American Ethnological Society

The American Ethnological Society (AES) is the oldest professional anthropological organization in the United States. Founded in 1842 in New York City by Albert Gallatin and John Russell Bartlett, the society’s primary goal was to encourage research in the emerging field of ethnology and to foster “inquiries generally connected with the human race.”

In its early years, the AES provided a forum for discussing a wide range of topics, including geography, history, archaeology, philology, craniology, literature, and travel. The society’s meetings, held in the homes of members, consisted of paper presentations, discussions, and social networking. The earliest papers presented focused on mapping, antiquities, Biblical history, travel, physical anthropology, and ethnology.

Despite fluctuations in membership, academic rigor, and financial resources, the AES remained a coherent organization throughout the 19th century, largely due to its publications. The society’s membership primarily consisted of professionals from various occupations who maintained an interest in ethnology outside of their professions, including physicians, lawyers, clergy, travel writers, and politicians.

After its first two decades, the AES faced financial difficulties and ideological dissent, leading to a series of reorganizations and dissolutions. However, at the turn of the 20th century, the society regained its prestige and dynamism as the focus shifted from the disparate evolutionary concerns of 19th-century “ethnology” to the more fieldwork-oriented academic discipline of “anthropology.”

In the early 20th century, the AES became more closely associated with Columbia University and re-organized itself as a scientific organization. Meetings were held jointly with the Academy Section at the American Museum of Natural History, and in 1916, the society was incorporated. During this period, the AES attracted the participation of prominent figures in American anthropology, such as Franz Boas, Elsie Clews Parsons, Robert Lowie, Ruth Benedict, and Ella Deloria.

The AES developed strong ties with the American Anthropological Association (AAA) during this time, with AES members automatically granted AAA membership. The society also maintained connections with other disciplines through joint meetings and events. Under the guidance of Franz Boas, the AES increased its publications, initiating an influential series on Native American cultures and languages. In the 1930s, the society established its monograph series to support students and provide a forum for publishing doctoral dissertations.

By the 1950s, the AES had expanded from a New York-based society to a national organization. Since then, it has grown to an international level while maintaining its connection to the development of American anthropology. In 1972, the society created the journal American Ethnologist to meet the growing demand for publishing socio-cultural anthropology articles.

In the early 1980s, the AES became incorporated as a sub-section of the AAA, with the American Ethnologist journal under its responsibility and the American Anthropologist journal remaining with the AAA. Throughout its history, the American Ethnological Society has maintained its own membership, board of directors, and distinct identity as a significant association of anthropologists.