by Jessica Chelekis


Brazilian anthropology as a national tradition is often described as humanistic and holistic, presumably due to an overwhelming French influence in the historical development of the social sciences in that country. In an article published in the American journal Sociological Theory (1992; 10) Howard Becker chose to showcase three articles as representative of Brazilian social science, one authored by Antonio Candido, the celebrated literary critic and the other two by anthropologists. These choices provide a good example of the humanistic and “holistic” aspect of Brazilian social science, in which the boundaries between disciplines are not nearly as rigidly defined as they are in the United States.


In order to understand the current state of Brazilian anthropology as a national tradition, a few historical factors must be considered. In Brazil, anthropology has only very recently emerged as a discipline. Brazil’s status as a “periphery” nation extends into its academia, especially in the social sciences. Therefore, Brazilian anthropologists often distinguish themselves according to the “core” country where they received their anthropological training. It is true that overall, French anthropology has had the greatest influence in the formation of the discipline within Brazil. Claude Levi-Strauss founded the first anthropology department at Universidade de São Paulo (São Paulo University – USP) in the late 1930s; consequently, all but the most recent generations of Brazilian undergraduate anthropology students at USP received their PhD’s from French universities. The other department which began training anthropologists around the same time as Universidade de São Paulo is the Museu Nacional at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro – UFRJ). The Museu Nacional traditionally sent its students to the United States for their anthropological training (Alvaro D’Antona, personal communication, February 28, 2006). Although these and other Brazilian universities now offer high quality graduate programs in anthropology, many Brazilian students still travel to either France, England, or the United States for their anthropological training or  as post-doctorate fellows.


Another aspect keeping Brazilian anthropology in the academic periphery is the issue of language. While Spanish is a rather accessible language in terms of international academic publication, Portuguese is not. While Brazilian anthropologists have at least a reading-level ability in English, French, and Spanish, their work is still primarily produced in Portuguese, a language simply not widely read among international scholars (Becker 1992; Ribeiro 1999). The end result of Brazil’s periphery national status and the use of Portuguese is the relative exclusion of Brazilian anthropology as a national tradition from international recognition. However, this picture is beginning to change as more Brazilian anthropologists publish or are translated into English. In 1999 the Journal of Latin American Anthropology published a special volume dedicated to Brazilian anthropology but written entirely in English (Ribeiro 1999). As the brainchild of Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, a prominent Brazilian anthropologist, the aim was to “provide greater international visibility for the contributions of Brazilian anthropologists…to show the diversity of topics and approaches currently being pursued” (Ribeiro 1999:7).

By far the best known Brazilian anthropologist in the United States is Roberto da Matta. Da Matta is currently an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Because Portuguese is not a widely spoken language in the international academic community, Brazilian anthropologists who gain the most recognition in this arena are those who are tied to universities or institutions in the United States, Britain or France, and are published in English-language journals.


Research Themes and Social/Political Goals

Just as early American anthropology was primarily concerned with Native American cultures, Brazilian anthropology largely focuses on indigenous Amazonian societies. However, late nineteenth and early twentieth century American anthropologists focused on a kind of “salvage” anthropology of native groups, believing them to be on the verge of extinction and thus an urgent effort was necessary to record as much as possible of native ways of life before they disappeared. Contemporary Brazilian anthropologists, in contrast, are primarily concerned with indigenous rights. Political activism is not only unproblematic in Brazilian anthropology; a minimum amount of advocacy on behalf of indigenous groups is expected (Ramos 1999). Brazilian anthropologists often point their integration of political activism and academic professionalism as a feature that distinguishes them (and for some, Latin American anthropologists in general) from European and American anthropology.


Of course, Brazilian anthropology is not exclusively concerned with indigenous rights. Other major trends include urban anthropology, mostly centered in the mega-cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (but increasingly applied to urban Amazonian as well); visual anthropology; theoretical explorations of the individual; and international migration and globalization (Ribeiro 1999). Rural anthropology and gender studies are also major research topics in Brazil (D’Antona personal interview February 28, 2006). A current theoretical theme in Brazilian anthropology is the exploration of national anthropologies, especially within and between peripheral countries (Cardoso de Oliveira 1999).


Academic Institutions and Organizations

In Brazil, anthropology is categorized under the broader heading of social sciences, which includes sociology and political science. Many Brazilian universities do not offer undergraduate degrees in any of these three disciplines; rather, students get their degree in social sciences, and then as graduate students specialize in one of the three disciplines. Anthropology departments are almost always exclusively cultural or social anthropology. The Museu Nacional at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) is unique in that it is modeled after the American four-field system. At some universities archaeology is housed under the anthropology department, while at others it is a separate program affiliated with a research center or museum. Linguistics is often its own department, and but few universities have a bioanthropology program.


