Herskovits, Melville Jean

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Herskovits, Melville Jean



Melville Jean Herskovits (1895–1963) was an American anthropologist. Two points are central in understanding his conception of anthropology: first, he was a humanist concerned with the total range of cultural behavior and, second, he believed that the inductive method is the only valid methodology for anthropology. In both he revealed the pervasive influence of Franz Boas, his teacher at Columbia University.

The most complete presentation of Herskovits’ views is found in Man and His Works (1948), revised and abridged as Cultural Anthropology (1955). Culture was the inclusive concept for him, comprehending the behavioral and the ideational, the group and the individual. His humanistic orientation was apparent in his interest in the individual, whom he viewed as an active participant in the shaping of culture. As the individual was important in his view of culture, history was important in his ideas of culture change. Acculturation, reinterpretation, retention, and syncretism are concepts which he helped formulate and each has its historical dimension.

The continuity of past and present was a frequent theme of Herskovits’ studies of Africa and of the Negro in the New World. It was his thesis in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) that New World Negroes reveal their west African heritage in motor habits, codes of behavior, social institutions, family organization, religion, language, and art. In opposition, sociologists argued that synchronic factors adequately explain American Negro behavior and that it is unwise to link the Negro so directly to his origins in west Africa [see the biography ofFrazier], Although the book stimulated interest in Africa among some students of the New World Negro, it did not achieve general attention for almost two decades, when some of the facts about Africa became better understood.

Herskovits’ approach to cultural change was theoretical as opposed to practical in its orientation. He was always critical of applied anthropology and, in this as well as in his historical approach, was at variance with much of the work of British anthropology in Africa. His views on these points were summarized in Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact (1938a), which was the subject of a rejoinder by Malinowski (1939) in behalf of functionalism and administration-oriented anthropology that appeared in Africa.

Herskovits’ opposition to applied anthropology was to a large extent based in cultural relativism. Although he in no sense originated the concept, in Man and His Works and in subsequent writing he became one of its most uncompromising spokesmen. He derived relativism from the enculturative experience through which standards of judgment are learned, and from this he concluded that judgmental evaluations of cultures are culture-bound. This, of course, does not abrogate comparison but implies that the bases of comparison are culturally determined and should be made explicit. He insisted that the concept of relativism had relevance to all cultural learning and called attention to the influence of culture on perception. He felt that it was important to distinguish between “absolutes,” which vary from culture to culture, and “universals,” which are consequences of the human condition; and he concluded, “To say that there is no absolute criterion of value or morals, or even, psychologically, of time or space, does not mean that such criteria, in differing forms, do not comprise universals in human culture” (1948, p. 76). Cultural relativism led him to reject the term “primitive,” though he had used it extensively, as a pejorative, to indicate a lack of unity of custom, tradition, belief, or institution. He subsequently used “nonliterate,” a term which he felt was more neutral and descriptive.

Consistent with his humanistic interests, Herskovits was interested in religion, music, graphic and plastic arts, and folklore, particularly in African cultures. Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-cultural Analysis (1958), written with Frances S. Herskovits, who collaborated with him throughout his career, is a detailed group of tales assembled during their first African field trip. It is an important work because it carefully relates the narratives to their cultural matrix and abstracts from them items of comparative theoretical interest. Herskovits was interested in the ways culture influences the arts, as well as the ways the arts validate culture. He used both religious and aesthetic data to document African retentions among New World Negroes.

If Herskovits was often humanistic in his orientation he was not narrowly so, and he did not neglect the social aspects of culture. One of his earliest interests was in the field of economics, and The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940) was the first general text in that field. It stressed the importance of the cultural context of economic behavior and the limitations of a conception of economics based exclusively upon experience in Western society. However, he adopted the conventional, “formal” definition of economics, the application of scarce means to given ends, and, in the main, tried to follow the categories of academic economics in ordering his data. This compromise is most apparent in the first chapter of the revised edition, entitled Economic Anthropology (1940). While Polanyi and his followers (Polanyi et al. 1957) proposed a more sociological, “substantive” definition of economics, Herskovits, typically, objected that their approach seems to deny the role of individual choice and concluded that “we must not reject Economic Man only to substitute Society as an exclusive formula for understanding economic behavior and as a base-point for analysis” ([1940] 1952, p. 8). Polanyi was even more skeptical than Herskovits about the application of traditional economics to nonliterate behavior. His followers have suggested that the characteristics of markets, money, and surpluses in industrial society are so peculiar that the terms are scarcely applicable in nonliterate societies. While Herskovits saw the difference between the economies of nonliterate and industrial society as being one of degree, followers of Polanyi, like George Dalton, see them as differing in kind. It is worth noting that the field of economic anthropology has developed along the general directions of Herskovits’ pioneering efforts. [SeeEconomic Anthropology; Exchange and Display; Trade and Markets; and the biography ofPolanyi.]

