Linton, Ralph

views updated May 23 2018

Linton, Ralph



Ralph Lin ton (1893–1953), American cultural anthropologist, was one of the major contributors to the reconstruction of anthropology during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Trained in the traditions of the North American “historical school” of anthropology, Lin ton remained loyal throughout his career to the broad interests and general principles established by Franz Boas and other American anthropologists. But with the publication in 1936 of The Study of Man, which was quickly recognized by social scientists all over the world as a pioneering study of human behavior, he embarked on a series of creative and stimulating studies which provided new conceptions of social structure and cultural organization. He related these conceptions in a clear if somewhat simple manner to the biological individual and his personality and utilized them in his analyses of the processes of cultural change.

Linton belonged to the “third generation” of American academic anthropologists, succeeding such second-generation students of Putnam and Boas as Wissler, Dixon, Kroeber, Goldenweiser, Lowie, Sapir, and Radin. These academicians, together with a number of outstanding journeymen and masters involved more in field research than in teaching, had created a distinctive variety of anthropology. Like Tylor in England, they had a holistic approach to human studies which is still, thanks in part to Linton, a mark of American anthropology.

In the Americas much more than in Europe almost all anthropological study and training had been nurtured by experience in the field and disciplined by the empiricism required by field work on specific problems treating the temporal and spatial dimensions of culture. In dealing with the elements of local aboriginal development or culture history, most American anthropologists insisted that the combined skills of all the arts and sciences, as they may be relevant to the study of man, should be brought to bear on the task at hand. [SeeEthnography.]

Linton’s own teaching, writing, and research encompassed human biology, archeology, ethnography, ethnology, folklore, and regional and global cultural history. He contributed to all of these classical subfields of his discipline, although less significantly to physical anthropology, archeology, and folklore than to the others. He neglected technical developments in linguistics and approached the field with respectful diffidence, but he urged his students to become familiar with it, since he felt that it was the most scientific of the social disciplines. He did not emphasize statistical studies, nor did he use specialized mathematical methods in cultural or psychological anthropology, although he recognized these as legitimate activities. It was not any aversion to formalism or structuralism as such that made Linton shy away from these aspects of anthropology, for his approach to culture and to personality studies was essentially formalistic and structural.

Like many other American anthropologists who began as archeologists, Linton’s professional career started with a focus on artifacts. As a boy he had systematically collected arrowheads, and his interests in artifacts continued throughout his life as he privately gathered outstanding examples of African textiles and masks, Peruvian ceramics, and Oceanic sculpture. Linton’s eidetic memory and extraordinary capacity for visual imagery enabled him to identify and compare artifacts from all over the world; and he could retrieve data from the masses of material he had read, explaining that often he could simply “turn the pages”; in his mind and reread them.

Linton did his undergraduate work at Swarthmore College, a liberal institution to which his Philadelphia Quaker background led him. The college offered no studies in anthropology, but Linton was a good student in the natural sciences and an omnivorous reader in history and literature, and he decided, as he later recalled, that anthropology provided the most promising opportunity for a synthesis of varied fields. In 1912 and 1913 Linton joined field expeditions working in the American southwest and in Guatemala; and in the summer of 1915, after receiving his B.A., he discovered in New Jersey a prehistoric site of controversial importance, which he described in his first professional publications in the two following years. His graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained an M.A. in 1916, at Columbia University, and finally at Harvard University, where he completed his PH.D. in 1925, was heavily weighted on the side of archeology and physical anthropology. Linton had two more summers of archeological experience in the south-western United States, one in 1916 for the American Museum of Natural History and another in 1919 following his return from army service in France. He embarked in 1920 on his doctoral research on the archeology of the Marquesas Islands.

Linton’s two years in Polynesia proved a turning point in his career, for he found work with living Marquesans more rewarding than his study of the meager remains of their ancestors. His concern for archeological problems continued—he was later active in excavations in Ohio and Wisconsin, and his posthumously published reconstruction of global cultural history demonstrates the mastery he always maintained over the data of world pre-history (see 1955)—but from the early 1920s on, his primary interest was the study of contemporary peoples.

On his return from Polynesia in 1922 he joined the staff of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, working on Oceanic and American Indian materials and conducting a one-man ethnographic expedition to Madagascar and adjacent parts of east Africa from 1925 to 1927. The publications he prepared during his years as a curator in Chicago indicate that for him the main task of ethnology was not far removed from that of archeology—the reconstruction of human history through careful descriptive studies of the development and distribution of cultural traits. Thus, when Lin ton began his own teaching career, accepting the first tenure position in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, in 1928, he had moved little beyond the range of interests which had preoccupied the two preceding generations of American anthropologists.