While the two oldest anthropology departments in Brazil—Universidade de São Paulo and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro—are still the most prestigious, other departments at Universidade de Brasilia (UNB), Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP), Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC), and Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) have developed outstanding scholarly reputations as well. The majority of Brazilian anthropologists, whether they studied abroad or within the country, become professors and researchers within these and other lesser-known academic departments. Despite a strong commitment to social justice and political activism, not many Brazilians do applied or development anthropology in the sense familiar to American anthropologists. The lack of a dichotomy between “getting involved” in the social and political struggles of study populations—usually in the form of applied anthropology—and the academic ivory tower means that Brazilian anthropologists are university professors and political activists at the same time. In addition, there are not enough national organizations that have the resources to hire anthropologists for applied work, and therefore there is no viable applied anthropology track available as an alternative career. Employment outside of academia is more likely to take the shape of government positions as expert advisers for federal organizations such as FUNAI (Furnace Nacional do Indio – National Indian Foundation) and IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis – Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Resources).


The Associação Brasileira de Antropologia (Brazilian Anthropology Association – ABA), founded in 1955, is the national professional organization, similar to the American Anthropological Association. Until very recently, this organization was controlled by a closed circle of elite anthropologists coming out of USP and UFRJ (D’Antona, personal interview February 28, 2006). The presidency of ABA passed back and forth regularly between these two universities, and decisions regarding annual meetings and sub-disciplinary organizations often took place in phone calls between senior scholars within these universities. As other departments rose in prestige, such as Universidade de Brasilia and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, scholars from these universities managed to elbow their way into the upper echelons of ABA. The current president is Miriam Pillar Grossi, who received her Ph.D. from Universite de Paris V and conducted post-doctoral work in France; she is currently a professor at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. Almost every other board member of the ABA received some kind of training abroad, and they are affiliated almost exclusively to the Brazilian departments listed above.

The national publication outlets for Brazilian anthropologists are primarily scholarly journals affiliated with anthropology or other social science departments, such as Revista de Antropologia (USP), Mana (UFRJ), Série Antropologia (Brasilia), and Horizontes Antropológicos (Porto Alegre). There are other journals aimed toward more narrowly defined sub-disciplines, such as Afro-Asia in Salvador and Revistas Estudos Feministas in Florianopolis. Brazilian anthropologists who have studied abroad often publish in scholarly journals of the country in which they were trained. Only a handful of the most well-known Brazilian anthropologists publish regularly in a variety of international journals. An interesting note, however, is the apparently greater access anthropologists have to Brazilian newspapers. In the curriculum vitae of those anthropologists serving as committee members of the ABA, the majority of them have a least a short list of interviews or articles they have published in regional or national newspapers such as Folha de São Paulo, O Globo, or Jornal do Brasil.


Core bibliography

For an introduction to Brazilian anthropology, the following scholars and their works are recommended:


Buarque de Holanda, Sérgio

1984       Raízes do Brasil. 17th ed. Rio de Janeiro: J. Olympio.


Cardoso de Oliveira Roberto

1964       Urbanização e tribalismo: A integração dos índios Terêna numa sociedade de classes. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

1998       O trabalho do antropólogo. Brasília, São Paulo: Paralelo 15 and Editora da UNESP.

1999       Peripheral Anthropologies “Versus” Central Anthropologies. Journal of Latin American Anthropology, 4(2):10-31.


Corrêa, Mariza

2003       Antropólogas e Antropologia. Belo Horizonte: Editorial UFMG.


da Matta, Roberto

1991       Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. John Drury, trans. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press.

1984       O Que Faz o Brasil, Brasil? Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara.


Freyre, Gilberto

2003       Casa-grande & senzala. 43rd ed. São Paulo: Global Editora.


Galvão, Eduardo

1979       Encontro de Sociedades: Índios e Brancos no Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra.


Lima, Roberto Kant

1985       A Antropologia da Academia: Quando os Índios Somos Nós. Petrópolis: Vozes.


Melatti, Júlio Cézar

1970       Índios do Brasil. Brasília: Coordenada/INL.


Peirano, Mariza

1998       Uma Antropologia no Plural. Três Experiências Contemporâneas. Brasília: Editora da UnB.


Ramos, Alcida Rita

1998       Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


Ribeiro, Darcy

1988       Dilema da América Latina: Estruturas de Poder e Forças Insurgentes. 4th ed. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes


Schaden, Egon

1976       Leituras de Etnologia Brasileira. São Paulo : Companhia Editora Nacional.


Velho, Gilberto

1973       A Utópia Urbana: Um Estudo de Antropologia Social. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.


Velho, Otávio

1982       Through Althusserian spectacles: recent social anthropology in Brazil. Ethnos. 47(1-2):133-49.


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