The True Genius of Kroeber
by James Hutchison
Kroeber needs to be kept in mind by contemporary anthropologists as his method of conceptualizing a culture in context remains a valid one and should be included very near the top in the list of fundamentals we apply.
Kroeber lists two possible ways to analyze culture. The first is scientific by which he means breaking down the culture into the smallest pieces in an attempt to find an all encompassing law that can be applied generically to all cultures. The anthropologist should readily see the problem with this line of reason as Kroeber did in that it destroys the phenomena as phenomena by transmuting them into abstract concepts - laws, constants, mathematical concepts and the like. This removes the historical context of the culture and therefor the context of the culture itself. His second and preferred method of analytical anthropology was to always view the culture in an historical context.
The historical method, according to Kroeber, is synthetic, for it attempts to achieve descriptive integration. This method does not decompose the materials under investigation, but views them as larger wholes. Kroeber then breaks this method down into two aspects. The first, temporal, provides the historical context of events. The second, synchronic, methodizes the relationship between historic events. It is here that his genius is revealed and it is here that his theory becomes extremely important in contemporary anthropological and academic thought.
As an example to support the thesis consider the study of Amerindians. The value of their literature and oral traditions have not received the authoritative position in applied anthropology they deserve. In fact most archaeologists dismiss them out-of-hand when studying the Amerindians past and instead rely on a few bits and bobs to describe and interpret the advanced cultures of the Mississippi valley. In practice, when one attempts to apply the oral traditions or accounts found in contemporary Amerindian literature that reflect the Amerindians past, they are treated as mythology and legend with the understanding there is no real truth behind them. Thus, they become only products of the Amerindian imagination. They are not considered historically authoritative as academia tends to only accept written history as valid when analyzing a culture. In short, they are not scientific. The result of this academic mentality is a Western interpretation of a people who are fundamentally different in their thinking. They can only be understood when the context of the culture is understood. This means that the culture must be viewed through the eyes of those being studied. It matters not that a scientific study of the technical history can be applied. It matters not that the history is completely accurate. What matters is how the members of the culture understand and react to their version of their history and the effect it accumulates in their culture. In fact it would validate the practice of extrapolation from oral history in understanding cultures of the past based on their descendants history of the culture over extrapolation from a few artifacts taken out of the cultural context of the people who created them and their descendants interpretation of them. One anthropologist in a recent video stated, Our interpretations are just as valid as theirs. Kroeber would rightly maintain, no, they are not. Others hold that Amerindian anthropologist can not maintain a proper perspective. Does this then mean only non-Western peoples should study Western Culture?
Kroebers basic principles of historical context of culture remains a valuable tool to the anthropologist and does much in avoiding the application of ethnocentric understanding and definition to other cultures.
We appreciate your comments and suggestions. Please E-MAIL us.
© 1995 1997 1998 1999 2000 by Hutchison Research Center. All rights reserved.