Clark David Wissler (born September 18, 1870 in Wayne County, Indiana – died August 25, 1947 in New York City) was a prominent American anthropologist, and a great authority on Native American Indians. His early research in psychology on intelligence testing radically transformed the field, which at that time assumed that psychophysical abilities, such as reaction time, were predictors of mental abilities. This led Wissler to become instantly famous, albeit controversial, with the result that he changed his field to anthropology. Although never repeating the same level of fame, his work in ethnology laid the foundation for later research on culture, both within anthropology and sociology.
Clark Wissler, the eldest child in a family of seven children, was born on a farm in Wayne County, Indiana. He was a descendent of a long line of Pennsylvania Dutch, who had migrated from Swabia in Germany to Pennsylvania, and eventually settled down in Indiana. His early farm life, and the fact that his neighbor was an industrious collector of Native American artifacts, evoked interest in young Wissler for aboriginal life and culture.
Wissler graduated from Hagerstown High School in 1887, where he later served as a principal from 1892-1893. He enrolled in Purdue University and later transferred to Indiana University, where he majored in psychology, graduating with a B.A. in 1897, and a M.A. in 1899.
Wissler became interested in individual differences in mental abilities, which led him to his Ph.D. degree in psychology from Columbia University, which he received under the guidance of James McKeen Cattell.
On June 14, 1899, Wissler married Etta Viola Gebhart. The couple had two children, a son, Stanley Gebhart Wissler, and a daughter, Mary Viola Wissler.
At Columbia, Wissler became increasingly interested in anthropology. He came in contact with Franz Boas, whose courses he attended as part of his graduate work. Wissler joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and continued to teach anthropology at Columbia University.
Wissler’s interest completely turned from psychology to anthropology. He soon became acting curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, and succeeded Boas as curator in 1906. From 1907 until 1942, Wissler served as curator of the Department of Anthropology. During this time, Wissler initiated numerous projects in the fields of archeology and physical anthropology, sponsored several expeditions, started journals, produced a large number of publications, and built up the ethnological collection in the Museum.
In 1924, Wissler became a faculty member at Yale University, where he continued to do research in both psychology and anthropology. In 1931, he became the first professor of the newly formed Department of Anthropology. He was a well-known lecturer, who managed to evoke interest in his students toward his subject.
Wissler served as chairman on the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council from 1920-1921, president of the American Anthropological Association in 1919, president of the American Association of Museums from 1938 to 1943, and as president of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1930 and 1931. He died on August 25, 1947 in New York City, at the age of 76.
Wissler first became famous through his dissertation. He was a psychology graduate student at Columbia University, where he did research under the guidance of James McKeen Cattell on the topic of individual differences. However, in his dissertation, Wissler opposed his mentor, an unusual step for a student who was just emerging on the academic scene. Wissler clearly presented his data and his dissertation soon became quite famous, and rather controversial.
In his dissertation, Wissler strongly questioned the then prevailing method of intelligence testing, which was based on psychophysical measurement, with its roots in the eugenics movement and the work of Francis Galton. According to the theories of Cattell and Galton, the two leading researchers at that time, intelligence, or mental ability, can be measured through reaction times, movement times, and other simple mental and sensory processes. By comparing the test scores Cattell had obtained from several hundred undergraduates with their academic grades, Wissler showed that there was no statistical correlation between the psychophysical scores and his independent measure of intelligence (the academic grades), nor among the psychophysical tests themselves. Thus, Wissler's work revealed that the psychophysical methodology was not accurate and did not seem to be a valid measure of intelligence.
The impact of his dissertation was great. Although Wissler's own methodology and interpretation was criticized, psychologists gradually lost interest in psychophysical measurement, and Cattell, although remaining in the field, slowly fell into oblivion. The rift between Cattell and Wissler became too great, and Wissler decided to turn to his second big area of interest—anthropology.
After being appointed assistant in ethnology, and later curator, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Wissler became enthusiastically involved in anthropological fieldwork, especially focusing on the customs of Native American Indians. He became the foremost authority on the Blackfoot and Dakota tribes, publishing numerous detailed studies of their cultures.
He took the concept of culture areas and applied it to the study of American Indians. According to Friedrich Ratzel, culture areas are regions of the world where people share common cultural traits. Faced with the diversity of customs, rituals, beliefs, and artifacts of various American Indian tribes, Wissler worked to systematize and map separate areas where each tribe had major influence. The growing amount of data collected through numerous expeditions also made such systematization necessary.
Wissler created a map of American Indian tribes based on similarities and differences in tribes’ artwork, religious practices, modes of transportation, and craftwork. He identified nine separate American Indian cultural areas, in which tribes shared common cultural traits. With this work, Wissler set up the foundation for research on American Indian cultural ecology.
As a psychologist, despite a relatively short career, Wissler left his mark on the field. His doctoral dissertation permanently changed the dominant research paradigm for intelligence testing.
As an anthropologist, although not as famous as Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, or Robert Lowie, Wissler was a hard working scientist whose research in the American Museum of Natural History and later Yale University helped establish anthropology as an important part of American academia. The number and variety of ethnographic publications demonstrate that Wissler, together with Boas, established field-research as the hallmark of American anthropology.
With his work Man and Culture (1923), Wissler went deeper than others into the investigation of the nature of culture, the relationship between culture and environment, and the way culture changes. With this and numerous related works, Wissler brought the results of anthropological research on culture into sociology, and so he can be seen as the forerunner of "cultural sociology."
Although he turned away from psychology, Wissler never fully forgot it. He often used insights from psychological research and combined them with his research in anthropology. He helped Margaret Mead in her work, and supported other researchers in the developing field of "culture and personality."
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