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Cora Du Bois and Twentieth-Century American Anthropology

Cora Du Bois was one of twentieth-century America’s leading anthropologists, and one of the few women of her generation who worked in both the academy and government service.  Du Bois was a student of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, and in the 1930s she carried out ethnographic fieldwork in a small, preliterate community on the island of Alor in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies.  Her research was in psychological anthropology and she became a leading light in ‘culture and personality’ studies (LeVine 2001).  During the Second World War, Du Bois was the only woman heading a branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US wartime intelligence service, and afterwards she worked in the State Department.  In the 1950s, she became the first woman to be appointed as a full professor at Harvard University, where she led an inter-disciplinary research project in urban India.  Du Bois succeeded as ‘a twentieth-century “first woman”’, as Susan Seymour describes her in this fine biography (p. xiii), and in addition to the other challenges she faced, she was also a lesbian who had to manage her private life very carefully, especially while under investigation as a suspected Communist by the FBI for many years.

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Illustration by Ed Linfoot

Du Bois was born into an international family, but her life and career were thoroughly American and her work was never well-known in Britain; many likely readers of this review, I imagine, know little or nothing about her.  But this book, which appears in the ‘Critical studies in the history of anthropology’ series (published by the University of Nebraska Press), is not just a biography.  As Seymour explains, it is also about the development of American anthropology as seen through the life of Du Bois, who was one of a relatively small number of key figures who actively shaped the discipline in the mid-twentieth century, and participated in the post-war expansion of social science and area studies that accompanied the emergence of the US as a superpower confronting the Soviet Union.

Cora Du Bois was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1903, the daughter of a Swiss father and an American mother, whose own father was German.  When she was five, the family moved to France, where her father pursued his career as a businessman and industrialist, but in 1911 they returned to the US and settled in New Jersey.  The family was well-off, although life at home was not easy; Cora’s elder brother had severe behavioural problems, her relationship with her mother was strained, and her father was in increasingly poor health.  But she excelled at school and after graduating from high school in 1921 she travelled and visited her relatives in Europe until her father’s death brought her home early.  In 1923, she went to Barnard College, where she studied history and, among other activities, wrote ‘love poems [that] reveal a newfound comfort with her sexual identity’ (p. 52).  In her final year, Du Bois took anthropology courses taught by Boas and Benedict, assisted by Margaret Mead, and she was ‘captivated’ by Benedict’s ‘persona and lectures’ (p. 61).  After graduating, she returned to Europe and thought about her future in Berlin and Heidelberg, before deciding she wanted to be an anthropologist.  But she was reluctant to do graduate work at Columbia University, so Benedict recommended studying with Kroeber and Lowie at the University of California, Berkeley.

Du Bois flourished at Berkeley, where she arrived in 1929.  With a friend, Dorothy Demetracopoulou (Lee), Du Bois did ethnographic fieldwork among the Wintu, an ‘Indian’ tribe in northern California, particularly studying their shamans, before returning to Berkeley to take courses, prepare for the examinations, write up her Wintu material (partly with Demetracopoulou) and submit a thesis.  In 1932, she passed her final PhD examination, which Kroeber described as ‘unquestionably one of the most brilliant I have ever attended’ (p. 95).  But in the Depression, there were no jobs in anthropology, especially for women, so she worked as a research assistant for Kroeber, until in 1935 she was awarded a fellowship to investigate ‘personality types in shamanism’, with Edward Sapir at Yale University as her mentor.

Du Bois, giving up her happy life in California, returned to the east coast and went for training in psychology and psychiatry at the Harvard Psychological Clinic and the Boston Psychopathic Hospital.  She was then invited by the psychoanalyst Abram Kardiner to collaborate with him in a seminar series at the New York Psychoanalytical Society.  Kardiner, who also taught at Columbia, was developing a theoretical model for the relationship between culture and personality, whose fundamental concept was the ‘basic personality structure’.  Culture was not personality writ large, as in Benedict’s model, because individual personalities varied greatly within any one culture, but there was still a distinctive basic personality structure, because all members of any given culture shared certain ways of perceiving and thinking.  Sapir, whose Yale seminars Du Bois also attended, gave more emphasis to individual variability than Kardiner (LeVine 2001: 810).  In any case, though, Du Bois and Kardiner agreed that the relationship between culture and personality needed to be examined with new ethnographic data, ideally in a culture with a characteristic psychopathology.  After consulting experts on Indonesia, Du Bois selected Alor, and Kardiner and Benedict found the funds to pay for her research.

