by Elise DeCamp
Born: January 31, 1902, Washington D.C.
B.A., Geology, Cornell University, 1925 (1921-1922 at Berkeley)
M.A., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1926
Ph.D., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1929
1928-30, First anthropology lecturer at University of Michigan
1930-33, Associate Professor, Department Chair at University of Utah
1934, Visiting Professor at University of California, Berkeley
1935-46, Associate Anthropologist, Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution
1936, BAE’s liaison to the Bureau of Indian Affairs
1943-46, Director of the Institute of Social Anthropology under the BAE
1946-52, Professor at Columbia University
1952-68 (Retirement), Research Professor at University of Illinois, Urbana
Died: February 6, 1972, Urbana, Illinois
Throughout the discipline of anthropology, Julian Steward’s name has become synonymous with cultural ecology. Too frequently, however, his development of this approach has resulted in facile denunciations of his work as strictly positivist and as another example of grand theorizing in the vein of neo-evolutionist Leslie White. In fact, Julian Steward vehemently denied any connection between his ideas and the formulation of general scientific laws. He was never so presumptuous as to claim universal applicability for his theories or to assume that they would not require some revision as new ethnographic data problematized his conclusions. This accommodation of specific cases does not diminish the scientific orientation of his methodology, which he consistently demonstrated through his privileging of environmental factors and artifact collection over human interactions and use of informants.
Steward managed to apply his empirical methods without slipping into an endorsement of environmental determinism, a stance which he ironically lumped in with other anthropological theories like structuralism that he criticized as too philosophical and unscientific. In order to understand how he arrived at this complex blend of positivism and particularism, it is first necessary to examine his interests, influences, and intellectual adversaries over the course of his academic career. An elaboration of his key works and theoretical perspectives accompanies this analysis of antecedents and antagonists. Building upon this foundation, I will discuss how the applied, teaching, and research positions he held, when combined with the recent memory of the Great Depression and World War II, facilitated the widespread impact of his major works and theories on the discipline.
The first hint of Julian Steward’s inclination toward empirical methods and ecological study appear in his early undergraduate coursework in biology and decision to major in geology at Cornell University. Before transferring to Cornell, he completed his first year of collegiate study at the University of California at Berkeley (1921-22), where he took an introductory anthropology course on the development of civilizations with Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie [Kerns 2003:59]. This early experience piqued his interest in anthropological study – and culture change – enough that he continued to attend lectures in anthropology at Cornell in addition to his geological focus. Steward’s alternation between cultural study and environmental science would continue to inform and guide his research throughout the remainder of his scholastic training and on into the final years of his career in academia.
His brief prior encounter and academic connection with Kroeber proved instrumental in his selection of and successful application to the graduate program in anthropology at Berkeley in 1925. Although Kroeber ended up being the one who served as a contact and advisor/confidante during Steward’s graduate and later academic life, it was Lowie’s theoretical stance that featured most prominently in Steward’s unique brew of positivism and particularism. Lowie’s approach, as later outlined in History of Ethnological Theory (1937), “consisted of undoing the ethnographic analyses of cultural evolutionists [namely Lewis Henry Morgan] and redoing them in the framework of Boasian historical particularism” [Erickson and Murphy 2003:77]. His enthusiasm for particularism, however, did not extend to include Kroeber’s assumption that culture is “separate from psychology and ‘above’ biology” . Indeed, during Steward’s defense of his dissertation in August, 1929, Lowie approved of the way he “categorized thethemes of humor and … tried to determine the psychological cause” [Kerns 2003:112], while Kroeber considered this explanation “reductionist” and “scientific generalization” . Lowie’s interest in categorization and taxonomy figures into Steward’s concept of “culture types,” which he applied in his well-known, edited volumes of the Handbook of South American Indians: The Marginal Tribes (1946). Before discussing this later work, it is essential to shed light on the intervening years that followed his successful dissertation defense.
Living in a Material World: 1929-1946
After serving briefly as the first anthropology lecturer at the University of Michigan on Kroeber’s recommendation [Kerns 2003:104], Steward moved to the University of Utah in early 1930 for a teaching position that allowed him time to pursue collections research at an affiliated museum . The museum-focus of his job permitted him to concentrate on archaeology and material culture among the nearby Pueblo, which “did not so obviously present the methodological problems that his [first] colleague-wife pointed out about retrospective ethnographic research based on the informant method” . His career choice in this instance appears well-suited toward his usual preference for the scientific over the humanistic side of anthropology. This more materialistic focus would characterize his next research position with the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, which lasted from 1935-1946. From his time in Utah until 1940, Steward’s “publications in archeology constituted about half of his output,” which, “may help explain, in part, his persistent fascination with evolutionary formulations extending over long periods of time” [National 2006]. As noted earlier, Robert Lowie also took an interest in evolutionary schema, structuring them around specific ethnographic cases, and was a likely supplementary influence for this interest.
