Dedicating himself to the dual goals of “action anthropology” and the internationalization of anthropology, Sol Tax was instrumental in changing anthropological practice and pioneering new forums for anthropological debate. Although he published relatively little over the course of his career, Tax made significant contributions in three theoretical areas of anthropological research: acculturation, capitalism in small-scale societies, and cultural identity.
With regard to action anthropology, Tax’s activist-oriented approach to anthropological practice led the way to the contemporary approaches to applied anthropology. During the 1940s, Tax opposed what was then considered applied anthropology because it was based in an ideology of modernization that disregarded the culture of those being aided. In order to disassociate himself from applied anthropology of the time, he conceptualized action anthropology as a practice in which anthropologists not only learn but, of equal importance, aim to help. Such ethnographic projects must consider the opinions, needs, and critiques of those who are the subjects of study and aid. His contributions are recognized by the Society of Applied Anthropology, which awards the Sol Tax Distinguished Service Award to anthropologists who have demonstrated long-term commitments to applied approaches, communication among the subdisciplines, ethical practices of research, and editing anthropological journals.
As director of the Fox Indian Project, Iowa from 1938 to 1962 and as an ethnologist working for the Carnegie Institution in Guatemala from 1934 to 1946, Tax participated in substantial ethnographic projects, in which his action anthropological approach was evident. With the Fox project his position on action anthropology congealed. Reacting against the acculturation models of post-World War II anthropology, Tax took the position that then current models— preserving traditions and acculturation into the dominant society—were theoretically inadequate and failed to serve the best interests of the Fox. In contrast, Tax argued that the Fox and other American Indians were and continued to be active agents in the processes of change. The culmination of the Fox project and his position on action anthropology came with the pan-Indian “American Indian Chicago Conference” in 1961, which focused on the future, not on their past and the maintenance of tradition.
Tax’s research in Guatemala proved to be the most fruitful theoretically. For more than 50 years, his book, Penny Capitalism, has generated debates within anthropology as well as within other disciplines about the effects of capitalism on and the economic rationality of members of small-scale societies. Furthermore, it preceded Chaynovian-inspired analyses of household peasant economics by nearly 15 years. Parallel to the economic debates are those related to cultural and ethnic identity. Under his influence, Mesoamericans ceased to be identified as members of tribes, and he recognized that identity was oriented first around community, not language. More importantly, his discussions of Mesoamerican indigenous identity anticipated postmodern theories of difference and power relations as essential components to cultural identity.
From organizing international symposia to translating many of the ethnographic monographs associated with the Carnegie project into Spanish, Tax’s most significant contribution to the internationalization of anthropology was the founding of the journal Current Anthropology in 1959 with the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Since its inception, with Tax at its helm for the first 15 years, the journal has been dedicated to publishing anthropological research from all subdisciplines submitted by international scholars and reviewed by an international board.
- Stocking, G. W. Jr. (2000). “Do good, young man”: Sol Tax and the world mission of liberal democratic anthropology. In R. Handler (Ed.), Excluded ancestors, inventible traditions: Essays toward a more inclusive history of anthropology. History of anthropology (Vol. 9, pp. 171-265). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
- Tax, S. (Ed.). (1952). Heritage of conquest: The ethnology of middle America. New York: Coopers Square Publishers.
- Tax, S. (1953). Penny capitalism: A Guatemalan Indian economy. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute of Social Anthropology.