The Society for Applied Anthropology was founded at a meeting at Harvard University in October 1941. It was incorporated in the same year under the laws of the state of Massachusetts. The purpose of the society has been "the promotion of scientific investigation of the principles controlling the relations of human beings to one another and the encouragement of their wide application."
The main organ of the Society for Applied Anthropology has been the Journal of Applied Anthropology, which became Human Organization in 1949. One issue of a newsletter, apparently part of a promotional effort to increase the society's membership, was issued in mimeograph in 1950. An early project of the society, started in 1951, was the Clearinghouse for Research in Human Organization and its Bulletin, published between 1951 and 1957, aimed to keep members informed of ongoing research and publications in applied anthropology. Beginning in 1978, the society has published the periodical Practicing Anthropology.
Since 1956, the society has issued special publications, largely in a series of monographs which was begun in 1959.
Since its establishment, the society has understood anthropology as broadly defined and its membership has included anthropologsts, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, industrial managers and engineers, and persons of other allied vocations. Quite early in its history, the members were divided into active and subscribing members. In 1962, the active members became fellows of the society, a group of professionals who elect the society's officers from their own ranks.
The officers of the society have been a president, vice president (in early days the society also had regional vice presidents and more recently a president-elect instead of a vice-president), secretary, treasurer, editor of Human Organization, editor of Practicing Anthropology, and elected councillors. These form the executive council that has control of the society's affairs. With the establishment of the class of fellows, there was also established a Council of Fellows which hears reports from the officers and deals with other matters brought before it by the executive committee.
Several significant developments have taken place in the society which may be of significance directly or indirectly in considering the available documents. The society, for example, was a pioneer among social science organizations in developing a code of ethics. Adopted first in 1948, the code has been revised in 1963 and again in 1974. Another development came shortly after the society was founded when it began to make contracts to carry out applied anthropological work for government and private organizations. The arrangements involved the society's turning and making a contract with an individual to carry out the work. Yet another development came with the authorization in 1952 of local affiliates of the society.
Such local organizations were temporarily established in North Carolina. During the 1980s, the idea of affiliates came up again.
Quite early in its history, the society established a central office in the city of New York. It was moved to Ithaca, New York, in 1956 and to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1966. In 1970, certain business activities were turned over to the office of the executive director of the American Anthropological Association in Washington. In 1983, this arrangement was ended and the Society for Applied Anthropology established its own office in Washington.