze, Guattari, Latour, Tarde, and so forth. But while you’re doing so don’t forget that Parsons, Goldenweiser, and Radin deserve looking into too — and are just a click away.