In September 1937, Du Bois boarded a liner in New York harbour and arrived more than three months later in Alor, after briefly visiting Mead and Gregory Bateson, who were doing fieldwork in Bali.  In Alor, with the help of a radjah, a ‘native’ official appointed by the Dutch colonial government, she found a suitable small village and got a house built.  Du Bois was assisted by a Javanese man, who accompanied her to Alor and stayed for six months; he spoke Malay, which some local people also knew, though most spoke only their own local language.  Du Bois established a good rapport with the villagers, partly by providing medical treatment, and worked hard on learning the language and gathering as much data as possible on all aspects of culture and society through participant observation.  She also collected a lot of psychological material, ‘the largest set of data ever to be collected, at that time, from one small non-Western society’ (p. 154), ranging from observations of childrearing to autobiographies to children’s drawings.

Du Bois left Alor and returned to New York in the summer of 1939.  During the next three years, she taught at Sarah Lawrence College (north of New York City), presented her material in Kardiner’s seminar, and wrote The people of Alor.  This long book, which Seymour outlines and discusses (pp. 154-64), was finished in late 1941 but not published until 1944.  The book’s short introduction was followed by a section headed ‘psycho-cultural synthesis’, which was an ethnographic description and analysis of the development of Alorese personality from infancy and childhood to adolescence and adulthood, written in plain English in the expansive narrative style common in ethnographies at the time.  The third section consisted of eight autobiographies of male villagers, and the last section included data from several psychological tests.  Kardiner wrote some analytical parts of the book and other experts contributed to analysis of test data.  Du Bois’s fundamental conclusion, to summarise Seymour’s own summary (pp. 163-4), was that inconsistent childcare led to early experiences producing interpersonal insecurity and emotional instability in children, which in turn led to widespread feelings of distrust among people in Alor.  Du Bois’s book ‘would permanently establish her reputation within American anthropology’ and became a classic in early culture and personality studies (p. 164).

Back in New York after Alor, Du Bois seems to have had some trouble readjusting, personally and professionally, and was uncertain about her future.  But everything changed after the United States entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.  Six months later, Du Bois was summoned to Washington, DC, to join the Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch of the new intelligence service that would soon be named the Office of Strategic Services.  She was one of about two thousand R&A personnel, many of them academics, and one of the very few women recruited as an ‘area expert’, rather than for the support staff.  After a year and a half in Washington, Du Bois managed to obtain a transfer to South East Asia Command (SEAC).  In early 1944, she arrived in Delhi, only to discover that the SEAC and the OSS headquarters were being moved to Kandy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  In Kandy, she had an interesting group of friends and colleagues, one of whom, Jeanne Taylor, became her life-long companion; another was Julia McWilliams, who married Paul Child, another colleague, and became a renowned chef after the war.  Bateson was also on Du Bois’s staff as an R&A analyst who took part in at least one dangerous operation behind enemy lines.

Du Bois’s job, as head of R&A at SEAC, was to build up a group of experts on Southeast Asia who could provide information useful for planning intelligence operations, such as setting up clandestine bases and networks of agents in enemy territory.  The British and Americans were fighting the Japanese under the unified command of SEAC headed by Mountbatten, but there were acute inter-service rivalries and, most importantly, a fundamental difference of opinion between the allies about the post-war future.  The Americans were sympathetic to nationalist movements and against any plans to sustain British rule in India and Ceylon, or to reinstate British, French and Dutch rule in the colonial territories conquered by the Japanese.   The OSS therefore collected intelligence relevant to nationalist opposition to colonialism, as well as to fighting the Japanese, and particularly in India the British were suspicious about its activities.  Du Bois fully supported the American anti-colonial stance, but also believed that her government in Washington was failing to understand the true importance of events unfolding in Asia during the war.  Why, she asked in a 1945 memo, are we so preoccupied with Europe where our future influence will be secondary, when war came from the Pacific and the US potentially has a major influence in Asia, home to the bulk of the world’s population? (pp. 197-8)

One month after the Japanese surrender, Du Bois was recalled to Washington and by the end of 1945 she had become chief of the South East Asian Branch in the State Department.  The OSS was dissolved, though it was soon reborn as the Central Intelligence Agency.  At the State Department, Du Bois continued to try to persuade her superiors and fellow officials to be less Eurocentric and to develop a more coherent, better informed policy towards Asia.  It was particularly important, she insisted, to appreciate the significance of anti-colonial nationalism throughout Southeast Asia, which would be seriously misunderstood if interpreted only through the anti-Communist, Cold War perspective that was rapidly developing.  Du Bois and those who shared her view lost the argument, of course, and one eventual consequence was the American war in Vietnam.  By 1948-9, she was disillusioned and thinking about leaving the State Department.  Kroeber, who was in touch with Du Bois, had retired from Berkeley and he recommended her appointment to replace Lowie, who would be retiring soon.  In early 1950, she accepted the offer of a professorship at Berkeley, to be taken up after a year working for the World Health Organisation.

