Graebner, Fritz

views updated


GRAEBNER, FRITZ (18771934), German ethnologist, was born on March 4, 1877, the son of a schoolteacher in Berlin. Graebner attended school in Berlin from 1887 to 1895 and studied history, German philology, and geography, and other subjects (especially ethnology) at the universities of Berlin and Marburg (18951901). In 1901 he received his doctorate in philosophy at Berlin with a dissertation on medieval history. By this time he was already employed at the Berlin Museum of Ethnology as an auxiliary scientific assistant.

In 1906 he transferred to the museum of ethnology in Cologne (called the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum after those who endowed it), became a full assistant there in 1907, and the museum's director in 1925. In 1911 he qualified as a privatdocent at the University of Bonn. His work was interrupted by his capture in Australia at the outbreak of World War I; because he was German, he was kept prisoner there until 1919. In 1921 he was appointed professor extraordinarius at Bonn and in 1926 became an honorary professor at the University of Cologne. However, he was unable by this time to lecture any longer, because he was already suffering from a serious illness that soon made all scientific work impossible. He retired in 1928 and returned to his native city, Berlin, where he died on 13 July 1934.

Graebner's fields of specialization were the cultures of Oceania and Australia. He first became generally known in the field of ethnology through his 1904 lecture "Kulturkreise und Kulturschichten in Ozeanien," which was delivered at a meeting of the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory and published in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 37 (1905). (Bernhard Ankermann, a colleague of Graebner, delivered the lecture "Kulturkreise und Kulturschichten in Afrika" at the same meeting.) From then on, Graebner produced numerous detailed studies that dealt with, among other things, themes of social organization and spiritual culture (thus it is wrong to consider him merely a "museum ethnologist" who concentrated in a one-sided way on the material aspects of culture). In these studies he made broad comparisons that ranged throughout the world. Contesting the theories, prevalent at the time, of the more or less unilinear evolution of culture and the "elementary idea," Graebner (in his first book, Methode der Ethnologie, 1911) took up ideas first espoused by Friedrich Ratzel and Leo Frobenius and developed the culture-historical method. This method seeks to bring cultural-historical processes to light even where written sources are lacking or insufficient. To this end, Graebner's method begins with particular facts and seeks to establish "culture circles" (Kulturkreise ), then to infer from the geographical locations of these complexes their "culture strata" (Kulturschichten ), that is, the relative ages of cultures and their reciprocal influences, and, finally, to uncover the origins of individual cultures.

Because a culture circle must comprise all the necessary categories of cultural life, including religious ideas, Graebner also took up certain problems of the history of religions. He rejected speculations that traced all religious manifestations back to a single primordial phenomenon (e.g., animism or belief in magic); he subjected the theories of E. B. Tylor and James G. Frazer to detailed criticism and sought, unlike them, to bring to light the religious phenomena typical of individual culture circles or, as the case might be, larger cultural groups. Thus he regarded patrilinear and matrilinear cultures not as phases of a single standardized development but as independent cultural forms that coexisted with each other; he established, for example, that animism, worship of the dead, and lunar myths played a greater part in matrilinear cultures, whereas belief in magic and sun myths were more important in patrilinear cultures. He discussed this system (which was in large measure taken over by Wilhelm Schmidt) in many essays on specific topics, in the relevant sections of his comprehensive presentation of ethnology ("Ethnologie," in Die Kultur der Gegenwart, edited by Paul Hinneberg, 1923) and in full detail in his final major work, Das Weltbild der Primitiven (1924). In this last book he represented the religious ideas of nonliterate peoples as the points of departure for the religions of the high cultures and for subsequent philosophical systems.

See Also

Schmidt, Wilhelm.


Studies about Fritz Graebner are included in Paul Leser's "Fritz Graebner: Eine Würdigung," Anthropos 72 (1977): 155, and my article, "Fritz Graebner und die kulturhistorische Methode der Ethnologie," Ethnologica (Cologne) n. s. 8 (1979): 751. See also Jürgen Zwernemann's Culture History and African Anthropology: A Century of Research in Germany and Austria (Uppsala, 1983).

New Sources

Klaus E. Müller, "Grundzüge des ethnologischen Historismus," in Grundfragen der Ethnologie, edited by W. Schmied-Kowarzik and J. Stagl (Berlin, 1981), pp. 193231 is a comprehensive masterful presentation of the culture-historical methodology in its relationship with the American culture-area doctrine. On Graebner's theory of Kulturkreis and its antecedents see also Giovanni Casadio, "Bachofen, o della rimozione," in Agathe Elpis. Studi storico-religiosi in onore di Ugo Bianchi, edited by G. S. Gasparro (Rome, 1994), pp. 7378, 7071.

Joseph Henninger (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell
Revised Bibliography