Wallis, Wilson D.

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Wallis, Wilson D.



Wilson Dallam Wallis, American anthropologist, was born in 1886. During his long teaching career he was associated primarily with the University of Minnesota, where he taught from 1923 to 1954. After retiring from Minnesota, he taught at the University of Connecticut and at Annhurst College in South Woodstock, Connecticut.

At Dickinson College, where he was awarded a B.A. in 1907 and an M.A. in 1910, Wallis studied philosophy and law, and he received a PH.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1915. His principal interest, however, was cultural anthropology; this interest as well as his theoretical approach to the subject was the result of his experience at Oxford University, where he went as a Rhodes scholar in 1907.

At that time, anthropology at Oxford was dominated by Tylor and Marett, who emphasized the importance of belief and custom and sought to trace the development of rational thought from its primitive beginnings. They dealt with European folklore as well as with the beliefs and customs of non-Western peoples, and they used their knowledge of other cultures to comment on their own society. English anthropologists were not engaged in system building: they had become critical of the earlier evolutionary reconstruction and saw as their primary theoretical task the reappraisal of earlier work on human development. They were concerned, therefore, with the distribution of culture traits—the probability that different culture traits will be found in geographical proximity and the relative importance of diffusion and of independent invention in producing the distribution.

Most of Wallis’ work throughout the more than fifty years of his active professional life was in the tradition established by Tylor. His emphasis on belief and custom, on rationality, on problems of diffusion, and on the comparative method differentiated his approach from that of his American contemporaries, who tended to be influenced more directly by Franz Boas.

Early in his career Wallis carried out field research among the Micmac of eastern Canada (in 1911-1912) and among the Canadian Dakota (in 1914). He produced no full-length monographic study of a culture until much later, when he collaborated with his wife, Ruth Sawtelle Wallis, in further field studies among these tribes. With her he published a detailed description of the Micmac (1955) and a shorter description of the Malecite (1957). He also wrote several specialized studies of the Dakota (1919; 1923; 1947).

A major theme in Wallis’ writings is his concern with the application of rational thought to experience. From this point of view he examined the theoretical concepts used by his colleagues for the reconstruction of culture history; in the same spirit he examined what he called “primitive science” or “primitive religion.” Although there is some material about religion and about primitive conceptions of environmental phenomena in Wallis’ ethnographic monographs, much of his work in the field of primitive science unfortunately remains unpublished. This work consists of an attempt to collate the available information on folk ideas about the workings of the physical environment.

In the field of primitive religion he was perhaps the first anthropologist to give serious consideration to the phenomenon of messianic movements (1918; 1943). He dealt with these as cultural complexes and, plotting their distribution in time and space, sought to show that they are governed by the same principles as other culture complexes, such as writing. A similar approach underlies his much later book Culture Patterns in Christianity (1964).

Wallis was as interested in the customs of his own society as he was in the ways of the Micmac and the Dakota. He published a book on an immigrant group in California (1965), and in his general texts he was apt to draw illustrations from the beliefs and fads of American and European society as well as from ethnographical material.

Method and Perspective in Anthropology (Spencer 1954), the volume of essays presented to Wallis on his retirement from Minnesota by his colleagues and former students, has as its themes methodology, science, and religion. It is in these areas that Wallis made his most lasting contributions.

Elizabeth Colson

[See alsoDiffusion; Millenarism; Religion, article on AnthropologicalStudy; and the biographies ofMarett; Tylor.]


1918 Messiahs: Christian and Pagan. Boston: Badger.

1919 The Sun Dance of the Canadian Dakota. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 16:317-380.

1923 Beliefs and Tales of the Canadian Dakota. Journal of American Folk-lore 36:36-101.

1926 An Introduction to Anthropology. New York: Harper.

1927 An Introduction to Sociology. New York: Knopf.

1930 Culture and Progress. New York: McGraw-Hill.

1939 Religion in Primitive Society. New York: Crofts.

1943 Messiahs: Their Role in Civilization. Washington: American Council on Public Affairs.

1947 The Canadian Dakota. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, Vol. 41, part 1. New York: The Museum.

1955 Wallis, Wilson d.; and Wallis, Ruth S. The Micmac Indians of Eastern Canada. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

1957 Anthropology in England Early in the Present Century. American Anthropologist New Series 59:781-790.

1957 Wallis, Wilson D.; and Wallis, Ruth S. The Malecite Indians of New Brunswick. National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 148. Ottawa: The Museum.

1964 Culture Patterns in Christianity. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado.

1965 Fresno Armenians, to 1919. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado.


Spencer, Robert (editor) 1954 Method and Perspective in Anthropology: Papers in Honor of Wilson D. Wallis. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.