Parsons, Elsie Clews

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Parsons, Elsie Clews

works by parsons

supplementary bibliography

Elsie Worthington Clews Parsons (1875-1941), American anthropologist, was born in New York into a wealthy and socially prominent family, which both permitted and supported her intellectual endeavors. While her illustrious elder women colleagues, such as Zelia Nuttall, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and Matilda Stevenson, like their male contemporaries, were largely self-trained and had institutional associations with museums rather than universities, Elsie Parsons was the first outstanding woman in anthropology whose career began after formal instruction in the discipline became available. She insisted on entering the newly founded Barnard College—rather than enrolling in one of the established women’s colleges—and received her B.A. there in 1895. She entered graduate studies in sociology at Columbia University, where her work was greatly influenced by Franklin H. Giddings. She received her M.A. in 1897 and her PH.D. in 1899.

In 1900 she married Herbert Parsons, a successful New York attorney and, for part of his career, a congressman. While her children were still young, Elsie Parsons devoted herself to extensive writing on social problems. She allied herself early with the cause of feminism, but fundamentally and increasingly her concern was for the right to rational, individual expression, unconfined by such arbitrary limitations as those of sex, class, and race.

Although her first writings reflect the influence of speculative historical concepts typical of nineteenth-century sociology, they nevertheless give evidence of the perceptive insights and understandings that were to typify her later works. Her views on post-Victorian society were set forth in 1913 in The Old-fashioned Woman, a discussion of conventional behavior, including sex relations, which today seems innocuous but was sufficiently controversial at the time to prompt her to publish it under the pseudonym John Main. This publication was followed by others in a similar vein that appeared under her own name (Spier & Kroeber 1943, pp. 245-246; Reichard 1943, pp. 48-49).

Elsie Parsons did not discover anthropology until she was about forty. The discovery came as a result of a trip to the American Southwest, where she became fascinated by the Pueblo peoples. Her subsequent search for guidance in the scientific, firsthand study of cultures brought her into valuable intellectual association with Pliny E. Goddard and Franz Boas. Anthropology had come sufficiently of age to have developed empirical methods of investigation for dealing with the kinds of problems that Parsons had wrestled with philosophically in her sociological studies in the 1890s. In 1915 she made her first field trip to Zuñi and returned there in 1917 and 1918, when she also studied at Laguna. In 1919 she worked at Laguna with Boas and until 1932 continued to make repeated trips to various pueblos, particularly Hopi, Acoma, and the Tanoan-speaking towns. Ever conscious of the need for precision and detail, she produced studies that are not easy to read but that remain standard and invaluable references for students of the Southwest, providing a solid methodological foundation for continuing research in the region. Although her interest centered on the Pueblos, she sought relationships and cultural anetecedents among the neighboring Pima and in Oklahoma among the Caddo and Kiowa. These comparative studies have been criticized as limited in scope, in that Parsons was not familiar with the broader aspects of cultural diffusion throughout North America. However, valid and useful syntheses of Pueblo data did result from the tremendous collection of detailed data which she amassed over the years and on which, eventually, her Pueblo Indian Religion (1939) was based.

After 1929, her interests turned to Mexico, where she concentrated on problems of Indian-Spanish acculturation and the nature of interpersonal relations within society. She worked principally among the Cahitans of Sonora and the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. The latter group was the source of her most famous and widely acclaimed work, Mitla: Town of the Souls (1936). Concern for culture-contact problems led Parsons to South America. Her death occurred only a few weeks after her return from field work in the Andes, and the results of her research there, Peguche, Canton of Otavalo, appeared posthumously (1945).

In addition to studies among American Indians, she also did extensive research on the folklore of the New World Negro. She collected accounts in the vernacular and was a prime influence in furthering the recording of such data by other scholars. Her significance in the field of folklore is reflected by the fact that in 1943 an entire issue of the Journal of American Folklore was devoted to her as a memorial.

Her career as a teacher was brief. She served as a fellow at Columbia University from 1899 to 1902 and as a lecturer in sociology from 1902 to 1905. In 1919 she held a faculty position at the New School for Social Research, which she helped to found. She disliked public lecturing but was vitally interested in the work of promising students. In addition to offering scholarly encouragement, she was spontaneously generous with financial assistance, and the full amount of sums she gave to students in moments of need will probably never be known. Pleased to be able to help in furthering anthropology, she was deeply embarrassed by personal thanks of any kind of aid, and she even objected to scholarly acknowledgments in print.

Elsie Parsons did not confuse the pleasures of individual self-realization with meaningless symbols of personal prestige. Although eager that women be recognized for their intellectual worth, she did not feel compelled to be the standard-bearer of feminine scholarly accomplishments before the academic public. She never cared to take on organizational offices. Furthermore, because she was independently wealthy, she believed that such offices should be accorded to active and responsible people in academic life who needed to further their careers. Spier noted, however, that because of her ability and in spite of her preferences, offices were “thrust upon her.” She served as treasurer of the American Ethnological Society from 1916 to 1922 and as its president from 1923 to 1925. She was vice-president of the American Folk-Lore Society from 1932 to 1934 and held the office of assistant editor of the Journal of American Folklore, task she truly enjoyed, from 1918 until her death. At the end of her career she had the distinction of being the first woman president of the American Anthropological Association, not because she had made any effort to win equal professional opportunities and respect for women, but simply because she was one of the most respected and outstanding anthropologists of her time (Spier & Kroeber 1943, p. 244).

