Robert Lowie on anthropology and psychology

7 minute read

It is hard to find a better discussion of how anthropology relates to culture than the first chapter of Robert Lowie’s 1917 book, Culture and Ethnology. For instance:

[S]ince there is a persistent tendency to associate with culture the more impressive phenomena of art, science, and technology, it is well to insist at the outset that these loftier phases are by no means necessary to the concept of culture. The fact that your boy plays 'button, button, who has the button?' is just as much an element of our culture as the fact that a room is lighted by electricity. So is the baseball enthusiasm of our grown-up population, so are moving picture shows, thés dansants, Thanksgiving Day masquerades, bar-rooms, Ziegfeld Midnight Follies, evening schools, the Hearst papers, woman suffrage clubs, the single-tax movement, Riker drug stores, touring-sedans, and Tammany Hall (6-7).

I think that’s a great example mainly because of how many of those things are gone! Plus, I was watching Citizen Kane last night, so the reference to the Hearst papers seems especially timely. Then there is this:

These, then, represent the type of phenomena comprised under the caption of culture. They exist, and science, as a complete view of reality, cannot ignore them. But a question ominous for the worker who derives his bread and butter from ethnological investigation arises. All the phenomena mentioned and the rest of the same order relate to man, and they relate to man not as an animal but as an organism endowed with a higher mentality...

A quick interruption here to point out that this is no longer the only conception of cultural behavior, which extends quite broadly into the animals. Still, the examples Lowie raises are all symbolic or linguistic in their basis — they are not so broad a compendium of human “cultural” behaviors as to include unconscious and nonverbal cultural variability…

Tylor's definition expressly speaks of 'capabilities and habits'. But there is a science that deals with capabilities and habits, to wit, psychology. Is it, then, necessary to have a distinct branch of knowledge, or can we not simply merge the cultural phenomena in those of the older science of psychology?

…another interruption: Not very much older was the science of psychology at this point in history; at best Wundtian, and so to the 1850’s. Wundt’s Principles of Physiological Psychology was 1874, comparing to Tylor’s Primitive Culture in 1871, or Louis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society in 1877. We can point to earlier psychological thinkers, and even experimenters, but the clear tradition of psychology as a discipline independent from philosophy was late.

It is this question [why not psychology?] that concerns us here. On the answer must depend our conception of culture and our attitude towards a science purporting to deal with cultural phenomena as something distinct from other data of reality (7).

I love Lowie’s example:

One of the striking characteristics of our civilization, a trait of our material culture that is nevertheless as invaluable, nay indepensible, means for the propagation of knowledge under modern conditions, is the existence of paper, that is, of a cheap, readily manufactured material for writing and printing. The obvious problem that develops from this fact is, How did we get the art of paper-manufacture? Now we shall search in vain our psychological literature in quest of an explanation. Höffding and James, Wundt and Titchener have no answer to offer. An answer, nevertheless, exists. Europe learnt the art of paper-making from the Arabs, who as early as 795 A.D. had established a paper factory in Bagdad [sic]. These in turn got their knowledge from the Chinese, who must be regarded as the originators of the technique. The answer is a perfectly satisfactory one, but it is obviously not couched in psychological terms: its nature is purely historical (8, emphasis in original).

It is a great example because (a) it emphasizes that the material element of culture separates it from purely mental explanation, (b) it focuses on the transfer of information, not only its generation, and (c) the historical element separates it from purely individual explanation. Lowie describes anthropology at once as an ideational and historical science. The weakness of the example as Lowie presents it, is that it does not go further: Why did the Chinese originate paper manufacture? What technical prerequisites permitted it, and what economic and cultural factors encouraged it?

Lowie immediately turns to another difficulty of the explanation, which turns out to be the reason why I went looking for this passage. In this instance, the transfer of paper-making art from China to Europe by way of the Arabs, there was a transfer not only of material (the paper as a commodity), but a transfer of instructions for producing the material. Old-style cultural anthropologists had a name for this kind of transfer: cultural diffusion. Lowie addresses this as a category of problem: How do we explain diffusion of this technique, when in many other cases people trade material objects over long distances without the information it took to produce them?

Cultural diffusion, therefore, cannot be taken for granted. We cannot take one people, place it alongside of another, and effect a cultural osmosis in the same way in which we produce a chemical reaction when two substances are brought together under proper conditions of temperature. We are face to face with a selective, with a psychological condition. But when we turn once more to our text-books of psychology, we again find nothing that fits the case.

Lowie then turns to address the first problem; how did the Chinese invent paper in the first place? Here, he expands in an interesting direction on the idea that anthropology is a historical science. Lowie appears to argue that psychological explanation is undesirably general, in that it examines and explains the general tendencies of people to respond to various situations. In contrast, the anthropological explanation is particular, in that it examines the exact circumstances surrounding human decisions. In the example of paper-making, he proposes that a psychological explanation would fall back on the concept of invention generally, as applied to any kind of situation. In contrast, the anthropological explanation focuses on the unique historical circumstances that led to this particular event.

We, however, do not want to know merely what ultimate psychological processes the invention of paper-making shares with all other inventions whatsoever, but also the differential conditions that produced this one and unique result under the given circumstances....When we inquire why Newton closes his treatise on optics with a statement as to the vanity of human things, our curiosity is satisfied when this expression appears as only one instance of the blending of theological and scientific thought current in his day. It is nonsense to say that these explanations are purely historical; they are psychological, for they take fully into account the subjective attitudes involved in the phenomena studied; and it is hopeless to expect this sort of explanation from psychological science, which deals with a quite distinct and far more generalized form of mental activity (12-13).

After this, and a discussion of cultural taboos as further examples of the importance of particular circumstances, Lowie returns to Tylor’s definition of culture. This is an interesting passage, because he distills the Tylor definition right down to a social transmission definition of culture:

It is clear that cultural phenomena contain elements that cannot be reduced to psychological principles. The reason for the insufficiency is already embodied in Tylor's definition of culture as embracing 'capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society' (16).

After all this, Lowie returns to the topic of psychology and its role as part of an anthropological explanation of cultural phenomena. Again, he has a great example: decorative styles:

The ethnologist notes in a purely descriptive way the decorative patterns employed by various tribes, the fact that curvilinear motives are prominent among the Maori of New Zealand while the rawhide bags of Plains Indians are covered with angular paintings. Here, once more, it is clear that many of the problems that arise are purely cultural. There are, nevertheless, psychological elements involved that may be misunderstood without psychological knowledge. Let us assume, e. g., that a certain tribe is artistically characterized by a fondness for squares. What does this predilection signify? It is a psychological commonplace that through an optical illusion we exaggerate the height as compared with the width of a rectangle; accordingly, the geometrical square does not coincide with the psychological square. This simple piece of information enables us to understand what we are actually dealing with in the case of a square pattern. At the same time it sharpens our observation regarding such patterns (21-22).

There is more; Lowie goes on to discuss shamanism and abnormal psychology. He concludes his essay on the principle that psychology is a field that can be recruited to explain anthropological phenomena just as does chemistry, but that it cannot explain them alone, any more than “gravitation [can] account for architectural styles.” Seems fair enough, although today’s conception of psychology is not quite so generalist in its aims than the 1917 version (just then coming under the spell of Watson’s behaviorism).

In any event, I’ll have to write more tomorrow on the reason I opened Lowie’s book.


Lowie RH. 1917. Culture and Ethnology. Douglas C. McMurtrie, New York.