[Marxism] Anthropologist spies

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Tue Jan 3 14:28:31 MST 2006

Mark Lause 

Legitimate interests and natural curiosity always inspired all these
disciplines, but they could become established disciplines only to the
extent that they could demonstrate their usefulness to the power

CB: Yes, the ruling ideas of any age, etc.


In the U.S., for example, anthropology grew in part on the obvious
reality of native peoples and societies here.  Lewis Henry Morgan's work (in
which Engels was so interested) is a case in point.  In moving to upstate
New York in order to explore Iroquois society, Morgan had a letter of
introduction of John Greig, the leader of the Rochester Fourierists and the
Sodus Bay phalanx.  Very early on, Indian life and beliefs interested white
progressives, and native peoples essentially accepted and encouraged that

CB: Yes. Morgan was an attorney.


However, the translation into an academic discipline shifted the
essential purpose from human understanding through intellectual
explanations to something of institutional utility.  And the same story
could be repeated across the board for other disciplines.  

Mark L.


Leslie A. White was critical in extending the Morgan school of anthro.

Leslie White

(Redirected from Leslie A. White)

Leslie Alvin White (19 January 1900, Salida, Colorado - 31 March 1975) was
an anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution,
social evolutionism and especially neoevolutionism, and his role in creating
the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.

1 Biography 
2 White's anthropology 
3 Further reading 
4 Selected publications 

Born in 1900 in Salida, Colorado, to a peripatetic civil engineer, White
lived first in Kansas and then Louisiana. He enrolled to fight in the First
World War, but saw only the tail end of it, spending a year in the US Navy
before matriculating at Louisiana State University in 1919. In 1921 he
transferred to Columbia University where he studied psychology, taking a BA
in 1923 and an MA in 1924. Although at the same university as Franz Boas,
Leslie White missed the founding father of American anthropology altogether.
However, his interests even at this stage of his career were diverse, and he
took classes in several other disciplines and institutions, including
philosophy at UCLA, and clinical psychiatry, before finally discovered
anthropology via Alexander Goldenweiser's courses at the New School for
Social Research. In 1925 White began studies for a Ph.D. in
sociology/anthropology at the University of Chicago and had the opportunity
of spending a few weeks with the Menominee and Winnebago in Wisconsin. After
his initial thesis proposal - a library thesis which foreshadowed his later
theoretical work - he conducted fieldwork at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. Ph.D.
in hand, White began teaching at the University of Buffalo in 1927, where he
began to rethink the anti-evolutionary views that his Boasian education had
instilled in him. In 1930, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he would remain for
the rest of his active career.

The three-year period at Buffalo marked a turning point in White's
biography. It was during this time that he developed a worldview -
anthropological, political, and ethical - that he would hold to and actively
advocate until his death. The student response to the then-controversial
Boasian anti-evolutionary and anti-racist doctrines that White espoused
helped him formulate his own views regarding the evolution of human social
life. In 1929 he visited Soviet Union and on his return joined the Socialist
Labor Party, writing articles under the pseudonym 'John Steel' for their

White came to Michigan when he was hired to replace Julian Steward who
departed Ann Arbor in 1930. Although the university was home to a museum
with a long history of involvement in matters anthropological, White was the
only professor in the anthropology department itself. In 1932 he headed a
fieldschool in the southwest which was attended by Fred Eggan and Mischa
Titiev, among others.

It was Titiev that White brought to Michigan as a second professor in 1936.
As a student of White - and who knows, perhaps his status as a Russian
immigrant was salient as well - Titiev suited White perfectly. However,
during the Second World War, Titiev took part in the war effort by studying
Japan. Perhaps this upset the socialist White - in any case by war's end
White had broken with Titiev and the two were hardly even on speaking terms.
More faculty were not hired until after the war, when the two-man department
was expanded. This, compounded by the foundation by Titiev of the East Asian
Studies Program and the import of scholars like Richard Beardsley into the
department, created a split on which most professors fell one way or

As a professor in Ann Arbor White trained a generation of influential
students. While authors such as Robert Carneiro, Beth Dillingham, and
Gertrude Dole were to carry on White's program in its orthodox form, other
scholars such as Eric Wolf, Elman Service, and Marshall Sahlins drew on
their time with White to elaborate their own forms of anthropology.

White's anthropology
White's views were formulated specifically against the Boasians, with whom
he was institutionally and intellectually at odds. This antagonism often
took on an extremely personal form: White referred to Franz Boas's prose
style as "corny" in no less a journal than the American Journal of
Sociology, while Robert Lowie referred to White's work as "a farrago of
immature metaphysical notions" shaped by "the obsessive power of fanaticism
[which] unconsciously warps one's vision."

One of the strongest deviations from Boasian orthodoxy was White's view of
the nature of anthropology and its relation to other sciences present. White
understood the world to be divided into cultural, biological, and physical
levels of phenomenon. Such a division is a reflection of the composition of
the universe and was not a heuristic device. Thus, contrary to Alfred L.
Kroeber and Kluckhohn or Edward Sapir, White saw the delineation of the
object of study not as a cognitive accomplishment of the anthropologist but
a recognition of the actually existing and delineated phenomena which
comprise the world. The distinction between 'natural' and 'social' sciences
was thus not based on of method, but rather on the nature of the object of
study - physicists study physical phenomena, biologists biological phenomena
and culturologists (White's term) cultural phenomena.

