Kroeber, Alfred Louis

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Kroeber, Alfred Louis 1876-1960


Alfred Louis Kroeber earned the second PhD awarded in anthropology in North America, and is regarded as a founder of the modern discipline. He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey to well-to-do German-speaking parents. Although his family is often described as Protestant, Kroeber attended the Ethical Culture School, which though officially nonsectarian was associated with a secular humanist strand of Judaism. He studied English at Columbia College, switching to anthropology after meeting the charismatic and forceful Franz Boas. His twenty-eight-page dissertation Decorative Symbolism of the Arapaho (1901) was an analysis of specimens he collected for the American Museum of Natural History. Kroeber spent his academic career in California, where he established the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and directed what became the Museum of Anthropology there. He retired in 1946, but remained active in the field until his death.

Kroeber married twice. His first wife, Henrietta Rothschild, died in 1913 of tuberculosis. He married Theodora Kracaw Brown in 1926, and adopted her sons, Theodore and Clifton, from an earlier marriage. Theodora and Alfred had two more children, Ursula and Karl. The Kroebers were an academic and literary family. Theodora published many books, including Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), a biography of a California Indian. Alfred Kroebers relationship to Ishi has recently become a controversial subject addressed in Ishi in Three Centuries (2003), a collection of scholarly articles edited by sons Karl, a professor of literature, and Clifton, a historian. Kroebers daughter is the science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin.

Alfred Kroeber regarded anthropology as a method for doing history. His academic research and writings addressed two broad concerns: theorizing the nature of culture, and delineating the boundaries of and patterns within specific cultures. In the case of the latter, this can be appreciated in his archaeological investigations in Nazca, Peru, through which he contributed to the archaeological concept of seriation, or relative dating, by observing stylistic changes over time. Cultural boundaries figured into his work on the culture area concept published in Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (1939), whereas patterns within cultures was the subject of his much criticized Configurations of Culture Growth (1944). In both works he developed typologies of cultures based on compilations of traits. For Kroeber, a culture was something analogous to grammar: Both were composed of unconscious mental rules or patterns that could be discerned and described.

Perhaps Kroebers most controversial idea concerned his concept of culture generally. In a 1917 article published in American Anthropologist he described culture as superorganic, an entity that existed apart from and independent of individuals. It was not inherited, only transmitted socially. In other words, culture caused culture.

One corollary of this was that individuals and individual variation were inconsequential to describing specific cultures. The trouble with this position is that it ignores the context in which people, the culture bearers, live. The problem is illustrated in a story told by the late George Foster, a founder of medical anthropology and one of Kroebers students at Berkeley in the 1930s. As a young graduate student Foster was expected to learn how to collect ethnographic data by interviewing an elderly member of a northern California Indian tribe, a man who had been Kroebers informant many years earlier. As required, Foster traveled to northern California and conducted a series of interviews about Native culture with the old man. Finally, the elder told Foster he would have to stop the interviews as he was becoming exhausted from reading Kroebers Handbook of the Indians of California (1925) every evening in order to have something to tell Foster each day.

Kroebers understanding of culture as monolithic also informed his relationship with the Native California man known as Ishi (c.18601916). Ishi was the sole survivor of a group of northern California Indians hunted, harassed, and dislocated by white ranchers and other settlers. In 1911, alone and starving, Ishi came into the town of Oroville, where he was jailed and then turned over to Kroebers Department of Anthropology. Kroeber, like others in that era, believed Ishi to be the last wild Indian, and therefore to be in possession of culture uncontaminated by civilization. Kroeber arranged for Ishi to live and to be a living exhibit at the University of California museum. Kroeber also arranged for his academic colleagues, T. T. Waterman and Edward Sapir, to work with Ishi to record his culture and language. The story of Ishis life in San Francisco is well told in a film made for public television, Ishi, The Last Yahi (1992). Ishi died of tuberculosis while Kroeber was in Europe, and despite Kroebers supposed directive to the contrary, his body was autopsied for science. Kroeber himself sent Ishis brain to the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution. The whereabouts of Ishis brain and Kroebers role during Ishis last years of life became a controversy in 1999. Eventually, the brain was removed from the museum and was buried with Ishis cremated remains in northern California in 2000.

Kroebers actions and his academic work show him clearly as a man of his time. Despite theoretical and methodological shortcomings now apparent in his work, Kroeber rightly deserves recognition for his contributions to the discipline of anthropology: He published more than 600 scholarly articles and books; along with Boas, he is responsible for institutionalizing anthropology as a university-based discipline; and most significantly, he established culture as the primary object of North American anthropological inquiry, where it remains a productive subject for social theory.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Boas, Franz; Culture; Ethnography; Jews; Le Guin, Ursula K.; Native Americans



Kroeber, A. L. 1901. Decorative Symbolism of the Arapaho. American Anthropologist 3: 308-336.

