Redfield, Robert

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Redfield, Robert



Robert Redfield (1897–1958) was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father, after whom he was named, was a successful corporation lawyer, and his mother, Bertha Dreier Redfield, was the daughter of the Danish consul in Chicago. Both his mother’s and his father’s families were well-knit groups and included people of education and accomplishment. His father’s relatives were early Americans, some of whom had moved to Illinois in the 1830s and acquired land there. Redfield spent the summers and holidays of his youth in the country, where he acquired a deep sense of the social changes that in a few generations had transformed a wilderness landscape, where pioneers encountered Indians, into an area of commercial farmlands adjoining a great industrial city. In later life he became the first and, for many years, the leading anthropologist to direct attention to the processes of social and cultural change that characterize the relationships between folk and urban societies.

His career, from the publication of his first paper in 1926 until his death in 1958, spanned a period of rapid growth in anthropological research and in the theoretical maturation of the social sciences. The University of Chicago was a center for these developments, and Redfield’s life and work were intimately linked with that institution. Red-field’s father-in-law, Robert Park, an influential Chicago sociologist, helped to give his career its direction.

The first department of sociology in the United States had been founded at the University of Chicago in 1892, and in the period before World War i, W. I. Thomas, John Dewey, Thorstein Veb-len, George Herbert Mead, and other prominent innovators in the social sciences were on the faculty of the university. Park joined the faculty in 1915 and soon began the program of field research in urban life that became the hallmark of the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s and the 1930s. The Chicago sociologists, largely because of Park’s influence, investigated at firsthand the kinds of people who inhabited the city and the ecological and social processes that shaped their lives. They saw Chicago as a mosaic of different ways of life, which they recorded in the same way that functionalist anthropologists were then beginning to record the ways of life in exotic cultures. When Redfield began graduate study in anthropology in 1924, instruction was given in the sociology department; a separate department of anthropology was not created until 1930.

Redfield did not easily arrive at the decision to become an anthropologist. He had been educated at the University of Chicago, graduating from its high school in 1915 and receiving an a.b. in 1920 and a degree from the law school in 1921. He had left college in 1917 to drive an ambulance with the French Army on the western front. After World War i he studied biology at Harvard University, but, unsatisfied by that subject, he was soon persuaded to return to Chicago and study law. In 1920 he married Margaret Lucy Park and the following year, on receiving his law degree, began practice with his father’s law firm.

Discontented with law practice and uncertain about what he wanted to do, Redfield visited Mexico in 1923. There he and his wife caught the excitement of the revival of Mexican culture that followed the revolution, and they met and were impressed by the work of Manuel Gamio, an ethnologist and social reformer. Returning to Chicago, Redfield was encouraged by Park to take up the study of anthropology. He did so and returned to Mexico in 1926 to conduct field research in Tepoztlán, an Aztec community near Mexico City.

Redfield’s study of Tepoztlán, published in 1930, was in some ways characteristic of other functionalist studies of the period, which were stimulated by Bronislaw Malinowski’s work in the Trobriand Islands and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s study in the Andaman Islands. However, while most anthropologists of a functional persuasion were studying primitive societies that had remained isolated from the influence of civilization and went to work alone on remote islands or among interior tribes, Redfield, accompanied by his wife and two small children, conducted field research in a peasant community that for many centuries had been part of a civilization.

Tepoztlán is a modest book, attempting little more than a sympathetic and holistic portrayal of the community, but in writing it Redfield was aware of larger issues. He saw that Tepoztlán resembled peasant villages in other civilized areas and was attentive to the changes that these communities underwent in contact with urban industrial civilization. In 1930, the year Tepoztlán was published, he was appointed a research associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and over the next 16 years he conducted field research in Yucatan and Guatemala in connection with that institution. In this work, following a suggestion of Park’s, he developed an ideal-type construct of folk society as a way of making more systematic analyses of the transition within civilizations from folk to urban communities.

Meanwhile, he had joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1927 and had received his ph.d. degree from the university in 1928. His talents commanded early recognition, and he rose rapidly in the academic hierarchy, becoming a professor of anthropology and dean of the social science division in 1934.

Redfield’s work in Yucatan in the 1930s was an ambitious controlled comparison of four communities—Merida, the capital city; a provincial railroad town; a peasant village; and a tribal community in the forests of Quintana Roo. He was aided in this research by his wife and by other fieldworkers, particularly Alfonso Villa Rojas, a young schoolteacher whom he met in Yucatan and trained both in the field and at the University of Chicago and who subsequently became one of Mexico’s leading anthropologists.

