The Institute of Social Anthropology was established under the directorship of Julian H. Steward on September 8, 1943, as an autonomous unit of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Its purpose was to set up cooperative Institutes of Social Anthropology for scientific research and training in certain Latin American countries, each working under the guidance of the Smithsonian Institution. This program was carried out under the auspices of the Interdepartmental Committee on Scientific and Cultural Cooperation in Latin American of the U.S. Department of State, and was financed by funds transferred from the State Department to the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Steward directed the Institution of Social Anthropology until September, 1946, when he was succeeded by George M. Foster, who continued as director until the Institute was abolished in 1952.
At its outset, the ISA staff consisted of eight social scientists (four social anthropologists, two cultural geographers, a linguist, and a sociologist) stationed in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru (for a short time in 1950 a station was established in Guatemala, but it was discontinued the same year for lack of funds). Their duties consisted in instructing local students (in collaboration with Latin American universities and other institutions) in social science research techniques through classroom, laboratory, and field situations, and in assisting with publication projects. In 1948, the budget was cut to allow for only six scientists. The ISA continued in this capacity until 1949, when the Inter-departmental Committee on Scientific and Cultural Cooperation was abolished, and it was placed under the Division of International Exchange of Persons, another State Department Committee. The ISA did not form an organic part of this new program, and the State Department decided to terminate its support as of December 31, 1951.
Following this time, the ISA integrated its activities with the Institute of Inter-American Affairs. In the spring of 1952, the IIAA requested that all ISA personnel who so desired be permanently incorporated into the IIAA organization. This terminated the activities of the Institute of Social Anthropology as such