Culture and Ethnology
This week’s SMOPS paper is Robert Lowie’s book Culture and Ethnology, which I have cut down to 19 pages. Robert Lowie was one of the most polemical of the Boasians — the phrase ‘attack dog’ has been used, I believe — and is remembered today for many things: his role in creating the Berkeley department of anthropology, his ethnography of the Crow, and his work on the nascent field of kinship studies. Undoubtedly, however, it Lowie’s defense of Boasian orthodoxy that stands out. In his book Primitive Society he forcefully repudiated the Victorian evolutionary theorists that Boas opposed, and towards the end of his life he sparred with Leslie White in the pages of American Anthropologist over the prospects of a revised evolutionary perspective. His undeservedly under-read The History of Ethnological Theory has moments that resemble some sort of Victorian Twitter flipout…
The most widely read piece of Lowie’s is the final chapter of Primitive Society. It is a chapter that bears rereading and deserves its place in anthropological history, even if his quote about the ‘shreds and patches’ nature of culture is usually read out of context. But Lowie also deserves to be remembered for Culture and Ethnology, a little volume that appeared in 1917. Like many of the Boasians, Lowie aimed to be a popularizer and produced many books designed to appeal to a wide audience by summarizing the findings of the Boasians. Culture and Ethnology is one of the many books produced by Boas’s first students in the late teens and 1920s which summarized that paradigm that solidified in that time period and which was exemplified in Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man.
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Robert Lowie’s Culture and Ethnology. Culture and Ethnology is worth reading today because it captures in a nutshell the fundamental arguments of Boasian anthropology and presents them in condensed form. It was originally a series of three lectures given at the American Museum of Natural History in 1917. A fourth and final chapter which focused on kinship was then added to these and the whole were published as a small book. In the book Lowie asks a simple question: how can we study culture, and what causes cultural phenomena? His answer is that culture is a ‘sui generis’ (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) force. Each chapter takes up a potential cause of culture — first psychology, then race, and then environment — and demonstrates that none of them can explain culture on its own. Culture, he argues, cannot be reduced to any of these things, even though it interacts with them. Neither, he argues, can culture be explained by any universal tendency for all societies to move through the same evolutionary stages.
What causes culture? The answer, for Lowie, is: History. In order to understand the state of any particular culture, we must understand the unique historical circumstances that produced it. These circumstances always include diffusion of culture traits across time and space. For him, to explain the culture of a particular peoples is to write a history of the influences that have shaped it. In making this claim Lowie draws on arguments that were familiar to all Boasians at the time. But while the Boasians are often depicted as particularist to a fault, it is worth noting that Lowie emphasizes that there are recurrent patterns and trends in the ethnographic data that make it possible to help explain particular cases, and which may someday lead to general formulations about culture process.
Culture and Ethnology is now almost one hundred years old, and our knowledge of the human record has increased immensely. It is telling, then, that Lowie’s fundamental claims continue to hold up even as the evidentiary ground has shifted under them. Culture cannot be reduced to individual psychology — in fact, increasingly today philosophers and psychologists understand the individual to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for mind. Lowie’s denunciation of biological theories of racial supremacy seems tepid given what we know about biology today. And in an era when our choices of energy consumption threaten the environment itself, it is quaint to think that it may determine us rather than the other way around.
At the same time, American culture still predisposes it adherents to be attracted to reductive, biologistic, and individualistic theories of human conduct. For this reason, Lowie’s message is still always already relevant. And for a discipline with the decades of theoretical crust gathered around its core, it is useful to remember what our core argument is — or at least what it has been for the American anthropological tradition.
For this reason, this book will appeal to graduate students, new faculty, or adjunct lecturers seeking to craft introductory courses in anthropology for undergraduate students. Indeed, you can basically teach this book as it stands — perhaps with the examples changed to fit your interests and the current state of scholarship — as the basis for a lecture class on introductory anthropology. For readers interested in anthropology, this book can serve as an introductory course in and of itself, provided one understand that the arguments are correct even if the evidence used to make them now seems out of date.
This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Culture and Ethnology. Already a short book, I have compressed it here to nineteen pages. This has been achieved by pruning Lowie’s somewhat convoluted style. This piece has been edited for brevity, concision, and clarity. In a few cases I have altered verbs and nouns for agreement when editing the text caused them to disagree. These are indicated with brackets. I have also shortened the text by removing multiple examples used to make a point where only one example is truly necessary. Most importantly, I have omitted the long last chapter on kinship. This is a technical, and not particularly clearly written piece written before standard kinship terminology was settled on. It is difficult to read and, Lowie’s claims to the contrary, does not fit very well with the previous four chapters. Readers interested in the history of kinship theory should definitely return to Lowie’s original text to read this last chapters. Most readers, however, will not miss it.
I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.