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Lowie, Robert H.

Lowie, Robert H.



Robert H. Lowie (1883–1957), American anthropologist, was born in Vienna of a German mother and a Hungarian father. From the time he was ten he lived in New York City. In 1897 he entered City College, concentrating on Latin and Greek for the first two years and then on science. After he received his B.A. in 1901 he taught for three years in the New York public schools. Then he began graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, studying primarily with Franz Boas; his minor field was psychology. He volunteered his services to Clark Wissler at the American can Museum of Natural History and was sent by Wissler on his first field trip, to the Lemhi Sho-shone, in 1906. In 1908 he received his PH.D. from Columbia, with a thesis on a subject in comparative mythology. Lowie spent most of his active professional life at two institutions: at the American Museum, from 1907 to 1917, and at the University of California at Berkeley, from 1917 until 1950. He married Luella Cole, a psychologist, in 1933. His last teaching position was at Harvard in the summer of 1955.

Lowie was exceedingly productive: his bibliography totals about four hundred separate pieces of writing—14 books, 18 monographs, 3 translations of monographs, 203 reviews, and numerous articles. Nearly all his works were on ethnology, but he did include some archeology in his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (1934) and collected three volumes of texts in the Crow language. His many honors attest to the recognition of his contributions: he served as president of several major professional societies (the American Folklore Society, 1916–1917, the American Ethnological Society, 1920–1921, and the American Anthropological Association, 1935–1936); he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1931; he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1941; he gave the Huxley lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1948; and he was awarded the Viking medal in the same year. He also served his profession as editor of the American Anthropologist from 1924 to 1933.

Approach to theory Lowie’s theoretical position was, in his own words, middle-of-the-road (Selected Papers, p. 13); for example, on the subject of the correlation of semantic categories in kinship terminologies, on the one hand, and social structure and behavior, on the other, he took a position somewhere in between Kroeber’s historical one and the functional view propounded by Radcliffe-Brown. He refused to accept theories when he considered the supporting evidence to be weak, as in the case of Freudian interpretations of cultural behavior, for he insisted that ethnology is a science and that its theories must be supported by facts.

Of all Lowie’s books, Primitive Society (1920) had the greatest impact on anthropology. Although Kroeber criticized the book for being too destructive of old theories and too little concerned with replacing them (Kroeber 1920), and although White repeatedly berated Lowie for being too harsh with L. H. Morgan (White 1943; 1944; 1945), Primitive Society dominated social organization theory until the almost simultaneous appearance of three new books, one by Lowie himself (1948), one by Murdock that appeared in 1949, and one by Levi-Strauss, also in 1949. Lowie’s 1920 book would have been great even if it had done nothing more than clarify terminology, but it contained so much more that graduate students reading it for the first time are often surprised to find that it anticipates much of current teaching.

Although Lowie used no explicit sampling technique, he was familiar with so wide a range of ethnographies that many of his global generalizations have since been confirmed by more refined methods. The broad scope of the book, which includes chapters on property, associations, rank, government, and justice, in addition to the discussion of kinship, is paralleled most closely by Hoebel’s general textbook, published in 1949. Lowie’s theoretical position in Primitive Society reflects that of the Boas historical school. While not denying independent invention and parallel and convergent evolution, especially in the field of economics, Lowie did reject the evolution of social organization proposed by L. H. Morgan and emphasized the dominant role of diffusion: “Creating nothing, this factor [diffusion], nevertheless makes all other agencies taper almost into nothingness beside it in its effect on the total growth of human civilization” ([1920] 1947, p. 434).

Lowie’s History of Ethnological Theory (1937) shows more tolerance of the opinions of others than does Primitive Society. Although Lowie regarded many of the extreme diffusionist views and evolutionary sequences of the German Kulturkreis school as being undemonstrable, he nevertheless conceded (1937, p. 190) that the correlations the German anthropologists had obtained between feminine tillage, matrilocal residence, matrilineal descent, bride service, and monogamy were correct. These correlations have been confirmed statistically in recent years. Similarly, although Lowie had little use for Radcliffe-Brown’s more general laws, he accepted the correlations Radcliffe-Brown had established among specific variables of kinship terminology and social organization. For instance, Radcliffe-Brown (1913) was the first to point out that in Australia four-section systems of social organization and marriage with a first cross-cousin were associated with one kind of kinship terminology, while eight-section systems and marriage with a second cross-cousin went with a different kind of kinship terminology.

