Who Was Alfred Kroeber and Why Is He Important in Anthropology?
Alfred Kroeber was an American cultural anthropologist who played a key role in the development of modern anthropology in the United States. He was the first student of Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, and the first professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He also founded and directed the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where he conducted extensive research on Native American cultures, languages, and archaeology.
In this article, we will explore some of the major contributions and controversies of Alfred Kroeber’s life and work, and why he is still relevant for anthropology today.
Kroeber’s Contributions to Anthropology
Kroeber was a prolific writer who published more than 500 works on various topics in anthropology. Some of his most influential works include:
- Anthropology (1923; revised edition 1948): This was one of the first general textbooks on anthropology that introduced the four-field approach (cultural, biological, linguistic, and archaeological anthropology) and the concept of cultural relativism, which argues that cultures should be understood in their own terms and not judged by external standards.
- Configurations of Culture Growth (1945): This was an ambitious attempt to trace the patterns and processes of cultural change and development across human history, using examples from art, literature, religion, science, and technology.
- The Nature of Culture (1952): This was a collection of essays that explored various aspects of cultural theory, such as culture and personality, culture and society, culture and history, and culture and evolution.
Kroeber also made significant contributions to the study of Native American cultures, especially in California. He documented and classified hundreds of languages and dialects, collected thousands of artifacts and specimens, and recorded oral histories and myths. He also worked with Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, who became a living source of information about his culture.
In addition, Kroeber conducted archaeological research in New Mexico, Mexico, and Peru. He introduced controlled excavation methods and used stylistic analysis to determine chronological sequences. He also contributed to the understanding of the origins and development of complex civilizations in the Andes.
Despite his achievements and influence, Kroeber was not without criticism and controversy. Some of the issues that have been raised about his work include:
- Ethical concerns: Kroeber’s research practices were often objectionable to many Native Americans and violated their rights and dignity. For example, he collected human remains without consent or proper care, displayed sacred objects in museums without regard for their meaning or context, and published sensitive information without regard for its consequences.
- Cultural bias: Kroeber’s views were shaped by his own cultural background and assumptions. For example, he tended to favor Western civilization over other cultures, he ignored or downplayed the role of women and gender in culture, and he failed to acknowledge the impact of colonialism and oppression on Native American cultures.
- Theoretical limitations: Kroeber’s theories were often descriptive rather than explanatory or predictive. For example, he focused on documenting cultural diversity rather than explaining its causes or consequences, he avoided engaging with social or psychological factors that influenced culture, and he rejected the idea that culture could be studied scientifically or objectively.
Kroeber died in 1960 in Paris at the age of 84. He left behind a rich legacy of scholarship and teaching that influenced generations of anthropologists. He also left behind a family of notable writers and scholars. His second wife Theodora Kroeber was a writer who popularized Ishi’s story in her book Ishi in Two Worlds. His daughter Ursula K. Le Guin was a renowned novelist who wrote science fiction and fantasy books that explored themes of culture, gender, ecology, and politics.
Kroeber’s name was also associated with several institutions and honors. The anthropology department building