E. Adamson Hoebel was an American anthropologist whose major contribution to anthropology and other social sciences was the development of the “trouble case method” for analyzing the legal systems of non-literate peoples. Prior to 1940, the legal systems of the world’s peoples were seldom studied by anthropologists, and when they were, it was a listing of rules without any data on their application. On his own and in collaboration with legal scholar Karl Llewellen, Hoebel developed the field of legal anthropology. Major works included his dissertation on the Comanche Indians (1940), a volume on the legal system of the Cheyenne, coauthored with Llewellen (1941), his anthropology textbook, which went through four editions (1949, 1958, 1966, 1972), a treatise on the law of nonliterate peoples, which was aimed both at professionals and students (1954), and an ethnography of the Cheyennes, designed for students (1960, an extended version appeared in 1978). The Cheyenne Way has been described as a classic ethnography and an opus magnum. By focusing upon the disputes and the manner in which they are resolved, and by whom, a legal system of a nonliterate society can be derived and analyzed. In The Law of Primitive Man, Hoebel added a time dimension, thus permitting the study of legal dynamics. In the years that followed, scholars have elaborated upon Hoebel’s approach. “The extended-case method” traced disputes back to their origins and forward, to see how new social relationships developed. The method has been applied to the study of feuding. Trouble cases, referred to as “encounters” or “episodes,” are linked in a “feud sequence” that may span decades.
Edward Adamson Hoebel, known to his friends as “Ad,” was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1906. He received his BA from the University of Wisconsin, his MA in sociology from New York University, and his PhD from Columbia University. Hoebel’s fieldwork was undertaken among the Comanches of Oklahoma in 1933 as a member of an ethnological field group led by Ralph Linton, his undergraduate professor. He conducted further fieldwork in 1934 with the Fort Hall Shoshones of Idaho. His dissertation on Comanche law-ways was successfully defended in 1934, published in 1940, and his PhD awarded in 1941. He married Frances Gore in 1930; she died in 1962. Although his anthropology advisor was
Franz Boas, his intellectual mentor was Karl Llewellen, a distinguished jurisprudent well-known for devising the Commercial Code and advocating a position known as “legal realism.” Hoebel liked to tell the story of how Boas sent him to meet with Llewellen, which he did in June 1933, to discuss his Comanche research. Llewellen advised Hoebel to focus on how disputes are settled, an approach known among legal anthropologists as “dispute settlement processing.”
Hoebel and Llewellen together conducted field investigations during the summer of 1935 among the Northern Cheyenne. In 1936, Hoebel returned for an additional summer’s work. Later fieldwork was with the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, 1945 to 1949, and in West Pakistan in 1961. Hoebel taught from 1929 to 1948 at New York University, and from 1948 to 1954 at the University of Utah, where he was chair of the department of anthropology and dean of Arts and Sciences (1953-1954). His next position was at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until 1972. He chaired the department until 1969, for a total of 15 years. He was elected President of the American Ethnological Society in 1946 and President of the American Anthropological Association in 1957. After retirement, he served as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. He attended professional meetings where he was the featured speaker, such as the Law and Society Association (June 1982). In 1973, this association had dedicated an issue of their journal to him. E. Adamson Hoebel died at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 23, 1993, at the age of 86. He was survived by his wife of 30 years, Irene Holth.
- Hoebel, E. A. (1940). The political organization and law-ways of the Comanche Indians. Menasha, WI: American Anthropological Association, and Contribution of the Laboratory of Anthropology.
- Hoebel, E. A. (1949). Man in the primitive world: An introduction to anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Hoebel, E. A. (1954). The law of primitive man: A study in comparative legal dynamics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hoebel, E. A. (1960). The Cheyennes: Indians of the Great Plains. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Hoebel, E. A., & Llewellen, K. N. (1941). The Cheyenne way: Conflict and law in primitive jurisprudence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Pospisil, L. (1973). E. Adamson Hoebel and the anthropology of law. Law and Society Review, 7, 537-559.