Lowie, Robert 1883-1957
Robert Harry Lowie, an Austrian-American anthropologist, was one of the leaders of Franz Boas’s (1858–1942) first generation of students. Lowie was noted for his contributions to American Indian ethnography, social structure, and ethnological theory.
Born to a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, Robert Lowie was the son of Samuel Lowie, a Hungarian-born businessman, and Ernestine Kuhn Lowie, the daughter of a Viennese physician. Immigrating with his family at the age of ten, he attended public school in New York City. In 1901 Lowie graduated with a BA in classics from the City College of New York. After teaching briefly in the New York school system, he enrolled in Columbia University, where he was soon attracted to anthropologist Franz Boas and his embodiment of German scientific ideals. Entering the doctoral program in anthropology in 1904, Lowie earned his PhD in 1908 with a dissertation on “The Test-Theme in North American Mythology.”
Robert Lowie joined curator Clark Wissler (1870–1947) at the American Museum of Natural History, which sponsored Lowie’s first field work in 1906 among the Lemhi (Northern Shoshone) of Idaho. The following year, Lowie officially joined the staff of the museum as an assistant, becoming assistant curator in 1909 and associate curator in 1913. During his tenure at the museum, Lowie carried out most of his ethnographic fieldwork, studying the Assiniboine, Northern Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Hidatsa, Southern Ute, Southern Paiute, Northern Paiute (Paviotso), Washo, and Hopi. Despite this wide range, Lowie’s specialty was the Native peoples of the Great Plains, particularly the Crow of Montana. He first worked among them in 1907, returning every summer from 1910 to 1916, and again in 1931.
In most respects, Lowie’s ethnography was thoroughly Boasian. Motivated by the “salvage paradigm,” predicated on the disappearance of Native cultures, in his ethnography he focused on a general cultural survey that called for the mapping of cultures and languages. His fieldwork was also holistic and comprehensive, studying every aspect of a group’s culture from artifacts to social organization to religion and mythology.
After spending a year teaching anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley (1917–1918), Lowie joined the faculty as an associate professor in 1921, becoming a full professor in 1925 and retiring in 1950. During the 1930s, Lowie developed a new areal interest: South America. He edited and translated the writings of Curt Nimuendajú (1883–1945), a German-Brazilian ethnographer of the Ge-speaking peoples of Brazil. These interests led to his planning and support for the Handbook of South American Indians (1946–1959), edited by his student Julian Steward (1902–1972).
Many of Lowie’s books stemmed from his interest in summarizing the state of anthropological knowledge and communicating it to a broadly educated general audience; these included Culture and Ethnology (1917), Primitive Society (1920), Primitive Religion (1924), and Social Organization (1948). His interest in cultural critique, expressed in Are We Civilized? (1929) and other essays of the 1920s, led to his Toward Understanding Germany (1954), a detailed anthropological analysis of a European society.
In anthropological theory, Robert Lowie was known for his empiricism, inspired by youthful influences of Ernst Mach (1838–1916) and Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919). Lowie thought it important to emphasize facts and distinguish them from interpretation, amassing full and accurate evidence with an aversion to premature generalization. At the center of his interests was social organization, both in kinship and in voluntary associations such as Plains Indian military societies. Primitive Society, his major work on the subject, embodied the Boasian critique of Lewis Henry Morgan’s (1818–1881) unilinear evolution. Lowie’s famed characterization of culture as “a thing of shreds and patches” expressed the Boasian belief that while the sources of any given culture might be diverse, they were integrated in a unique pattern. Lowie extended this approach in his formulation of the method of controlled comparison. His interest in the philosophy of science revealed itself in his History of Ethnological Theory (1937), one of the first summaries of its kind. Like all his work, it was distinguished for its grasp of international scholarship.
In 1933, at the age of fifty, Lowie married Luella Cole (1893–1970), a psychologist; they had no children. In the course of his long career, Lowie received many professional honors, including service as the editor of American Anthropologist (1924–1933) and president of the American Folklore Society (1916–1917), American Ethnological Society (1920–1921), and American Anthropological Association (1935–1936). A socialist in his youth, he was a pacifist during World War I (1914– 1918) and a passionate opponent of Nazism. Robert Lowie died of cancer in Berkeley; his papers are preserved at the Department of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Boas, Franz; Ethnography; Jews; Native Americans; Nazism; Observation, Participant; Pacifism; Socialism
Lowie, Robert H. 1908. The Test-Theme in North American Mythology. Journal of American Folklore 21: 97–148.
Lowie, Robert H. 1916. Plains Indians Age-Societies: Historical and Comparative Summaries. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 11: 877–992.
Lowie, Robert H. 1917. Culture and Ethnology. New York: McMurtrie.
Lowie, Robert H. 1920. Primitive Society. New York: Boni and Liveright.
Lowie, Robert H. 1924. Primitive Religion. New York: Boni and Liveright.
Lowie, Robert H. 1929. Are We Civilized? Human Cultures in Perspective. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Lowie, Robert H. 1935. The Crow Indians. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
Lowie, Robert H. 1937. The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.
Lowie, Robert H. 1948. Social Organization. New York: Rinehart.
Lowie, Robert H. 1954. Toward Understanding Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lowie, Robert H. 1959. Robert H. Lowie, Ethnologist: A Personal
Record. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lowie, Robert H. 1960. Selected Papers in Anthropology. Ed. Cora Du Bois. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Murphy, Robert F. 1972. Robert H. Lowie. New York: Columbia University Press.
Radin, Paul. 1958. Robert H. Lowie. American Anthropologist 60: 358–361.
Steward, Julian H. 1946–1959. Handbook of South American Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143, Vols. 1–7. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.