HAR is pleased to announce the latest release from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article in English on the career of Alexander Goldenweiser. 

Kan, Sergei, 2021. “An Unorthodox Boasian: Life and Work of Alexander Goldenweiser,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

In the annals of the history of anthropology, Alexander Goldenweiser (1880-1940) usually occupies a less prominent place than his fellow Boasians. His academic career suffered from his own difficult personality and erratic behavior, and for this reason, plus the fact that quite a few of his writings appeared in non-anthropological journals, he receives little attention. In this important article, Kan sustains that a careful reading of the entire corpus of Goldenweiser’s work reveals the brilliant mind of a highly erudite scholar. Usually identified as the author of a seminal work on totemism, which offered a thorough criticism of this concept as developed by late nineteenth-century evolutionist anthropologists, Goldenweiser also introduced such important notions as “the limited possibility in the development of culture” and “cultural involution.” Moreover, along with Edward Sapir and Paul Radin, he insisted on the key role of the individual in culture and promoted a rapprochement between anthropology and psychology. Finally, he was also a strong advocate of an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences, combining anthropological with historical, psychological, and sociological interpretations of culture history. 

Alexander Alexandrovich Goldenweiser was born in Kiev (Ukraine, Russian Empire) into a Russian Jewish family. He studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University, where he taught until 1919. He did fieldwork among the Iroquois, but Kan reveals that he dedicated himself mostly to anthropological theory and had an important role as a progressive public intellectual. His work includes one of earliest textbooks in anthropology in the U.S., Early Civilization: An Introduction to Primitive Culture (1937), a popular book called Robots and Gods: An Essay on Craft and Mind (1931), as well as a collection of essays, History, Psychology and Culture (1933).

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