Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology

Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology

Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology

Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology


Few figures in modern American anthropology have been more controversial or influential than Leslie A. White (1900-1975). Between the early 1940s and mid-1960s, White's work was widely discussed, and he was among the most frequently cited American anthropologists in the world. After writing several respected ethnographic works about the Pueblo Indians, White broke ranks with anthropologists who favored such cultural histories and began to radically rethink American anthropology. As his political interest in socialism grew, he revitalized the concept of cultural evolution and reinvigorated comparative studies of culture. His strident political beliefs, radical interpretive vision, and often combative nature earned him enemies inside and outside the academy. His trip to the Soviet Union and participation in the Socialist Labor Party brought him to the attention of the FBI during the height of the Cold War, and near-legendary scholarly and political conflicts surrounded him at the University of Michigan. Placing White's life and work in historic context, William J. Peace documents the broad sociopolitical influences that affected his career, including many aspects of White's life that are largely unknown, such as the reasons he became antagonistic toward Boasian anthropology. In so doing, Peace sheds light on what made White such a colorful figure as well as his enduring contributions to modern anthropology.


Biography holds a particular place in the critical history of anthropology, as of any other discipline. Anthropology is perhaps unique, however, in its long-standing professional concern with the impact of culture on personality, to use Edward Sapir’s phrase. the history of anthropology is, in this sense, an anthropological problem, with the biographer as archivist presenting an ethnography of his or her subject. Each anthropologist uniquely construes the traditions of a national and transnational anthropology. When the social networks that constitute the profession are approached from the point of view of a single individual, readers are encouraged to construct disciplinary developments as the result of strategic decisions on the part of participants.

Some biographical subjects necessarily present greater challenges than others. Leslie A. White confounds the patterned quality of a single professional life because of the diversity of his interests throughout his career. William J. Peace documents the facets and contradictions of Leslie A. White’s life and career, sketching his midwestern farm upbringing and World War I navy service, and limning in meticulous detail the variegated tangents of his contacts with colleagues inside the academy and beyond it.

White is widely remembered within the discipline for three areas of specialization: as a southwestern ethnologist in the Boasian tradition of his initial training at the University of Chicago with Boasians Edward Sapir and FayCooper Cole, as North America’s primary proponent of a revitalized evolutionary theory and, in the later years of his career, as a historian of anthropology. His political involvements, particularly in his younger years, constitute a parallel intellectual and activist strand. Very few readers will know all of these sides.

White lived in interesting times. Like many of his generation with socialist leanings, his involvement with the Socialist Labor Party was self-defensively clandestine. Peace documents his writing career under the pseudonym of John Steel, the influences of his travels to Russia, and McCarthy-era challenges to academic freedom. White’s unconventional views, particularly on evolution and free will, challenged the integrity of academic freedom at the University of Michigan before the Cold War erupted. the controversy White’s lectures and writings prompted enabled Michigan to fare somewhat better than other universities during this dark era in American history.

Although polemic invective characterized much of White’s writing, in . . .

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