Culture and Ethnology: SMOPS 4

This week’s SMOPS paper is Robert Lowie’s book Culture and Ethnology, which I have cut down to 19 pages. Robert Lowie was one of the most polemical of the Boasians — the phrase ‘attack dog’ has been used, I believe — and is remembered today for many things: his role in creating the Berkeley department of anthropology, his ethnography of the Crow, and his work on the nascent field of kinship studies. Undoubtedly, however, it Lowie’s defense of Boasian orthodoxy that stands out. In his book Primitive Society he forcefully repudiated the Victorian evolutionary theorists that Boas opposed, and towards the end of his life he sparred with Leslie White in the pages of American Anthropologist over the prospects of a revised evolutionary perspective. His undeservedly under-read The History of Ethnological Theory has moments that resemble some sort of Victorian Twitter flipout…

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #4 Culture and Ethnology by Robert Lowie, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

The most widely read piece of Lowie’s is the final chapter of Primitive Society. It is a chapter that bears rereading and deserves its place in anthropological history, even if his quote about the ‘shreds and patches’ nature of culture is usually read out of context. But Lowie also deserves to be remembered for Culture and Ethnology, a little volume that appeared in 1917. Like many of the Boasians, Lowie aimed to be a popularizer and produced many books designed to appeal to a wide audience by summarizing the findings of the Boasians. Culture and Ethnology is one of the many books produced by Boas’s first students in the late teens and 1920s which summarized that paradigm that solidified in that time period and which was exemplified in Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man. 

This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Robert Lowie’s Culture and Ethnology. Culture and Ethnology is worth reading today because it captures in a nutshell the fundamental arguments of Boasian anthropology and presents them in condensed form. It was originally a series of three lectures given at the American Museum of Natural History in 1917. A fourth and final chapter which focused on kinship was then added to these and the whole were published as a small book. In the book Lowie asks a simple question: how can we study culture, and what causes cultural phenomena? His answer is that culture is a ‘sui generis’ (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) force. Each chapter takes up a potential cause of culture — first psychology, then race, and then environment — and demonstrates that none of them can explain culture on its own. Culture, he argues, cannot be reduced to any of these things, even though it interacts with them. Neither, he argues, can culture be explained by any universal tendency for all societies to move through the same evolutionary stages.

What causes culture? The answer, for Lowie, is: History. In order to understand the state of any particular culture, we must understand the unique historical circumstances that produced it. These circumstances always include diffusion of culture traits across time and space. For him, to explain the culture of a particular peoples is to write a history of the influences that have shaped it. In making this claim Lowie draws on arguments that were familiar to all Boasians at the time. But while the Boasians are often depicted as particularist to a fault, it is worth noting that Lowie emphasizes that there are recurrent patterns and trends in the ethnographic data that make it possible to help explain particular cases, and which may someday lead to general formulations about culture process.

Culture and Ethnology is now almost one hundred years old, and our knowledge of the human record has increased immensely. It is telling, then, that Lowie’s fundamental claims continue to hold up even as the evidentiary ground has shifted under them. Culture cannot be reduced to individual psychology — in fact, increasingly today philosophers and psychologists understand the individual to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for mind. Lowie’s denunciation of biological theories of racial supremacy seems tepid given what we know about biology today. And in an era when our choices of energy consumption threaten the environment itself, it is quaint to think that it may determine us rather than the other way around.

At the same time, American culture still predisposes it adherents to be attracted to reductive, biologistic, and individualistic theories of human conduct. For this reason, Lowie’s message is still always already relevant. And for a discipline with the decades of theoretical crust gathered around its core, it is useful to remember what our core argument is — or at least what it has been for the American anthropological tradition.

For this reason, this book will appeal to graduate students, new faculty, or adjunct lecturers seeking to craft introductory courses in anthropology for undergraduate students. Indeed, you can basically teach this book as it stands — perhaps with the examples changed to fit your interests and the current state of scholarship — as the basis for a lecture class on introductory anthropology. For readers interested in anthropology, this book can serve as an introductory course in and of itself, provided one understand that the arguments are correct even if the evidence used to make them now seems out of date.

This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Culture and Ethnology. Already a short book, I have compressed it here to nineteen pages. This has been achieved by pruning Lowie’s somewhat convoluted style. This piece has 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. I have also shortened the text by removing multiple examples used to make a point where only one example is truly necessary. Most importantly, I have omitted the long last chapter on kinship. This is a technical, and not particularly clearly written piece written before standard kinship terminology was settled on. It is difficult to read and, Lowie’s claims to the contrary, does not fit very well with the previous four chapters. Readers interested in the history of kinship theory should definitely return to Lowie’s original text to read this last chapters. Most readers, however, will not miss it.

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 it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. 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.


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

10 thoughts on “Culture and Ethnology: SMOPS 4

  1. Culture cannot be reduced to individual psychology — in fact, increasingly today philosophers and psychologists understand the individual to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for mind.

    Culture can and should be reduced to individual psychology. Anthropologists seem to use the word ‘reductionism’ to mean a simplistic approach attempt to account for all of a phenomenon by looking only at one part of it, which is clearly ridiculous. But reductionism is actually the view that all phenomena are the sum of their parts, which is a necessary position, unless you happen to believe in magic. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘wholes’ – i.e., things that have properties that don’t reduce to their parts – we should be thinking in terms of multitudinous inter-connected parts whose properties make up what we perceive to be, but which is in fact not, a whole.

  2. Two scientists walk into a bar. The first says, I’ll have a glass of H20. The bartender hands him a glass containing a clear liquid. He drinks it and says, “I was really thirsty.” Second says, I’ll have a glass of H20,too. The bartender hands him a glass containing a clear liquid. He drinks it and drops dead.

