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Eric Wolf

Eric Wolf

Soo Kyung Lim * Posted May 1998

Personal Background



Selected Bibliography



“My primary interest is to explain something out there that impinges me, and I would sell my soul to the devil if I thought it would help.” (Wolf in interview with Friedman, 1987:144)

In many interviews and writings, Wolf maintains that what he has tried to do is to explain the world as interconnected and changing rather than as unitary and stable. His research therefore focuses on the constant changes in society, culture, and people in an interconnected and expanding world. He is interested in macro studies and historic explanations.

Wolf adapted a Marxist approach that attends to the fundamental dynamics of change and highlights phenomena such as exploitation, domination and colonialism. He emphasizes the continual process of recreating and reconstructing the world. Anthropologists have tended to describe and interpret a society or people as having the same unchanging shape. Thus, they were often blind to the process of constant change and the influences of other societies. In other words, the dominant paradigm of anthropology was ahistorical functionalism: its emphasis on the internal coherence of each social system at the expense of attention to internal contradictions and external relationships. The world was seen as generalization restricted to the “comparative study of single cases,” an idea against which Wolf constantly argues. In his Ph. D. dissertation (1951), Wolf suggested that Puerto Rican communities and their sociocultural traits could not be understood correctly unless the impact of more general forces (such as nation-wide power relations, international trade, world markets) were taken into consideration (Abbink 1992:95).

Personal Background

Wolf was born in Vienna in 1923 and raised in multi-cultural and ethnically diverse places. Vienna was a crossroads of people, Northern Bohemia, where he later lived, was on the Czech-German Language border, and his family resided briefly in an alien detention camp near Liverpool. In his early life, he was continually exposed to the multiple interfaces of ethnicity. Wolf came to America in 1940. He attended Queens College in New York, but before finishing school, he served in the army during World War II for three years. When he returned, he finished his B.A. in sociology and anthropology in the spring of 1946, and then entered the Ph.D. program in anthropology at Columbia in the same year. Wolf’s teachers were Ruth Benedict and Julian Steward. At Columbia, he formed a study group called the “Mundial upheaval Society” with Morton Fried, Elman Service, Stanley Diamond, Sidney Mintz, Daniel McCall and Robert Manners. He participated in Steward’s Puerto Rico research project (1948-49) and it was the basis for his dissertation (1951) on the plantation economy, laying the basis for Wolf’s interests in peasants, power, class and patron-client relationships. After getting a doctoral degree at Columbia (1951), he went to Mexico (1951-52, 1954, and 1956) and studied ecological problems in the Bajio area and the formation of states and national identity. Wolf returned to Europe for fieldwork in the Italian Alps (1960-61, and summers thereafter). He worked together with John Cole and Jane and Peter Schneiders, who were his former students. They had questions about national identity, how and why ethnic conflicts and loyalties occurred, national character, and ethnic contrasts (Cole & Wolf 1974:5-8).

Wolf is now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Herbert Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has been there since 1971. Previously he taught at various schools:

1952-55 The University of Illinois

1955-58 The University of Virginia

1958-59 Yale University

1959-60 The University of Chicago

1961-71 The University of Michigan


In his fieldwork with peasants, Wolf found that peasant communities form an integral part of larger, complex societies. Happenings at local levels should be understood in terms of reactions of the local people and the economic and political forces of the larger society.

Communities which form part of a complex society can thus be viewed no longer as self-contained and integrated systems in their own right. It is more appropriate to view them as the local termini of a web of group relations which extend through intermediate levels from the level of the community to that of the nation. In the community itself, these relationships may be wholly tangential to each other. [Wolf 1956b:1065]

Wolf has taken as strong stance against functionalism, which views society as a bounded system of ordered relations and a structured entity. Wolf views society as heterogeneous, interpenetrating, interdigitating, and more complex and interconnecting (Wolf 1988:753).

To explain a society, Wolf argues, it is important to see it in historical context as well as within a larger community. History itself, in his view, is like organized flow-processes of fusion and fission (Wolf 1988:757).

Wolf did research on historical colonial expansion and the implications of capitalist penetration for tribal peoples. In his landmark book Europe and the People Without History (1982), Wolf argues that many societies which were habitually treated by anthropologists as static entities (bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states), were in fact produced and constructed in the course of the global expansion of capitalism (Wolf 1988:753).

Wolf’s model of society and culture depicts a continuing process of structuring, change and refashioning. In this process, the involvement of peoples in the expanding world is governed by the capitalist mode of production and is therefore primarily an economic and political process.

This process takes place without people’s conscious intention. In a mode of production in which power-holders extract surplus production in the form of a tribute from the population, ideology is generated, which in itself forms ‘a seedbed for more ideology’.

Wolf shows the relationship between society, culture, ideology and modes of production in the statement below:

Cultures are not integral wholes carried by social isolates. We must distinguish between reality culture and ideology-making, and recognize that the creation or dismantling of cultures always goes on within extensive social fields, structured by the dominant modes of production. It is suggested that ideology-making derives from the prevalent mode of production and is entailed in its operations. [Wolf 1984:393]

Wolf highlights the “structural power” which structures the political economy. It is related to the notion of “the social relations of production” and emphasizes the use power in the deployment and allocation of social labor. These concepts of “structural power” and “organizational power”, Wolf argues, help explain the world, since they are related to the mode of production.

