Bruner, Edward M. | University of Illinois Archives

Name: Bruner, Edward M.

Historical Note:

Edward M. Bruner (1924- ), University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, is a pioneering figure in the field of anthropology. He is especially known for his research and writing on tourism but he began his academic career studying the Mandan and Hidatsa on the Fort Berthold Reservation and the Batak in Sumatra.

Detailed Biography:

Born in 1924, Edward M. Bruner grew up in New York City on the Upper West Side.  Bruner attended Stuyvesant High School and then went on to Ohio State University where he became an engineering major.  In 1947 he transferred to Columbia University to finish his engineering studies.  At Columbia he took an anthropology class and was so excited by the subject that he decided to become an anthropologist.

After receiving an M.A. at Ohio State, Bruner won admission to the University of Chicago, an international leader in the field of anthropology.  While there, he did field research on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, studying kinship change in the Mandan-Hidatsa community.  Bruner discovered that the American kinship system had not replaced the old Mandan-Hidatsa system; instead, the two systems existed side-by-side.

He obtained his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1954 and accepted a job as an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University.  At Yale Bruner began studying the Toba Batak, ethnic peoples of North Sumatra.  He and his wife Elaine spent the year of 1957-58 in a Batak village.  It was an experience that they would never forget.  Elaine became fluent in the Batak language and was even adopted as a daughter by a local clan.  In the late-1960s and early-1970s, the couple returned to Sumatra to continue their studies on social change and urban migration.  In 1997 Bruner and his wife visited Sumatra one more time.

Denied tenure at Yale, Bruner obtained a professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1961 after a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto.  The UIUC anthropology department had made a name for itself with such notable figures as Julian Steward, Joseph Casagrande, and Oscar Lewis, and Bruner found a welcome home here.  He proved to be an excellent and innovative teacher; his Personal Anthropology class, introduced in 1978, was one of the first of its kind.  He also found time to serve as director of the Doris Duke American Indian Oral History Project.

Around 1980 Bruner took a postmodernist turn after attending a reading group at UIUC.  Bruner came to view culture as something that was always in the process of being constructed and re-constructed.  He liked to say that we all enter society in the middle.  The books he co-edited with Victor Turner during this period, Text, Play, and Story (1984) and The Anthropology of Experience (1986), demonstrated how postmodern theories could be applied in anthropological practice.  During the late-1980s, a heated conflict developed between the old-school so-called scientific anthropologists and the postmodernists.  Wading into this debate, Bruner urged moderation and argued that both sides could learn from the other.

A 1983-84 stint as the leader of a study abroad program focused the attention of Bruner on the subject of tourism, an area of research largely neglected by anthropologists up to that point.  Subsequently studying tourist performances in Kenya, Ghana, New Salem, Illinois, Masada, Bali, and a Jakarta theme park, Bruner summed up his research in his well-received 2005 book, Culture on Tour.  Bruner disputed the notion of tourist performances as somehow being authentic cultural representations, a notion favored by the tourist industry.  For Bruner, these performances were newly created cultural constructions.

In 2005 the American Anthropological Association devoted a session at its annual meeting to the work of Edward M. Bruner.  Since 1994 Bruner has been an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He is an accomplished photographer who has well documented many of his trips abroad

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