Clyde Kluckhohn

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Kluckhohn, Clyde



Clyde Kluckhohn (1905–1960) made his major contributions to the social sciences in his works on Navajo ethnography and in his theoretical writing on culture pattern and value theory. He also did pioneering work in the field of culture and personality, engaged in some research in linguistics and human genetics, and wrote a few papers in archeology.

Born in Le Mars, Iowa, Clyde Kluckhohn was adopted by Katherine and George Wesley Kluckhohn. He prepared for college at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and began his undergraduate studies at Princeton. Ill health interrupted his studies, and an experience followed which had a profound effect upon his later career. His family sent him to a ranch in New Mexico where the nearest neighbors were Navajo Indians. Young Kluckhohn developed an immediate interest in these Indian neighbors and began to learn to speak Navajo and to try to understand their customs. He obviously had both a persistent curiosity about exotic customs and a deep sensitivity to the nuances of alien ways of life—two qualities essential for an anthropologist. He fell in love with the Southwest and its people, undertook a long pack trip to the Rainbow Bridge, and published his first book, To the Foot of the Rainbow (1927), when he was only 22 years old. He returned to undergraduate work by enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, where he took his A.B. in 1928. He studied at the University of Vienna, where he had experience with psychoanalysis, in 1931–1932, and at Oxford, where he studied with R. R. Marett as a Rhodes scholar in 1932. From 1932 to 1934 he served as assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico. He completed his PH.D. in anthropology at Harvard in 1936. During this decade he kept in close touch with the Navajos, making a number of pack trips to completely unexplored country on Wild Horse Mesa in southern Utah and writing his second book, Beyond the Rainbow (1933), about these experiences.

In 1935 Kluckhohn was appointed an instructor of anthropology at Harvard, and the rest of his academic career was spent at Harvard, where he rose to full professorship and chairmanship of the department and became a stimulating teacher for several academic generations of students. He was also one of the founders of the Department of Social Relations and the first director of the Rus-sian Research Center at Harvard.

Through all these years he seldom passed up an opportunity to return to the Southwest for field work among the Navajo, for it was there that he was most relaxed and there that his most creative intellectual work was done. He took great pride in his ability to speak fluent Navajo—an extremely difficult language for a person brought up speaking an Indo-European language—and in the close rap-port he developed with hundreds of Navajo. From these Navajo studies came a number of classic monographs and a large number of articles in the specialized journals. Between 1936 and 1948 he also served as director of the “Ramah Project,” which involved some 15 graduate students and colleagues from Harvard and elsewhere who published many technical monographs and articles. The project’s goal was to make a long-range, intensive study of a small community, Ramah, New Mexico, in order to describe very precisely the patterns of Navajo culture and to analyze the processes of change. In 1949 he became the key founder and member of the advisory board (along with J. O. Brew and Talcott Parsons) of the “Comparative Study of Values in Five Cultures Project,” which undertook far-ranging field operations among the Navajo, Zuñi, Spanish-American, Mormon, and Texan communities that were located in proximity to Ramah. This project, sponsored by the Laboratory of Social Relations and the Peabody Museum at Harvard, financed by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and directed by John M. Roberts and Evon Z. Vogt, involved 37 field workers from a variety of the behavioral sciences and produced a large number of theoretical and empirical monographs and papers covering the ethnography and the value systems of the five cultures that were under investigation.

Kluckhohn’s own Navajo research was characterized by painstaking attention to ethnographic detail combined with sophisticated theoretical analysis. He was clearly a most gifted field worker, and his continuing relationships with the Navajo permitted a level of understanding of their intricate patterns of life that cannot be achieved by field work that extends over only a season or two of investigation. He was also a vociferous reader in seven languages and was able to keep abreast of current developments in anthropology and also in sociology, psychology, and philosophy, both in the United States and abroad. This scholarly sophistication was applied to the analysis of much of his Navajo data, especially to his classic studyNavaho Witchcraft(1944). This monograph was a landmark in the combined use of theories drawn from the social structuralists, the psychoanalysts, and the psychologists specializing in “learning theory,” in order to demonstrate how beliefs about witches functioned as both scapegoat and social control mechanisms in Navajo society.