Wolf’s first contribution to anthropology is his attention to history. He allows the reader to look at processes and changes unfolding over time. Secondly, he expands the scale of anthropology from micro-settings or comparisons of single micro-settings to macro-scales or macro-settings where each setting is interconnected.


Wolf thinks the purpose of anthropology is to explain “the World”. Thus, a society is understood or explained as an expanded communities in a historical context. Societies are continuously changed by the reactions of the local people and forces from outside. In other words, societies have an ongoing process of interchange. Thus, instead of viewing a society as a bounded and structured entity, or a total system, which was the main stream of anthropology, Wolf argues that one should view it as constantly changing process. He also argues anthropologists have to shift their emphasis from society to the individual, with the individual maximizing, strategizing, plotting or creating, inventing, and altering the inherited circumstances of life (Wolf 1988:760). To explain the influence and interconnection of societies, Wolf takes a Marxist approach: society is explained by modes of production and predicated on different modes of production. To do macro-studies and to explain the small-scale histories within a larger context, he uses a developmental perspective, inspired by a Marxist dialectical perspective.

In conclusion, for the “absolute” goal of explaining the interconnected world, Wolf takes the approach of ‘macroscopic history’ in examining ‘processes of organization’. To explain constantly changing societies, he believes we should look at their mode of production and structural power. When the power-holders practice their power, they produce ideology, which unintentionally dominates each member of the societies. Also, cultures are not fixed, unique things, but are forever breaking up and differentiating. They thus need to be studied in their plurality and historicity, without losing sight of their interconnectedness (Wolf 1992:5).


Culture Change and Culture Stability in a Puerto Rican Coffee Community. Ph. D. Dissertation, Columbia University, New York.
1953 La Formacion de la Nacion. Ciencias Sociales 4:50-62, 98-111, 146-71.

1955a The Mexican Bajio in the Eighteenth century: An Analysis of Cultural Integration. Middle American Research Institute Publication 17: 177-200.

1955b Types of Latin American peasantry. A preliminary Discussion. American Anthropology 57:452-71.

1956a San Jose: Subcultures of a “Traditional” Coffee Municipality. In Julian steward ed., The People of Puerto Rico, pp.171-264. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

1956b Aspects of Group Relations in a Complex Society: Mexico. American Anthropologist 58: 1065-78.

Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica And Central Java. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13: 1-18.
The Virgin of Guadalupe. Journal of American Folklore 71: 34-39.
Cultural Dissonance in the Italian Alps’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 5: 1-14.
1964a Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

1964b Santa Claus: Notes on a Collective Representation. In Robert A. Manners ed., Process and Pattern in Culture, pp.147-55. Chicago: Aldine.

1966a Kinship, Friendship, and Patron-Client Relations in Complex Societies’. In Michael Banton ed., The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies, pp.1-22. ASA Monographs. London: Tavistock.

1966b Peasants. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

1969a On Pesant Rebellions. International Journal of the Social Sciences 21: 286-93.

1969b Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row.

American Anthropologists and American society. In Dell Hymes ed., Reinventing Anthropology 251-63. New York: Pantheon.
Encounter with Norbert Elias. In Peter Gleichmann et al. eds., Human Fiturations: Essays for Norbert Elias, pp.28-35. Amsterdam: Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift.
The mills of inequality: a Marxian approach. InGerald Berreman ed., Social Inequality: Comparative and Developmental Approaches, pp.41-57. New York: Academic Press.
Europe and the People without History. Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press.
Culture: Panacea or Problem? American Antiquity 49(2): 393-400.
The Vicissitudes of the Closed Corporate Peasant Community. American Ethnologist 13: 325-29.
1990 Lecture: Facing Power. Old Insights,New Questions. American Anthropologist 92:586-96.

1994a Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People. Current Anthropology 35(1): 1-12.

1994b Explaining Mesoamerica. Social Anthropology 2(1): 1-17.

1994c Comments on “Anthropology in the Society of the 1990s” by Edward H. Spicer. Human Organization 53(4): 405-407.


Abbink, Jan & Hans Vermeulen eds. 1992 History and Culture: Essays on the Work of Eric R. Wolf. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.

Cole, John W. and Eric R. Wolf 1974 The Hidden Frontier. Ecology and Ethnicity in an Alpine Valley. New York: Academic Press.

Friedman, Jonathan 1987 An Interview with Eric Wolf. Current anthropology 28: 107-118.

Ghani, Ashraf 1987 A Conversation with Eric Wolf. American Ethnologist 14:346-366.

Roseberry, W. 1988 Political Economy. Annual Review of Anthropology 17:161-85.

Wolf, Eric R. 1956b Aspects of Group relations in a complex society: Mexico. American Anthropologist 58:1065-78.

1984 Culture: Panacea or Problem? American Antiquity 49(2): 393-400.

1988 Inventing Society. American Ethnologist 15:752-61.

1994a Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People. Current Anthropology 35(1): 1-12.

Worsley, Peter 1984 A Landmark in Anthropology. American Ethnologist: 171-176.

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