Defending Racial Studies: the International Institute of Anthropology during the Interwar Period (1920–1939)

Established in France in 1920, the International Institute of Anthropology (IIA) promoted a study program in physical and racial anthropology during the interwar period. Housed in the premises of the Société d'anthropologie de Paris (SAP) the institute’s creation is linked to a context of ‹crisis› in French anthropology. At the beginning of the 20th century, the emergence of new currents, ethnography and sociology, challenged the discipline, including its initial inclusion in the natural sciences, which resulted in a drop in the SAP's membership. Thus, the creation of the IIA aimed to reaffirm the primacy of research on the physical and physiological characteristics of the human body and met some success abroad. During this period, the number of institutions in favor of physical anthropology increased, in Switzerland, the United States or Romania, where the discipline became institutionalized at the university.

The IIA became a place of exchange and circulation among anthropologists at an international scale and attracted scientists from more than twenty countries. However, its program and disciplinary categorization earned it various criticisms, and in the 1930s, ethnologists and prehistorians opted to create their own congresses. Another concern was the French predominance, which the IIA tried to remedy by offering its leadership to the Swiss Eugène Pittard and by opening up to anthropologists from Eastern European countries.

The aim of this paper is to identify the strategies put in place by the IIA and its members to defend the institution and its program of racial anthropology in the 1930s, and to trace its development as well as the growth of its network at an international scale.