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KULTURKREISELEHRE . Kulturkreiselehre (doctrine of culture "circles"), also called the cultural-historical method, refers to a model developed at the beginning of the twentieth century by German-speaking ethnologists to provide ethnology with a cultural-historical perspective. The intention of these scholars was to change the study of preliterate peoples into a historical science, freeing it from the naturalistic approaches that, influenced by positivism, had been dominant since the beginning of the nineteenth century and that still form a theoretical model of reference.

In anthropological works in English and the main Romance languages, the German word Kreis is often translated as "circle" or "cycle," but this translation is inaccurate because the use of Kulturkreis as a concept is intended to indicate the contextthe complex of conditions in which a particular culture is developed and spread and, at the same time, the entire extent of its important characteristics. These aspects are not an integral part of the concept of a "circle," whereas the term cycle is concerned exclusively with the chronological aspect. For this reason it would be more appropriate to use the expression culture ambit-complex, which is, like the common expression culture area, a concept particular to modern historical and idiographic thought developed in the United States through criticism of the generalized ideas of history devised by writers such as Franz Boas (1940). This article, however, retains the traditional term to avoid confusing the reader.

By setting up culture "circles," that is, various areas governed by the same or a dominant culture (in the view of the cultural-historical school) ethnology ceased to be either the unsystematic collecting of artifacts or the binding of disparate artifacts under the concept of evolutionism or unilinear development. Cultural historians also maintain that their method allows them to identify the differences between preliterate peoples, to characterize cultural phases, and to provide a concrete demonstration of the historical relationships between cultural phenomena, avoiding inadequately argued references to the a priori psychological unity of the human race.

From what has been stated above, it can be concluded, as Marvin Harris (1968) stresses, that from a cultural-historical perspective the culture circles are also strata or phases of a universal chronological plan (based upon the assumption that cultures should be placed in an evolutionary sequence according to the level of civilization attained). For many, this was what evolutionists had already doneconstruct a completely hypothetical history. The notion of the "cultural stratum" has a long history developed by authors such as Gian Battista Vico (16681744) and Johann Jakob Bachofen (18151887), who identified three Kulturstufen. This notion, which seems to precede the organicism of some cultural historians, is based upon the belief that every cultural form is a living thing that comes into being, develops, and disappears (Casadio, 1994).

The precursors of the cultural-historical method were the Russian naturalist Nikolaj Yakovlevič Danilevsky (18221865) and the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (18441904). In his Anthropogeographie (18821891) and Völkerkunde (18851888), Ratzel attempted to resolve the conflict between convergence theory (egregiously represented in Adolf Bastian's notion of Elementargedanken ) and diffusionism, in favor of the latter. Ratzel applied, for the first time, the zoological migration theory to explain the expansion, migration, and layering of cultures. He used the "form criterion"based upon the identification of material objects that have been made in the same form, not determined by their function or the physical properties of the material employedto confirm contacts, often across great distances, between cultures. Ratzel's pupil Leo Frobenius, however, is considered the founder of the cultural circle theory. According to Paul Leser (1964), however, Ratzel devised the concept of Kulturkreis, even if Frobenius was the first to use the expression in the modern sense. With the aid of the "quantitative criterion" (the more numerous the similarities between two cultural elements, the more likely there will be a historical-genetic relationship between them), Frobenius proposed a "West African culture area" in his Der Ursprung der afrikanischen Kulturen (1898). From this concept, however, he later developed the notion of "culture morphology," in which culture was conceived as a living organism whose development was determined by a soul (paideuma ). Adopting an irrational position, Frobenius held that the inner meaning of culture can only be understood by intuition.

Frobenius's work was joined by the scholarship of Bernhard Ankermann, in "Kulturkreise und Kuhurschichten in Afrika," and Fritz Graebner, in "Kulturkreise und Kulturschichten in Ozeanien," which appeared in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 37 (1905). With his Die Methode der Ethnologie (1911), Graebner created the methodological basis for ethnology and introduced methods of historical inquiry, especially the methods developed in Ernst Bernheim's Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (5th ed., 1908). Another important methodological contribution to the cultural-historical school is found in the work of the Jesuit historian and theologian Henri Pinard de la Boullaye (19291931), who added new criteria to be used for a more precise historical analysis of cultural phenomena. A majority of the young ethnologists of the period gathered under the banner of the cultural-historical method, even if they did not always make use of Kulturkreis, which was replaced by other similar concepts.