Psychology and anthropology Lowie maintained an interest in psychology throughout his life, mentioned it in many of his writings, and devoted a section of his History of EthnologicalTheory (1937, pp. 262-274) to it. He regarded psychology as the study of innate behavior, in contrast to the learned behavior of culture, and he pointed out that ethnological studies had shown that many kinds of behavior are in fact culturally determined, although they had previously been thought to be of genetic origin. At the same time he suggested that mythology and religion have common elements across cultures which are derived from dreams, and that these dreams may have some sort of biological basis. Lowie accepted Gal ton’s notion that individual differences between members of the same society may be in part genetically determined, and even that there might be significant genetic differences between races, not in overall ability but in special abilities, such as aptitude for music. He was among the first anthropologists to point out that cultural selection is a part of natural selection (1937, p. 267) and that it can in part determine which genes will be advantageous and which will be deleterious. He tended to distrust the sweeping Freudian generalizations of the early personality studies by ethnologists and never fully endorsed personality as an important subdiscipline within ethnology.

During World War II, Lowie taught an “area course” on Germany and the Balkans at Berkeley. This led to a book on Germany (1945), a field trip to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in 1950/ 1951, and a second book on Germany in 1954. Lowie did a considerable amount of interviewing on the field trip, and he read a large amount of material on Germany, including self-evaluations by Germans. The 1954 book was concerned principally with describing the impact of the war on the personalities of German people.

Anthropological analysis Lowie’s many mono-graphs on North American Indians, which were written for the most part while he was connected with the American Museum, are excellent. His field work on the Crow Indians goes far beyond the kind of cultural inventory that was common at the time and includes many insights into functional relationships. Take his description of the chaos that would result from an endogamous marriage within a single sib (or clan):

A Crow in such circumstances loses his bearings and perplexes his tribesmen. For he owes specific obligations to his father’s relatives and others to his mother’s, who are now hopelessly confounded. The sons of his father’s clansmen ought to be his censors, whereas his mother’s are bound to shield him from criticism; but now the very same persons are his joking-relatives and his clansmen. The dilemma affects others as well as himself. ([1948] 1960, p. 237)

The historical and comparative summaries at the end of his work on Plains Indian age-societies (1916a) were praised even by Boas, who was critical of so many historical reconstructions. They are still cited as among the best examples of the kind of comparative and historical interpretation produced by the Boas school.

It was in one of his early articles (1916b) that Lowie showed how well a balance can be preserved between historical and “sociological” (i.e. functional) interpretation of such data as kinship terminologies. Indeed, since more recent cross-cultural studies of kinship terminologies have largely ignored historical explanations, they have in this respect retrogressed from Lowie’s position of 1916. However, in works by Naroll (1961; 1964), Naroll and D’Andrade (1963), and Driver (1966), Lowie’s dual interpretation has been confirmed in applications to geographical distributions. It is an interpretation that can, in fact, be applied to almost all anthropological data.

Lowie wrote a number of articles in which he drew on more than one academic discipline (see Selected Papers, pp. 189-290) and in which he reached, among others, the following conclusions: that oral traditions are not reliable history and that a more accurate history can be inferred from careful comparative study in ethnology, archeology, linguistics, and physical anthropology; that all races are not necessarily equal in all inherited mental abilities just because they have not been proven to differ; that the concept of incorporeal property is common in primitive societies; that economic factors can explain only a minor part of cultural behavior; and that the progression from American Indian societies with the simplest form of government to the totalitarian state of the Inca was not a simple one. There was no unilineal development toward ever greater centralization of authority; for example, the Iroquois avoided military despotism because it would have conflicted with the separatism of their matricentered kinship organization.

Lowie’s theory of evolution acknowledged the general increase in culture complexity through time and the increase in the efficiency of economic productivity, but it denied the inevitability of any universal increase in complexity and efficiency: particular races, languages, or cultures may either level off, retrogress, or become extinct rather than evolve toward greater complexity. Lowie also denied the inevitability of moral progress.