    H20 = water
    H202=hydrogen peroxide

    Both are just hydrogen and oxygen.

    No magic here. Just chemistry. In which the sums of parts are rarely an issue.

  3. “Just chemistry. In which the sums of parts are rarely an issue.”

    Oh, so it’s not an extra oxygen atom and its properties that makes the difference?

    Holism is basically magic; it says that properties can come from nowhere at all – that when you put some things together, their properties don’t matter at all, and the gestalt itself has properties that don’t have causes or origins in the properties of what goes into it. That’s madness. In this universe, things have properties because their constituent parts have properties. Reductionism isn’t the simplistic idea anthropologists seem to think it is, and holism isn’t the sensible idea anthropologists seem to think it is. It amounts to conjuring properties out of thin air.

  4. Nobody is talking holism here. No élan vital in sight. But if you think that the difference between water and hydrogen peroxide is fully accounted for by the presence of one extra oxygen atom, you need to retake chemistry.Yes, you can say that H20 and H2O2 differ in the presence of the extra oxygen atom; but its presence alone does not explain the chemistry involved. There is also a specific configuration of chemical bonds not accounted for by the properties of the isolated elements. Consider steam. Lots of water molecules, lots of extra oxygen atoms in the air.

  5. The properties of the molecules are completely 100% accounted for by the properties of the individual particles. The nature of the bond is due entirely to the nature of the electrons and nuclei of the atoms involved, and the causal properties of hydrogen peroxide are wholly determined by the causal properties of the atoms that make it up. The fact the hydrogen peroxide kills people while hydrogen dioxide doesn’t is due entirely to the elementary particles involved. The whole thing reduces to the properties of elementary particles.

    Likewise, the properties of societies and culture are completely and utterly determined by the properties of the people that make them up. The fact that people have the mental capacity to think about one another and about one another’s thoughts gives us the illusion that culture is irreducible.

    “Nobody is talking holism here.”

    Lowie was. He lived and wrote before the words was coined, but his concept of culture as sui generis and irreducible is exactly what Smuts meant by ‘holism’.

  6. A hammer. A nail. Nothing happens until a third element, the action of the hammer hitting the nail, occurs.

    Yes, when you add a new element, we have a new situation. Nothing is more than the sum of its parts, and in the scenario you propose, the sum of the parts has changed. I’m not saying that the universe is undifferentiated. I’m saying that everything that exists reduces to the properties of elementary particles. The properties of oxygen, water, hydrogen peroxide, hammers, and nails all reduce to the properties of the elementary particles that compose them.

    A hammer’s mass is just the mass of the particles that compose it. A nail’s mass just is the mass of the particles that compose it. It doesn’t get a new mass. And the same is true of momentum: it results from a series of causes operating at the level of elementary particles. A hammer hitting a nail into a piece of wood is something wholly determined at that level. It isn’t something else. It reduces to a certain sum of parts.

    Water and oxygen do not combine automatically to produce hydrogen peroxide.

    And that’s because of the properties of oxygen and hydrogen atoms – or rather, of the properties of the elementary particles that compose them. It’s not because hydrogen peroxide is an object sui generis. If you want to causally explain the properties of hydrogen peroxide and even its production, then you need to look only at the elementary particles that compose it. The fact that humans aren’t very good at this type of thinking doesn’t demonstrate that reductionism is invalid.

    If Laplace’s demon existed – a being that could know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe – it would know everything. Nothing would be unaccounted for.

    And the fact that culture and language both reduce to a series of parts shouldn’t be controversial.

  7. But Laplace’s demon doesn’t exist. And given what we now know about the mathematics of chaotic and complex systems, it never will exist. Plus, one doesn’t have to get all fuzzy-minded to observe that in systems that can be represented as networks the same vertices connected in different ways produce strikingly different results, not reducible to the properties of the vertices per se. Getting stuck in the world as described by Democritus, Newton and Laplace is not going to add appreciably to the sum of human understanding. Adieu.

  8. Irrelevant whether the demon exists or not. What matters is the principle, and this question: does human language and culture reduce to the elements that compose it? And the answer is yes, or else you have a real problem when someone doesn’t obey the rules. Check out Donald Davidson on language to see an example of how thinking of language as non-reducible doesn’t work at all. I see no reason not to apply the same reasoning to ‘culture’.

  9. If you think of the 40 year period from 1880 to 1920, the definition(s) of Anthropology set down by philosophers like Feuerbach (d. 1872) were still very much in competition with the ideas set down here by R. Lowie.

    I think it is easy for a contemporary reader to forget that,
    (1) the meaning (the mere denotation) of the word “culture” really was in flux at this time and was a legitimately contestable concept in the non-academic sphere (so too was the meaning of, e.g., “society”, “economy”, “psychology”, etc.).
    (2) So-called “Boasians” were not in a competition to define what anthropology was, but what it would be and should be (this, too, was very much unsettled and uncertain at the time).

    I, personally, do not like Lowie’s approach, but I very much appreciate that I was able to read it in this 19-page synoptic format. It is interesting that Rex has done this; probably, everyone should do more of it, but there’s a sort of “shadow of infamy” hanging over the modern synopsis, because of the association with “Reader’s Digest” (etc.).

    I think it is very sad that the legacy of Boas has been so much separated from the indigenous peoples of North America whom he studied –and whose cultures and languages have (since that time) moved closer and closer to absolute extinction.

    I would like to imagine another world in which being a Boasian meant learning an indigenous language, and not merely quoting Boas.

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