Westermarck, Edward

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Westermarck, Edward



Edward Alexander Westermarck (1862-1939), sociologist and anthropologist (he was both a speculative, “armchair” anthropologist and a field worker), was born in Helsingfors [now Helsinki], Finland. He received his PH.D. from the University

of Helsingfors in 1890, honorary LL.D.’S from the University of Aberdeen in 1912 and the University of Glasgow in 1929, and an honorary PH.D. from the University of Uppsala in 1932. He lectured on sociology at the University of London from 1904 to 1907 and professor of sociology there during each Easter term from 1907 to 1930. In 1890 he was appointed lecturer on sociology at the University of Helsingfors, and from 1906 to 1918 he was professor of moral philosophy there. He was the first head of the Abo Academy, from 1918 to 1921, and professor of philosophy there from 1918 to 1930. Among his prominent pupils in London were Bronislaw Malinowski, Morris Ginsberg, and G. C. Wheeler and, in Finland, Rafael Karsten and Gunnar Landtman.

For Westermarck, “the object [of sociology is] to explain the social phenomena, to find their causes, to show how and why they have come into existence” (1908, pp. 24-25). He wrote many books on a variety of subjects but was principally interested in marriage, ethics, and religion.

Westermarck’s first book, The History of Human Marriage (1891), which had a foreword by Alfred Russel Wallace, was an enormous success and was translated into French, German, Swedish, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. In 1921 the fifth edition was published, completely rewritten and enlarged to three volumes.

To gather material for this book Westermarck supplemented his research at the British Museum by sending questionnaires to about 125 persons living among primitive peoples in different parts of the world. About one-fifth of those questioned— mostly English missionaries—replied. The diversity of the material he collected convinced him that it was possible to study all of mankind only by the comparative method.

In his book, Westermarck criticized the then current theories of primitive promiscuity and ancient group-marriage. He rejected the hypothesis that primitive man lived in promiscuity and believed instead that monogamy was the original form of marriage. According to Westermarck, the nuclear family, as prefigured among the anthropoid apes, was the first and universal unit from which society developed. Marriage is rooted in the family rather than the family in marriage. The family is necessary for the survival of certain species because of the need for parental protection. The male stays with the female and the young to take care of them, and this is the result of instincts acquired through the process of natural selection.

In 1926 Westermarck published A Short History of Marriage, which contained the theories he had arrived at in his massive study, without the factual material. His hypothesis of incest is connected with his psychological explanation of the rules for exogamy. He traced the origin of exogamy to the lack of inclination for sexual intercourse between relatives (usually consanguineous relatives) who live very close together (1926a, p. 80). In such cases the very thought of the act leads to positive aversion, and this aversion displays itself in custom and law as a prohibition of intercourse between near kin.

Westermarck’s Three Essays on Sex and Marriage (1934a) may be considered a supplement to The History of Human Marriage. The first essay is a criticism of Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and of infantile incestuous desire, the second contains theories of exogamy, and the third is a polemic against Robert Briffault, who had attacked Westermarck in his book The Mothers (1927).

Westermarck’s second, monumental book, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1906-1908), has been considered his most important work. Convinced that moral judgments are ultimately based not on intellect but on emotions, he denied the objective validity of moral judgments. According to Westermarck, ethics is a psychological and sociological discipline, not a normative science. General moral truths do not exist. The object of scientific ethics is not to fix rules for human conduct but to investigate the phenomenon of moral consciousness.

As in his work on marriage, Westermarck used the comparative method in his book on ethics. In collecting his material he started from the assumption that the moral ideas of people are most clearly expressed in their customs and laws. Another book, Ethical Relativity (1932a), stated his views on ethical subjectivism more explicitly.

In his Early Beliefs and Their Social Influence (1932b) Westermarck discussed the influences that early religious and magical beliefs and practices have exerted upon social relationships and institutions. He asserted that blessings, curses, holiness, and ritual uncleanness belong to magic as well as to religion. A religion may include many practices of magical origin. In the ancient East, magic and religion were indissolubly mixed.