By this time, anti-Communist paranoia was in full flow.  Jeanne Taylor had been forced to resign from her post in the State Department in 1947 and one year later J. Edgar Hoover authorised a full FBI investigation into Du Bois that would continue until the 1960s.  In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy denounced the State Department as infested with Communists, and Du Bois was on his list.  Later in the year, she was sent for signature her Berkeley contract, together with a new loyalty oath stating that she had never been a member of the Communist Party or any similar, anti-government organisation.  The Berkeley chair was Du Bois’s ‘dream job’ (p. 244), but she eventually decided not to sign the loyalty oath, an act that was enough for the FBI to start a second long-running investigation of her.  Concern about the FBI made her continually careful about keeping her personal life private and avoiding any public expression of opposition to US policy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war.

After turning down the Berkeley job, Du Bois was offered various posts she did not really want, until Harvard offered her a professorship in anthropology, jointly held at Radcliffe College, which she accepted in 1954.  She then became the first woman in the university to hold a tenured full professorship.  Clyde Kluckhohn, a leading figure in culture and personality studies, had played a key role in bringing Du Bois to Harvard, and he and other colleagues welcomed her enthusiastically, although being a professorial first woman was often difficult.  At the Faculty Club, for example, she had to enter through a side door and eat in a separate dining room, because the main one was for men only, and sometimes male colleagues ignored her by failing to invite her to departmental meetings.  The professorship at Harvard may have been ‘the capstone to her unusual and remarkable career’, but ‘it came with certain strains’ (p. 266).

Du Bois formally retired from Harvard in 1969, but in that year she was president of both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Association of Asian Studies (AAS).  By 1969, opposition to the Vietnam war was widespread in the US, particularly on university campuses.  In the AAA, tensions ran high, especially when several anthropologists were publicly accused of complicity in US counter-insurgency programmes in Thailand and controversy erupted over the way the AAA’s Ethics Committee handled the issue.  The AAS was beset with similar divisions.  Du Bois dealt with the problems diplomatically, but restoring calm completely while the war continued was impossible.  Her own firm position, however, was that academic anthropologists should never engage in clandestine research and military operations, and such activities differed fundamentally from the kind of classified work undertaken during the Second World War by agents working for the OSS, such as herself.  Du Bois’s position was a defensible one, but not quite as clear-cut as Seymour implies (pp. 324-5), because – to quote David Price (2008: 281) – it ignored the ethical quagmire that had developed when ‘the honorable uses of anthropology for military and intelligence goals’ to defeat fascism were refashioned with little reconsideration to support ‘the CIA’s efforts to achieve global hegemony’ during the Cold War.

In 1954, Du Bois’s academic credentials mainly rested on her pre-war work in culture and personality and The people of Alor (which Harvard republished), but she never taught psychological anthropology at Harvard.  Her ‘wartime experiences had reoriented her interests toward the dramatic changes that were occurring in a postwar world of emerging new nations’ – on which she published a short book, Social forces in Southeast Asia, in 1949 – and she also wanted to focus on ‘high cultures’, rather than small-scale, non-literate societies (p. 284).  She therefore developed a seminar on modernisation theories, and two new area studies courses on India and Southeast Asia.  In 1961, she started a major research project in Bhubaneswar, the new capital of Orissa (now Odisha), in eastern India.  Bhubaneswar was an ancient pilgrimage centre, but it was also the site for a new administrative city which was under construction, and Du Bois’s objective was an ethnographic study of ‘change and stability’ pursued by comparing the Old Town and the New Capital.  Between 1961 and 1973, Du Bois invested a huge amount of time, effort and commitment in the Harvard-Bhubaneswar project.  She carried out some research herself, but most of it was done by eight American and six Indian PhD students, as well as Indian research assistants, whom she supervised and trained.  The researchers belonged to different disciplines (anthropology, sociology, urban planning, religious studies) and had different areas of interest, and their later publications covered a range of topics.  Seymour edited a collection of papers on Bhubaneswar (1980) and explained in her concluding chapter how the data – on the economy, education, the family and religion in particular – showed that continuities existed between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, rather than opposition and incompatibility, so that socio-cultural change was better understood as a process of adaptation between the traditional and modern, rather than a linear movement from one to the other.  Today that may all seem very obvious, but it wasn’t in 1980 when post-war modernisation theory was still highly influential and had been insufficiently criticised with solid empirical evidence.

