Kroeber, Alfred L.

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Kroeber, Alfred L.

Anthropological research

General theory

Stature in anthropology



Alfred Louis Kroeber was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1876. He died in Paris in 1960, on his way home from a conference at Burg Wartenstein in Austria on “Anthropological Horizons,” which he had both organized and chaired. His life span almost coincides with the rise of academic anthropology in the United States and with its emergence as a professionalized field of scholarly investigation. To this development Kroeber contributed greatly. He received in 1902 the first PH.D. in anthropology awarded by Columbia University and the second in the United States awarded for a dissertation in ethnology. He developed one of the major university-affiliated anthropological museums, in San Francisco (now in Berkeley), one of the early departments of anthropology—at the University of California—and a major monographic publication series. His own publications between 1896 and 1961 exceed five hundred items, almost all of them professional in content. (For a complete bibliography, see Steward 1962, pp. 217–253.)

The professional and personal aspects of Kroeber’s life are unusually integrated. Many of his recurring scholarly interests and viewpoints are related to his own experience and were established at an early age. Kroeber’s parents were Protestants of German ancestry. Although they spoke English as fluently as German, German was the language of the home. The milieu was the upper-middleclass German environment of New York City in the late nineteenth century, in which liberal intellectual interests and a deep concern with literature, music, and art were taken for granted. Kroeber early became familiar with Greek and Latin and attributed his enduring interest in linguistics to his childhood contact with four languages. For his early education he was tutored by Dr. G. Bamberger, first principal of the Ethical Culture School. Bamberger not only gave Kroeber a lively appreciation of ancient Greece but also aroused in him an avid interest in natural history. A short time later, Kroeber and a group of boys founded a “scientific society”; they collected fossils, minerals, and biological specimens and read “papers” to each other. Kroeber remained oriented toward natural history and biology, and implicit or explicit biological analogies run through his later work.

After a period at private preparatory schools Kroeber entered Columbia at the age of 16. In his sophomore year he took a deep interest in English literature and was the leader of a group that founded an undergraduate literary magazine; indeed, his first publication, in 1896, appeared in the Columbia Literary Monthly. The felicitous style of much of his writing stems from his continuing literary interests. His first formal contact with anthropology was Franz Boas’ language seminar; of his first eight anthropological publications, four deal with folk tales, three with decorative art and symbolism, and only one with ethnology.

One reason for Kroeber’s choice of anthropology as a career was almost certainly idealistic: he felt that no other subject could do as much to clear away taboos and confused thinking and so aid man’s progress. Throughout his life Kroeber maintained liberal political and social viewpoints, but these were expressed mainly in an enormous interest in and sympathy with people. He believed that political and activist commitments prevent objectivity and he espoused no causes until the 1950s, when he became involved with the California Indians in the land claims cases. In the 1930s, when, for the first time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under John Collier, employed anthropologists, a step widely hailed by young (and unemployed) anthropologists, Kroeber disapproved and even refused to recommend students to Collier. He observed that if the Indian service truly wanted scientific research it should contract with the universities to have it done independently. The problems of independence in research and freedom of publication for government-employed anthropologists which he anticipated continue to preoccupy the professional associations.

Kroeber is sometimes referred to as the last anthropologist able to make significant contributions to all the subfields of anthropology. This is true insofar as he was interested in the unity of anthropology as a discipline. But he considered himself first of all an ethnologist, and his central concern was with the nature of culture and the search for an understanding of its processes. Whatever he did outside the field of ethnology was either the product of an incidental if acute perception of problems or was ultimately related to his concern with culture. The methods he utilized, the kinds of problems he was most interested in, and the explanatory principles he developed were all strongly conditioned by his historical bent, his familiarity with biology, and his humanistic training.

When Kroeber entered anthropology, previous work had already established the importance of culture in explaining dissimiliarities of behavior found in societies around the world. Anthropologists, at least, accepted the primacy of culture, although others in the field of social science and the public did not. Consequently, much remained to be done in assembling the evidence against simplistic biological, racist, or environmentalist explanations. To this task Kroeber devoted part of his energies, particularly in his earlier years. He believed that it is necessary to understand the biological and environmental aspects of man’s existence in order to establish the nature and scope of culture.

