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Julian Steward

Page history last edited by runningafterantelope@... 15 years, 10 months ago

Julian Steward

multi-linear (neo)evolutionary cultural ecologist

Born: Jan. 31, 1902 — Died: 1972 (Feb. 6)

Star Sign: Aquarius [horoscope]

Influences: Kroeber, Lowie, and Boas, generally (contra White).

Influenced: Fried, Vayda, Wolf, Service, Murray…

                     (120 grad students/year at Columbia!)

Nemeses: Omar Stewart, Mead/Benedict, Eric Wolf,

                 Leslie White, Richard Clemmer, Ralph Linton...

At age 16, left an unhappy childhood in Washington, DC to attend boarding school in Owens Valley, California, at the edge of the Great Basin.  Steward’s “direct engagement” with the land and the Northern Paiute that lived there became a “catalyst” for his theory and method of cultural ecology.[1] Steward studied under Kroeber and Lowie as an undergrad (and later graduate) student at Berkeley, where his dissertation The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian, a Study of Ritualized Clowning and Role Reversals was accepted in 1929.


Steward’s interests centered on “subsistence” — the dynamic interaction of man, environment, technology, social structure, and the organization of work — an approach Kroeber regarded as “eccentric,” original, and innovative.[2]  In 1931, Steward, pressed for money, began fieldwork on the The image “http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3114/2412537808_e5c4237bb3_o.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Great Basin Shoshone under the auspices of Kroeber’s Culture Element Distribution (CED) survey; in 1935 he received an appointment to the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnography (BAE), which published some of his most influential works. Among them: Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups (1938), which “fully explicated” the paradigm of cultural ecology, and marked a shift away from the diffusionist orientation of American anthropology. 


Steward searched for cross-cultural regularities in an effort to discern laws of culture and culture change.  His work explained variation in the complexity of social organization as being limited to within a range possibilities by the environment.  In evolutionary terms, he located this view of cultural ecology as “multi-linear,” in contrast to the unilinear typological models popular in the 19th century, and Leslie White’s “universal” approach. Steward’s most important theoretical contributions came during his teaching years at Columbia (1946-53).


Strengths: Multilinear approach to evolution.



  •  An “illiterate country bumpkin interested mainly in bathtub gin and cowboy stories”? [3]

  • Testified as expert witness for U.S. government in Indian Claims Commission cases;

    • net effect: reduction in land awards for Shoshone & N. Paiute.
  • Methodology inconsistent with theory. (What does a behaviorist learn from inventory lists and oral histories?) [4]

  • Wodziwob & Wovoka totally absent from Steward’s work.

  • Unwilling “to give up on the idea of the patrilineal band as the “normal” form of hunter-gatherer social organization—despite the fact that in his own fieldwork, he never discovered unambiguous evidence for its centrality.” (Kerns 2003) [PC2]

  • Formidable shyness; not comfortable with people; “reclusive,” hermetic. 

  • Not so great with women.

Special Skills:

  • Emphasis on the observable details of subsistence activities.

  • “Anticipatory Anthropology” in industrializing nations presaged the discipline’s current applied/development focus.

    • (Yet failed to relate colonializing processes to what he observed in his Shoshone & Paiute work.) [5]

  • "Scientific"; empirical.

    • envisioned anthropology as something other than a caustic enterprise.


What to say about him if you can't think of anything nice:

"He was important to the development of 'area studies' research." (Moore 2004:193)


Selected Works:

1938   Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups[6]


1937f  “Ecological aspects of SouthWestern society”


1936  “Shoshonean Tribes” (internal report for the BIA)


1936 Economic and Social Basis of Primitive Bands [JTC3] 

       credited as the “direct stimulus” to Devore & Lee's

        (1966) “Man the Hunter” Symposium. [7]


1946 Handbook of South American Indians: The Marginal Tribes, 1-9, BAE. (editor)


1949 “Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations,” American Anthropologist, 51:1-27. 


1951 “Levels of Sociocultural Integration:  An Operational Concept.”  Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 7:374-390.


1969 “The Limitations of Applied Anthropology: The Case of the Indian New Deal.” Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society.  1:1-17.


1955 Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution.



Erickson & Murphy (1998), A History of Anthropological Theory, Broadview Press.


EthnoAdmin (2003), Untitled review of Kerns (2003), Scenes from the High Desert: Julian Steward's Life and Theory. http://www.aesonline.org/3072


Kerns (2003), Scenes from the High Desert: Julian Steward's Life and Theory, University of Illinois Press.


Clemmer, Myers, & Rudden (1999), Julian Steward in the Great Basin: The Making of an Anthropologist, University of Utah Press.


Beals & Wolf (1988), "On Eric Wolf and the North Berkeley Gang," Current Anthropology, Vol.29(2).


Moore, Jerry D. (2004:193), Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories, Altamira.

[1] Kerns 1999; Murphy 1977

[2] EthnoAdmin 2003

[3] Beals & Wolf (1988), On Eric Wolf and the North Berkeley Gang, Current Anthropology, Vol.29(2).

[4]  “scarcely used participant observation and learned rather little about the daily social lives of the Shoshone and N. Paiute he interviewed.” (Clemmer 1999:15);

[5]  defined as: “developing and refining methods for ascertaining cross cultural regularities and laying a basis for long-range forecasts of cultural change among native peoples under the influence of industrialization”

[6] “the only close-to comprehensive summary of historic and protohistoric cultural systems for large parts of the Basin-Plateau areas.” (Clemmer 1999:xiii)

[7] Clemmer & Myers 1999:x-xi

 [JTC1]Horoscope: Aquarius, The Onion, Jan 17, 2008:

“Though many have argued over what came first, the chicken or the egg, all agree that causality dilemmas were a lot more fun before you showed up.”


 [PC2]saw anthropologists as unilaterally authoritative interpreters of Native American culture; omissions of Wodziwob & Wovoka “stemmed from a part of Steward’s self that yearned for the noble savage of rugged and undaunted disposition”; “had a great deal of trouble with the concept of acculturation…” which he used “without ever really coming to grips with what it did or did not mean.” (Clemmer 1999:xix; also chapter 10, generally).


 [JTC3]“Underlying this paper is the assumption that every cultural phenomenon is the product of some definite cause or causes. This is a necessary presupposition if anthropology is  considered a science. The method of this paper has been first to ascertain the causes of primitive bands through analysis of the inner functional or organic connection of the components of a culture and their environmental basis. Next, through comparisons, it endeavored to discover what degree of generalization is possible…The extent…to which generalizations can be made may be ascertained by further application of the methods followed here. This paper, therefore, is but the first of a series which I shall devote to this general objective. (1936)



 card by John Curran



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