Du Bois, however, never wrote her proposed book on India, despite many years of trying.  That was mainly because her plan to write a synthesis of the Bhubaneswar project combined with a critique of theory and method in the social sciences was too ambitious, probably for anyone.  Seymour convincingly suggests, however, that Du Bois also began to feel vulnerable, both intellectually in general and as a celebrated Harvard professor in particular, who was not, in her own words, ‘nearly as good as I was often appraised as being’ (p. 334).  In the early seventies, she became depressed, drank too much, and fell into an inner turmoil over her sexuality and the split between her public and private lives.  She was pleased when Seymour proposed the edited volume on Bhubaneswar and agreed to write the introduction, but as the deadline approached, she said she had a ‘neurotic block’ and could not do it (p. 337).  In her final years, Du Bois did some writing, sustained friendships, settled her affairs, and coped with illness; she died in 1991, aged eighty-seven.

Du Bois was Seymour’s teacher and friend and this biography is an admiring one, full of insights into Du Bois’s personal life, from childhood to old age, as well as her professional life.  To write it, Seymour consulted Du Bois’s voluminous papers and other archival sources, and used many of her letters as material.  The historical scholarship is exemplary and the book is very well written and organised, which would no doubt have satisfied its subject, who detested jargon and pretentious writing, and recommended the New Yorker’s style to her students.  Du Bois undoubtedly was an impressive figure in both academia and government service, who made a real difference in the world, although her ‘first woman’ status appears to matter more to Seymour than it did to Du Bois herself, whose attitude to feminism was dismissive (pp. 337-8).  Clearly, too, she had a considerable influence on a large company of colleagues and students, but she wasn’t universally popular and some students in particular found her intimidating and irascible.  Surprisingly omitted from this book is any overall assessment of Du Bois’s scholarship and any appraisal of her latter-day legacy.  Pre-war culture and personality studies are defunct, but is The people of Alor still a valuable contribution to psychological anthropology?  Seymour strongly implies that it is, but she neither presents a convincing critical evaluation of her own nor reports the views of contemporary specialists in the field.  The Bhubaneswar project produced a body of worthwhile work in anthropology and related disciplines, and Du Bois’s leadership was obviously important, but it’s also true that she herself wrote very little, either ethnographic or theoretical, and never became a scholarly authority on India.  By the 1960s, Du Bois was unhappy about how anthropology and social science in general were developing, and was highly sceptical about modernisation theory.  But she published nothing substantial about it, although critical evaluation of the theory was part of the project’s original raison d’être.  Seymour, as we’ve seen, sheds light on why Du Bois’s Bhubaneswar book was never written, but doesn’t comment on how that might affect our assessment of her as a scholar.

The story of anthropologists and the OSS, and the latter’s significance for post-war developments in American universities, have now become quite well known.  Price lists more than thirty anthropologists who worked for the OSS, including Du Bois and Bateson, whom he particularly discusses (2008: 221-2, 236-43).  Price, like Seymour (p. 197), is impressed by Du Bois’s prescience, as shown in her report to Washington in 1944, which explained that Japan’s victory over the European colonial powers had advanced the cause of nationalism in South and Southeast Asia, so that after the war ended it would be almost impossible to revert to the pre-war state of affairs.  The United States, she also emphasised, had considerable prestige in Asia, ‘but the generalities of our foreign policy must be made specific or we will soon lose this prestige’.  In fact, it didn’t take long for much of it to be lost.  In lectures delivered in 1947 and published two years later, Du Bois again said that Japan’s conquests in Asia had encouraged nationalism, but added that so too had their hated occupation and the promises about future independence made by the Allies.  Yet after V-J day, ‘the ineptitudes of military reoccupation destroyed what power and prestige the Allies might have been accorded by the capitulation of Japan’ (1949: 53-4).  Whether Du Bois meant that the Americans, as opposed to the Europeans, had actually lost all their prestige was rather unclear, as was her prognostication about America’s future in the region.  Nonetheless, which side she thought the US should stand on was plain enough, since her short book insisted that nationalism was the future in South and Southeast Asia, and colonialism was dying or dead.