In some ways Kroeber’s most influential book was his Anthropology (1923). During the period in which anthropology first gained extensive recognition as a professional discipline and the number of anthropologists began to grow rapidly, this work was the only textbook. It also was a major source from which scholars in other fields as well as the general public learned about anthropology. The first edition deals at length with the inadequacies of biological and environmental explanations of man’ customary behavior, including an admirable and compact summary of the evidence up to that time against racist interpretations of human differences. The 1948 second edition bears the subtitle “Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Prehistory”; for Kroeber, these were the main subjects of anthropology. A very large part of the book deals with historical problems and the growth of civilizations.

Anthropological research

Physical anthropology

Kroeber’s only substantive contributions to physical anthropology, made early in his career, are two routine and, by modern standards, quite unimportant anthropometric studies. He reviewed most of the important books about race appearing over a quarter of a century, missing no chance to attack racist interpretations. In 1928 he reviewed an early book on body types by Franz Weidenreich and suggested it might offer a way out of “the relative sterility into which the study of races has got itself” (see 1928 a). In 1920 he published Three Essays on the Antiquity and Races of Man (see 1920 a); this material was later incorporated in revised form into his Anthropology. Although modern genetics was not available to him, he strongly emphasized evolutionary interpretations of fossil man and race origins. In 1928, in the Quarterly Review of Biology, he anticipated a currently active research field in a paper on subhuman cultural beginnings (see 1928 b) and in 1934 he called attention to the importance of blood-group classifications (see 1934 a). Kroeber’s contributions to physical anthropology, then, consist primarily of critical evaluations, new interpretations, and the identification of new fields of research importance.


In the field of linguistics Kroeber’s contribution was substantial and long-continuing. Much of his work stemmed from his research in California, but he also wrote on the relationships among Australian languages, and he suggested several Middle American language groupings. His early interests were primarily historical, and, partly in collaboration with Roland Burrage Dixon, he grouped the California Indian languages into a number of larger families. At the same time he pioneered studies of dialect surveys among aboriginal American Indians, publishing significant material as early as 1906 and 1907. Characteristically, in the last work he wrote on California Indian languages (published posthumously in 1963), entitled Yokuts Dialect Survey, he incorporated research that began in 1900.

Kroeber’s 1907 paper on the Yokuts anticipates some aspects of modern glottochronology and lexicostatistics in its use of basic word lists and attempts at statistical treatment. This is acknowledged by Morris Swadesh, who developed his glotto-chronological and lexicostatistical methods while associated with Kroeber at Columbia University. Kroeber also explored statistical approaches with Charles D. Chretien at Berkeley (e.g., “Quantitative Classification of Indo-European Languages” 1937). The 1963 Yokuts work includes lexicostatistical analyses and a chronological comparison of Yokuts with Athapascan.

Kroeber was concerned primarily with historical relationships within and between languages, but he also published some essentially analytical papers concerned with such problems as incorporation or noun composition. These are by no means at the level of modern structural analysis, and it is primarily for this reason that Kroeber often denied that he was a linguist. It was the very precise methodology of linguistics that interested him, and he speculated upon ways of developing similar techniques in ethnology. In the growing literature on the Hokan, Penutian, and Athapascan language families his work will continue to be basic.


Kroeber’s research interests in American archeology developed slowly. His contributions to California archeology, the region of his greatest ethnographic interests, are almost nil. In part this was because he perceived no significant historical depth in the archeological record. Despite early work under departmental auspices, particularly on Uhle’ excavations in the Emeryville shellmound, which suggested chronological development, Kroeber saw these changes as insignificant. Like virtually all archeologists in the early years of this century, he did not attribute any great time depth to the aboriginal peopling of the New World; he recognized regional differences but not cultural change.

Kroeber’s first significant contribution to archeology was the seriation of sites near Zuni on the basis of surface shard collections (1916 a). Without Kroeber’s knowledge, Kidder (1915) had used a similar approach a year or so earlier, and Nelson (1916) had established time differences in the Tano area through stratigraphic excavation [seeKidder]. The data published in these three papers gave a major impetus to the recognition of time perspective in American prehistory. Kroeber’ paper showed his appreciation of the cultural implications of minor variations in archeological materials, a view he had earlier rejected for California data. His statistical approach set in motion a still expanding use of statistics in archeology.

