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Anthropology, standardization and measurement: Rudolf Martin and anthropometric photography


Recent scholarship on the history of German anthropology has tended to describe its trajectory between 1900 and the Nazi period as characterized by a paradigmatic shift from the liberal to the anti-humanistic. This article reconstructs key moments in the history of anthropometric photography between 1900 and 1925, paying particular attention to the role of the influential liberal anthropologist Rudolf Martin (1864–1925) in the standardization of anthropological method and technique. It is shown that Rudolf Martin's primary significance was social and institutional. The article reconstructs key stages in Martin's writing on and uses of photography and analyses the peculiar form of scientific debate surrounding the development of anthropometric photography, which centred on local and practical questions. Against the political backdrop of German colonialism in Africa and studies of prisoners of war during the First World War, two key tensions in this history surface: between anthropological method and its politicization, and between the international scientific ethos and nationalist impulses. By adopting a practical–epistemic perspective, the article also destabilizes the conventional differentiation between the German liberal and anti-humanist anthropological traditions. Finally, the article suggests that there is a certain historical irony in the fact that the liberal Martin was central in the process that endowed physical anthropology with prestige precisely in the period when major parts of German society increasingly came to view ‘race’ as offering powerful, scientific answers to social and political questions.

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Andrew D. Evans , Anthropology at War: World War I and the Science of Race in Germany, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010

J.A. Gavan , L. Washburn and P.H. Lewis , ‘Photography: an anthropometric tool’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1932) 10(new series 3), pp. 331351

Basil Geoghagen , ‘The determination of body measurements, surface area and body volume by photography’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1953) 11, pp. 97118

Peter Geimer , ‘Fotografie als Wissenschaft’, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte (2005) 28, pp. 114122

Regna Darnell , And along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998

Jonathan P. Spiro , ‘Nordic vs. anti-Nordic: the Galton Society and the American Anthropological Association’, Patterns of Prejudice (2002) 36, pp. 3548

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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