Paul Radin worked as an anthropologist in North America and specialized in Native American groups. His field was the ethnology of religion and mythology, as well as the ethnography of Native Americans.
Radin spent his early childhood in New York City, but was born in Poland on April 2, 1883. In 1902, he graduated from City College with his bachelor’s degree and then went abroad briefly. After returning to the United States, he studied under Franz Boas at Columbia University. In 1911, he graduated with a PhD in history and anthropology.
An accomplished linguist, Radin described multiple Native American languages and attempted to demonstrate their unity. He advanced culture-personality studies and a historical model of society that synthesized many facets of social studies including religion, philosophy, economics, psychology, and social structure.
Radin’s career was varied. He worked on the geological survey of Canada as a field anthropologist and took several teaching positions; California (Berkeley), Chicago, and Cambridge stand out among the list, but there were several more. His last teaching post was at Brandeis University, where eventually he was made head of the anthropology department. Radin advocated viewing primitive cultures as different from their modern counterparts not in kind, but in degree; that is to say, primitive human responses to the difficulties of life were complex but appropriate and comprehensible. He was not convinced that moral awareness was capable of progress, or that the moral awareness of primitive humans was all that different from that of modern humans. He studied intensively the religions, languages, and folklore of Native American cultures.
Radin began his fieldwork with the Winnebago (starting sometime in 1908) and also studied the Ojibwa and the Wappo, among others. It would be the Winnebago, however, that would captivate Radin throughout his career. He wrote The Winnebago Tribe (1915-1916) and went on to publish texts detailing and analyzing nearly every facet of Winnebago culture. Radin made extensive use of autobiographical documents and reports in his studies, which is apparent in several of his publications, especially The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920; retitled Crashing Thunder, 1926) and The Culture of the Winnebago: As Described by Themselves (1949). He focused often on the individuals of a culture rather than the culture as a whole; for example, in Primitive Religion (1938), he proposes that the religiosity of any individual is directly related to the inclination and intelligence of that individual—ranging from indifferent to profound—in any given culture. Religiosity, then, is not a product of culture but the natural predisposition of the individual.
Radin’s work attracted attention from various prominent intellectuals such as Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung and the famous philosopher of education John Dewey. Radin published a number of important works during his career including The Genetic Relationship of the North American Indian Languages (1919), Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927), Method and Theory of Ethnology (1933), Primitive Religion (1938), and The Road of Life and Death (1945). Radin died on February 21,1959.
- Diamond, Stanley, (Ed.). (1978). Culture in history: Essays in honor of Paul Radin. New York: Octagon Books.