For a time Kroeber retained some interest in the Southwest, and his “Native Culture of the South-west” (1928 c) was the first to emphasize the important difference between Hohokam and Anasazi traditions. His archeological work, however, focused on Mexico and Peru. After a short visit to Mexico, which resulted in the first documentation of subperiods in the Mexican Archaic (now the Pre-classic) period through controlled stratigraphic excavation and the seriation of surface materials, he centered his efforts on Peru. This decision was influenced in part by the Uhle collections in the University Museum. Uhle had suggested chronological depth for his materials. Kroeber, working in part with graduate students, analyzed and published articles on the Uhle collections, refining and extending the Uhle chronology. Uhle’s materials lacked extensive strati graphic evidence; he had, however, carefully classified very rich grave goods. Kroeber applied a method of sequential dating to these goods, arranging them according to stylistic similarities. Then, by comparing these materials with materials from other coastal valleys, he developed a complex time sequence. Although modified by later stratigraphic work, much of Kroeber’s relative chronology still is useful. Later he under-took two major field campaigns in Peru for the Field Museum of Natural History.

Kroeber played a part in introducing controlled excavational techniques, original seriational techniques, and the use of stylistic analysis for chrono-logical or cultural historical purposes to American archeology. His interpretative contributions in archeology are primarily the extension of theoretical viewpoints he had developed in ethnology, while his analytical categories are derived from the humanities.


Kroeber viewed himself primarily as an ethnographer and ethnologist. He did not, however, teach ethnographic methodology to his students (as, indeed, he had never taught archeological methodology). He simply expected his students to become knowledgeable through the literature and the diverse problems they encountered, always recognizing that each situation requires special adaptations. Those of his students who became involved in archeology had to teach themselves the most elementary mapping, excavating, cataloguing, and preservation techniques. Students in ethnology might be advised to take plenty of paper and pencils or not to become involved with reservation factions. Yet at various points they did learn the necessity of identifying the native viewpoint; of recording native terms, particularly for conceptual materials; of maintaining a holistic viewpoint and an awareness of the interrelatedness of culture— before any of these ideas were “discovered” by the methodologists of a later generation.

As an ethnographer Kroeber was thorough and showed great ability in establishing field rapport. His notebooks are meticulous and orderly. He returned to some groups, such as the Yurok and Mohave, time and again over almost a lifetime. Surprisingly, however, he never wrote a “complete” ethnography. His most extensive reporting on a single tribe is perhaps his early work on the Arapaho; his several publications deal with decorative symbolism (1901), ceremonial organization and religion (1902–1907), and tales and language (1916b). He paid little attention to social organization, technology, or ecological adaptations.

Kroeber’ characteristic approach is clearest in California ethnography, where he made his major contributions. When he first visited California in 1900, the California Indians were little known and of little interest to anthropologists. At the time of his death probably no comparable area of the world had such a large anthropological literature, a substantial portion written by Kroeber himself. His major contribution is the Handbook of the Indians of California (1925), a work of more than a thousand pages, containing much previously unpublished data. Not only does the work summarize the information then known, but it also delineates cultural areas and discusses their historic implications. In the Handbook and in some independent short monographs Kroeber gave many excellent “abridged” but holistic ethnographic descriptions of the tribes he knew best. These are often beautifully written and perceptive, but they are far from detailed ethnographies. Most of his some seventy papers on California ethnography deal with ethnological problems, utilizing his ethnographic data. Porno basketry (1905), for example, is dealt with in the context of California basketry, not Porno culture; Yurok kin-term systems are described and compared with those of their neighbors (1934 b). Publications on the Mohave Indians range from a preliminary sketch in 1902 to a work on Mohave pottery in 1955 (see Kroeber & Harner 1955).

General theory

Kroeber’s substantive contributions alone would make him a memorable figure in anthropology; but his influence, both in anthropology and in the social sciences more generally, derives primarily from his theoretical views. It is not easy to evaluate these so soon after his death, and the difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of his theoretical formulations are embedded more or less incidentally in a profusion of phenomenological data. They are rarely presented as theory in the grand style, but rather as interesting hypotheses. Many of his earlier theoretical interests concerned kinds of problems that are no longer central. In any case, his publications appeared over a period of sixty years, and he rarely bothered to note changes in his views or to organize his developing theoretical views into an overarching, coherent, or consistent design. Moreover, he rarely attempted to defend his theoretical views; when he encountered opposition to them, his tendency was to seek to reconcile divergent views or to let the future decide who was right. The notable exception is The Nature of Culture, published in 1952. Most of the book consists of reprints of earlier papers or selections therefrom, arranged and annotated by Kroeber himself to indicate the development of his major theoretical interests.

The nature of culture

Kroeber’s most systematic theoretical treatments deal with the nature of culture and its processes. These themes dominated his more important courses as well as several of his major monographs. Singer has pointed out that Kroeber’s approach to culture was in terms of patterning rather than in terms of structure, and that culture was for Kroeber a global concept. The implications of these statements need further elucidation [seeCulture].