Some of the impetus for Westermarck’s Early Beliefs and Their Social Influence came from his field work in Morocco. In the course of more than thirty years he spent a total of nine years in Morocco studying the religious and magical ideas and rites of a single people. Four books and a posthumous article resulted from this field work. They include studies of marriage customs (1914), popular religion and magic (1926b), pagan survivals (1933), and homicide (1947), as well as a collection of two thousand Moorish proverbs recorded as they were actually used in concrete situations (1930).

Hllma Granqvist

[See alsoEthics, article on Ethical systems and social Structures; Incest; Klnship; Marriage;Sexual behavior, article onsocial aspects; and the biographies ofBachofen; Mclennan; Mali-nowski; Marett; Morgan, LewisHenry; Rlvers; Tylor.]


(1891) 1921 The History of Human Marriage. 5th ed. 3 vols. London: Macmillan. → An expanded version of Westermarck’s thesis, which was published in 1889.

(1906-1908) 1924-1926 The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. 2d ed. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

1908 Sociology as a University Study. Pages 24-32 in London, University of, Inauguration of the Martin White Professorships of Sociology. London: Murray.

1914 Marriage Ceremonies in Morocco. London: Macmillan.

1920 The Belief in Spirits in Morocco. Acta Academiae Aboensis, Humaniora 1:1. Turku (Finland): The Academy.

1926a A Short History of Marriage. New York: Macmillan. → Based on the fifth edition of The History of Human Marriage. An abridgement of A Short History of Marriage, entitled Marriage, was published in 1929 by Cape and Smith.

1926b Ritual and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

1926c The Goodness of Gods. London: Watts.

(1927) 1929 Memories of My Life. New York: Macaulay. → First published in Swedish.

1930 Wit and Wisdom in Morocco: A Study of Native Proverbs. With the assistance of Shereef ’Abd-es-Salam el-Baqqali. London: Routledge.

1932a Ethical Relativity. New York: Harcourt. → A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Littlefield.

1932b Early Beliefs and Their Social Influence. London: Macmillan.

1933 Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilisation. London: Macmillan.

1934a Three Essays on Sex and Marriage. London: Macmillan.

1934b Freuds teori om oedipuskomplexen i sociologisk belysning. Stockholm: Bonnier.

1936a The Future of Marriage in Western Civilisation. London: Macmillan.

1936b Methods in Social Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 66:223-248.

1936c On Primitive Marriage. American Journal of Sociology 41:565-584.

1939 Christianity and Morals. New York: Macmillan.

1947 Customs Connected With Homicide in Morocco. Westermarck Society, Transactions 1:7-38. → Published posthumously.


Briffault, Robert 1927 The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions. 3 vols. London: Macmillan.

Hirn, Yrjö 1946 Edward Westermarck and His English Friends. Westermarck Society, Transactions 1:39-51.

Lagerborg, Rolf H. H. 1951 Edvard Westermarck och verken fran hans verkstad under hans tolv sista dr, 1927-1939. Helsinki: Holger Schildt.

Numelin, R. 1941 Edward Westermarck and the Finnish Sociological School. Nord 4:268-282.

Tenkku, Jussi 1962 Westermarck’s Definition of the Concept of the Moral. Westermarck Society, Transactions, Vol. 9, no. 2. Turku (Finland): Munksgaard.

Tylor, Edward B.; and Wallace, Alfred R. 1940 Letters from Edward B. Tylor and Alfred Russel Wallace to Edward Westermarck. Edited, with introductory remarks concerning the publication of The History of Human Marriage, by K. R. V. Wikman. Acta Academiae Aboensis, Humaniora XIII, 7. Turku (Finland) The Academy.

Wikman, Karl R. V. 1962 Edward Westermarck as Anthropologist and Sociologist. Memorial lecture to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Edw. Westermarck’s birthday, delivered at a meeting of the Westermarck Society held at Abo Akademi on November 20th, 1962. Westermarck Society, Transactions. Vol. 9, no. 1. Turku (Finland): Munksgaard.

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