As an anthropologist, Kluckhohn was far more than an eminent authority on the Navajo. He was deeply concerned that anthropologists develop their theories and refine their methods to a point where they could begin to think of anthropology as a science. However, it is extremely difficult to characterize his theoretical position. Rather than develop a tight theoretical scheme, he was eclectic in theoretical matters. This precluded his founding a “school” with “disciples,” and hence a focused effort to develop a particular type of anthropology. Instead he had the virtue of cultivating and encouraging novel and oftentimes “off-beat” ideas in his students. Curiously, the theories that he developed himself had little in common with those of the anthropologists with whom he studied during his graduate student days: his early professors in Vienna, Robert R. Marett at Oxford, or Alfred Tozzer, Roland B. Dixon, and Earnest A. Hooton at Harvard. Rather, two things appear to have happened. From the very beginning, he ranged well beyond the field of anthropology for ideas and insights. He also responded strongly to the influence of four men with whom he never studied as a graduate student: Edward Sapir, Franz Boas, Ralph Linton, and Alfred Kroeber. Sapir clearly stimulated his interest in culture pattern theory, as did Linton. He came to have great admiration for the contributions of Boas. And in the last 15 years of his life he developed a very close intellectual and personal relationship with Kroeber. Although the relationships were not as close, Kluckhohn was an admirer of the contributions of Ruth Benedict and Robert Redfield, whose intellectual interests were very similar to the ideas he was working on at the time of his death.

Kluckhohn’s most impressive contributions on culture pattern and value theory are found in a series of brilliant papers on levels and types of patterning in culture and on value systems, and in brief form in his semipopular Mirror for Man (1949). In his work on patterns, he made notable contributions to the understanding of “covert” or “implicit” patterns in culture, i.e., regularities in behavior of which the members of a society may be minimally aware but which are nonetheless patterned to the same extent as the customs that are quite explicit (on this subject, see especially 1941; 1943; and, with W. H. Kelly, 1945). His theoretical work with values took two forms: a search for universal values and the development of a series of categories derived from Roman Jakobson’s emphasis upon the importance of binary oppositions in the structure of language. The papers on universal values (see especially 1952; 1953; 1955) played a critical role in the shift in anthropological thinking from the view that all cultures are relative to the position that, despite wide differences in customs, there are certain fundamental human values common to all the diverse cultures of the world. The application of “binary distinctive features” analysis to value systems was just beginning to emerge in his writings in the last few years of his life (see especially 1956; 1958). It is too early to judge whether this method of analysis will provide a lasting contribution to the study of values, but it was at the least a pioneering attempt to bring some order into what has been and will continue to be one of our most difficult areas of study in the social sciences.

Evon Z. Vogt

[For the historical context of Kluckhohn’s work, seeAnthropology; Ethnography; Values; and the biographies ofBenedict; Boas; Kroeber; Linton; Sapir.]


1927 To the Foot of the Rainbow. New York: Century.

1933 Beyond the Rainbow. Boston: Christopher.

(1937–1960) 1962 Culture and Behavior: Collected Essays. Edited by Richard Kluckhohn. New York: Free Press. → Contains a bibliography of Kluckhohn’s works.

1938 Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Wyman, Leland C. Navaho Classification of Their Song Ceremonials. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No.50.

1940 Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Wyman, Leland C. An Introduction to Navaho Chant Practice. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No.53.

(1941) 1960 Patterning as Exemplified in Navaho Culture. Pages 109–130 inLanguage, Culture and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir. Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press.

1943 Covert Culture and Administrative Problems. American Anthropologist New Series 45: 213–227.

1944 Navaho Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum.

1945 Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Kelly, W. H. The Concept of Culture. Pages 78–105 in The Science of Man in the World Crisis. Edited by Ralph Linton. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

(1946) 1951 Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Leighton, Dorothea (CROSS) The Navaho. Oxford Univ. Press.

1947 Leighton, Dorothea (Cross); and Kluckhohn, ClydeChildren of the People: The Navaho Individual and His Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1949 Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1951 McCoMbe, LeonardNavaho Means People. Photo-graphs by Leonard McCombe, text by Evon Z. Vogt and Clyde Kluckhohn. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

1952 Universal Values and Anthropological Relativism. Volume 4, pages 87–112 in Modern Education and Human Values. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

1952 Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Kroeber, Alfred L. Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum.

