Paul Radin (April 2, 1883 – February 21, 1959) was an American linguist, anthropologist, and ethnographer, famous for his work on the ethnology of religion and mythology, and his fieldwork among Native Americans of California and the Great Lakes. Radin believed that to understand a culture other than one's own, it was necessary to totally immerse oneself in that culture, divesting oneself of one's own cultural biases. Through this method, he discovered that the in depth accounts of individual members of any culture revealed the most accurate understanding of life in that society. Radin became fascinated in the use of psychological methods to interpret cultures, and the interaction between the personality of individual members and the cultural milieu. His work opened the door to culture-and-personality studies, or psychological anthropology, a field which has illuminated both universals among cultures and individual differences in the way members of each culture experience their world.
Paul Radin was born on April 2, 1883, in Lodz, Russia (today Poland), into the family of Adolf and Johanna Radin. His father was a physician and a rabbi of the reform movement, who took his wife and five children and immigrated to Elmira, New York in 1884. Paul's two sisters died soon after their arrival, from scarlet fever. The family eventually moved to New York City in 1890.
Radin graduated from the City College of New York in 1902, and enrolled in Columbia University to study zoology. However, after a trip to Europe (from 1905 to 1907), he decided to change his major to anthropology. Franz Boas had just opened the first Ph.D. program in anthropological studies in the United States a few years earlier, and Radin, together with several others who became prominent in this area, such as Alfred L. Kroeber, Clark Wissler, Edward Sapir, and Robert Lowie, decided to enroll.
Radin married in 1910, and earned his Ph.D. in 1911.
Already in 1908, Radin began years of productive fieldwork among the Winnebago Native Americans of Wisconsin. He published numerous books later in his life on the life and beliefs of the Winnebago people, covering nearly every aspect of their lives.
Radin’s career, however, officially started in 1911, when he was hired by the Bureau of American Ethnology. He spent several years after that studying Zapotec mythology and linguistics. In 1914, he and his friend Sapir went to work for the Geological Survey of Canada, where they studied Ojibwa Native Americans.
In 1918, Radin moved to California, where he worked at the University of California at Berkeley together with Kroeber and Lowie.
In 1925, he returned to America, and started his work for the University of Michigan, studying the Ottawa Native Americans. From 1927 to 1930, he worked at Fisk University, and in 1930 he went back to Berkeley. Radin spent the next ten years in California, doing fieldwork among different California Native Americans, and among minority groups of the San Francisco area. By the end of this period, he married his second wife, Doris Woodward.
From 1941 to 1944, Radin taught at Black Mountain College, and then moved back to Berkeley, where he stayed until 1949. He became editor of the Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics in 1948, maintaining that responsibility for the rest of his life.
Radin decided to move permanently to Europe in 1949, where for the next three years he lectured in Sweden and Switzerland. He finally settled down in Lugano, Switzerland in 1952, becoming a professor at the C.G. Jung Institute. At the same time he sporadically taught at Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester universities. In 1957, he moved again, returning to the United States to teach at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Radin died in 1959, in New York City.
As with Radin’s life, which is characterized by constant flux—moving from university to university, teaching here and there—his work can also be seen as rather discontinuous. Radin was strongly influenced by Boasian cultural relativism. On the one side, he tried to explain religion in Freudian terms, yet on the other side he believed in genuine religious experience. Moreover, although a Jew himself, he advocated for the similarities of Jewish scriptures with other sacred texts, pointing to the general nature of revelation in world religions.
In his Primitive Religion (1937) Radin claimed that all religious experiences are similar in nature. As evidence for this, he pointed to the example of mythologies from different parts of the world, which all share common themes. To understand the history of a certain culture, Radin suggested starting with the study of its mythologies and beliefs. With this claim, Radin was probably one of the first anthropologists who approached the study of culture from within the human mind—that of the thought process itself.
Radin advocated for an individualistic approach to culture studies. He believed that ethnographic study should start with the interpretation of the culture from the perspective of a member of that culture. The interpretation would be in the language of the culture, through the knowledge of the culture’s history, and in the environment of the culture (Radin 1987, pp.184-186)
His autobiographical sketch of a Winnebago Native American, Crashing Thunder (1926) is still widely read today. In it Radin, through the eyes of one of the members of the Winnebago tribe, described the world of change and chaos, the way it was experienced by the Native American. This book was a landmark in American anthropology, being the first autobiographical study of this kind.
Radin was deeply interested in the use of psychology in anthropological studies. He wanted to understand human nature, and the connection between individual character and collective phenomena. Radin believed that in every culture, regardless of how primitive it appeared, the degree of religiosity among its people is similar, ranging from indifferent (people who do not care about spirituality) to deep (people with profound spiritual experiences). Radin thus made a distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” people. In addition, reflective individuals could be found in every culture. Radin called such individuals the “thinkers.” On the other hand, there are always people who are more practice oriented, and who are not thinkers. Radin called them the “men of action.”
Radin rejected Freudian and Marxist ideas of the exploitative nature of religion, which claim that religion is frequently used to dominate people. Radin was aware that religion could indeed be used by religious figures or movements as a means to control others, but he claimed that in primitive societies such domination was nowhere to be found. It is probable, argued Radin, that the idea of religion as a controlling force is the product of “civilized” society.
Radin preferred to be an independent scholar. He thought that academic affiliation limited one's freedom of expression, so he never stayed within one academic institution for more than a few years. Thus, he did not develop his own school of thought with a group of followers. However, as a student and follower of Franz Boas, Radin belongs to the group of scholars who left a significant mark on the development of anthropology as a modern science. His work influenced numerous generations of anthropologists who followed the Boasian method.
Radin’s approach to ethnography, from within the mind of a member of the culture under investigation, is perhaps not revolutionary itself. However, his insistence on psychology as the methodology for understanding culture was certainly novel. Through this, Radin opened the door to culture-and-personality studies. He also pioneered the autobiographical method in anthropological study.
As a linguist, Radin researched and documented a number of North American languages, developing a classification scheme that emphasized their unity.
Radin's ideas attracted the interest of individuals from different fields of study, including historian and critic Lewis Mumford, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, poet John Crowe Ransom, and philosopher John Dewey, several of whom contributed essays to his publications.
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