Alfred Kroeber and the Nature of Culture

Alfred L. Kroeber with Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi tribe

Alfred L. Kroeber with Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi tribe

On June 11, 1876, American cultural anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber was born. His primary concern was to understand the nature of culture and its processes. He developed the concept of cultures as patterned wholes, each with its own style, and each undergoing a growth process analogous to that of a biological organism. Kroeber also made valuable contributions to the archaeology of New Mexico, Mexico, and Peru.

Alfred Kroeber  was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA; to upper middle-class parents: Florence Kroeber, who immigrated at the age of 10 to the United States with his parents and family from Germany, and Johanna Muller, who was of German descent. He grew up in New York and was educated in private schools. Due to his German roots, the family was bilingual, speaking German at home, and Kroeber also began to study Latin and Greek in school, beginning a lifelong interest in languages. Kroeber enrolled at Columbia College and earned his Masters degree in 1897 in Romantic drama. Kroeber then decided to change his field of research and devoted his life to anthropology. Kroeber received his Ph.D. under Franz Boas at Columbia University in 1901, basing his 28-page dissertation on decorative symbolism on his field work along the Arapaho. It was the first doctorate in anthropology awarded by Columbia. Alfred Kroeber spent most of his career in California, mostly at the University of California, Berkeley as Professor of Anthropology and the Director of what was then the University of California Museum of Anthropology.

Next to his achievements in cultural anthropology, Kroeber made significant advanced in the field of archaeology and anthropological linguistics as well. Kroeber conducted excavations in New Mexico, Mexico, and Peru. In Peru he also helped to found the Institute for Andean Studies (IAS) with the Peruvian anthropologist Julio C. Tello and other major scholars.

Together with his students, Alfred Kroeber collected cultural data on western tribes of Native Americans. Their work was devoted to preserving information about California tribes and was published in Handbook of the Indians of California in 1925. Alfred Kroeber described different levels of organization, for instance he described a pattern in California groups where a social unit was smaller and less hierarchically organized than a tribe, which was elaborated upon in The Patwin and their Neighbors in which Kroeber first coined the term “tribelet” to describe this level of organization. The scientist is further credited with developing the concepts of culture area, cultural configuration, and cultural fatigue.

Along with Roland B. Dixon, Alfred Kroeber performed studies on the genetic classification of Native American languages in North America, being responsible for theoretical groupings such as Penutian and Hokan, based on common languages. Kroeber’s textbook, Anthropology, was widely used for many years. In the late 1940s, it was one of ten books required as reading for all students during their first year at Columbia University. Further, Kroeber’s book titled Configurations of Cultural Growth was widely used in social scientific research.

Alfred Kroeber died in Paris on October 5, 1960, at age 84.

At yovisto academic video search you can learn more about Tribal Leadership in a TED Talk by David Logan.

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