Africa was an early interest of Herskovits; his doctoral thesis was on the cattle complex of east Africa. His culture area mapping (1924; see also Bascom & Herskovits 1959) has been used extensively. Many early American Africanists were trained in the program of African studies that he founded and directed at Northwestern University. As interest in Africa expanded, the African Studies Association was formed with Herskovits as its first president. One of his last books, The Human Factor in Changing Africa (1962), is a summary of his encyclopedic knowledge of the continent, his interest in culture change, and his humanistic orientation.

James H. Vaughan, Jr.

[For the historical context of Herskovits’ work, see the biography ofBoas; for discussion of the subsequent development of Herskovits’ ideas, seeFolklore; Historiography, article onAfrican Historiography; Primitive Art.]


1924 A Preliminary Consideration of the Culture Areas of Africa. American Anthropologist New Series 26: 50–64.

1928 The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing. New York: Knopf.

(1937) 1964 Life in a Haitian Valley. New York: Octagon Books.

(1938a) 1958 Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

1938b Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. 2 vols. New York: Augustin.

(1940) 1952 Economic Anthropology: A Study in Comparative Economics. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf. → First published as The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Norton.

1941 The Myth of the Negro Past. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1958 by Beacon.

1948 Man and His Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf.

1955 Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf. → An abridged revision of Man and His Works, 1948.

1958 Herskovits, Melville J.; and Herskovits, Frances S. Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-cultural Analysis. Northwestern University African Studies, No. 1. Evanston, III.: Northwestern Univ. Press.

(1959) 1962 Bascom, William R.; and Herskovits, Melville J. (editors) Continuity and Change in African Cultures. Univ. of Chicago Press. → See especially page 37 in the 1959 edition.

1962 The Human Factor in Changing Africa. New York: Knopf.


Malinowski, Bronislaw 1939 The Present State of Studies in Culture Contact: Some Comments on an American Approach. Africa 12:27–47.

Merriam, Alan P. 1964 Melville Jean Herskovits, 1895–1963. American Anthropologist New Series 66:83–109. → Includes a bibliography of 479 items by Herskovits, compiled by Anne Moneypenny and Barrie Thorne.

Polanyi, Karl; Arensberg, Conrad M.; and Pearson, Harry W. (editors) 1957 Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economics in History and Theory. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Melville Jean Herskovits

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Melville Jean Herskovits

The American anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits (1895-1963) is famous for his research on Africa and his pioneer studies in African American ethnology.

Melville Herskovits was born in Belefontaine, Ohio, on Sept. 10, 1895. He received his education at Columbia University. Later he founded the program of African studies at Northwestern University, where many of the first American African specialists were trained. When the African Studies Association was formed, he became its first president.

Herskovits is chiefly famous for his much-debated thesis that African American culture owes much to the African way of life, expressed in his Myth of the Negro Past (1941). The "myth" that he tried to destroy was that the ancestral cultures of blacks were primitive, with Africans making no contribution to the history of the world, and that under the slave regime of the antebellum South virtually all traces of African culture—except, perhaps, certain survivals in music and the dance—had been destroyed. Not only did Herskovits maintain that Africanism existed in a black American subculture, but he argued that certain of these cultural traits had been transmitted to the whites.

Herskovits held that African survivals were less common in the United States than in Brazil or the Caribbean because of the higher proportion of whites to blacks in the American South and the absence of mountain or jungle retreats where escaped slaves could have developed stable communities without white interference. African survivals were thus strongest among the inhabitants of the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia because of their relative isolation. He tried to show that their speech and syntax, once thought to be derivative from archaic dialects of 16th-century England, were derived from Africa. Although the African influence upon black music and dance, both of which in turn influenced white culture, was recognized and accepted, Herskovits contended that much of black folklore, magic, and folk medicine could also be traced to African origins, as could their mutual aid societies and funeral practices.