There were several aspects to this research. An ethnographic record of contemporary Mayan culture was made, one result of which was Chan Kom: A Maya Village (1934), written in collaboration with Villa Rojas. Also, since the regional culture of Yucatan was a centuries-old amalgam of Spanish and Mayan traditions, the project touched upon problems of acculturation, which was a new subject for anthropology in the 1930s. But Redfield subordinated both of these historical aspects of the work to the study of more abstract and, in his view, more scientific problems of social change. For Redfield saw history and science as

…opposing methods: the scholarly pursuit of special knowledge of particular fact, on the one hand, and such pursuit of special knowledge of general fact, on the other hand. The historian, in this sense, is concerned with the uniqueness of his data; each proposition in which he expresses his facts has reference to particular space and time…. The scientist …finds singular propositions referring to definite place and time of service only as they illustrate or contribute to general propositions as to the nature of classes of phenomena. (1962–1963, vol. 1, pp. 12-13)

In The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941) Redfield used the sociological variables of relative size, isolation, and homogeneity to construct a hypothetical continuum between folk and urban societies. The city, town, village, and tribal communities that he and his co-workers chose to study were seen to occupy different positions along this continuum. A synchronic comparison of variations between them revealed causal relationships between the progressive degrees of cultural disorganization, secularization, and individualization. Redfield made no claim to great theoretical innovation but based his thought upon ideas that went back to Henry Maine’s contrast between a contractual society and one of status, Ferdinand Tonnies’ contrast between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, and similar concepts in the works of Emile Durkheim, Howard Becker, and other sociologists (1962–1963, vol. 1, pp. 232-234). In this respect, the considerable originality of his work in Yucatan was analogous to that of contemporary biologists who gave new precision to the concept of natural selection by observing and analyzing in nature and in the laboratory actual evolutionary transformations within species.

Outside the circle of his students and colleagues at the University of Chicago and a small group of Mexican anthropologists, the reception of The FolkCulture of Yucatan was disappointing. Other anthropologists admired the scale and elegance of the research but were indifferent to Redfield’s interests or failed to grasp his points. The most influential work of the period was being done by British ethnologists who were inventing ways to describe the stable social structures of tribal societies and, among American anthropologists, by configuration-alists who were studying the ramifications of cultural integration. In contrast, Redfield’s subject was social change and cultural disorganization. In addition, his method of analysis was unfamiliar to anthropologists. The heuristic use of a model folk society was misunderstood by historically minded ethnologists, who saw discrepancies between the model and particular folk communities as flaws in the model rather than as invitations to analyze the causes of social variations. Social scientists who knew the works of Park, Louis Wirth, and other Chicago sociologists responded to Redfield’s work from the beginning, and as the generation of social anthropologists trained after World War n turned in greater numbers toward the study of peasant communities and the regional structures and networks of civilizations, Redfield’s ideas became increasingly influential.

In 1948 Redfield returned to Chan Kom, this time to observe the changes that had occurred since his work there in the early 1930s. A Village That Chose Progress (1950) is a narrative history of the community that added to the earlier comparative analysis an existential appreciation of the ways in which the villagers’ expectations, moods, and purposes had influenced the course of social change.

From the time of his restudy of Chan Kom until his death ten years later, Redfield continued to teach at the University of Chicago, becoming the Robert Maynard Hutchins distinguished service professor in 1953. He also traveled extensively, lecturing at colleges and universities in China, India, Europe, Puerto Rico, and the United States, and, with the aid of a large grant from the Ford Foundation, launched a program of seminars and research projects that brought anthropologists and humanists together for the comparative study of civilizations. Much of the work of these seminars and projects was published in The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953), The Little Community (1955), Peasant Society and Culture (1956), and in articles and lectures, some of which were reprinted in a two-volume collection of his papers (1962–1963).

In these last years Redfield worked with Milton Singer and other scholars, defining and broadening the scope of anthropological studies of civilization. Thinking of civilizations as members of a class, “a formed thing of the mind,” he rejected boxlike definitions and preferred “a form of thought that sees a society to be civilized ’to the extent and in the respects that’ it has one or more of very many qualities” (1962–1963, vol. 1, p. 370). The continuum between folk and urban societies, which he had earlier defined by constructing a model folk society, he now approached from the opposite end, replacing the term “urban society” with the more comprehensive “civilized society.”

