Weight versus Power in Texts

Alfred L. Kroeber, Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, Prehistory (New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1948).

I was sixteen, browsing the shelves in the public library downtown in Mount Vernon, New York—a suburb just north of the Bronx—when I pulled out a thick tome, Anthropology, by A. L. Kroeber. Taking it home, I read it through, all 856 pages. ANTHROPOLOGY!  Everything in the world, everything could be studied through Anthropology!  Humans are ubiquitous. 

So I determined to go to college and become an anthropologist. 

Kroeber, at the height of his fame, a year after he retired from the University of California-Berkeley as professor of anthropology and director of its Museum of Anthropology, wrote the magisterial 1948 edition of Anthropology to encompass, in nineteen chapters, every conceivable topic in the discipline.  Traveling through the book, the student learns that it looks at both “Organic and Sociocultural Elements”; “Man’s Place in Nature” from fossils to “Races”; “Language” (one chapter); “Culture” including “Nature of Culture,” “Patterns,” “Processes,” “Change,” and “Cultural Psychology”; “Human Civilization,” “Later Prehistory and Ethnology in the Old World,” and “American Prehistory and Ethnology”; and finally, “On Values, Culture, Man, and Nature.” There are in addition, in the middle, four chapters on inventions, from the alphabet to the double-headed eagle and the flying gallop in art. These chapters document diffusion— without labeling them with this fraught term, though it’s in the index of thirty-nine small-print pages, compiled by professional indexer John Askling.[1]

With HAR now including a section on “generative texts,” Nick Barron at the 2019 AAA/CASCA meeting suggested that I consider contributing to it. I thought of Kroeber’s Anthropology, 1948 second edition: surely this was a generative text?  Then, ruminating, I couldn’t come up with any book that cited it. Google Scholar says it has, seventy years later, 270 citations.[2] Compare this with Clifford Geertz’s 1973 “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” with 12,010 citations.[3] Has Geertz 1973 so many citations because in 1973 he became director of the Princeton Institute and every smart aspiring scholar made sure to cite him in his application to the Institute?  Peter Novick noted,

Clifford Geertz . . . more influential than any other single figure within the discipline, he is also the anthropologist best known and cited outside of it. . . . As director of the Social Science School of the Institute for Advanced Study [Princeton], which every year brings together a new collection of emerging or established leaders of social science disciplines, he has occupied an unparalleled strategic location.[4]

Kroeber died in 1960, losing any strategic location. 

I pulled out the set of Kroeber books on my shelf:

  • Anthropology, A. L. Kroeber, 1923, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. 437 pp.
  • Anthropology, new edition, revised, Kroeber [that’s all it says on the title page, just his surname], 1948, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. 856 pp.[5]
  • Anthropology Today:  An Encyclopedic Inventory, ed. A. L. Kroeber, 1953, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 966 pp.
  • An Appraisal of Anthropology Today, ed. Sol Tax, Loren C. Eiseley, Irving Rouse, Carl F. Voegelin, 1953, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 395 pp
  • Current Anthropology:  A Supplement to Anthropology Today, ed. William L. Thomas, Jr., 1956, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 377 pp.[6]
  • The Nature of Culture, A. L. Kroeber, 1952, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 437 pp.

The total number of pages in this list of Kroeber’s major book publications is 3498, or 3530 if the supplement to Anthropology is included (see previous footnote).

Kroeber’s 1917 paper, “The Superorganic,” reprinted in The Nature of Culture, has 849 citations.  “Of all his theoretical writings, ‘The Superorganic’ (1917), his persistent notion of Culture, drew the most fire over decades. He never really fought shy of this partly Spencerian, partly Durkheimian, and partly Teutonic-Romantic emergent evolutionary concept.”[7] Anthropology Today has 435 citations, plus citations of individual papers in it such as Kluckhohn’s “Universal Categories of Culture” with 402 citations. Kroeber’s Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America (1939), a relatively straightforward empirical study, has 1187 citations. All of Kroeber’s publications are eclipsed, according to Google Scholar, by Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s 1952 Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, with 6743 citations.[8]

