Koppers, Wilhelm

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Koppers, Wilhelm



Wilhelm Koppers (1886–1961), founder and president of the Institute of Ethnology at the Unisity of Vienna, was active as a professor, author, editor, and field worker.

Born in Menzelen near Xanten, Germany, Koppers was educated at the Mission Seminaries of the Societas Verbi Divini (S.V.D.), St. Michael’s in Steyl, Holland, and St. Gabriel’s in Modling, Austria. He joined the S.V.D. in 1901 and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1911. Prevented by illness from undertaking missionary work, he devoted his life instead to scientific research. After being trained in philosophy and theology in Rome in 1911–1912, he concentrated in ethnology and Sanskrit and obtained his PH.D. in Vienna in 1917. He became a Privatdozent at the University of Vienna in 1924 and was appointed to a chair of ethnology in 1928.

When, as a result of Koppers’ efforts, the Institute of Ethnology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Vienna was split into two separate institutes, Koppers was appointed president of the Institute of Ethnology (Institut für Völkerkunde). He served as president from 1929 to 1938 and again from 1945 to 1957, contributing to its development into one of the leading ethnological institutes in Europe. Many ethnologists studied under his guidance, among them Christoph von FürerHaimendorf, Clyde Kluckhohn, Robert Lowie, Masao Oka, Douglas Oliver, Helmut Petri, and Stephan Wurm. After Koppers became president emeritus in 1957, he maintained an active interest in the institute and continued to give his regular lectures.

Koppers published more than two hundred works, of which four were books. He was coeditor of Anthroposfor ten years and editor for eight. He founded and edited Wiener Beitrage zur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistikin 1930 and Acta ethnologica et linguisticain 1950. He made field trips to Tierra del Fuego in 1920–1921 and to central India in 1938–1939, and the material he collected from these field trips appears in numerous publications. He was one of the organizers of the International Congresses of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences and a member of many learned societies.

The range of Koppers’ scholarly interests was broad. He was a student of Father Wilhelm Schmidt, professor of ethnology and linguistics at the Mission Seminary of St. Gabriel, and later collaborated with him for 18 years in the editing of Anthropos. Schmidt was a leading proponent of Kulturkreis theory, and Koppers began as a disciple. By 1931, however, Koppers had begun to de-part from the theories of Kulturkreis (see his 1931 review in Anthropos of O. Menghin’s Weltgeschichte der Steinzeit). He considered the Kulturkreis a working hypothesis but not a method for obtaining satisfactory explanations of cultural phenomena. He preferred the historical method because it can be used for any ethnological problem and for any period in history.

In studying cultural phenomena, Koppers first made a minute analysis of all the elements to be found in a culture area and then, by means of comparative studies, looked for parallelisms and possible diffusion. This comparative approach marked a departure from the older Kulturkreis criteria of quantity, quality, time, and continuity.

Koppers recommended close cooperation with other disciplines, especially history, prehistory, and archeology. Since historical records and verbal traditions cover only a comparatively short period of the history of mankind, a relative chronology has to be used to order ethnological data. He acknowledged the importance of functionalism and of structural studies as supplementary methods for obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of cultural phenomena.

Koppers’ ethnosociological, economic, and religious investigations among tribes of hunters and food gatherers resulted in many discoveries about the origin and growth of human society. He studied the role of the individual in primitive society, as well as that of the family and of the local group; he sought to explain the origin of the state; and he tried to develop an interpretation of the earliest stages of mankind on a universal and historical basis.

Anna Hohenwart-Gerlachstein

[See alsoCulture area; Ethnology; History, article onCULTURE HISTORY; and the biographies ofFrobenius; Graebner; Schmidt.]


1915–1916 Die ethnologische Wirtschaftsforschung: Eine historisch-kritische Studie. Anthropos 10:611–651; 11:971–1079. 1924 Die menschliche Wirtschaft. Pages 375–681 inDer Mensch alter Zeiten: Natur und Kultur der Völker der Erde. Volume 3: Völker und Kulturen; Part 1: Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft der Volker, by W. Schmidt and W. Koppers. Regensburg (Germany): Habbel.

1928 Individualforschung unter den Primitiven, im besonderen unter den Yamana auf Feuerland. Pages 349–365 in Festschrift, publication d’hommage offerte au P. W. Schmidt: 76 sprachwissenschaftliche, ethnologische, religionswissenschaftliche, prähistorische und andere Studien. Edited by W. Koppers. Vienna: Mechitaristen-Congregations-Buchdruckerei.

1931 [A Review of O. Menghin’s] Weltgeschichte der Steinzeit. Anthropos 26:223–243.

1937a Historische und ethnologische Methodik. Pages 13–19 in Wilhelm Schmidt, Handbuch der Methode der kulturhistorischen Ethnologie. Münster (Germany ): Aschendorff.

1937b Die Quellen der Ethnologie und ihre methodische Behandlung. Pages 81–117 in Wilhelm Schmidt, Handbuch der Methode der kulturhistorischen Ethnologie. Miinster (Germany): Aschendorff.

1948 Die Bhil in Zentralindien. Wiener Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistik, Vol. 7. Horn (Austria): Berger.

(1949) 1952 Primitive Man and His World Picture. Lon don and New York: Sheed & Ward. → First published in German.

195la Der historische Gedanke in Ethnologie und Religionswissenschaft. Volume 1, pages 79–109 in Franz König (editor), Christus und die Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte. Vienna: Herder.

1951b Der älteste Mensch und seine Religion. Volume 1, pages 115–160 in Franz Konig (editor), Christus unddie Religionen der Erde: Handbuch der Religions-geschichte. Vienna: Herder.

1952 Der historische Gedanke in Ethnologie und Prahistorie. Pages 11–65 inKultur und Sprache. Wiener Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistik, Vol. 9. Vienna: Herold.

1954 International Symposium of Anthropology (New York, 9.-20. Juni 1952.): Eine ethnologisch-historische Würdigung. Anthropologische Gesellschaft in Wien, Mitteilungen 83:40–60.

1955 a Diffusion: Transmission and Acceptance. Year-book of Anthropology 1: 169–181.

1955 b Ethnologie und Geschichte. Anthropos 50:943–948.

1957 Das Problem der Universalgeschichte im Lichte von Ethnologie und Prähistorie.Anthropos 52:369–389.

1959 Grundsätzliches und Geschichtliches zur ethnologischen Kulturkreislehre. Pages 110–126 in Österreichisches Symposion, First, Wartenstein (Castle), 1958, Beiträge Österreichs zur Erforschung der Vergangenheit und Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit, mit besonderer Beriicksichtigung Mitteleuropas. Horn (Austria): Berger.


Burgmann, arnold 1961 Professor Dr. Wilhelm Koppers SVD.Anthropos 56:721–736.

Luzbetak, louis J. 1961 Father Wilhelm Koppers,S.V.D.Anthropological Quarterly 34, no. 3:164 only.