Despite his affinity for this purportedly more objective type of research, he never strayed from his central interest in cultural types and processes of cultural change. Shortly after leaving Utah to do applied research for the BAE, he published his essay ““The Economic and Social Basis of Primitive Bands” (1936) that would later appear in his major theoretical work Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (1955). Steward drew upon his fieldwork experience with the Paiute of the Great Basin Desert regions of the Southwest as well as several secondary sources on the Indians of this region. His theory really began to take shape with this publication in which, “he defined three types of bands – patrilineal, matrilineal, and ‘composite’ – and linked each type to particular ecological circumstances” [Erickson 2003:120]. This essay had little immediate impact upon his colleagues and the more distinguished figures in anthropology, yet his position as an applied anthropologist at the BAE and role as liaison to the BIA supplied him “ready outlets for publication as well as generous support for research and writing” [Kerns 2003:217]. Through such connections Steward was able to begin work as editor of Handbook of South American Indians, which became one of his most widely read contributions to anthropological literature and ensured that his future and republished works would receive much greater attention than they would have otherwise.
By editing the multivolume work Handbook, Steward not only found a broader, more receptive audience for his approach, but also managed to form a more comprehensive statement of his theory and methodology. Many of the central concepts that lay at the core of Steward’s later theoretical monographs were included, such as culture type, culture area, and culture change/evolution. The culture area idea developed by Clark Wissler and largely supported by the discipline at the time of Handbook’s publication, employed diffusionism in its supposition that cultural centers were associated with geographical areas, “where the most important traits of the group originated and … outwardly diffused” [Erickson and Murphy 2003:55]. Steward’s focus on cultural typology in some of the volumes did not always accord well with the culture area proposition in that it placed societies into categories based on a unilinear scale of socio-political development and complexity without reference to the historical relationships among them. In the final version of Handbook, he settled on “a compromise between culture area and culture type as organizing principles” [Kerns 2003:231], by locating distinct cultural types within culture areas . Steward also did not remain committed to the unilinear idea, and “would soon refine his own views on cultural evolution, introducing his concept of multilinear evolution” .
Columbia: Steward’s New ‘Culture Area’
With his résumé now significantly enhanced after his applied research for the Bureau, Steward found little difficulty in securing the vacancy left by Ralph Linton’s resignation from the anthropology department at Columbia University in New York City. Here, he spent much more of his time in the classroom than on his research projects, yet he managed to publish the comparative, evolutionary piece, “Cultural Causality and Law” (1949). Applying a comparative method to “three areas in the Old World, along with three in the New World,” Steward asserted that these six areas “had undergone the same sequence of development [toward state formation]” [Kerns 2003:254]. As usual, his argument was grounded in the idea that cultural change largely occurs through human response to environmental pressures. In this comparison of culture areas through time, he made use of George Peter Murdock’s Human Relations Area Files (developed in the 1940s), which allowed “scholars to correlate the distribution of culture traits and work out historical trajectories both in general and for particular culture areas or similar culture types” [Bernard 2000:41]. Steward supported further inquiries into the links between culture areas through his supervision of his graduate students’ fieldwork in Puerto Rico.
Although Steward found the academic atmosphere of Columbia highly competitive with students frequently challenging his methods, this teaching position allowed him to influence a new crop of graduate students, who would become prominent figures in the field of anthropology. Marvin Harris, Sidney Mintz, Elman Service, Eric Wolf, Morton Fried, Robert Murphy, and Robert Manners are a few of the students who later incorporated portions of Steward’s theories into their research. Dr. Virginia Kerns’ biography of Steward sheds some light on why so many found Steward’s ideas appealing:
Most of the students…grew up during the depression, and many had served in
combat zones during the war. Their life experiences had inclined them toward materialist approaches to economy and political organization. They had ‘no trouble understanding the compelling motivations of an empty stomach,’ according to Murphy, and they had seen authority emerge from the barrel of a gun . While their powerful and visceral memories of hardship likely disposed them to view Steward’s approach as timely and relevant, the students adapted or borrowed from his theories in noticeably distinct ways.
