Responses to 'the super organic': SMOPS 2

Last week, I posted the first Savage Minds Occasioal Paper (hereafter, “SMOP”) featuring Alfred Kroeber’s article “The Superorganic”. This week I bring you the second occasional paper, “Responses to ‘the superorganic'”, which features Sapir and Goldenweiser’s response to Kroeber. You can find it here:

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #2: Responses to “The Superorganic”: Texts by Alexander Goldenweiser and Edward Sapir. Edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

The responses have been edited for brevity, concision, and clarity. In a few cases I have altered verbs and nouns for agreement when editing the text caused them to disagree. These are indicated with brackets. The goal has been to respect the author’s stylistic choices while presenting a slimmed-down version which can be taught in a single session in an undergraduate or graduate theory course.

I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Alexander Goldenweiser earned his Ph.D. from Boas in 1910, with a Ph.D. on totemism. Goldenweiser was the most philosophical of the Boasians, and is best remembered for his theoretical work. His response to Kroeber reflects this theoretical outlook. He engages with Kroeber on two main issues: the nature of civilizational determinism, and the role of the individual in influencing culture.

First, Goldenweiser argues that Kroeber is committed to ‘civilizational determinism’, that idea that the actions of individuals are shaped by their civilization, or culture. It is true, said Goldenweiser, that all civilizations are determined, in the sense that everything in the universe has a cause. But if we decide to focus on the history of a single civilization, then we our analysis will necessarily overlook a variety of factors which we have chosen not to study, and yet which still shape the action of individuals and the development of civilizations. There is nothing wrong with choosing an analytic emphasis — everyone does it — but we should not, Goldenweiser argues, assume that because we are only studying one kind of cause, one kind of cause must be at work in any given situation. Goldenweiser was preoccpied with this dilemma: as anthropologists, we must focus on only part of reality, since reality is too complex for us to understand or study it all. And yet at the same time, the events that we study will always be affected by causes which we have chosen to ignore. How to avoid this paradox became a major part of Goldenweiser’s thought.

This concern with the impossibly rich nature of reality also manifests itself in Goldenweiser’s second issue with Kroeber, regarding the nature of the individual. Individuals are not merely the products of their civilization, they are ‘concrete’ and ‘historical’. Their lives have been shaped by the unique set of factors at play in the historical moment in which they lived. When an individual makes an innovation, they thus inevitably inject some of their particularity into the civilizational stream. It cannot be, then, that culture is immune to influences from other sorts of causal forces.

Goldenweiser ends on an interesting note: perhaps anthropologists believe individuals lack agency because we lack rich accounts of individual human lives in ‘primitive’ societies. As we are never in a position to see the full influence extraordinary people can have on the cultures we study. Goldenweiser was one of the few anthropologists who made a point of publishing obituaries of his key informants in American Anthropologist. Although early anthropologists are often portrayed as being almost hyperbolically racially insensitive, It is worth pointing out that as early as 1917, Goldenweiser thought it important to recognize the full humanity of the people he encountered during his fieldwork.

Edward Sapir is one of the best-known Boasians and the man responsible for spearheading linguistic anthropology as a subdiscipline. Sapir shares Goldenweiser’s insistence on individual agency, and both agree that social facts can have non-social causes. Sapir’s response is particularly interesting because he explicitly elaborates a position that Goldenweiser implicitly drew on. For Kroeber, anthropology is a distinct discipline because it has a unique object: the superorganic. Sapir, on the other hand, believes that anthropology is a distinct discipline because it has a distinct outlook: a concern with particularlity.

Following Boas, as well as other thinkers such as Heinrich Rickert and (perhaps) Ernst Mach, Sapir argues that the superorganic is an abstraction, not an actually existing thing. The world is an infinitely complex place, and the terms anthropologists use to discuss it are simplifications which we use to make sense of it. Thus anthropology cannot have a unique object of study, because the object of study is constructed by the anthropologist when they choose how to approach reality — there is a ‘principle of selection’ involved in filtering reality. Because the object of science is the result of the cognitive accomplishment of the researcher — it is selected for study out of the infinity of things one can study — then civilization cannot be a ‘real thing’ out there in the world which we experience. It is, rather, an abstraction that we create. For this reason the superorganic cannot be a real thing with its own principles of causality.

The different between biology and anthropology, Sapir argues, lies not in the object they study but the viewpoint they bring to the table. In the case of anthropology, that viewpoint is a concern with particularity, and so anthropologists are only interested in general laws of human culture because they help us understand particular cultures. Biologists, on the other hand, are interested in general laws pertaining to life, and are interested in particular species only because of the light they may shed on those general laws. In practice, Sapir emphasizes, all healthy disciplines have both generalizing and particularizing moments and the difference between them is a matter of emphasis.

In the 1960s and 1970s anthropologists would spend a great deal of time discussing the role of ‘models’ in social science. It is interesting to see that in this very early debate, Sapir and Goldenweiser hold an orthodox Boasian line against Kroeber’s realism, a line which seems remarkably prescient of theoretical debates that would occur half a century later.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “Responses to 'the super organic': SMOPS 2

  1. Edward Sapir is one of the best-known Boasians and the man responsible for spearheading linguistic anthropology as a subdiscipline.

    He was an anthropological linguist for sure. I think the concept of linguistic anthropology might be an anachronism here. Not really the point of the post, obviously.

    I understand Sapir’s take on the relationship between an individual and a culture as being something like that of the relationship between an individual English speaker’s vocabulary and the contents of the OED.

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