Du Bois was clearly right and after the war, as we’ve seen, she became an eventually disillusioned government official, partly because the US started to give support to the European colonial powers in pursuit of its Cold War objectives.  Most of her academic OSS colleagues had returned to the academy fairly quickly when the war ended, so that they were able to take part in the expansion of social science and area studies that took place after 1945.  The purpose of the R&A, of course, had been to build up knowledge that the US lacked about areas of the world in which it was fighting after Pearl Harbor.  For South Asia, for example, W. Norman Brown, professor of Sanskrit at the University of Pennsylvania, was recruited to head the India desk at the OSS in Washington in 1942.  One of his younger colleagues was David Mandelbaum, the only American anthropologist to have done fieldwork in India before the war.  Brown and Mandelbaum both strongly supported Indian independence.  Mandelbaum initially oversaw intelligence in the OSS’s Delhi office and was Du Bois’s deputy, before he became head intelligence officer in Burma (p. 194).  In a memorandum written in 1944, Brown declared: ‘Our nation must never again be caught so ill-equipped with knowledge and specialists on the Orient as it was at the end of 1941’.  He therefore argued that Oriental Studies should be seriously developed with adequate funding after the war ended; in 1947, he revised his proposal and successfully established the first department of South Asian Regional Studies at Penn, with funding from the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford foundations (Dirks 2015: 265-75).  As Nicholas Dirks explains: ‘South Asian area studies thus was born almost fully formed in the immediate postwar years, reflecting both the work that had been associated with the strategic concerns of the OSS in World War II’ and Brown’s orientalist academic perspective (ibid.: 312).

Before long, too, ‘the Cold War became a central justification for area studies’ (ibid.: 313), and departments were set up in American universities for East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and other regions, as well as South Asia.  Much of the funding came from the great foundations.  McGeorge Bundy, who worked for the Kennedy administration and was head of the Ford Foundation, commented in 1964: ‘In very large measure the area study programs developed in American universities in the years after the war were manned, directed, or stimulated by graduates of the OSS – a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting’ (pp. 210-11; Dirks 2015: 309).  Bundy somewhat exaggerated; although Brown and Mandelbaum kept in touch with each other to plan initiatives in South Asian studies in the late forties and early fifties, and sometimes hoped to get Du Bois to join in, many other academics specialising in South Asia never worked for the OSS.  Nonetheless, there plainly was a close connection between the foundation of area studies and the expansion of relevant disciplines, including anthropology, on the one hand, and the OSS and US policy interests during the Second World War and Cold War, on the other hand.  American anthropological research in Asia (and other regions), which had been slight before the war, expanded quickly and greatly after it.

Post-war developments in Britain are another story, but it is worth noting that while the American anthropological sphere of influence in Asia grew, the British one did not.  In 1947, the British government’s Scarbrough Commission reported on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African studies.  The report declared that the ‘existing provision for these studies is unworthy of our country and people’, and emphasised the need to prepare for changes after the war and for new relationships with independent India, Burma and Ceylon.  But economic problems meant that not much was done to implement the Scarbrough recommendations and area studies were not significantly expanded until the 1960s.  Moreover, the principal source of funding for anthropology after the war until the early 1960s was the Colonial Social Science Research Council, and the great majority of the research it supported was carried out in Africa, which is one reason – though not the only one – why post-war British anthropologists showed much less interest in Asia and the rest of the world.

By the 1970s, as Adam Kuper laconically remarks (2015: 136), post-war American anthropology had grown so much that even British social anthropologists began to pay attention.  Indirectly, therefore, Du Bois had an effect on developments in British anthropology, although her life and career, as I said earlier, were thoroughly American.  Cora Du Bois is probably not very well remembered by anthropologists today even in her own country, let alone outside it, but Susan Seymour’s biography shows us that she was, both personally and professionally, a fascinating and formidable woman.


Dirks, Nicholas B. 2015. Autobiography of an archive: a scholar’s passage to India. New York: Columbia University Press.
Du Bois, Cora. 1944. The people of Alor: a social-psychological study of an East Indian island. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
––––. 1949. Social forces in Southeast Asia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kuper, Adam. 2015. Anthropology and anthropologists: the British school in the twentieth century. London: Routledge.
LeVine, Robert A. 2001. Culture and personality studies, 1918-1960: myth and history. Journal of Personality 69, 803-18.
Price, David H. 2008. Anthropological intelligence: the deployment and neglect of American anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Seymour, Susan C., ed. 1980. The transformation of a sacred town: Bhubaneswar, India. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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