Clark Wissler was an influential American anthropologist, although his impact on anthropological theory is often overlooked. Many of Wissler’s ideas on culture area, culture pattern, universal culture pattern, and age and area distribution of cultural traits are still in use by anthropologists today. However, Wissler is rarely cited for his contributions to these theories. While Wissler is often dismissed as one of Franz Boas’s less famous students, he only took a few classes from Boas. His advisor was James McKeen Cattell, a psychologist, and Wissler actively promoted ideas that contradicted Boas’s approach. Therefore, he was not in Boas’s circle of students.
Wissler is particularly notable for being the first American anthropologist to address the issue of defining culture. He pointed out some aspects of culture that are today viewed as basic to understanding the concept of culture, including the idea that culture includes that which is learned, such as norms and ideas.
One of Wissler’s most influential theories was his development of the culture area approach. Although this approach existed to some extent before Wissler, he was the first to apply it to research on Native American communities, thereby turning it into a practical and applicable theoretical approach to comparing different cultures and examining culture change. Wissler’s culture area concept was that cultures could be grouped on the basis of the degree to which they shared cultural traits. Wissler’s other theories include the age-area hypothesis, which is the term Wissler uses to explain his belief that cultural traits could be dated based on their distribution. Wissler also developed ideas on the spread of culture as well as the inherent nature of culture in all humans.
Wissler’s legacy to anthropology is debatable. Some anthropologists believe Wissler’s theoretical achievements in anthropology have been highly influential and unfairly overlooked, while others argue that Wissler’s research had a racist nature, citing as evidence his book Man and Culture (1923). They believe that this explains his lower level of status within the discipline today.
Wissler was schooled in psychology, having earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Indiana University in 1897 and 1899, respectively. He continued his studies in psychology, earning a PhD at Colombia University in 1901. While Wissler was working on his master’s degree, he also taught psychology at Ohio State University. In 1902, he was hired as an assistant in ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History before taking over for Boas as curator. Wissler remained in his position as curator of the Department of Anthropology until 1942. At the same time, he taught anthropology part-time at Columbia University (1903-1909). Upon leaving his position at the museum, Wissler went to Yale University, where he worked in psychological research from 1924-1931 before becoming an anthropology professor from 1931-1940.
During Wissler’s time at the museum, he led and directed numerous studies on Native Americans. Wissler published numerous books and articles on his research. He is credited with making the Northern Plains one of the most well known areas in ethnographic research at the time. He is also notable for developing the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.
- Wissler, C. (1929). An introduction to social anthropology. New York: H. Holt and Company.
- Wissler, C. (1957). The American Indian: An introduction to the anthropology of the new world. Gloucester, MA: P. Smith.
- Wissler, C. (1989). Indians of the United States. New York: Anchor Books.