Friday, September 2, 2011

Fred Kniffen and Lousisiana State University Geography and Anthropology: Representing the Nexus and (Plural) Cultural Study

There are so many ways in which to discuss the intersection, wherever it may lie, between anthropology and geography. It could be a discussion on the larger importance of interdisciplinarity between and among disciplines, or perhaps a critique of the micro specialization within academia today. I think this discussion however is better served by a story, or more accurately a history. The truth is that there is no one intersection between anthropology and geography, but rather many intersections as the story of culture in a myriad of ways is woven together, how we can all be served as lovers of culture and knowledge by those who may know things or know how to study things that we do not. The department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University stands as an interesting example of this intersection as it is one of the few joint departments in the states, yet what is more interesting is how it came to be and the genealogy of those individuals that aided in the establishment of such a unique department.

This is a brief (as brief as I could make it, it’s just so interesting) history of Fred Kniffen and the Department of Geography and Anthropology (and geology, before it jumped ship) at LSU. The first chair of the department, then called the School of Geology, was geologist Richard Joel Russell, who had received his Ph.D. at the University of California (Berkeley) in 1926. While studying at Berkeley he first encountered geography, and was greatly influenced by Carl Sauer. After arriving at LSU to teach structural geology and develop a Department of Geography in 1928, Russell began to construct a diverse department. He wanted to bring in a geographer to broaden the ability of the department, so in 1929 he hired Fred Kniffen, who had studied under the great Carl Sauer at Berkeley. Kniffen had first earned an undergraduate degree in geology at the University of Michigan and, while at Berkeley, was also heavily influenced by Alfred Kroeber, causing him to eventually earn a graduate minor in anthropology.

Kroeber, who is also referred to as a “rebellious Boasian”, was one of the first of Franz Boas’s students to define his own school of thought (Darnell 2001). As most of us know, Boas was the first to define Americanist anthropology as we know it today. Much of the methodological and theoretical overlap present in geography and anthropology as disciplines, as well as in our department, began with Boas. According to Darnell, “In the ‘Study of Geography’ (1887) Boas had already made it clear that the amalgam he referred to alternatively as history, geography, or cosmography posed separate kinds of questions and therefore required different methods” (Darnell 2001: 41). He understood that anthropology had different questions to be answered and different roles to be filled in order to fully understand the ultimate subject at hand. Kroeber further developed this perspective by initiating the historical comparative method in ethnology and it was under this framework that Julian Steward, a student of Kroeber’s, developed the theory of multilinear evolutionary theory and cultural ecology that is so prevalent in both geography and anthropology.

This long lineage of anthropologists cannot and should not be taken into consideration without their geography counterparts and, perhaps as Boas was hesitant to draw lines across sub-disciplines, we should be similarly cautious in drawing lines between disciplines. A holistic understanding of the world begins with erasing these lines. Concurrent with his acceptance of the position at LSU, Kniffen was a candidate for the position of chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Anthropology Department (Mathewson and Shoemaker 2004, 250-251). Kniffen, whom no one would argue was a geographer, is best known for revolutionizing the study of house types in the United states and altering our understanding of the movements of groups of settlers and immigrants as they made their way west.

A relevant aside is that his methodology for identifying house types was inspired by the classifications of James Ford, an archaeologist working in Louisiana, of how pottery sherds were catagorized (Kniffen 1990, 36). So Kniffen, a geographer, was inspired by an archaeologist in his study of folk housing, which few would argue lies squarely within the study of cultural anthropology. “Kniffen’s broad training in geology, geography, anthropology, and archaeology proved an ideal fit for the young and academically diverse department” (Mathewson and Shoemaker 2004, 251). During his tenure at LSU, Kniffen advised students who would go on to be known in geography, anthropology, folk studies, and vernacular architecture. As is evidenced by his training and work, Kniffen, as well as the Department of Geography and School of Geology, identified with interdisciplinarity.

Geography was the unifier between the earth sciences (the study of culture included) in the School of Geology with Russell linking geology and physical geography and Kniffen bridging anthropology and human geography. The department continued to shift and evolve from the School of Geology, which housed the departments of geography and anthropology as well as geology and petroleum engineering (briefly) to the School of Geoscience in 1970 (Mathewson and Shoemaker 2004, 251). This more representative name also came with an explicit interdisciplinary focus:

The School of Geoscience is concerned with the advancement of the university’s teaching and research programs in the geosciences, including the study of natural resources, mankind’s relationship to his environment and its physical and cultural evolution within it. This interest is broader that that represented by the individual specialties within the departments. The School provides a framework in which these several disciplines are coordinated and developed to the mutual advantage of the departments and the University in academic, research, and public service programs. This grouping of disciplines was unique when it was organized at LSU 35 years ago; with the present concern for human ecology and the environment, it provides a very pertinent and viable modern focus. (LSU School of Geoscience 1971)

The School of Geoscience was home to anthropology, geography, geology, and the Museum of Geosciences as well as services provided by the Cartographic Section, Photographic Section, Computer and Graphic Services, the Map Library and Reference room and ties to the Coastal Studies Institute, the Louisiana Geological Survey, and the Louisiana State Climatologists office.

Today the department is designated the Department of Geography and Anthropology, (Geology become a separate department and then moved to the College of Sciences) retaining its strong cultural interdisciplinarity as well as connections to the physical and mapping sciences through geomorphology, climatology, the Coastal Studies Institute, and the CADGIS Laboratory.

The strong culture of interdisciplinarity founded by Russell and Kniffen remains strong, if not as disciplinarily broad as 80 years ago. I think the important point is that your academic interests and the topics you study and research may (and probably should) cross disciplinary boundaries. As scholars we should embrace and encourage this type of pursuit and interaction. For example, Kniffen used the classification of house types to understand the spatiality of human settlement patterns, but more importantly, as a geographer, he utilized material culture to understand human cultural organization and spatiality. In essence he used and taught his students the value of both disciplines as tools working to the same end in understanding culture.

The point I suppose is rather obvious, that the nexus between anthropology and geography is not in a single place, but exists in many places throughout both disciplines. I am fortunate enough to be within a department that recognizes this. Geographers do and have always done anthropology and anthropologists do and have always done geography. The crossover and applicability of one discipline to the other is vast and can only strengthen both disciplines. Both disciplines can inform and strengthen the other and both would be well served by crossing disciplinary lines more often to see what’s going on on the other side. They might see that they aren’t that different but have a lot to learn from each other.

Caitlyn Yoshiko McNabb & Garrett Wolf


Kniffen, Fred. 1990. “The Study of Folk Architecture,” in H. Jesse Walker and Randall A. Detro, eds., Cultural Diffusion and Landscapes: Selections by Fred B. Kniffen. Geoscience and Man, Vol. 27 (Baton Rouge, LA: Geoscience Publications), 35-47.

LSU School of Geoscience. 1971. “Self-Analyses and Plans for the Seventies.” Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University.

Mathewson, Kent and Vincent J. Shoemaker. 2004. “Louisiana State University Geography at Seventy-Five: “Berkeley on the Bayou” and Beyond, in James O. Wheeler and Stanley D. Brunn, eds., The Role of the South in the Making of American Geography: Centennial of the AAG, 2004. Columbia, MD: Bellwether Publishing.

Darnell, Regna. 2001. “Invisible Genealogies: A History of Americanist Anthropology” University of Nebraska Press.

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