For Kroeber, as for many of his contemporaries, the term “culture” is referable to pan-human phenomena; hence ultimate explanations must deal not only with the cultures of specific societies but also with culture as a universal human characteristic. Each culture possesses unique aspects of content and pattern which require explanation but represent only a temporary historical eddy in the pan-human sea of culture. Each culture to some degree shares aspects of content and pattern with other cultures, and if several adjacent cultures are surveyed from a sufficient distance, regional patternings emerge. In a different sense Kroeber also saw patterning in the distribution, association, and clustering of traits which crosscut cultures and even regions. While specific cultures are the basic units, the full understanding of culture must include explanations of elements and patternings which transcend the specific culture. Kroeber’s concern with the distribution of traits is one basis for the criticism of his “particularistic” view of culture. Paradoxically, Kroeber tended to view such anthropologists as Malinowski as overly particularistic because of their failure to relate the cultures they studied to the regional cultures in which they are embedded, and he was skeptical of Malinowski’ grand leap from his particularistic study of the Trobriands to universal generalizations; not only did he find the term “savages” offensive, but for him Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages in Northwest Melanesia gave evidence only of the sexual life of the Trobriand Islanders.

Cultural units

Kroeber was particularistic also in his search for basic cultural units of study. This preoccupation was reinforced by, but antedated, the development of such basic units as phonemes and morphemes in linguistics. Since language is a cultural phenomenon, similar units should be discoverable in other aspects of culture. This aspect of Kroeber’s work and thought perhaps reached its apogee in the extensive compilation of cultural element distributions. A large part of the surviving cultures of the western United States were resurveyed by means of standard trait lists, and not only presences but also absences were recorded, in order to permit statistical measures of relationship between groups. Such measures of relationship could also be used, in his view, to establish historical depth, both for relationships and for traits or trait complexes.

The culture element distribution lists are heaviest on material culture and lightest on social organization, where at the time the identification of units was less advanced. Had recent work of the social structuralists been available, Kroeber no doubt would have perceived many more units of social structure. In any case, the culture element distribution studies produced much less than Kroeber hoped for, and he himself made little use of them. Field workers found the trait-list approach confining, and at least part of the ethnographic data they collected turned out to be unsuitable for tabular listing. As a result, many of the reports contain extensive ethnographic footnotes or appendices. These, in conjunction with the trait lists, provide a rich body of material.

Use of statistics

The culture element survey program illuminates Kroeber’s encouragement of the use of statistical approaches to ethnographic and linguistic data. The methods are essentially those of cluster analysis; had factorial or multivariate analysis been available, the results might have been more striking and Kroeber’s interest might have remained more active. As it is, the statistical interest in ethnography has remained confined to only a few of Kroeber’s students. [SeeEthnology; see alsoClustering.]

A major purpose of Kroeber’s statistical studies and the culture element surveys was to provide more objective classification methods; this purpose was related to his interest in the culture area, which he saw as a classification device that could also be useful in historical reconstruction. However, Kroeber was well aware that even though a high degree of objectivity might be reached in mapping the geographical clusterings of culture traits (culture areas), historical inferences based on this classification, especially when blurred by diffusion, are less reliable. (See 1935 for a statement by Kroeber of the purpose of the culture element surveys.)

Culture areas

Kroeber’s first use of the culture area, in 1904 (“Types of Indian Culture in California”), antedated Clark Wissler’s first publication by two years. From the beginning Kroeber insisted that culture areas lack absolute boundaries and that the centers of cultural climax are as much the result of the “drawing in” of culture elements as they are centers of origination and dispersal. For Kroeber the culture area is similar to the biotic area of the biologist, whose definition depends upon the scale of the units compared; from a continental view culture areas may be identified as very large units; from a more microscopic view, they break down into subareas or provinces, depending upon the intensity of analysis.

In his major contribution dealing with culture areas, Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (1939), Kroeber outlined 6 grand areas, 56 areas, and 43 subareas. Here he also declared, “The concept of a culture area is a means to an end. The end may be the understanding of culture processes as such, or of the historic events of culture” (p. 1). He also claimed he was dealing in cultural wholes—meaning, apparently, patterns or configurations—rather than in traits or complexes, “which always constitute only a fraction of the entirety of any one culture” (p. 2). In this work Kroeber attempted to relate his various levels of culture areas to natural areas and produced a number of new and significant relations between ecology and types of social organization. While recognizing that cultures are rooted in nature he made the categorical and significant statement that “the immediate causes of cultural phenomena are other cultural phenomena” (p. 1). Later, in 1947, he wrote that culture areas are really not areas but kinds of cultures which are geographically limited.