African American scholars and liberal whites involved in bettering race relations at first opposed Herskovits's thesis on the existence of a black subculture in North America. The inescapable implication of his thesis was that African Americans were an unassimilable group, unable to adjust to white middle-class society, a group immalleable to the "melting pot." In opposition to Herskovits's thesis, his antagonists attempted to explain the existence of the black pattern of culture not on the basis of African derivations but on the basis of social oppression and economic degradation. With the rise of the black power ideology and such movements as the Black Panthers, the difference or uniqueness of African Americans was gloried in, and the notion of a black subculture was exalted. Herskovits's theories thus enjoyed a tremendous revival as African Americans sought the origins of their identity. Thus it appears that the validity of his theories remains to be determined at a time when they are not so emotionally involved in contemporary political movements.

Herskovits is also known as one of the leading exponents of ethical relativism in politics, the position that maintains that there is no objective order of justice, but that what is just in one culture may be unjust in another. Thus he wrote that "the relativist point of view brings into relief the validity of every set of norms for the people whose lives are guided by them." One of the objections made to this position is that it would make the set of norms which guided the lives of most Germans under Hitler valid. Thus, it would be "immoral" to judge another culture (such as Nazi Germany) by one's own moral norms since morality is determined by the culture, and a member of that culture could not do other than what he did do.

Further Reading

Information on Herskovits is in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958), and Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968).

Additional Sources

Simpson, George Eaton, Melville J. Herskovits, New York, Columbia University Press, 1973. □

Herskovits, Melville Jean

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HERSKOVITS, MELVILLE JEAN (1895–1963), U.S. anthropologist. Born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Herskovits became a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University in 1924. In 1927 he moved to Northwestern University, where he directed the program of African studies. In 1935 he became professor of African Affairs. He made Northwestern University virtually the center of African studies in the U.S., and when the African Studies Association was established in 1957 he became its first president.

In the 1920s Herskovits undertook a series of anthropometric studies of the blacks in the United States and then widened his research to cover the blacks in the New World and in Africa. He carried out fieldwork among the bush peoples of Surinam, Dutch Guiana, and in Haiti, West Africa, Brazil, and sub-Saharan Africa. In his classic work, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), he presented a masterly study of the African heritage of the American black. His studies of the New World black opened up a whole new field of research and prepared the way for a more positive and objective appreciation of the black, both individually and collectively, in American society. One of Herskovits' great interests was the study of race crossing and inheritance, and one of his earliest books was on this subject: The American Negro: A Study in Racial Crossing (1928). Like his teacher, Franz *Boas, he did not regard physical man apart from cultural man, and was concerned to combat the confusions between innate physical and acquired cultural traits.

In addition to his general study of anthropology, Manand his Works (1948), Herskovits published studies in ethnomusicology and economic anthropology. In 1959 he produced an important survey on Africa for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. Senate. His final major book, The Human Factor in Changing Africa (1962), dealt with the conflict between established custom and innovation among the peoples of Africa.

He discussed the problem "Who are the Jews?" in the essay that he and his wife Frances – who collaborated with him in much of his research and writing – contributed to The Jews, Their History and Their Culture (ed. by L. Finkelstein, 2 (1960), 1489–1509).


American Anthropologist, 66 (1964), 83–109, includes bibliography.

Herskovitz, Melville Jean

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Herskovitz, Melville Jean (1895–1963) An American economic anthropologist who was influenced by Franz Boas and A. A. Goldenweiser during his studies at Columbia University, and himself taught at Northwestern University. He is probably best known for his research into the retention of Africanisms in Afro-American culture (see The Myth of the Negro Past, 1941
) and his writing on economic anthropology (Economic Anthropology: A Study in Comparative Economics, 1952). He criticized the early theory that the individual must be the starting-point of economic analysis, without himself retreating to economic determinism, and pointed to the importance of looking at how individuals make an economic choice in the face of social constraints and resources and cultural values.