Kroeber, A. L. 1917. The Superorganic. American Anthropologist 19: 163213.

Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Kroeber, A. L. 1939. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kroeber, A. L. 1944. Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Kroeber, Theodora. 1961. Ishi in Two Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kroeber, Karl, and Clifton Kroeber, eds. 2003. Ishi in Three Centuries. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Pamela Stern

Alfred Louis Kroeber

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Alfred Louis Kroeber

The American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) was one of the major proponents of the so-called Boasian school of American anthropology.

Alfred Kroeber was born on June 11, 1876, in Hoboken, N. J. He entered Columbia College in 1892, where he helped to found Morningside Magazine. He received a bachelor's degree in 1896 and a master's degree in 1897.

During his junior year Kroeber began to study with Franz Boas, who had come to Columbia in 1895 to build a department of anthropology. Kroeber signed up for Boas's course in North American Indian languages and became fascinated by the grammatical intricacies of Chinook. In 1897 Kroeber interviewed Eskimos brought to New York by Adm. Perry. His first articles, on their folklore, appeared in 1899. That same year Kroeber began his first fieldwork among the Arapaho, and this work formed the basis for his dissertation on Arapaho decorative art. He received his doctorate in 1901.

Kroeber then accepted a position as instructor in a new department of anthropology established at the University of California at Berkeley. The department was originally intended as a research institution, but Kroeber almost immediately began offering academic instruction as well. He taught at Berkeley until 1946 and was professor emeritus until his death. He was also curator of the anthropological museum from 1908 to 1925, when he became director, a position he held until 1946.

Under Kroeber's leadership, California developed the country's strongest undergraduate anthropological teaching program. The founding of academic departments, at California and elsewhere, meant formalization of existing teaching methods. Kroeber thus wrote an introductory textbook, Anthropology (1923), and prepared a reader, A Sourcebook in Anthropology (1925), in collaboration with T. T. Waterman.

Gradually, Kroeber came to consider description of California Indians as his life's work. Linguistic classification provided a valuable means of recovering the cultural history of the American Indians. Accordingly, in 1903 Kroeber and Roland Dixon attempted to classify the linguistic diversity of California's Indians, placing 16 languages in only three structural types, which they named Penutian, Hokan, and Ritwan. A decade later, addition of systematic vocabulary lists to grammatical evidence led to the conclusion that the structural similarities were genetic.

Archeology and Ethnology

Kroeber was one of the first to apply seriation, or typological classification, to archeological finds in North America. His work at a Zuñi pueblo in 1915 convinced him that archeology, as well as ethnology and linguistics, could be used to reconstruct the history of cultures without written records. In 1922 Kroeber began his studies of Peruvian archeology, using seriation to the virtual exclusion of archeological context. His major summary of the Peruvian work appeared in 1944. After a heart attack in 1943, however, Kroeber decided that his possible contributions to the systematization of California ethnology deserved priority.

American archeology and ethnology relied heavily on the concept of the culture area—a geographical region sharing numerous cultural traits. Kroeber's Cultural and Natural Areas of Native America (1939) stressed the ecological correlates and technological skills of such areas for exploitation of the same environments at different times in history. He also argued that culture areas focused around a "culture climax," or area of greatest elaboration. Consequently, Kroeber sought regularities in the growth of arts and industries in historically distinct cultures, but his data failed to reveal any broad-scale patterns.

Spokesman of American Anthropology

Kroeber became the recognized spokesman of American anthropology. In 1948 he revised his textbook, expounding his view of the integrated nature of the discipline. By 1952 "culture" had come to be the integrating concept of a holistic anthropology in America. Indeed, Kroeber had long believed that culture was "superorganic," that is, larger than the individual and independent of the biological nature of individuals.

Although Kroeber specialized in California ethnology, he was concerned with other areas as well, writing, for example, on the peoples of the Philippines. He also turned to problems of relating anthropology to other disciplines, particularly psychology and biology. He sought to define human nature by the range of known cultural diversity and by contrast with social life of different kinds of animals.

Kroeber was a member of numerous scientific societies, and he held six honorary degrees. After his retirement in 1946, he continued to teach at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and Yale until his death in Paris on Oct. 5, 1960. With the increased specialization of anthropology, it is unlikely that any future anthropologist will control the range of knowledge and interests characteristic of Kroeber's entire career.

Further Reading

There is an excellent biography of Kroeber, written by his wife: Theodora Kroeber, Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration (1970). The development of Boasian anthropology is discussed in detail in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968), and George W. Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968). □

Kroeber, Alfred Louis

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Kroeber, Alfred Louis (1876–1960) US anthropologist, one of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the early 20th century. Kroeber helped to advance the study of Native North American ethnology, linguistics, and folklore.