The relative importance of heredity or environmental influence remains an enduring, hotly debated issue, while the legacy of scientific racism and sexism still tarnishes the twenty-first century. This study analyzes how theories of inherited difference – including race and gender – affected French social scientists in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The prevailing assumption has been that French ethnographers highlighted the cultural and social environment while anthropologists emphasized the scientific study of head and body shapes. Yet the temptation to gravitate towards one pole of the nature-nurture continuum often resulted in reluctant concessions to the other side. Psychologists Théodule Ribot and Alfred Binet, for example, were forced to recognize the importance of social factors. Non-Durkheimian sociologists were divided on the issue of race and gender as progressive and tolerant attitudes on race did not necessarily correlate with flexible attitudes on gender. Recognizing this raises questions about the theory of the equivalence of all marginalized groups.
Anthropological institutions re-organized before the First World War sometimes showed decreasing confidence in racial theory but failed to abandon it completely.An epilogue discusses how extremist anthropologists used the persistent legacy of such theories to deploy racial ideology as a basis of persecution in the Vichy era.
Martin S. Staum is professor emeritus of history, University of Calgary, and author of Labeling People: French Scholars on Society, Race and Empire, 1815-1848 and Minerva’s Message: Stabilizing the French Revolution.
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