While the object of study was not delineated by the researcher's viewpoint
or interest, the method by which he approached them could be. White believed
that phenomena could be explored from three different points of view, the
historical, the formal-functional, and the evolutionist (or
formal-temporal). The historical view was essentially Boasian, dedicated to
examining the particular diachronic cultural processes, "lovingly trying to
penetrate into its secrets until every feature is plain and clear." The
formal-functional is essentially the diachronic approach advocated by Alfred
Radcliffe-Brown and Bronisław Malinowski, attempting to discern the formal
structure of a society and the functional interrelations of its components.
The evolutionist approach is, like the formal approach, generalizing. But it
is also diachronic, seeing particular events as general instances of larger

While Boas claimed his science promised loving penetration, White thought
that it would "emasculate" anthropology if it became the dominant position.
White viewed his own approach as a synthesis of historical and functional
approach because it combined the diachronic scope of one with the
generalizing eye for formal interrelations provided by the other. As such it
could point out "the course of cultural development in the past and its
probable course in the future" a task that was anthropology's "most valuable

As a result White frequently championed nineteenth century evolutionists in
a search for intellectual predecessors unclaimed or - preferably - denounced
by Boasians. This can be clearly seen in his views of evolution, which are
firmly rooted in the writings of Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and Lewis
H. Morgan. While it can be argued that White's exposition of Morgan and
Spencer's was tendentious, it can be safely said that White's concepts of
science and evolution were firmly rooted in their work. Advances in
population biology and evolutionary theory passed White by and, unlike
Steward, his conception of evolution and progress remained firmly rooted in
the nineteenth century.

For White, culture was a superorganic entity that was sui generis and could
only be explained in terms of itself. It was composed of three levels, the
technological, the social organizational, and the ideological. Each level
rested on the previous one, and although they all interacted, ultimately the
technological level was the determining one, what White calls "The hero of
our piece" and "the leading character of our play". The most important
factor in his theory is technology: "Social systems are determined by
technological systems", wrote White in his book, echoing the earlier theory
of Lewis Henry Morgan.

White spoke of culture as a general human phenomenon, and claimed not to
speak of 'cultures' in the plural. His theory, published in 1959 in The
Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome,
rekindled the interest in social evolutionism and is counted prominently
among the neoevolutionists. He believed that culture - meaning the sum total
of all human cultural activity on the planet - was evolving. White
differentiated between three components of culture: technological,
sociological and ideological, and argued that it was the technological
component which plays a primary role or is the primary determining factor
responsible for the cultural evolution. White's materialist approach is
evident in the following quote: "man as an animal species, and consequently
culture as a whole, is dependent upon the material, mechanical means of
adjustment to the natural environment"[1]. This technological component can
be described as material, mechanical, physical and chemical instruments, as
well as the way people use these techniques. White's argument on the
importance of technology goes as follows[2]:

Technology is an attempt to solve the problems of survival. 
This attempt ultimately means capturing enough energy and diverting it for
human needs. 
Societies that capture more energy and use it more efficiently have an
advantage over other societies. 
Therefore, these different societies are more advanced in an evolutionary
Composite image of the Earth at night, created by NASA and NOAA. The
brightest areas of the Earth are the most urbanized, but not necessarily the
most populated. Even more than 100 years after the invention of the electric
light, some regions remain thinly populated and unlit.For White "the primary
function of culture" and the one that determines its level of advancement is
its ability to "harness and control energy". White's law states that the
measure by which to judge the relative degree of evolvedness of culture was
the amount of energy it could capture (energy consumption).

White differentiates between five stages of human development. In first,
people use energy of their own muscles. In second, they use energy of
domesticated animals. In third, they use the energy of plants (so White
refers to agricultural revolution here). In fourth, they learn to use the
energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In fifth, they harness the
nuclear energy. White introduced a forumule C=E*T, where E is a measure of
energy consumed per capita per year, T is the measure of efficiency of
technical factors utilising the energy and C represents the degree of
cultural development. In his own words: "the basic law of cultural
evolution" was "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita
per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of
putting the energy to work is increased"[3]. Therefore "we find that
progress and development are effected by the improvement of the mechanical
means with which energy is harnessed and put to work as well as by
increasing the amounts of energy employed"[4]. Although White stops short of
promising that technology is the panacea for all the problems that affect
mankind, like technological utopians do, his theory treats the technological
factor as the most important factor in the evolution of society and is
similar to the later works of Gerhard Lenski, the theory of Kardashev scale
of Russian astronomer, Nikolai Kardashev and to some notions of
technological singularity.

Further reading
Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology by William Peace.
University of Nebraska Press, 2004 (the definitive biography of White). 
Richard Beardsley. An appraisal of Leslie A. White's scholarly influence.
American Anthropologist 78:617-620, 1976. 
Jerry D. Moore. Leslie White: Evolution Emergent. Chapter 13 of Visions of
Culture. Pp. 169-180. AltaMira, 1997. 
Elman Service. Leslie Alvin White, 1900-1975. American Anthropologist
78:612-617, 1976. 
The Leslie White Papers - Finding guide and information about Leslie White's
papers at the Bentley Historical library. 
Selected publications
Ethnological Essays: Selected Essays of Leslie A. White. University of New
Mexico Press. 1987. 
The Science of Culture: A study of man and civilization. Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1949. 
The Pueblo of Santa Ana, New Mexico. American Anthropological Association
Memoir 60, 1942. 
The Pueblo of Santo Domingo. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60,
The Pueblo of San Felipe. American Anthropological Association Memoir No.
38, 1932. 
The Acoma Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology, 47th annual report, pp.
1-192. Smithsonian Institution, 1932. 
Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_White"
Categories: 1900 births | 1975 deaths | American anthropologists | Columbia


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