(1953) 1961 Universal Categories of Culture. Pages 89–105 in Frank W. Moore (editor), Readings in Cross-cultural Methodology. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press.

1955 Ethical Relativity: Sic et Non. Journal of Philosophy52: 663–677. 1956

Toward a Comparison of Value-emphases in Different Cultures. Pages 116–132 in Leonard D. White (editor), The State of the Social Sciences. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1958 The Scientific Study of Value, and Contemporary Civilization. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings102: 469–476.


Parsons, Talcott; and Vogt, Evon Z. 1962 Clyde Kay Maben Kluckhohn: 1905–1960. American Anthropolo-gist New Series 64: 140–148. → Include a bibliography of Kluckhohn’s works.

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Clyde Kluckhohn

The American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-1960) is known for his field work among the Navaho Indians, his contributions to the theory of culture, and his attempts to unify social sciences through interdisciplinary communication.

Clyde Kluckhohn was born in Le Mars, Iowa, on Jan. 11, 1905. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship for study at Oxford, where he received his master's degree in 1932. He also studied at the University of Vienna in 1931-1932, where he encountered the diffusionist Kulturkreis school led by Father Wilhelm Schmidt. Returning to the United States, he received his doctorate in anthropology at Harvard University in 1936. There, in 1935, he was appointed as instructor, rising eventually to the rank of professor.

Kluckhohn was extremely fond of the American Southwest ever since his youth, when he had gone to a ranch near Ramah, N. Mex., to build up his health after an attack of rheumatic fever. Later, his scholarly reputation was greatest for his contributions to the ethnography of the Navaho Indians of this region. However, he also took a research interest in other southwestern cultures, European as well as Indian. During World War II he worked for the Federal government in connection with Japan. Following the war, he organized the Russian Research Center at Harvard and was its first director, from 1947 to 1954.

Perhaps Kluckhohn's greatest contribution to learning was his teaching. He challenged accepted views and encouraged and generously supported students and junior colleagues who had new ideas which seemed worthy of development. He took an active interest in all major branches of anthropology, but outside his primary field of cultural anthropology, Kluckhohn's greatest interest was in linguistics, where he acknowledged the influence of Edward Sapir. Kluckhohn also took a great interest in interdisciplinary collaboration: along with the sociologist Talcott Parsons, the social psychologist Gordon Allport, and the psychoanalyst Henry Murray, he helped found the interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations at Harvard after World War II. Kluckhohn's grand goal was to render the study of human behavior more scientific while retaining the richness of understanding and the focus on important issues characteristic of the humanities. As he advanced professionally and accumulated more administrative responsibilities, his scholarly interests centered increasingly on the theory of culture and especially on the nature of values.

Kluckhohn was aware that his health was precarious. At the same time he felt the need for a crowded life with many social contacts and late hours. Moreover, all those unrecorded conversations and arguments made their contributions to his own intellectual development and continued to stimulate and reverberate in the minds of his former colleagues and students. He died on July 29, 1960, in Santa Fe, N. Mex.

Further Reading

A biography of Kluckhohn is in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 37 (1964). For an overall view of Kluckhohn's work see the posthumous volume of collected essays entitled Culture and Behavior (1962), edited by his son, Richard Kluckhohn. This also includes a complete bibliography of his published works. For general background see Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968). □

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Kluckhohn, Clyde (1905–60) An American anthropologist who taught at Harvard University and whose writings combined elements of anthropology and psychology. His main publication was Navajo Witchcraft (1944), in which he argued that witchcraft served to channel tensions caused by pressures exerted from the wider society in the United States. For a number of years he worked alongside Talcott Parsons, in the interdisciplinary Department of Social Relations at Harvard, and is generally recognized to have encouraged Parsons to take seriously the Freudian-influenced American cultural anthropology of the 1940s. See also CULTURE AND PERSONALITY SCHOOL; MAGIC, WITCHCRAFT, AND SORCERY.