Lowie was early aware of the possibility and desirability of applying correlation techniques to cross-cultural variables, and in a book published in 1948 he also discussed the relation of correlation to the laws of evolution. Although he himself never applied the method of correlation to cross-cultural data, he praised Murdock’s 1949 book for doing so. He was well aware of the essentials of scientific method in cross-cultural comparisons, such as the necessity of basing generalizations on representative samples. He pointed out also the lack of precise definition of the ethnic unit (society) and the equally vague definition of some of the variables (culture traits) being correlated. Rather than abandon quantitative methods entirely, Lowie argued for refinement of such definitions and caution in inferring time sequence or causality from correlations. In his books of world-wide scope he consistently cited sufficient evidence from every major world area, so that the .generalizations he made have never been invalidated by statistics or even been challenged. In his comparative writings he made use of all the major explanations of resemblances in the culture inventories of ethnic units: universals, parallels, convergences, diffusions, and heritages from a common protoculture.

Most of Lowie’s field work was done under the supervision of Clark Wissler of the American Museum of Natural History, who directed him to do reconnaissance in central Canada and the entire Great Basin area in the United States. When he was permitted to remain with the Crow Indians for a relatively long period of time, Lowie’s field work was superb. His modest appraisal that his descriptions of material culture were not as competent as Wissler’s may be correct, but his work on social organization and religion surely excelled that of his mentor and became a model for those who followed. He obtained most of his information from a small number of informants, but he occasionally used a larger number when he suspected significant individual differences, as in reports of visionary experiences. In addition to collecting material in English from competent bilinguals, he obtained three volumes of texts in the Crow language, thus preserving for the future a large amount of primary data.

Harold E. Driver

[See alsoEthnography; Indians, North American; Political Anthropology; Social Structure; and the biographies ofBoas; Kroeber; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Radcliffe-Brown; Wissler].


1916a Plains Indian Age-societies: Historical and Comparative Summary. Volume 11, pages 881-1031 in American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers. New York: The Museum.

(1916b) 1960 Historical and Sociological Interpretations of Kinship Terminologies. Pages 65-74 in Robert H. Lowie, Selected Papers in Anthropology. Edited by Cora DuBois. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1920) 1947 Primitive Society. New York: Liveright. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Harper.

(1921) 1960 A Note on Aesthetics. Pages 137–142 in Robert H. Lowie, Selected Papers in Anthropology. Edited by Cora DuBois. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

(1934) 1952 An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar.

1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar.

1942 Studies in Plains Indian Folklore. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 40, no. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1945 The German People: A Social Portrait to 1914. New York and Toronto: Farrar.

(1948) 1960 Social Organization. New York: Holt.

1954 Toward Understanding Germany. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1959 Robert H. Lowie, Ethnologist: A Personal Record. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Selected Papers in Anthropology. Edited by Cora DuBois. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960. → Thirty-three papers written or published between 1911 and 1957.


Bibliography of Robert H. Lowie. 1958 American Anthropologist New Series 60:362–375.

Driver, Harold E. 1966 Geographical-Historical versus Psycho-Functional Explanations of Kin Avoidances. Current Anthropology 7:131–182.

Hoebel, E. Adamson (1949) 1958 Man in the Primitive World: An Introduction to Anthropology. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kroeber, A. L. 1920 [A Book Review of] Primitive Society, by Robert H. Lowie. American Anthropologist New Series 22:377–381.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude 1949 Les structures elementaires de la parente. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Murdoch, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Naroll, Raoul S. 1961 Two Solutions to Galton’s Problem. Philosophy of Science 28:16-39.

Naroll, Raoul S.; and D’andrade, Roy G. 1963 Two Further Solutions to Galton’s Problem. American Anthropologist New Series 65:1053–1067.

Naroll, Raoul S. 1964 Fifth Solution to Galton’s Problem. American Anthropologist New Series 66: 863-867.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1913 Three Tribes of Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43:143–194.

Radin, Paul 1958 Robert H. Lowie: 1883–1957.American Anthropologist New Series 60:358–361.

White, Leslie A. 1943 Energy and the Evolution of Culture. American Anthropologist New Series 45:335–356.

White, Leslie A. 1944 Morgan’s Attitude Toward Religion and Science. American Anthropologist New Series 46:218–230.

White, Leslie A. 1945 Diffusion vs. Evolution: An Anti-evolutionist Fallacy. American Anthropologist New Series 47:339–356.

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Robert Harry Lowie

Robert Harry Lowie

The Austrian-born American anthropologist Robert Harry Lowie (1883-1957) specialized in the culture of the Plains Indians in North America.