Wilhelm Schmidt's Contribution

The Viennese linguist and ethnologist Father Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954) developed the concept of the culture circle into an extended system by unifying it and incorporating new elements. In his Handbuch der Methode der kulturhistorischen Ethnologie (1937), Schmidt wrote that a culture complex can be called Kulturkreis if it embraces all the essential categories of human culture, such as material culture, economy, and religion. Through the continuing scholarship of Wilhelm Koppers, Martin Gusinde, and Paul Schebesta, the concept of the cultural circle acquired acceptance in the history of religion and periodically dominated discussion in the area of the ethnology of religion. In his twelve-volume work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (19121955), Schmidt used the Kulturkreiselehre to support the theory of primordial monotheism (Urmonotheismus ).

In 1906 the periodical Anthropos became the mouthpiece of Schmidt's Viennese school. To quantitative and form criteria, Schmidt added the criteria of continuity and relatedness as a means of determining relatively uniform cultural complexes. He emphasized the temporal factor and the succession of cultural strata in time, and thus introduced the question of the origin and development of the culture areas. The Viennese ethnologist employed the cultural stratum idea (Kulturschicht ), which, like Kulturkreis, was an organic complex produced by an almost biological determinism, but he did not recall his predecessor Bachofen (Casadio, 1994). According to some scholars, among the followers of the historical-cultural school there is variation between the atomistic concept of culture, in which diverse cultural characteristics coexist, and the organic conception, which instead opens the way to the functionalism moderated by the historical approach of Richard Thurnwald and Wilhelm Mühlmann.

According to Schmidt, cultural elements can be compared only if they are related to each other or occur within the same cultural complex. In determining the origin of the cultural complex, a double rule applies: a cultural element can be explained only within its own cultural complex, and in this explanation the oldest cultural forms are of primary significance. The Kulturkreise proposed by Schmidt are:

  • l. Primitive cultures, characterized by preliterate hunters and gatherers:
  • 1.1 Central primitive culture; exogamous and monogamous marriages.
  • 1.2 Southern primitive culture; exogamous marriages and sex totems.
  • 2. Primary cultures, characterized by preliterate agriculturalists:
  • 2.1 Exogamous marriages, patrilineal kinship; totemism, higher-stages hunting; "city" culture.
  • 2.2 Exogamous marriages, matrilineal kinship; horticulturist; "village" culture.
  • 2.3 Patrilineal kinship, undivided families; pastoral nomads who become ruling races.
  • 3. Secondary cultures, characterized by picture writing:
  • 3.1 Free patrilineal cultures (e.g., Polynesia, the Sudan, western India, western Asia, southern Europe).
  • 3.2 Free matrilineal cultures (e.g., southern China, eastern India, Melanesia; the northeast of South America).
  • 4. Tertiary cultures, characterized by alphabet use (the oldest civilizations of Asia, Europe, and the Americas).

Schmidt presumes a succession that is distinguished from the older evolutionism schema but that assumes, in effect, a reverse evolution, or a "devolution." This reversal becomes particularly obvious in Schmidt's religious historical schema. In primitive cultures the belief in a Supreme Being dominates; this belief is interpreted as primordial monotheism. In the next stage, primary cultures, the belief in spirits (animism), magic, and totemism (animal worship) emerges. These beliefs increasingly stifle monotheism and eventually result in the polytheism of the higher cultures, but the earlier monotheistic stage is finally revived by the biblical religions.

Nineteenth-century British evolutionists were lined up against a similar concept of religious history, defined as "degenerationism," supported, for example, by the Anglican archbishop of Dublin Richard Whately. In particular, Edward B. Tylor (1871) produced a timely critique of degenerationism to demonstrate the validity of his progressive concept of history inspired by the thinking of the followers of the Enlightenment.

Without a doubt, Schmidt sought through the use of the Kulturkreiselehre a historical proof of the existence of God. It is small wonder, then, that this school has fallen into disrepute among ethnologists, because it appears to serve the aims of Catholic theology more than those of unbiased research. The members of the Viennese school, especially Josef Haekel and Walter Hirschberg, have increasingly distanced themselves from Schmidt's ideas.

Methodological Debate

The establishment and research of cultural historians gave rise to an interesting debate, in which anthropologists and religious historians pointed out what, in their opinion, were the strong and weak points of this ethnological point of view, which had spread in German- and Italian-speaking circles (with the occasional French exception, such as Georges Montandon). This convergence of Italian- and German-speaking scholars is particularly owed to the fact that both groups were Catholics. In addition, some of them were priests and played an important part in the political life of the Catholic Church.

Italian diffusionists include Renato Biasutti, Renato Boccassino, Padre Luigi Vannicelli, Vinigi L. Grottanelli, and Guglielmo Guariglia, who as well as devising important criticisms of the theories of the Viennese school were also followers of it. Subsequently, Italian ethnology and cultural anthropology were influenced by other sources, such as British functionalism, American anthropology, and French structuralism.

