(b. 30 October 1907 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 4 January 1995 in Chicago, Illinois), anthropologist best known for his pioneering studies of Native American cultures; for founding the journal Current Anthropology; and for establishing the discipline of “action anthropology.”
Tax was the third of four children born to Morris Paul Tax, a builder and inventor, and Kate Hanowit Tax, a homemaker. When he was a child, his family moved from the Russian Empire to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Interested in political science and economics, Tax considered careers in politics and law. Even as a teenager, he knew that he wanted to help people to help themselves, a tenet at the core of action anthropology. He later reflected, “Physically small and shy, I compensated and had some success in helping like-minded peers to do together good things that we couldn’t do separately.”
After graduating from Riverside High School in Milwaukee, he enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1926 and later transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1928 he changed his major to anthropology upon the encouragement of the university’s first anthropologist, Ralph Linton, who told the young student that there were only about fifty professional anthropologists in the United States at the time.
After receiving a Ph.B. degree in anthropology in 1931, Tax began his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. His major influences during this time were the anthropologists Robert Redfield and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. The latter, a visiting professor from England whose expertise lay in kinship patterns, inspired Tax to turn his attention to the study of social organization among Native American tribes, particularly the Mesquakie (Fox) of Iowa. For the next three years, Tax conducted ethnographic research with the Mesquakie. His fieldwork provided the foundation for essays in the anthology Social Anthropology of North American Tribes (1937) as well as his doctoral dissertation. He was awarded his Ph.D. degree in 1935.
In 1934 Tax was hired as an ethnologist for the Carnegie Institution. In this capacity, he moved to Guatemala, where he would remain for the next seven years, studying the Maya Indians of the region. His wife, Gertrude Jospe Katz Tax—they married on 4 July 1933 and had two daughters—accompanied him and assisted with his fieldwork. Tax’s mentor, Redfield, whose own research focused on the Maya of the Yucatán, directed the study. Their correspondence was later published as Fieldwork: The Correspondence of Robert Redfield and Sol Tax (1991).
Tax’s extensive Guatemalan fieldwork included studies of the economy, social relations, folk culture, and world-view of the indigenous peoples in the region. Several publications arose out of this work, most notably Penny Capitalism: A Guatemalan Indian Economy (1953). During this time, he was appointed a research associate with the University of Chicago (1940–1944).
In 1941 Tax moved to Mexico, where for the next four years he continued his studies of the Maya for the Carnegie Institution. He was a visiting professor at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City from 1941 to 1943.
Upon his return to the United States in 1944, Tax became an associate professor at the University of Chicago, and in 1948 a full professor. He remained at the university until his retirement in 1974 and became professor emeritus in 1976. During his tenure, he held several administrative posts, including chairman of the anthropology department (1955–1958) and dean of the university extension (1963–1968).
Tax resumed his study of the Fox Indians of Iowa as director of the Fox Indian Project (1948–1962), supervising the fieldwork of graduate students. A turning point occurred when his students expressed their desire to help the Native Americans; however, they were divided over the best solution to challenges such as urbanization and assimilation. The anthropologists finally concluded that it was not their place to decide such matters; rather, they would place their knowledge at the service of the Mesquakie. Thus the seeds of action anthropology were sowed.
In 1952 Tax participated in the Wenner–Gren Foundation’s International Symposium on Anthropology in New York and became the principal editor of An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, a collection of papers presented at the conference. His association with Wenner–Gren led to his becoming founding editor (1957–1974) of Current Anthropology, an international journal devoted to the exchange of ideas and information in all fields of anthropology.
Having devoted so much of his life to the study of Native American cultures, Tax was a natural choice to coordinate the American Indian Conference in Chicago in 1961, where approximately 700 Native American attendees drafted a “Declaration of Indian Purpose.” In keeping with his principle of action anthropology, Tax resisted actively guiding or influencing the discussions, instead acting as a logistical coordinator. In the process, he gained a reputation as a leading advocate of self-determination for Native Americans. To him, the idea that the Indians be allowed to direct their own future was hardly radical. He said, “If you stop to think of it, the idea that they had never been asked, so to speak, ‘What would you like to have happen to you?’ is kind of a crazy thing.”
Throughout most of his career, the indefatigable Tax simultaneously held posts in government, academia, and cultural and anthropological associations, while continuing his fieldwork and journalistic pursuits, striking a balance between the theoretical and practical aspects of his field. He served as associate editor (1948–1952), then editor (1953–1956) of the American Anthropological Association’s journal, and was president of the association from 1958 to 1959. He was also president of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (1968–1973), and directed the Carnegie Cross-Cultural Education Project (1962–1967) and the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for the Study of Man (1968–1976).
Tax received the Viking Fund Medal and Award for anthropological achievements in 1962. In 1977 he was awarded both the Distinguished Service Award of the American Anthropological Association and the Bronislaw Malinowski Award of the Society for Applied Anthropology.
He died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-seven and was buried in Chicago.
Through a lifetime of helping others to help themselves, Tax inexorably altered the face of anthropology. As the founding editor of Current Anthropology, he was instrumental in establishing anthropology as a global discipline, maintaining a dialogue between anthropologists in all specialties, all over the world.
The Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago is home to the Sol Tax Papers, 147 linear feet of materials including correspondence, field notes, articles, papers, lecture notes, photographs, and memorabilia. The collection is cataloged in Jean M. O’Brien and Robert E. Moore, Guide to the Sol Tax Papers (1989). Additional material, particularly regarding the Fox Project and the 1961 American Indian Chicago Conference, is housed in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1988 Tax recalled his career in an autobiographical essay, “Pride and Puzzlement: A Retro-introspective Record of 60 Years of Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 17. Robert A. Rubinstein, “A Conversation with Sol Tax,” Current Anthropology (Apr. 1991), contains excerpts from a series of 1986 interviews. Robert Hinshaw, ed., Currents in Anthropology: Essays in Honor of Sol Tax (1979), contains a preface charting Tax’s career and essays by twenty-seven authors including both of Tax’s daughters—Susan Tax Freeman, an anthropologist, and Marianna Tax Choldin, an authority on censorship and Soviet studies. Hinshaw also wrote a detailed essay on Tax in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1979). Sam Stanley, “Community, Action, and Continuity: A Narrative Vita of Sol Tax,” Current Anthropology (Feb. 1996), contains a detailed examination of Tax’s professional achievements. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Jan. 1995).
Brenda Scott Royce