Robert H. Lowie was born on June 12, 1883, in Vienna. His parents emigrated to the United States in 1893, and Lowie entered the City College of New York in 1897, studying classics and reading randomly in natural science. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1901, he taught in New York public schools until 1904, when he began graduate study in psychology at Columbia. Lowie soon became involved with the anthropological program taught by Franz Boas and changed his professional aspirations. He received his doctorate in 1908.

Lowie's fieldwork began in 1906, when he studied the heavily acculturated Lemhi Shoshoni for the American Museum of Natural History. He also made a survey of Plains Indians over several consecutive summers and was one of the first to do intensive fieldwork with a single tribe. His focus on Crow ethnology grew out of fieldwork during part of each summer between 1907 and 1916 and again in 1931; he reported his results in many technical papers and in The Crow Indians (1935). Lowie's Indians of the Plains (1954) summarized the survey fieldwork, adding later results by other workers, in a popular form.

In 1921 Lowie became associate professor at the University of California; in 1925 he was promoted to full professor. From 1922 to 1946 he served as cochairman of the anthropology department and from 1946 to 1950 as sole chairman.

Lowie's major contributions to American anthropology were theoretical, although his own fieldwork provided examples. He was familiar with European, particularly German, philosophy, history, and literature and served as American interpreter of German anthropological and psychological theories. In his first book, Culture and Ethnology (1917), he tried to relate "culture," the integrating concept of American anthropology under Boas, to race, psychology, and environment. Primitive Society (1920), again primarily Boasian, was intended to popularize the American approach to anthropology. Primitive Religion (1920) was a more personal statement and had less effect. Introduction to Culture Anthropology (1934) provided a topical exposition of anthropology as then taught in the United States. The History of Ethnological Theory (1937) summarized Lowie's views on the development of his profession. Social Organization (1948) attempted to update Primitive Society with the addition of examples from more recent and sophisticated ethnographic reports. These books were in some ways closer to Lowie's teaching than to his fieldwork since they attempted to place anthropology as he saw it in a meaningful context for students and interested laymen as well as for his colleagues.

Politics and political philosophy concerned Lowie. His works in this field included The Origin of the State (1927) and Are We Civilized? (1929). During World War II he helped with Army training courses. His concept of anthropology made that science relevant to politics and to the study of modern society as well as of primitive tribes in transition from their old ways of life to modern civilization.

Lowie received numerous professional honors, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He was president of the American Folklore Society in 1916, the American Ethnological Society in 1920, and the American Anthropological Association in 1935. He edited the American Anthropologist briefly in 1912 and again from 1924 to 1933. He died of cancer on Sept. 21, 1957, in Berkeley, Calif.

Further Reading

Lowie's autobiography, Robert H. Lowie, Ethnologist, was published posthumously in 1959. The development of Boasian anthropology has been discussed in detail by Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968); George Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968); and Regna Darnell, The Development of American Anthropology, 1879-1920: From the Bureau of American Ethnology to Franz Boas.

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Lowie, Robert Harry

Robert Harry Lowie, or Robert Heinrich Lowie (lō´ē), 1883–1957, American anthropologist, b. Vienna, grad. College of the City of New York, 1901, Ph.D. Columbia, 1908. He was on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History from 1908 until 1921. From that year until his death he taught at the Univ. of California. Lowie gained international fame through his studies of the Native North American, especially the northern Plains tribes, and his contributions to ethnological theory. His book, Primitive Society (1920, 2d ed. 1947), and its sequel, Social Organization (1948), are regarded as classics in their field. Other writings include Primitive Religion (1924, rev. ed. 1948), An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (1934, rev. ed. 1940), The History of Ethnological Theory (1938), and Indians of the Plains (1954). His autobiography was published in 1959; the Crow Texts translated and edited by him and Selected Papers in Anthropology appeared in 1960.

See biography by R. F. Murphy (1972).

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Lowie, Robert H.

Lowie, Robert H. (1883–1957) A student of Franz Boas, Lowie's book Primitive Society (1920) was the first modern survey of social organization in non-Western societies since the decline of evolutionism. Lowie was not afraid to attack the theories of Lewis Henry Morgan and did this on the basis of his own ethnography among Native Americans. His major works (The Origin of the State, 1927, and Social Organization, 1948) expanded on Morgan's speculative theories of the development of the state. According to Lowie, the state is based on territoriality, legitimacy, and the monopoly over the means of violence, a far more modern analysis than that of Morgan. However, Lowie insisted on imposing a rigid scientism on his research, which is not really suited to the study of human subjects.

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