Melville Jean Herskovits spent most of his career in the anthropology department of Northwestern University, which served as a base for research focused on West and East Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. He began as an assistant professor at Northwestern (1927), where he soon became chair (1938), created the first department of African Studies (1951), and coaxed the library into developing one of the best African Studies collections in the world. He was born on September 10, 1895, in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and died on February 25, 1963, in Evanston, Illinois. Herskovits studied briefly to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (1915-1918), served in the army (1918-1919), received a BA in history from the University of Chicago (1920) and an MA in sociology (1921) and then a PhD in anthropology (1926) from Columbia. Herskovits carried out research in Dutch Guyana (now Surinam) during summers of 1928 to 1929, Trinidad (June-September 1939), Haiti (summer 1934), and Brazil (1941-1942), as well as more frequent work in Africa (West, East and South).
Herskovits became known for espousing a cultural anthropology combining cultural relativism and a theory of ethnicity rooted in cultural history derived from Boas. Herskovits countered widespread theories about African American societies being pathological (in the sense of culturally damaged and disorganized) with a detailed argument about the evidence for a rich African heritage within current African American social organization, rooted in the similar societies found between Senegal and Angola during the time of the slave trade. Herskovits maintained that both African American and African societies have evolved since this time and cannot be expected to have developed in the same way.
This argument, also espoused by W. E. B. DuBois, became popular among African Americans because it provided a basis for ethnic solidarity and an explanation, other than poverty or social collapse caused by racism and the surrounding hostile social or urban environment, for the frequency of traits such as extended-family child care, rather than exclusively nuclear-family child care on the European model. Herskovits also documented continuity in language features and kinship systems as well as slave rebellions to counter arguments that African American society had been broken by slavery.
In his dissertation, Herskovits first theorized about what he called a “cattle complex” among pastoralists, especially in East Africa. This involved a cultural set of attitudes toward cattle that involved religious and social aspects that acted to counter what Western economists would call “maximizing behavior.” The idea was not that those with the cattle complex were irrational, but rather that these cultural beliefs supported a long-term adaptation that was arguably superior to the short-term maximizing behavior economic theory would consider optimal.
Herskovits drew from numerous social sciences to make his points, but he viewed culture as learned behavior and took an ethical position (cultural relativism) that precluded ethnocentric judgments. His tendency was to minimize, though not ignore, the influence of national or global forces on culture and emphasize endogenous development. Herskovits maintained extensive ties with African intellectuals and invited African scholars to Evanston. He was an advocate of civil rights and supported with his name and membership numerous groups that by mere virtue of their advocacy, or due to the U.S. Communist Party’s infiltration, became viewed as communist front groups by the House Un-American Activities Committees. Freedom of Information Act documents indicate Herskovits was suspected of communist sympathies but regularly stated his antipathy to any form of totalitarianism and was apparently not deemed a communist by the committees or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Herskovits, M. J. (1938). Acculturation: The study of culture contact. New York: Augustin.
- Herskovits, M. J. (1952). Economic anthropology: A study in comparative economics. New York: Knopf.
- Herskovits, M. J. (1953). Franz Boas: The science of man in the making. New York: Scribner.
- Herskovits, M. J. (1962). The human factor in changing Africa. New York: Knopf.
- Herskovits, M. J. (1964). Cultural dynamics. New York: Knopf.
- Herskovits, M. J., & Herskovits, F. S. (1958). Dahomean narrative: A cross-cultural analysis. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press.
- Simpson, G. E. (1973). Melville J. Herskovits. New York: Columbia University Press.