He conceived of civilized societies as historical structures with characteristic life styles and modes of relationship. Urban communities are one dimension of such societies; the structures of rural and peasant communities are another. Drawing upon his own work in Middle America and upon the research of other social anthropologists, he explored the usefulness of the concepts of social fields, centers, networks, and levels to describe the articulation of peasant communities with the larger societies of which they are parts.

He also conceived of civilizations in cultural terms as systems of coexisting and interdependent “Great and Little Traditions,” the former being part of the idea systems—the science, philosophy, and fine arts—of the critical and reflective elite and the latter being part of the folk arts, lore, and religion of the common people. With Singer, a trained philosopher who became an anthropologist and a student of India, he analyzed different types of cities and processes of urbanization, in particular distinguishing orthogenetic cities, in which the moral order of the countryside is elaborated into the Great Traditions of indigenous civilizations, and heterogenetic cities, “where local cultures are disintegrated and new integrations of mind and society are developed” (1962–1963, vol. 1, p. 334).

These and other concepts for the comparative study of civilization were developed by Redfield within an evolutionary conception of cultural history. Thus, orthogenetic cities are centers where earlier stages in the development of Great Traditions could be studied, while the later and more advanced stages are centered in heterogenetic cities. Furthermore, in the long span of human history, Redfield saw the emergence of civilizations out of the folk societies of paleolithic times as a multilineal series of events in cultural evolution, showing progressive trends in the moral life of humanity as well as in technology and the division of labor (1953).

When Redfield took up the holistic study of civilization, he found a common ground for the exchange of ideas between social scientists and humanists, and he entered this exchange with enthusiasm. As dean of the social science division of the University of Chicago from 1934 to 1946, he had worked to build a community of scholars free from the parochialism of academic disciplines. In the 1950s, at the height of his career as an anthropologist, he lectured and wrote on the nature and methodology of his own discipline, emphasizing its relation with the humanities (1962–1963, vol. 1, pp. 33-139). He also initiated a series of conferences in which students of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilizations—both humanists and anthropologists—considered common problems. Throughout his career he also lectured and wrote occasionally on the humane goals of education and the social sciences (1962–1963, vol. 2, passim), and this, together with his other work, gained for him a reputation as a humanist and a social philosopher.

Philosophically, Redfield was a naive realist, that is, he assumed a reality independent of the knower of it and treated ideas about the world as forms of thought that were more or less adequate according to the uses made of them. This pragmatic and contextual approach to knowledge stood in contrast to the positivism of social scientists who looked primarily to physics for a model of the sciences and who thought Redfield’s approach was more “humanistic” than it actually was—humanistic in the sense of romantic, imprecise, unscientific, or even antiscientific. But Redfield’s humanism was of a different order. A strong advocate of freedom of thought and expression, he believed in “the creative values of human life in its social process, the competence of reason and scientific method to aid in the understanding of human actions, …and the responsibility of man to man in the affairs of life” (1962–1963, vol. 1, p. ix). This form of humanism, essentially an openness to life, was a fundamental aspect of Redfield’s scientific outlook. He claimed that the ultimate subject matter of the social sciences is the reality of human experience but that scientific studies of social behavior and institutions tended to sacrifice the larger facts of human experience to the logic of analytical categories. He believed that social scientists should strive for objectivity and analytical precision, but he argued that they should also return again and again to the existential reality. In this way their research would remain relevant to their subject matter.

Charles M. Leslie

[Directly related are the entriesCulture, article onculture change; Economic anthropology; Middle American society; Peasantry; Tribal society; values, article onvalue systems; Village; World View. Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBecker; Durkheim; Maine; Malinowski; Park; Radcliffe-Brown; TÖnnies; Wlrth.]


1930 Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1934) 1962 Redfield, Robert; and Villa Rojas, AlfonsoChan Kom: A Maya Village. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication No. 448. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1950 A Village That Chose Progress: Chan Kom Revisited. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.

1953 The Primitive World and Its Transformations. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1957.

1955 The Little Community: Viewpoints for the Study of a Human Whole. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Paperback editions, bound together with Peasant Society and Culture, were published in 1960 by the Univ. of Chicago Press and in 1961 by the Cambridge Univ. Press.

1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1962–1963 Papers. 2 vols. Edited by Margaret P. Redfield. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Volume 1: Human Nature and the Study of Society. Volume 2: The Social Uses of Social Science.


Cole, Fay-Cooper; and Eggan, Fred 1959 Robert Redfield: 1897–1958. American Anthropologist New Series 61:652-662. → Includes eight pages of bibliography.