Diachronic explanation

Kroeber explained cultural processes diachronically: events cannot occur without process or process without events, which introduces time as a factor in all events. For analytical purposes, history may at times be ignored, but the ultimate explanations of culture for him had to include the factor of time. Hence the explanation of culture and its processes in his Anthropology is almost entirely historical. And where documentary or archeological evidence was lacking or inadequate, Kroeber relied heavily on historical inference or reconstruction based primarily on distributional data.

At the same time, Kroeber reacted as strongly against simplistic evolutionary explanations and the excesses of the Kulturkreise and the heliolithic schools as did the British social anthropologists. He did not believe that methods of historical inference can be used mechanically or that the results express more than degrees of probability, and in his Anthropology he discussed this problem in detail.

The basis for most of Kroeber’s reconstructions is the process of diffusion or borrowing. All cultures, almost self-evidently, are in large part composed of elements borrowed from other cultures however much they may be reworked, adapted, and fitted into distinctive patterns. But not all things that are similar are necessarily borrowed, and in his Anthropology Kroeber characteristically opened his chapter on diffusion with a discussion of the couvade, a set of similar behavioral restrictions placed upon the father at the birth of a child, found in Europe among the Basques and in Brazil among some Indians. Kroeber argued that the couvade is not the result of diffusion; instead it may be a response to a universal human experience. Thus “independent invention,” “parallelism,” and “convergence” are equally possible explanations of similarities, along with diffusion. In any given case a selection between alternative explanations can be made only after weighing probabilities in the light of certain principles.

Kroeber modeled his approach to diffusion and historical reconstruction on that used by paleontologists to infer relative age; their inferences are based on the distribution of flora and fauna. Kroeber’s approach emerges most clearly in his article “Historical Reconstruction of Culture Growths and Organic Evolution” (1931). He compared cultures to biotas, or assemblages of plants and animals, and culture areas to faunal areas such as the Holarctic or Neotropical. In both anthropology and biology geographical continuity of distribution strengthens the case for diffusion, and their age–area interpretations are subject to restraints. A botanist will not infer the relative age of pines and grasses from their distribution; the anthropologist must not compare textile arts with a religious cult. Analogies, particularly at a conceptual level, are not evidence of borrowing. Detailed structural similarities do strengthen the case for borrowing, but the principle of limited possibilities must be borne in mind. If borrowing is postulated, particularly of isolated traits without continuous geographic distributions, then absences or failures to borrow must also be considered and explained. Degeneration or simplification and the relative stability of elements through time and space also may be relevant. In short, although diffusion is a common process, no case of similarity is to be considered as diffusion on a priori grounds.

The diachronic and distributional problems that are central in much of Kroeber’s thought and research are somewhat remote from much of modern anthropology; nevertheless, the problems cannot be avoided if universalistic explanations of culture are to be reached. Archeologists have been more influenced by Kroeber’s ideas and concerns than have others in recent years. The area co-tradition concepts first advanced by the late Wendell Bennett for Peru are in the Kroeber tradition. In ethnology, Evon Vogt has recently developed a refined genetic approach to the analysis of culture areas, and similar stirrings of interest in historical reconstructions are visible among recent anthropologists. On the other hand, some of the more enthusiastic diffusionists, particularly those among archeologists, have ignored many of Kroeber’s methodological cautions. They have been taken to task recently by John H. Rowe (1966) in “Diffusionism in Archaeology.”

Cultural configurations

Kroeber felt strongly that individual cultures must be considered as wholes, although he never developed a holistic approach that satisfied him. He was sympathetic to Ruth Benedict’s patterns or configurations of culture and constantly used these terms himself, al-though he was dissatisfied with Benedict’ approach and conclusions. Along with these terms he often referred to “style,” a word he appears never to have defined. He used it most commonly in relation to aesthetic productions, and when he occasionally extended it to other human activities he seems to have meant a distinctive mode of expression or action. His major use of the term was in his analysis of Peruvian art styles (1951).

