Alfred Lewis Kroeber was an early American anthropologist who made significant contributions to all four of anthropology’s subdisciplines. Kroeber is significant for his research on North American indigenous populations, his dedication to characterization and classification methods in ethnographic research, and his advancement of a definition of culture as a superorganic phenomenon. He established one of the most important centers for anthropological research at the University of California, Berkeley, where he trained a generation of anthropologists such as Julian Steward and W. D. Strong.
Kroeber was born in New Jersey in 1876 and grew up in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s (1896) and master’s (1897) degrees in English; Kroeber eventually obtained his doctorate (1901) in anthropology at Columbia University under Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology. Kroeber moved to California in 1900 where he spent the bulk of his life, first as curator at the California Academy of Sciences, and later as a founding member of Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology. After a lifetime of research and teaching, Kroeber died of heart failure in 1960 while on holiday in Paris.
Kroeber asserted throughout his career that all societies were historically unique and should be observed holistically to appreciate all constituent aspects (e.g. kinship, religion, language). As a result, Kroeber developed methods to characterize and classify the cultural traits of a society. One such example included recording the elemental distribution of cultural traits across North America in order to trace their evolution and write the culture history of indigenous populations. This work greatly informed Kroeber’s observation of culture as superorganic, a phenomenon that develops according to internal laws and is immune to human intervention. The idea of culture as a superorganic phenomenon dominated anthropology in the following decades.
Kroeber’s contributions to anthropology’s subfields of linguistics and archaeology were remarkable. Understanding language to be the ultimate cultural trait, he recorded several disappearing languages during his fieldwork among California’s indigenous populations. In his work on kinship terms, Kroeber developed what would later be termed componential analysis, in which language, when broken down into constituent components, could be categorized according to designated criteria. Kroeber was drawn to archaeology due not only to his curatorial responsibilities, but also in his quest to reconstruct American Indian culture histories. In his excavation and research in the American Southwest, the Valley of Mexico, and Peru, Kroeber was most concerned with ceramic styles and sequences. As a result, he introduced seriation into archaeological research, by which material culture is arranged in the order that produces the most consistent patterning of their cultural traits.
- Kroeber, A. (1948). Anthropology: Race, language, culture, psychology, prehistory (2nd ed.). New York: Harcourt, Brace.
- Kroeber, A. (1952). The nature of culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.