Thurnwald, Richard

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Thurnwald, Richard



Richard Thurnwald (1869-1954), sociologist and anthropologist, was born in Vienna, the only son of a Viennese industrialist who came from a well-to-do farmer’s family. After finishing the classical course at the Gymnasium and his required military service, Thurnwald attended the University of Vienna. In the late nineteenth century, aspects of the social sciences were taught only in the faculty of law, so Thurnwald studied law, receiving his law degree and his state lawyer’s certificate in 1894. Concurrently with his legal studies, he learned Turkish, Arabic, Russian, and Serbian. Also, he became acquainted with scholars in a variety of academic disciplines, among them the economic historian Max Schwiedland, the physical anthropologists R. Poch and A. Plotz, and several psychiatrists of the Zurich school. Perhaps most important for his scientific development were his contacts with the psychologist Karl Stumpf and with J. Kohler, a representative of the school of comparative law. While in Berlin from 1901 to 1905, he studied Egyptian under A. Erman and Assyrian under Fr. Delitzsch.

Thurnwald’s first and last field studies were conducted in Europe: the first in Bosnia in 1896, and the last in Berlin in 1946-1947. In between, he worked in Micronesia and the Solomon Islands, 1906-1909; New Guinea, 1912-1915; east Africa, 1930; and again in the Solomon Islands in 1932. From 1924 on, he held a position at the University of Berlin, mainly in anthropology and sociology, but he also taught at various American universities: the University of California, 1915-1917; Yale and Harvard, 1931-1932; and Syracuse University, 1949. He was the founder and editor of the Zeitschrift fiir Volkerpsychologie und Soziologie (later Sociologus) from 1925 on; one of the editors of the Archiv fiir Anthropologie; and coeditor of the Zeitschrift filr vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft.

Thurnwald’s wide range of training and experience, combined with a lifelong interest in the natural sciences, made him critical of Wundt’s Volkerpsychologie, the dominant anthropological theory in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the late 1920s, he also became critical of Levy-Bruhl. Both these authors, he felt, lacked experience with non-Western societies, and their approach was nothing more than speculative. The French school of sociology, represented by Durk-heim, suffered from the same fault, especially in their theories of the function of religion.

In spite of his profound interest in comparative psychology, Thurnwald became a follower neither of Freud nor of Jung; and in spite of his commitment to comparative sociology, he rejected the Marxian school that was important in Berlin in the 1920s. In both cases, the paucity of supporting factual data made the theories unacceptable: Thurnwald regarded these unilinear schemes of development as a priori speculation. His line of thinking did not fit, therefore, into the main stream of theory-oriented German social anthropology, and this explains the failure of the University of Berlin to create a regular chair for him despite his many years of successful teaching there.

His own theories were based on the intimate knowledge of different societies that he gained on his many and long field trips. He may best be regarded as a functionalist who was fairly close to the British school of Malinowski, with the important difference that he never became antihistorical and that he always paid more attention to individual psychology than did the British school. His main functionalist ideas were formulated before those of the British school, but the British school appears to have developed the same ideas independently.

Thurnwald did not develop a complete system or general theory of human development. He encouraged the comparison of social institutions in different societies; the differences that emerged would contribute to the understanding of the varying functions of a particular institution. He also compared the functional structure of societies, in order ultimately to establish historical developmental sequences. In explicit opposition to Max Weber’s concept of “ideal types,” which he regarded as purely speculative, Thurnwald tried in “Representative Lebensbilder” (1931-1935, vol. 1) to identify specific societies as representative of types of societies.

He complemented this “static” approach with the study of the dynamics of sociopsychological “situations,” again trying to establish typical solutions to specific social problems, and typical sequences of situations. The individual’s solution to a specific situation remained for Thurnwald the principal source of all social change. But although he was preoccupied with change, the idea of an equilibrium does lie behind his idea of a “typical society.”

Thurnwald regarded the prevailing level of technology as the main determinant of societal type. Technological change is a process involving the accumulation of objects and ideas, an irreversible process with respect to mankind, but not with respect to an individual social group. Technology and social structure are interdependent, yet the correlation between them is only one determinant of social development: the same technology can be used in different types of societies, and a new technology does not always change a society immediately, nor does it necessarily change different societies in the same way. The effect of technology on the type of economy is more nearly determinate; indeed, a given technology largely determines the contemporaneous economy. Furthermore, the economic system has a high degree of influence on social organization. But since the economic system is also influenced by the social structure and since economic behavior is not entirely rational, the beginnings of social change, according to Thurnwald, lie primarily in the economic attitudes (Wirt-schaftsgeist) of individuals rather than in the economic system.

Thurnwald’s idea of “superstratification” was a fruitful contribution to the field of political sociology. Processes of superstratification are typically different from those of stratification, for while stratification may be caused either by factors inside a society or by the conquest (military or other) of one society by another, superstratification results either from conquest or from the immigration into a stratified society of a new group which then occupies the lowest status positions (Unterwan-derung). The study of processes of superstratification led Thurnwald to examine the feudal system as well as states, cities, and kingship in their early stages of development. Another instance of superstratification is the colonial expansion of the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Thurnwald was the first German sociologist and one of the first in Europe to make special studies of processes of acculturation and adjustment in Africa. These studies, which he made with his wife, Hilde Thurnwald, avoided the “colonial ethnological” approach that influenced British anthropological thinking for some time.

Wolfram Eberhard

[See Anthropology, article onthe comparative method in anthropology; economic anthropology; and the biography of Malinowski.]


1916 Bdnaro Society: Social Organization and Kinship System of a Tribe in the Interior of New Guinea. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, Vol. 3, No. 4. Lancaster, Pa.: New Era.

1931-1935 Die menschliche Gesellschaft in ihren ethno-soziologischen Grundlagen. 5 vols. Berlin and Leipzig: de Gruyter.

1932a Thurnwald, Richard (editor) Soziologie von heute: Ein Symposion der Zeitschrift fur Volkerpsychologie und Soziologie. Leipzig: Hirschfeld.

1932b Economics in Primitive Communities. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

1935 Black and White in East Africa; The Fabric of a New Civilization: A Study of Social Contact and Adaptation of Life in East Africa. With a chapter on women by Hilde Thurnwald. London: Routledge.

1948 Aufbau und Sinn der Volkerwissenschaft. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Grundfragen menschlicher Gesellung: Ausgewdhlte Schriften. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1957.


Beiträge zur Gesellungs- und Volkerwissenschaft: Professor Dr. Richard Thurnwald zu seinem achtzigsten Ge-burtstag. 1950 Berlin: Mann. -” Contains a bibliography on pages 469-477.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. -” See especially pages 242-249 on “Thurnwald.”

Lowie, Robert H. 1954 Richard Thurnwald: 1869-1954. American Anthropologist New Series 56:863-867.