By the term “patterns” or “configurations” Kroeber customarily meant recurring clusters of phenomena. Sometimes the terms are used to describe the spatial distribution of concrete clusterings; more importantly, in explaining the peaks or climaxes in the history of culture areas and the differential frequency of geniuses at different times and places. His major work on this subject, Configurations of Culture Growth (1944), attempts to identify, for nations and areas of the Old World, culminations or peaks in various fields of aesthetic and intellectual endeavor. These peaks are characterized by the emergence of large numbers of exceptional individuals. Kroeber suggested that the appearance of these geniuses is the result of the emergence of new patterns, their exploitation until possibilities have been exhausted, and their subsequent decline and disintegration until some productive new pattern is formed either in the same or some other area. These patterned phenomena he related to other aspects of culture and suggested that certain historic and repetitive configurations of growth and change may be identified.

Others (e.g., Spengler, Toynbee) have attempted to establish regularities in explaining the rise and fall of civilizations. Kroeber’s distinctive contribution is his assumption that the distribution of superior ability in a population remains approximately constant. He explained the appearance and recognition of genius and the flourishing of civilizations in cultural terms.

“The Superorganic.”

Allied to his conviction that culture is to be explained in cultural terms was Kroeber’s long-standing objection to reductionism. This viewpoint appears many times in his work but is most explicitly stated in “The Superorganic” (1917 a) and in “So-called Social Science” (1936). In both articles Kroeber argued for a hierarchy of phenomena, ranging from the inorganic, organic, and psychic to the Superorganic, or sociocultural. Kroeber’s main thesis is that at each level some phenomena may be reducible or explainable in terms of the level below, but some cannot be so explained.

Kroeber’s “Superorganic” drew criticism immediately from Edward Sapir and A. A. Goldenweiser and more recently from Melford Spiro, David Bidney, and others [seeGoldenweiserandSapir]. The concept has been attacked as mystical and as sheer reification because it fails to predict variations in individual behavior and because it is deterministic. This controversy has been reviewed recently by David Kaplan (1965), who has argued forcefully in favor of the Superorganic by moving the discussion from the ontological to the methodological arena. Most critics of the superorganic, said Kaplan, have in mind psychological questions, although psychological theories cannot explain most cultural phenomena. For example, such a concept as “lineage” cannot be derived from psychology as we now know it; it is of cultural origin, and anthropologists have used it to ask and to answer meaningful and nonpsychological questions.

Kroeber himself in The Nature of Culture, in commenting on the two articles that dealt with the controversial concept, proceeded to withdraw those statements which appeared to attribute real existence to culture and pointed out that in the second he had substituted “sociocultural” for “superorganic.” However, he clearly regarded as basically sound his insistence upon seeking cultural explanations for cultural facts.

Anthropology and psychology

Kroeber’s antireductionist views are widely interpreted as reflecting his opposition to psychological interests in anthropology, to the rise of the culture and personality approach, and to modern psychological anthropology. Actually Kroeber had a lively interest in psychology, his minor subject as a graduate student. He first brought psychoanalysis to the attention of anthropologists with his reviews of papers by Jung in 1918, and in 1920 he reviewed Freud’s Totem and Taboo, albeit very negatively (see 1920 b). He underwent a brief analysis himself, and in 1921 and 1923 he maintained an office and practiced psychoanalysis with some success in San Francisco. Many years later he encouraged Erik Erikson’s work with the Yurok. In the mean-time he tolerated and in some cases encouraged those of his students who became interested in psychological problems, and several early doctoral candidates at Berkeley were virtually forced into psychology minors.

In spite of Kroeber’s positive attitude toward psychology, he soon came to feel that the preoccupations of the academic psychology of the time with experimental and animal behavior problems reduced the value of the subject for anthropologists. Moreover, having tested psychoanalytical theories thoroughly before most anthropologists had even “discovered” them, he found them unsatisfactory for the explanation of cultural phenomena, however much he continued to find them interesting and at times amusing. Although the second edition of Anthropology includes a section on psychology, and in The Nature of Culture Kroeber included five papers he considered to be “psychologically slanted,” he kept himself aloof from the work of Kardiner, Linton, and others engaged in the development of culture and personality theories. The only book he reviewed in this field was Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (1949). The review is thorough and friendly but mildly skeptical. In surveying the field (see the 1950 article in The Nature of Culture), he agreed that an explanation of culture on the psychological level is necessary, but he warned that the problem of providing such an explanation is enormously complex; culture, he believed, had illuminated personality far more than the reverse. One difficulty, he felt, was that many “enthusiasts” in the culture and personality field knew so little about culture.

