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The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.

This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

Alfred Kroeber is remembered alongside Edward Sapir and Robert Lowie as one of the first generation of anthropologists to train with Franz Boas at Columbia University. He was a key player in the social network of the early Boasians and influenced everyone from Elsie Clews Parsons to Leslie White. He is also regarded as an important early theorist in a generation that distrusted generalization, as well as a formidable ethnography of California Indian life. But beyond these achievements, Kroeber deserves to be remembered for his unique personality, which combined curiosity and enthusiasm with rigor and ambition. I believe that Kroeber’s greatest contribution to the discipline was the example he provides for others.

The best way to get a sense of Kroeber’s character comes from a story his son Karl once told recounted:

I recollect an evening around 1950 walking back with my parents to their New York apartment on Claremont Avenue when Alfred and I became intrigued by a long string lying along the sidewalk. This reminded him of how a few years earlier he had gone out with his sister while she walked her little dog. Suddenly they noticed the dog had been chewing at and largely swallowed a ball of string on the sidewalk. ‘‘Look,’’ said my father. ‘‘I’ll hold down what’s left here, and you lead Fluffy down the block.’’ Well, it worked—as Fluffy padded along, the string was pulled back out of his mouth. The trouble was, he’d swallowed a lot, and my aunt, not wanting to cross the street unraveling the dog, so to speak, had to turn the corner and lead Fluffy down that block to empty him. So pedestrians coming toward her saw a dog with a string being drawn from its mouth leading back to some mysterious source, while on the avenue other people saw a respectable gentleman with his elegant cane firmly planted on a dirty piece of string mysteriously moving around the corner. ‘‘I’m curious,’’ my father said to me, ‘‘if this string is as long as that one.’’ So he picked up one end, and I took the other, and as we went down 116th past Broadway, he said, ‘‘I’ll bet if we stretched this string across Claremont Avenue it would stop some cars.’’ So we did that, between two convenient lampposts—and sure enough it stopped four or five cars. In the apartment house lobby my father chortled every time some law-abiding New Yorker slowed to stop and then laboriously U-turned back. (Kroeber 2003:142)

The episode speaks to Kroeber’s sense of humor, but also to much more than that. “The most salient feature of Alfred Kroeber’s mind,” his Karl writes, was “unflagging curiosity” (Kroeber 2003:147). Others noticed this as well. “the greatest single aspect of his… life was the possession of a completely open mind,” remembered Alex Krieger. “It took the form of constant seeking of new information, new ideas, and particularly of welcoming criticism” (Krieger 1961:20).

Kroeber “lived as intensely in the present as anyone I’ve known” Karl (2003:42) remarked, but this was not all. He was an egalitarian person whose curiosity and respect extended to all. Burnham, citing one of Alfred Kroeber’s colleagues, notes that “Alsberg characterized Kroeber as a ‘good listener,’ able “to be objective, to see the other point of view, to penetrate behind another person’s behavior to his underlying thought… These traits indicate a sincerity and simplicity of character” (Burnham 2012:15). Krieger agrees: “Kroeber cared nothing about age or standing in the profession, only about what went on in the heads of his listeners… under it all he believed that everyone needed criticism for his own ultimate good” (Krieger 1961:20). Krieger saw in Kroeber “a combination of learning, insight, tolerance for others’ views, modesty, and eagerness to be of help to all” (Krieger 1961:23)

Both Kroeber’s son and his junior colleague emphasize that although Kroeber’s had a “naive curiosity” it was “combined with a highly sophisticated intelligence seeking pleasure in the systematic organization of dispersed empirical data (the more idiosyncratic the better)” (Kroeber 2003:153). The immediacy, simplicity, and sincerity with which Kroeber lived his life was “not incompatible with rigorous analysis and keen self-reflectiveness” (Kroeber 2003:151). In Kroeber, decency, a fresh eye, and intellectual sophistication existed harmoniously.

Of course, it would be foolish to lionize Kroeber. The death of his first wife caused him endless suffering. He had a hard life in California, where he felt exiled from the rich intellectual life of New York that originally nurtured him. It was difficult for him to come to grips with the reality of the American west and his place in it. “In the wake of the North American frontier,” his daughter Ursula writes, “is where my father… did his fieldwork

among the wrecks of cultures, the ruins of languages, the broken or almost-broken continuities and communities, the shards of an infinite diversity smashed by a monoculture. A postfrontiersman, a white immigrant’s son learning Indian cultures and languages in the first half of the twentieth century, he tried to save meaning. To learn and tell the stories that might otherwise be lost. The only means he had to do so was by translating, recording in his foreign language: the language of science, the language of the conqueror. An act of imperialism. An act of human solidarity” (Le Guin 2004:29)

To most readers today, Kroeber will be seen to lack an interest in politics, the need to be critical, which is taken to be central to our discipline. Nevertheless, his curiosity and humaneness deserve to be remembered. As Karl writes,

Acute and accurate observation is fostered by guilelessness. If we lose a sense of childlike wonder, our native capacity to be surprised—if we lose, that is, the power of responding freely—then what we tell loses persuasiveness, becomes conventionalized, something anybody might report. Since we do grow up, the trick is to direct our accumulating knowledge and experience to subverting personal habits and external coercions that corrode our capacity to be amazed. (Kroeber 2003:151)


Burnham, John C. 2012. Anthropologist A. L. Kroeber’s career as a psychoanalyst: New evidence and lessons from a significant case history. American Imago 69 (1): 5-27.

Kreiger, Alex. 1961. On being critical. Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 25 (3): 19-25.

Kroeber, Karl. 2003. Curious profession: Alfred Koeber and anthropological history. Boundary 2 30 (3): 1410155.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. The Wave in the Mind : Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala.

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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 rex@savageminds.org

One thought on “The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

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    A. J. West (@AlWest13) says:

    This series is some of the best content I’ve seen on SM. Hope there’s more!

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