Plying scientific disinterest: Morton, Agassiz, Nott, and problems of American ethnology in the nineteenth century



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The American School of Ethnology came into being at a tumultuous time in U.S. history. Debates over slavery intensified as did disagreements within ethnology over definitions of race and the meaning of species as it applied to mankind. Ethnology as a field of inquiry was straining to become a hard science, in the hope that it might explain man's origins and place in the natural world. Meanwhile, the disciplinary fluidity of ethnology saw theorists of every sort weigh in on these questions as its findings became a part of public and political discourse. This paper argues that the practice of ethnology during this time and the rise of the American School in particular were shaped by the careful manufacture and manipulation of science-like cues. Quantitative methods brought a new and respectable rigor to what had previously been a field of inquiry steeped in description and impression. I examine the ethnological careers of Samuel G. Morton, Louis Agassiz, and Josiah Nott, and plot their unique roles in the rise of the American School as a movement, and argue that the manipulation of scientific disinterest and visual culture served as persuasive tools in furthering that program.