The large number and the varied nature of the entries in the bibliography of Parsons’ writings reveal a person who must have possessed both amazing energy and a tremendous capacity for concentrated effort. Yet recorded recollections of Elsie Parsons as a person depict a woman characterized by serenity, sociability, and contemplative impartiality. In an obituary essay A. L. Kroeber noted her gentle but determined opposition to schools, fashions, cults, and converts, and her rigorous honesty and courage of mind, adding that she “probably never really experienced the active gratification of hate” (Spier & Kroeber 1943, p. 254).

Anthropology seemed to her as much a calling as a profession, and she was deeply aware of the dangers of trusting anthropological expertise rather than the broad anthropological approach to society. Her concern over these dangers became the theme of her presidential address to the American Anthropological Association, which she did not live to deliver personally. The misuses of anthropology at that time, in the racist schemes of the Nazis, which horrified Parsons and her colleagues around the world, alerted her to the hazards attendant upon the utilization of anthropology to achieve any specific and immediate ends. When work is so directed, no matter how benevolently, she warned, “even the slow and patient searches for social laws may easily smack of divination which according to our definition is concerned not with process but with particular interests and is callous to scientific control” (1942, p. 344). However, she did see in the data and methods of anthropology a way to the liberation of thought whereby people might reach meaningful understandings and reasonable courses of action. She believed that anthropologists had a primary obligation to “popularize” their science among laymen in order that everyone might be enabled to evaluate properly the facile, shallow, and ready-made opinions supplied in ever-increasing quantities through mass media of communication. Parsons hoped that even those who expressed these opinions might be “educated away from their conceits” (1942, pp. 337-344).

Perhaps the melancholy circumstances under which her address was delivered prevented criticism of her ideas; they might well have been criticized as inconsistent. Parsons felt that social commentators often erred and that even when no fault could be found in their opinions, danger lurked in the fact that their views were promulgated and absorbed on the basis of authority rather than reason. She admonished anthropologists that they too ran the risk of being oracular rather than scientific. Yet she argued for the popularizing of anthropology as the means of bringing about a desirable intellectual “revolution.” Now that more than two decades have elapsed since Parsons wrote her final address, it is possible to make more precise the concepts she was in the process of formulating. Applied anthropology, a new field in 1941 and the subject of her pointed criticisms, and the even more recent development known as “action anthropology,” have been moving toward the kind of popularization of anthropology that Parsons had advocated. In 1941 anthropologists knew full well that cultural change must be congruent with the existing values and patterns of the group concerned, but Parsons deplored the idea that those values and patterns were to be discovered and defined by experts as a basis of directing cultural change. Since World War n the fact-finding and decision-making processes that constitute directed change have received greater attention from anthropologists, from nonanthropologists using the methods of anthropology, and from the groups served. There has been an emphasis on understanding the broader political and social realities in which the interests of small groups and immediate social goals must be considered. Elsie Clews Parsons was thus not only a respected and influential scholar in her own day and a significant contributor to the sum of anthropological knowledge; she also pointed, in her final statements, to the pitfalls as well as the valid objectives along the route that anthropology was to travel.

Nancy Oestreich Lurie

[For the historical context of Elsie Clews Parsons’ work, see the biographies ofBoas; Fletcher; Giddings. For discussion of the subsequent development of her ideas, seeField Work; andIndians, North American.]

works by parsons

1913 The Old-fashioned Woman: Primitive Fancies About the Sex, by John Main [pseud.]. New York: Putnam.

1917 Notes on Zuñi. 2 vols. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, Vol. 4, Nos. 3-4. Lancaster, Pa.: The Association.

1929 Ritual Parallels in Pueblo and Plains Cultures, With a Special Reference to the Pawnee. American Anthropologist New Series 31:642-654.

1933-1943 Folk-lore of the Antilles, French and English. 3 vols. American Folk-Lore Society, Memoirs, Vol. 26. New York: The Society.

1936 Mitla: Town of the Souls, and Other Zapoteco-speaking Pueblos of Oaxaca, Mexico. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1939 Pueblo Indian Religion. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1942 Anthropology and Predictions. American Anthropologist New Series 44:337-344. → Published posthumously.

1945 Peguche, Canton of Otavalo, Province of Imbabura, Ecuador: A Study of Andean Indians. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Published posthumously.

supplementary bibliography

Elsie Clews Parsons Memorial Number. 1943 Journal of American Folklore 56:1-96. → Contains articles by friends on topics inspired and influenced by Parsons, as well as tributes to her.

Reichard, Gladys E. 1943 Elsie Clews Parsons. Journal of American Folklore 56:45—56. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Spier, Leslie; and Kroeber, A. L. 1943 Elsie Clews Parsons. American Anthropologist New Series 45: 244-255.