What might we conclude from scholarly citations as index of generative texts?  That status in a discipline doesn’t necessarily jibe with being cited?  Kroeber was called the “Dean of American Anthropology” when I was in college, late 1950s. Kroeber’s 1948 Anthropology was very favorably reviewed in American Antiquity, Albert Spaulding declaring that “The importance of this synthesis [lies] . . . in the fact that it is a consideration of the entire range of human culture history by one of the most profound students of culture.”[9] Julian Steward (who had been Kroeber’s student at Berkeley) stated that “Kroeber’s Anthropology (edition of 1948) is probably the most important single work ever written in anthropology,” yet “it is not now the principal introductory text. But [it] well serves Ph.D. candidates and all others wishing a sophisticated view. . . . Kroeber’s place in history will be determined more by the scholars who continue to be influenced by his writings.”[10] Half a century after his death, few scholars seem to be influenced by his writings.

My take-away is that citation numbers may reflect controversial texts, while status and power in a discipline may lie in administrative positions and ability to direct funding. Kroeber, as director of the Wenner-Gren “Anthropology Today” project, was indeed a doyen, and his choice of contributors significantly confirmed their status in the discipline. Citations to generative texts do not necessarily point to persons in power positions, nor to the most respected.[11]  History isn’t that easy.

[1] John Askling was a professional indexer who published “Confusion Worse Confounded:  How to Evaluate an Index,” California Librarian 13(2), December 1951. His title quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, line 996. (https://www.theindexer.org/files/03-2/03-2_077.pdf , accessed 3/20/2020).

[2] Google Scholar notes 270 citations for the 1948 version, https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C50&q=Kroeber+anthropology+1948&btnG=.  

[3] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures:(New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3–30. Google Scholar lists a number of versions with the most cited version now up to 12,010 citations as of April 4th, 2020, https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=1460438582203905101&hl=en&as_sdt=5,50&sciodt=0,50.  

[4] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988), 551. 

[5] Looking online, I discovered a 1933 reprint of Anthropology that contains the 1923 edition plus a 32 page supplement that provides a summary of the new discoveries and additional knowledge in anthropology, 1923-1933, arranged and numbered in the order of the original chapters and sections of Anthropology by A. L. Kroeber. Amusingly, the reprint is by a London company called Forgotten Books.

[6] Kroeber as chair and acknowledged “dean of anthropology” in 1950s America influenced the selections and conferences that An Appraisal of Anthropology Today and Current Anthropology: A Supplement to Anthropology Today addressed.

[7] Scott Rolston, “Kroeber, White, and Bidney: Triangulating the Superorganic,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 30, no. 2 (2003): 3–15.

[8] Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 1952).

[9] Albert C. Spaulding, “Review of Anthropology,” American Antiquity 14, no. 3 (1949): 235.

[10] Julian H. Steward, Alfred Louis Kroeber 1876-1960: A Biographical Memoir (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1962), 214.

[11] Academia.edu tells me that of this writing, March 20, 2020, there are 1134 citations to my publications. This does not mean that I am hailed as an influential scholar.  I suspect that some citations to my Land of Prehistory have been copied from others’ lists of references without actually using the book, because upon checking, the cited page does not contain relevant material.

Alice B. Kehoe: contributions / akehoe@uwm.edu / Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Marquette University

1 Comment

  1. Alice, your article brought to mind the comments I received from Robbins Burling (Harvard PhD, 1958) to my request of Harvard anthropologists, past and present, to nominate a book for an online exhibition I was curating that was important to them and to briefly explain why (this was during my tenure as collections librarian at Tozzer Library). Burling responded that the book he would choose was Kroeber’s Anthropology, continuing, “No book in anthropology has ever been more important to me than Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber. There was nothing exotic about it, and it is not intuitively the sort of thing that one puts in a book exhibit, but it is the book that persuaded me to study anthropology and we used to say (early 50’s) that if you knew everything in Kroeber you could pass your General Exam. A remarkable fact about the field of anthropology is that today’s graduate students have never heard of Kroeber, let alone his big green book. That says something about fads and fashions in anthropology.” Eugene Giles (PhD, 1966) also suggested Kroeber’s Anthropology as being important to him. He added that it was “a text that anthropology graduate students needed to know well to survive.”

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