His early years in the department of sociology at Wisconsin (soon the department of sociology and anthropology) marked the major turning point in Linton’s intellectual and professional progress. He suddenly acquired wide interests in the many dimensions of human behavior. The competent fieldworker, museum archeologist, and ethnologist became in a few years a leading American social scientist.

Linton was an excellent lecturer and teacher. Almost as soon as he arrived at Wisconsin he acquired a following of young scholars who had done their undergraduate work at the university; John Bollard, J. P. Gillin, E. A. Hoebel, Clyde Kluckhohn, Lauriston Sharp, and Sol Tax were among them. Although none of these completed his graduate training under Linton, they were nonetheless widely identified with him. A number of colleagues had a marked influence on Linton’s thinking during his early years at Wisconsin. He said that Kimball Young, the social psychologist, had perhaps helped him most in developing his view of social organization and its relation to individual personality formation; but he also acknowledged his debt to other members of the department, as well as to the psychologists Clark Hull and Harry Harlow, the geneticist Michael F. Guyer, the political scientist John Gauss, and the ethicists F. C. Sharp and Eliseo Vivas. Students in the university’s newly established Experimental College, while dealing with the large problems of order and change in the civilizations of classical Greece and modern America, were reading a wide range of materials bearing on cultural anthropology, and Linton participated in sessions on the nature and organization of culture and civilization that were unlike most anthropology courses of the day.

For a few years during the early 1930s A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, then a leader of the British functionalist school of social anthropology, taught at the University of Chicago, where Linton maintained informal connections. At that time Radcliffe-Brown was claiming in a somewhat doctrinaire manner that history is irrelevant to the real task of social anthropology, which is to study societies synchronically and induce general sociological laws through a comparison of the forms and functions of the social organizations of particular living societies. To Linton, the rejection of history, however fragmentary and insecure our knowledge of it may be, was anathema. However, his own field work had convinced him that the task of determining the functions of segments or complexes of cultural behavior as well as the functional interdependence of parts within the totality of a culture is a legitimate and essential one (1933). Furthermore, Linton himself was seeking regularities and general principles in the varied array of cultural experience in different times and places. Thus, in their intellectual objectives the two scholars were close together, however they differed as to means. Linton’s correspondence of the period indicates that he deplored Radcliffe-Brown’s considerable influence on younger members of the profession as a threat to the larger traditional concerns of American anthropology and one which he felt personally obligated to combat. However, the discussions which took place between the two men sharpened Linton’s perceptions of Radcliffe-Brown’s own special field of social structure and led him to argue for improved functional analyses which would take into account historical factors. Eventually this point of view largely prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the 1930s the new developments in psychiatry, psychology, European sociology, and functionalism began to influence American anthropologists, particularly Sapir, Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Hallo well. Physical anthropology and archeology, which had links to the natural sciences, and linguistics were beginning to develop rapidly and even in America were showing a strong tendency to go their separate ways. However, Linton’s eclectic and wide-ranging approach to the study of man and his behavior enabled him to bring together some of these radically diverging historical, sociological, psychological, and biological interests which were dividing the anthropologists. His contributions to unity were open-ended; he found it unnecessary to impose any single closed, elaborate, or wholly consistent theoretical system on the social sciences.

Concept of culture . The work which Linton always considered his major contribution to anthropology, The Study of Man (1936), was written in a simple but lively style which attracted layman and scientist alike. While intended as a text, it lacked the apparatus of a school book, containing only two footnotes and an almost irrelevant bibliography prepared hastily by a student. Except for the absence of sections on religion and the arts (originally intended for inclusion but not completed), the work was representative of the main areas of Linton’s interests and foreshadowed the main thrusts of his later thinking.

Following a short opening section on human origins and the biological and primate backgrounds to cultural behavior, later elaborated in The Tree of Culture (1955), Linton turned directly to the individual as he interacts in defined social contexts with other individuals: the network of learned and shared behavior of individuals—their culture— creates or maintains a community or society. He conceived of culture as both overt, or open to observation, and covert, with an inferred content of meanings, emotions, values, attitudes, “and so on.”

While Linton could speak of “the mind” without blushing, he failed to deal effectively with cognition and other epistemological problems, seeing the mind as a wholly internal private sense organ rather than as a process or a product of the transaction of social business between the external and the inner worlds. As he later became involved more explicitly with psychoanalytic theory, Linton increasingly dealt with the category of covert behavior as though emotion is the prime ingredient and almost the sole source of data for the inner workings of the human personality, thus almost entirely neglecting cognitive processes.