Robert Redfield

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Robert Redfield

The American anthropologist Robert Redfield (1897-1958) specialized in Meso-American folk cultures. He was concerned with socially relevant applications of social-science skills and researches.

Robert Redfield was born on Dec. 4, 1897, in Chicago, Ill., the son of an attorney. In 1915 he entered the University of Chicago to study law. During World War I he served as a volunteer ambulance driver, returning to the university to receive his bachelor's degree in 1920 and his law degree in 1921. Although he then joined a Chicago law firm, he had already been drawn toward social science by Robert Park (whose daughter he had married in 1920) of the sociology department of the University of Chicago. A 1923 trip to Mexico confirmed Redfield's interest in primitive cultures. He became an instructor in sociology at the University of Colorado in 1925 and the following year received a fellowship for his first Mexican fieldwork.

In 1927 Redfield returned to Chicago to an anthropology department which had just attained independence from sociology. After receiving his doctorate in 1928, he became an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1930 and full professor in 1934, simultaneously becoming university dean of social sciences. The position as dean reinforced his broad conception of the integrated nature of the social sciences. Ties of the Chicago anthropology department to sociology encouraged him to concentrate on social anthropology, effectively excluding the archeology and linguistics which Franz Boas and his students considered integrally related to it. Redfield became chairman of the anthropology department in 1948 and Robert Maynard Hutchins distinguished service professor in 1953.

Redfield's fieldwork produced Tepoztlan (1930) and Chan Kom: A Maya Village (1934), the latter in collaboration with the village schoolteacher, Alfonso Villa. Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941) compared the effects of civilization on four Yucatan communities that shared a Mayan heritage but differed in amount of external communication. Chan Kom: A Village That Chose Progress (1950) dealt with the effort of Mexican peasants to adjust to the modern world.

Redfield's prevailing concern was with the effect of technological change on primitive peoples and the consequent responsibility of the social scientist for defining the resulting disruption of life-styles. He defined, within an established sociological tradition, two ideal types—"folk" and "urban" culture. The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953) attempted to describe conflicts of the "moral order" accompanying the spread of civilization. Redfield's ideal types have been criticized primarily by students of Boas, who prefer to work with descriptions of particular culture histories rather than to find ways of comparing types of community.

The last book by Redfield, The Little Community (1955), drew on studies of Indian civilization. Although his own fieldwork in India was cut short by illness, he defined and contrasted a "great tradition" of urban intellectual life and a persistent "little tradition" of the villages. As in Mexico, communication rather than geography was crucial.

Redfield shared with Boas and many of his students a concern for social problems, maintaining that man and anthropologist were necessarily inseparable. During World War II he advised the War Relocation Authority; he participated in the initial UNESCO conferences in Europe; he became director of the American Council on Race Relations in 1948; and he served as president of the board of the American Broadcasting Company. He died on Oct. 16, 1958.

Further Reading

Although articles have appeared criticizing various aspects of Redfield's theoretical formulations, there is no significant biographical study of him. Some background is in Don Martindale, The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory (1960). □

Redfield, Robert

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Redfield, Robert (1897–1958) An American anthropologist who, in 1930, published a study (Tepoztlan: Life in a Mexican Village) which outlines an idealtypical construct of folk society. Subsequently he suggested that the spread of urban-based civilization transforms folk societies. Depending on their social and cultural characteristics, individual settlements can be placed along an evolutionary folk–urban continuum.

According to Redfield, folk societies are small, isolated, non-literate, and socially homogeneous. There is strong group solidarity and kinship, a common culture rooted in tradition and religion, behaviour is personal and spontaneous rather than impersonal and law-bound, and there is little intellectual life. Urban societies are characterized by the converse traits: loss of isolation, heterogeneity, social disorganization, secularization, and individuality.

Redfield's ideal types encapsulate a distinction between industrial-urban and pre-industrial societies which others (such as Ferdinand Tönnies and Émile Durkheim) had earlier espoused. His work greatly influenced rural sociology and community studies. However, in 1951 Oscar Lewis published a re-study of Tepoztlan, examining aspects of village life—especially its economy, demography, and politics—which Redfield had ignored. His findings undermined Redfield's account of folk societies, which tended to gloss over conflict, poverty, and disorganization, and to present an idealized account of primitive societies. Lewis also rejected the over-simplified and ahistorical classification of individual settlements implicit in Redfield's approach. Later work on urban communities found this ideal type, and the concept of the folk—urban continuum, equally deficient.