Robert Redfield, prominent anthropologist and Dean of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago from 1934 to 1936, applied a functionalist anthropological perspective to his comparative studies of Mexican communities at different stages of modernization.
Born in Chicago, Illinois on December 4, 1897, Redfield was the son of a prominent corporate lawyer, and his mother was the daughter of the Danish consul in Chicago. Redfield received his bachelor’s degree (1920), law degree (1921), and doctoral degree in anthropology (1928). Following his marriage to Margaret Lucy Park (1920), he visited Mexico where he became interested in ethnology. Upon his return to Chicago, Redfield was encouraged by his father-in-law, Robert Park of the Chicago School of Sociology, to study anthropology. The Chicago School was composed of distinguished sociologists who developed a social psychological perspective to view social change and social life. Among them, William I. Thomas, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead dramatically influenced Park and the study of urban society and social change. In 1927, Redfield began teaching at the University of Chicago, and later became professor and dean (1934). He became a close friend of the university president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and organized the Atomic Energy Control Conference (September, 1945) designed to help America adapt to the consequences of atomic weaponry through “world government.” In 1953, he became the Robert Maynard Hutchins distinguished service professor.
Redfield became interested in the modernization of small scale or primitive societies, focusing on communities in Mexico during his field research projects of the 1940s and 1950s. His comparative studies of four Yucatan communities were published as Tepoztlan: A Mexican Village (1930), Chan Kom: A Maya Village (1934), The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941), and A Village That Chose Progress (1950). He became the most influential anthropologist to focus on the process of social and cultural change in the development of folk-to-urban societies and, together with the University of Chicago sociologists (the Chicago School), had an immeasurable influence on anthropology and sociology, especially social anthropology and the process of acculturation.
Influenced by the work of Milton Singer, he later expanded the focus of his studies to include cultural change as an historical study of civilization in The Primitive World and Its Transformation (1953), The Little Community (1955), and Peasant Society and Culture (1956). These works reflected his multi-disciplinary approach to anthropological inquiry, emphasizing a diversity of anthropological method and a universal perspective to examine human culture.
In 1930, Redfield was appointed a research associate at the Carnegie Institute of Washington. During his tenure he conducted field research in Yucatan and Guatemala while developing a historical paradigm of folk society and urban society including relative size, isolation, and homogeneity. He applied the paradigm in a controlled comparative study of the four Mexican communities—Merida, the capital city; a provincial railroad town; a peasant village; and a tribal forest community.
Redfield’s works, especially The Primitive World and its Transformation, are required reading in social anthropology. Influenced by the social change theories of sociologists Ferdinand Tonnies and Emile Durkheim, his theory of cultural transformation from folk to urban (“civilized”) society with resultant secularization, individualization, cultural disorganization, and anomie was widely accepted by sociologists and later social anthropologists. In the 1950s, he articulated his theory to other anthropologists via a series of lectures at universities in China, Europe, India, Puerto Rico, and the United States, later published in articles in the two-volume Papers (1962-63), which was edited by his daughter, Margaret P. Redfield. The articles capture his evolutionary conception of cultural history with progressions of heterogeneity and differentiation in social life as well as his universal perspective of anthropology and the humanities to research the reality of human experience.
Above all, Redfield was a humanist committed to freedom of thought and expression who inspired a generation of anthropologists and sociologists. His theory of cultural transformation, a historical timeline of dynamic social change in sociocultural evolution—from undifferentiated small-scale society featuring rural-agricultural social life with hegemony and cohesiveness to differentiated large-scale society featuring urban-industrial social life with heterogeneity and individuation—is a major contribution to the theory of social change embraced by scholars of today. His typological analyses of orthogenetic cities, wherein a moral normative order of folk culture pervades institutionalized social life in religion and customs, and heterogenetic cities, wherein folk culture disintegrates resulting in social disorganization of the old social patterns and development of new ideas and institutions, supported sociocultural evolutionary theory of progression in technology, the division of labor and social roles, institutionalized patterns of social action, and self conceptions. Redfield advocated this theory in the classic tradition of social change, a synergy of theories developed by the European sociologists Tonnies and Durkheim and the Chicago School sociologists Thomas and Mead. The theory helped influence the early works of social anthropology and urban anthropology and sociology.
- Redfield, R. (1941). The folk culture of Yucatan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Redfield, R. (1953). The primitive world and its transformations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Redfield, R. (1956). Peasant society and culture: An anthropological approach to civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.