Status and role . Linton developed his concepts of “status” and “role” to deal with the discrete elements as well as the integrated aspects of society. By status he meant the place of an individual in society, defining it as a collection of rights and duties; by role he meant the dynamic aspect of behavior in a status, the putting into action of rights and duties (1936, pp. 113–114). Statuses and roles may be universal or specialized, depending on whether they are shared by all members of a society or only by a segment of the society. Roles appropriate to a given status are not necessarily performed in the same way by all those members of the society in that status, nor are they even performed identically by the same individual at different times. There may be recognized alternative ways of achieving particular customary goals: such alternative roles may arise within the society or they may be imported from without. Behavior in a role, according to Linton, is simply behavior appropriate to a particular recognized status.

Statuses or positions are, in Linton’s view, either ascribed to the individual—that is, assigned at birth, on the basis of sex, caste, or other fixed characteristics—or they are achieved by the individual by virtue of his own effort. Roles also are of two kinds: “actual” roles—the way roles are in fact performed; and “ideal” roles—the normative patterns that serve as models for actual role performance. The total set of ideal roles constituted for Linton a social system. With this conception of roles, including child roles and those acquired as an adult, Linton laid the foundation of a theory of behavior that could bridge the gap between the individual and the cultural system.

Personality and culture . Instead of systematically refining these ideas or attempting a synthesis along the lines developed in social psychology, Linton pursued his interest in the nature of the relation between the individual personality and society. In 1937 he went to Columbia University and began there a period of collaboration in seminars and publications with Abram Kardiner, a psychoanalyst. Their views were published, with documentary ethnographic analyses, in The Individual and His Society (Kardiner 1939) and The Psychological Frontiers of Society (Kardiner 1945). From this work emerged the concept of basic personality structure, or modal personality type—

.. . that personality configuration which is shared by the bulk of the society’s members as a result of the early experiences which they have in common. It does not correspond to the total personality of the individual, but rather to the projective systems or, in different phraseology, the value-attitude systems which are basic to the individual’s personality configuration. Thus the same basic personality types may be reflected in many different forms of behavior and may enter into many different total personality configurations. (Kardiner 1945, p. viii)

Somewhat disenchanted with the psychoanalytic approach, Linton expounded his own views in The Cultural Background of Personality (1945 a), showing how each individual’s experiences in a society —his performance of a particular set of more or less standardized cultural roles—produce what Linton then called the “status personality.” The common elements of the status personalities found in a group of persons may be considered the basic personality type for a culture. Linton dealt with problems of deviation from type in a posthumously published volume, Culture and Mental Disorders (1956). While some anthropologists before Linton had been concerned with the individual, it was Linton’s structural approach through status and role that did much to open the way for a retreat from the prevalent extreme reification of culture. [See Age differentiation; Culture AND Personality;Individual Differences,article on Sex Differences; National Character; Status, Social.]

Hierarchy of interests . Related to Linton’s concern with culture and personality and the character structure of ethnic groups was his work on the cultural interests, orientations, and values of groups. He was dissatisfied with Benedict’s conclusion, in her popular Patterns of Culture (1934), that the total behavior of a society or of most of its members may express, through a dominant cultural pattern or configuration, a single mode of feeling or world view heavily biased in a particular direction. While agreeing that cultures are configurations, Linton suggested that any culture exhibits a whole range of patterned “interests,” each of which has a “rating” reflecting its importance relative to other interests of the group. Only empirical investigation can reveal which particular interest or set of interests dominates the others in a given period and so provides the culture with an overall orientation (1936, chapters 20, 24, 25). Morris Opler and others later refined this idea through the concept of “themes.”

In his later years, and particularly after he accepted a Sterling professorship at Yale University in 1946, Linton returned to a problem which had engaged him at Wisconsin, the question of cultural relativity and the possibility that all cultures may exhibit certain universal ethical or other values. He asserted that there are common denominators of behavior among all cultures and that these support common values which then must be described at a rather abstract level (1952; 1954).

Cultural change . Linton’s preoccupation with problems of culture history and culture change persisted from his first experience as an archeologist through his entire career; it even motivated his interest in the balanced relationships between the maturing individual and the changing culture in which he participates. Yet in his search for explanations of cultural change and transfer, Linton did not explore these relationships fully or systematically; rather, to explain the effective elements in change, acculturation, and social movements, he pointed to such general factors as the utility of the new, the compatibility of the new with the old, and the prestige of the innovator (1940). [See Culture,article on Culture Change.]

Linton believed profoundly that the social sciences could become rigorous sciences and that their findings should inform the work of those dealing with current social problems (1945 b, p. xiii). However, he was not optimistic about the immediate prospects of modern civilization. His own creative innovations were widely recognized and he received the highest academic and professional honors from colleagues both within and outside his discipline. But he felt that this recognition of his work had been won in a rare period of freedom, one which could not last and which was already threatened by the bigotries which had appeared abroad and at home in his own lifetime. Expecting a “dark age,” he dedicated The Study of Man (1936) to “the next civilization”; and almost two decades later he concluded The Tree of Culture (1955) in the same vein, expressing the hope that the social sciences would use this period of unusual freedom to prepare some “solid platform from which the workers of the next civilization might go on.”