The above debate has concerned both the purely methodological aspects of Kulturkreiselehre and the application of its principles to specific cultural contexts. The article "Some Reflections on the Method and Theory of the Kulturkreiselehre " (1936) by the U.S. anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn is an important piece of writing in this debate. Kluckhohn proposes to identify the assumptions (influenced by scholastic philosophy) and objectives of the historical-cultural method, avoiding misunderstandings due to the unspoken premises and emotional involvement of every scholar. He considers the form criterion to be subjective, in that its application implies a choice on the part of the scholar. He also identifies a contradiction in the historical-cultural point of view. On the one hand, it claims that ethnology is historically authentic; on the other hand, it treats cultural facts as facts of nature, extrapolating them atomistically from their context. In his opinion, its extensive use of naturalistic metaphors means that it is dominated by biological thinking and is particularly concerned with identifying genetic-causal links between phenomena. For this reason it seems to ignore the fact that, to understand the history of cultural phenomena, one ought to identify the close relationships between them. On this point the criticism of Kluckhohn agrees with that of the Italian ethnologist Ernesto de Martino (1941), who considers unacceptable the mechanistic and naturalistic concept of history typical of the historical-cultural school, like evolutionism and French sociology. This concept seems to be based upon the lack of interest in psychology shown by cultural historians and pointed out by some scholars.

The link with biology, not unknown in fields such as social anthropology, is also identified by Boas and Robert H. Lowie. Boas, for example, states that Kulturkreiselehre bases the stability of cultural complexes upon the biological principal of the permanence of the characteristics of a particular entity (Boas, 1911, p. 807). Although Kluckhohn and Lowie recognize that the cultural historians refer to the basic tenets of the Catholic Weltanschauung, they still do not maintain that these, more than others, invalidate the results of their research. After all, they seem to be supporters of methodological pluralism, convinced that cultural anthropology benefits from the use of different methods.

Another important moment in the development of the theory of cultural environment was the publication of Robert Heine-Geldern's "One Hundred Years of Ethnological Theory in German Speaking Countries" (1964). Heine-Geldern reconstructs the history of ethnology in German-speaking countries, setting out elements of continuity between the various scholars. In his opinion, the work of Ratzel is of great importance, as he brought to an end the stagnation that had characterized German thinking, which had been dominated by the doctrine of Elementargedanken in the period 18601890 (Heine-Geldern, 1964, pp. 411412). He notes that the historical-cultural school has a candid and dogmatic belief in the temporal stability of cultural complexes, denying the dynamic nature of culture (Heine-Geldern, 1964, p. 413). Such a claim, however, is denied by Paul Leser (1964, p. 417). For Leser, Graebner was convinced that two cultural elements, if not functionally linked, tend to separate in time.

The criticism of evolutionism and the naturalistic approach produced diffusionism in Europe and particularism in the United States. Both incorrectly identified evolutionism with the denial of the processes of diffusion and the exclusive acceptance of independent invention. The two trends thus had these two aspects in common, but they parted company over psychological interpretation and several specific ethnographical problems. In the United States the particularists, who made extensive use of diffusion to explain the similarities between different social groups, developed the idea of "cultural area." As Harris (1968) writes, this concept, used for the first time by Otis T. Mason in 1895, allowed the Amerindian scholars, such as Clark Wissler and Alfred L. Kroeber, to describe and classify the societies of North and South America.

Thus the discussion surrounding the culture circles has continued outside the Vienna School. Hermann Baumann and Wilfred D. Hambly have presented different models for Africa, and Clark Wissler, Edward Sapir, Melville J. Herskovits, and A. L. Kroeber have done the same for the Americas. There is no longer the problem of identifying the oldest culture in which the prehistorical "primitive stage" has survived, as found in Oswald Menghin's Weltgeschichte der Steinzeit (1931).

Many anthropologists have gone beyond the contradiction between independent invention and diffusion, because they are convinced that the presence of a cultural institution in a particular context is the result of so-called structural causality. From this point of view, the various aspects of sociocultural life are explained and interpreted by reference to the complex interaction of structural and environmental conditions. It is therefore held that similar structures have produced similar institutions in different contexts, or that a cultural trait has been received or adopted as useful to the social organization by the process of transculturation.

See Also

Evolution, article on Evolutionism; Frobenius, Leo; Graebner, Fritz; Schmidt, Wilhelm.


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Kurt Rudolph (1987)

Alessandra Ciattini (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis