Gabriel Tarde and Anthropology

In recent years the work of Gabriel Tarde has attracted renewed attention. This individualistic rival of Durkheim, long marginalised in the recent history of sociological thought, owes much of his newfound popularity to the promotional efforts of Bruno Latour and his followers. In fact Latour seems to be a huge fan and actually played Tarde in an odd reenactment of a 1903 social science debate. Perhaps there’s a context here which makes it seem slightly less strange. If you’d like to find out more about Tarde and his legacy, it’s worth reading this interesting post on Savage Minds which discusses Tarde’s often overlooked influence on anthropology:

In the last decade or so (earlier, if you speak French) there has been a ‘neo-Tardian revival’ as people organize conferenceswrite 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.

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