These adaptations of his theory ranged from the more environmentally deterministic approach of Marvin Harris to the Marxist concern with economic and political systems in the work of Eric Wolf. Harris’ development of cultural materialism throughout the 1960s and 1970s provoked some of the most heated debate, going far beyond Steward, who failed to spark much controversy. He resembled Steward in his preference for environmental over cultural factors, but Harris took this idea to its limit with “infrastructural determinism.” This principle assumes that all aspects of culture – from mode of production to ideology – originate from the basic infrastructural level where culture must accommodate environmental pressures. Wolf inclined more toward a Marxist reading of cultural ecology, focusing on global relationships of power and the modes of production in his seminal work, Europe and the People without History. In addition to the book’s Marxist concepts, settlement and subsistence patterns feature prominently in and provide the material foundation for his argument that “a global network of trade and contact encompasses all human communities, not just those with written histories” [Darnell 2001:314].
With a number of Columbia Ph.D.s incorporating Steward in their teaching and publications, his core focus on the significance of ecological factors in cultural change continued to spread throughout the discipline. For example, Roy A. Rappaport’s influential Pigs for the Ancestors (1968) that highlighted the connection between ecology and the sacred, drew upon the teachings of Morton Fried at Columbia and his interactions with colleague Eric Wolf at the University of Michigan [Messer 2001:6]. Another famous anthropologist, Richard B. Lee, has and continues to engage with the role of ecology in the political systems of indigenous peoples in Botswana. In particular his book The !Kung San (1979) studied the subsistence methods and politics of the !Kung San, a hunting and gathering society in the Kalahari. These and many other reincarnations of Steward’s cultural ecology have become required reading for many budding young anthropologists.
Another ‘Culture Change’ at Illinois
In leaving Columbia for the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1952, Steward embarked upon the final chapter of his already distinguished career. Although his fieldwork days had ended, his research professorship at Illinois enabled him to develop and publish further refinements of his theory until his retirement in 1968. The most notable of these works, Theory of Culture Change, fleshed out in explicit terms the essential ideas underlying cultural ecology, emphasizing the concepts of “culture core” and “multilinear evolution.” Steward conceived of this core in opposition to what he considered the periphery of a society, claiming that “the core includes the sectors of society such as politics and religion that interact directly with the techno-economic base,” whereas, “the periphery is composed of cultural factors resulting from diffusion or simply independent creations” [Barrett 1984:46]. The “techno-economic base” includes the various technologies used in subsistence activities and developed in response to the demands of a given ecosystem.
Steward advanced the notion of multilinear evolution in an effort to distinguish his view of culture change from his colleague and fellow theorist, Leslie White. White revived Lewis Henry Morgan’s unilinear model/scale of cultural evolution in The Science of Culture (1949) and later in The Evolution of Culture (1959) with an emphasis on the use of technology to harness energy as the force behind evolution. In both theories, the development of more efficient subsistence technology in response to the environment is a central factor in culture change. Despite these similarities, Steward persisted in arguing that White’s version “proceeds in only one direction and cannot skip stages, whereas Steward believed that evolution can branch off in numerous directions as cultures adapt to varied circumstances” [Erickson and Murphy 2003:120]. This rationale once again echoes the particularism that Lowie applied to his study of cultural evolution, suggesting that whatever Steward’s revisions to his theoretical position, it remained both firmly rooted in specific cases and carefully distanced from grand theory’s universalizing trends.
This modest distance from the deterministic stances of Leslie White and Marvin Harris and his habitual avoidance of intellectual confrontations – including those with his students at Columbia – might explain why Steward did not stir as much controversy. The heightened awareness of material needs and political processes brought on by the depression and the war further explains the relatively easy acceptance of his ideas. Steward also eschewed the practice of clinging too tightly to his theories, consistently maintaining that they should instead be modified when new evidence highlighted their weaknesses. Toward the end of his life, Steward extended this advice to the discipline as a whole: “‘As I re-examine some of my own cross-cultural formulations, I note a long history of changing my mind … There are perhaps others,’ he observed, ‘who … should also change their minds from time-to-time’” [Kerns 2003:109]. Throughout his many contributions to the discipline – teaching, theorizing, and doing applied work in culture change – this principle has informed his approach. If more anthropologists plied their craft with his advice in mind, the still heated debates in some departments between the extreme forms of relativism and materialism might cool down to the tune of compromise.
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