Lauriston Sharp

[Other relevant material may be found in the biographies of Benedict; Radcliffe-Brown; Sapir.]


1933 The Tanala: A Hill Tribe of Madagascar. Field Museum of Natural History, Publication No. 317, Anthropological Series, No. 22. Chicago: The Museum.

1936 The Study of Man: An Introduction. New York: Appleton.

1940 Linton, Ralph (editor) Acculturation in Seven American Indian Tribes. New York: Appleton.

1945 a The Cultural Background of Personality. New York: Appleton.

1945 b Linton, Ralph (editor) The Science of Man in the World Crisis. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

1952 Universal Ethical Principles: An Anthropological View. Pages 645–660 in Ruth N. Anshen (editor), Moral Principles of Action: Man’s Ethical Imperative. New York: Harper.

1954 The Problem of Universal Values. Pages 145–168 in Robert F. Spencer (editor), Method and Perspective in Anthropology. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

1955 The Tree of Culture. New York: Knopf.

1956 Culture and Mental Disorders. Edited by George Devereux. Springfield, 111.: Thomas.


Benedict, Ruth (1934) 1959 Patterns of Culture. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A paperback edition was published in 1961.

Gillin, John 1954 Ralph Linton. American Anthropologist New Series 56:274–281.

Kardiner, Abram 1939 The Individual and His Society. With a foreword and two ethnological reports by Ralph Linton. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Kardiner, Abram 1945 The Psychological Frontiers of Society. With the cooperation of Ralph Linton, Cora DuBois, and James West. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1958 Ralph Linton. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 31:236–253. → Includes a bibliography.

Ralph Linton

views updated May 18 2018

Ralph Linton

The American anthropologist Ralph Linton (1893-1953) developed theoretical positions that helped to unify cultural anthropology.

Ralph Linton was born on Feb. 27, 1893, in Philadelphia, Pa., into an old Quaker family. While attending Swarthmore College, he came under the influence of Spencer Trotter, a teacher of general science who inspired him to look beyond his own culture to understand the behavior and points of view of peoples in other parts of the world.

Linton did fieldwork in prehistoric archaeology in New Mexico and Colorado in 1912; in Guatemala in 1912 and 1913; near Haddenfield, N. J., in 1915; at Aztec, N. Mex., in 1916; in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado in 1919; at the Hopewell site in Ohio in 1924; and in Wisconsin in 1929 and 1933. He did ethnological fieldwork in the Marquesas Islands of the Pacific (1920-1922) and in Madagascar (1925-1927); in the summer of 1934 he was in charge of the Laboratory of Anthropology's training expedition to the Comanche Indians of Oklahoma.

Linton left the Field Museum of Chicago to join the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in 1928. In 1937 he went to Columbia University, and in 1946 he moved to Yale to become Sterling professor of anthropology, a chair he occupied until his death.

During World War I Linton served at the front with the rank of corporal and was gassed; from these experiences he produced one of his earliest publications in social anthropology, "Totemism and the A. E. F."

Aside from several important contributions to the knowledge of certain cultures outside Western civilization, Linton helped to break down certain stances which tended to separate the historical approach to culture from the functional, the study of "primitive" cultures from civilizations, and the psychological aspects of culture from other features. Linton did much to unify cultural anthropology, which at one time was becoming a series of "sects."

Linton's writings not only contributed importantly to present knowledge of human culture but were models of English style. His most influential book and the one he regarded as his best, The Study of Man (1936), is readable by laymen and high school students as well as by specialists. The Cultural Background of Personality is of interest to the general reader as well as to the specialist. With his wife, Adelin, he published several books mainly for readers not trained in anthropology.

Linton was an inspiring teacher who usually approached advanced students as well as informants in the field on a "man-to-man" basis. He was elected president of the American Anthropological Association in 1946, was awarded membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1951, and won the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1954. He died in New Haven, Conn., on Dec. 24, 1953.

Further Reading

A biography of Linton by Clyde Kluckhohn is in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 31 (1958). There is an analysis of Linton's work in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958). See also Thomas Kenneth Penniman, A Hundred Years of Anthropology (1935; 3d ed. 1965). □

Linton, Ralph

views updated May 17 2018

Linton, Ralph (1893–1953) An American cultural anthropologist whose early fieldwork focused on the Polynesians. Later, he attempted to develop a systematic cultural science, focusing especially on the relationships between personality and society (see The Cultural Background of Personality, 1954
). His most important book, The Study of Man (1936), reconciled the theoretical premisses of functionalism with a historical approach to culture. He pioneered the concepts of role and status, which for him provided the key to understanding the internal consistency of a social system, because of the importance they play in the relationship between the individual and society.