Functional analysis

In contrast to his “particularistic” approach in dealing with culture elements and culture complexes and their distributions, Kroeber was uneasy when confronted with nonhistorical social science approaches in anthropology. The dissection of features of a particular culture and their analysis apart from the total context, he felt, would yield limited and perhaps misleading results. Yet he had no such qualms about isolating culture traits in his comparative studies or identifying complexes for cross-cultural studies. Indeed, some of his own important contributions in social organization are essentially attempts at isolating items of culture, and he published several important studies in kinship which contradict his own position. An early paper entitled “Classificatory Systems of Relationship” (1909) proposes important studies in kinship which contradict fication of kin, which some regard as the first step toward componential analysis. [SeeComponential ANALYSIS.]

Kroeber’s study of Zuni kinship and clan organization, “Zuni Clan Functioning” (1917 b), which became part of a larger monographic study published by the American Museum of Natural History (see 1917 c), broke ground in that it emphasized the variety of functions of the clans and disproved some notions about their origins; the larger monograph showed that the nuclear family kept important functions within a clan-organized society. Kroeber himself deprecated this work, indicating that he had included it in his collected papers only because it is primarily functional in approach, in contrast to his other papers on kinship. Much more important to him was his insistence upon the complexity of causation and the importance of historical, linguistic, and psychological variables as well as of sociological variables. In The Nature of Culture he included an exchange of views with A. R. Radcliffe-Brown on this subject. Modern kinship studies have gone beyond Kroeber and in different directions, but the questions he raises are still significant and partly unanswered [seeCulture; Kinship].

The papers in The Nature of Culture also are significantly related to a problem still vital in discussions of cultural stability and change. Extreme functional and structural approaches have insisted on the interrelatedness of all aspects of culture. In “Basic and Secondary Patterns of Social Structure” (1938) and in later papers Kroeber wrestled with the fact that some aspects of social organization and culture seem more stable than others. Ultimately, he identified four cultural segments: real culture, value culture, societal aspects, and language. Each he suggested has varying modalities of change and may have an independent history.

Kroeber’s sense of the uniqueness of culture perhaps kept him from structural analyses on a cross-cultural basis. He could, on occasion, use thoroughly functional concepts in his descriptive analyses (see for example his section on the Yurok in the Handbook of the Indians of California), but his habit of mind and his interest led him back continually to the natural-history approach of classical biology and a humanistic emphasis upon patterns and styles.

Stature in anthropology

It is far too soon to estimate Kroeber’s impact upon anthropology and the social sciences. Many of the problems he struggled with, even though far from solved, are no longer fashionable. Yet his emphasis on multiple causation and the importance of historical and linguistic variables may yet prove a way out of the blind alleys encountered in the closed and static systems of functionalism and structuralism. His recurrent concern with the importance of linguistic factors and the methods of linguistic analysis has been rediscovered in the development of componential analysis and of “modern” ethnography.

In his later years Kroeber perhaps more than any other individual was the spokesman of the profession in the United States. He played an important role in organizing the 1951 International Symposium on Anthropology and he organized the 1960 Conference on Anthropological Horizons, both sponsored by the Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

The regard in which Kroeber was held and the reasons for his eminence rest on several characteristics. On the personal level he was a man of great breadth of interests and a deep concern with what other people thought or were doing. He was primarily an anthropologist’s anthropologist, in that he wrote almost exclusively for his professional colleagues. Most important, however, was his lifelong curiosity about new fields, new approaches, and new problems. This curiosity repeatedly led him to enter a new field, topic, or problem on which little had been written or which lacked systematization. In part, but only in part, this was a function of the youth of the field. In many cases, Kroeber’s entry into a field or topic was marked by a single paper which he never followed up. Nevertheless, in almost every case the field was never the same again after Kroeber’s foray into it. People could disagree with what Kroeber did and said but they could not ignore it.

Ralph Beals

[Directly related are the entries Anthropology,article on THE FIELD; Culture,article on THE CONCEPT OF CULTURE; Ethnology; History,article on CULTURE HISTORY, Indians, North American;and the biography of Boas.]


1901 Decorative Symbolism of the Arapaho. American Anthropologist New Series 3:308–336.

1902 Preliminary Sketch of the Mohave Indians. American Anthropologist New Series 4:276–285.

1902–1907 The Arapaho. 4 parts. American Museum of Natural History, Bulletin 18:1–230, 279–454. → Part 1: General Discussion. Part 2: Decorative Art and Symbolism. Part 3: Ceremonial Organization. Part 4: Religion.

1904 Types of Indian Culture in California. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 2:81–103.

1905 Basket Designs of the Indians of Northwestern California. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 2:105–164.

1906 The Yokuts and Yuki Languages. Pages 64–79 in Boas Anniversary Volume: Anthropological Papers Written in Honor of Franz Boas. New York: Stechert.

1907 The Yokuts Language of South Central California. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 2:165–377.

1909 Classificatory Systems of Relationship. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 39: 77–84.

(1916 a) 1952 Zuni Culture Sequences. Pages 230–232 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1916 b Arapaho Dialects. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 12: 71–138.

(1917 a) 1952 The Superorganic. Pages 22–51 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

(1917 b) 1952 Zuni Clan Functioning. Pages 182–186 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1917 c Zuñi Kin and Clan. American Museum of Natural History, Papers, Vol. 18, part 2. New York: The Museum.

1918 [Reviews of] Analytical Psychology and The Psychology of the Unconscious, by C. G. Jung. American Anthropologist New Series 20:323–324.

1920 a Three Essays on the Antiquity and Races of Man. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → First published for use as readings in a course.

1920 b Totem and Taboo: An Ethnologic Psychoanalysis. American Anthropologist New Series 22:48–55.

(1923) 1948 Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Prehistory. New ed., rev. New York: Harcourt. → First published as Anthropology.

1925 Handbook of the Indians of California. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 78. Washington: Government Printing Office.

1928 a [Review of] Rasse und Körperbau, by Franz Weidenreich. American Anthropologist New Series 30: 158–160.

1928 b Sub-human Culture Beginnings. Quarterly Review of Biology 3:325–342.

1928 c Native Culture of the Southwest. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 23:375–398.

(1931) 1952 Historical Reconstruction of Culture Growths and Organic Evolution. Pages 57–62 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1934 a Blood-group Classification. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 18:377–393.

1934 b Yurok and Neighboring Kin Term Systems. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 35:15–22.

1935 Preface. Pages 1–11 in Stanislaw Klimek, CultureElement Distributions: 1. The Structure of California Indian Culture. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 37, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → The first of a series of culture element surveys.

(1936) 1952 So-called Social Science. Pages 66–78 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1937 KROEBER, A. L.; and CHRETIEN, CHARLES D. Quantitative Classification of Indo–European Languages. Language 13:83–103.

1938 Basic and Secondary Patterns of Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 68:299–309.

1939 Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. California, University of, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology Vol. 38. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1940 The Work of John R. Swanton. Pages 1–9 in Smithsonianb Institution, Essays in Historical Anthropology of North America, Published in Honor of John R. Swanton. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 100. Washington: The Institution.

1944 Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1947 Culture Groupings in Asia. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 3:322–330.

1949 [Review of] Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture, edited by Clyde Kluckhohn and Henry A. Mur ray. American Anthropologist New Series 51:116–118.

(1951) 1952 Great Art Styles of Ancient South America. Pages 289–296 in Alfred L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1952 Kroeber, Alfred L.; and Kluckhohn, ClydeCulture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, Vol. 47, No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: The Museum. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Vintage.

1955 Kroeber, A. L.; and Harner, Michael J. Mohave Pottery. Anthropological Records, Vol. 16, no. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1963 Yokuts Dialect Survey. Anthropological Records, Vol. 11, no. 3. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → Published posthumously.

The Nature of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952. → Contains articles published between 1901 and 1951.


Driver, Harold E. 1962 The Contribution of A. L. Kroeber to Culture Area Theory and Practice. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, 18. Baltimore, Md.: Waverly.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1948 Man and His Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology. New York: Knopf.

Hymes, Dell 1961 Alfred Louis Kroeber. Language 37: 1–28.

Kaplan, David 1965 “The Superorganic”: Science or Metaphysics? American Anthropologist New Series 67:958–976.

Kidder, Alfred v. 1915 Pottery of the Pajarito Plateau and of Some Adjacent Regions in New Mexico. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs 2:407–462.

Nelson, Nels C. 1916 Chronology of the Tano Ruins, New Mexico. American Anthropologist New Series 18:159–180.

Rowe, John H. 1962 Alfred Louis Kroeber, 1876–1960. American Antiquity 27:395–415.

Rowe, John H. 1966 Diffusionism in Archaeology. American Antiquity 31:334–337.

Steward, Julian H. 1962 Alfred Louis Kroeber: 1876–1960. Volume 36, pages 191–253 in National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., Biographical Memoirs. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A bibliography of the publications of Alfred Louis Kroeber, compiled by Ann J. Gibson and John H. Rowe, appears on pages 217–253. It has also been published in Volume 63 of the American Anthropologist New Series.