Adolf Bastian

From New World Encyclopedia

Adolf Bastian (June 26, 1826 – February 2, 1905) was a German ethnographer, who contributed to the development of ethnography and anthropology as modern disciplines. Bastian consistently emphasized the need for scientific methodology in his work. He pioneered the use of long-term studies and in-depth analysis of particular cultures, particularly those in danger of disappearing, and thus established a scientific methodology for fieldwork. His theories also brought together scientific understanding with the more spiritual aspects of culture. His most significant and influential idea was that of the "psychic unity of mankind." As he traveled around the world he observed similar themes in the beliefs, religious and mythological, and customs of numerous peoples. He postulated "basic ideas" common to all, which then are translated into the particular environment of the culture. Carl Jung adopted this idea in developing his theory of the collective unconscious, and this notion of multilinear development, based on common universals that develop their own form depending on the environment, set the direction for anthropological study. In many ways, Bastian's work was foundational for the age in which humankind emerges as one family, with common ancestry, but diversified in a multitude of creative ways to better enjoy and live in the various environments in which we find ourselves.


Adolf Bastian was born in Bremen, Germany, into a prosperous bourgeois family of merchants. He studied at different universities, his study being so broad that it almost became eccentric. He studied law at the University of Heidelberg, and biology at the Humboldt University of Berlin, the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, and the University of Würzburg. It was at this last university that he attended lectures by Rudolf Virchow and developed an interest in what was then known as ethnology. He finally settled on medicine, and earned a medical degree from Charles University in Prague in 1850.

Bastian became a ship's doctor and began an eight year voyage which took him around the world. This was the first of numerous journeys he later undertook in his life. He traveled to Australia, Peru, the West Indies, Mexico, China, the Malay Archipelago, India, and Africa. During this period, his interest in ethnography grew. He returned to Germany in 1859 and wrote a popular account of his travels, along with an ambitious three volume work entitled Der Mensch in der Geschichte (“Man in History”), which became one of his most well-known works.

In 1866 he undertook a four-year trip to Southeast Asia and his account of this trip, Die Voelker des Oestlichen Asien (“The People of East Asia”) ran to six volumes. For the next eight years Bastian remained in Germany. He settled in Berlin, where he was made professor of ethnology at the University of Berlin. At the same time he was working on the establishment of several key ethnological institutions in Berlin. He had always been an avid collector, and his contributions to Berlin's Royal museum were so copious that a second museum, the Museum of Folkart, was founded largely as a result of Bastian's contributions. Its collection of ethnographic artifacts was one of the largest in the world for decades to come.

Bastian worked with Rudolph Virchow to establish the Berlin Ethnological Society in 1869. During this period he also served as the head of the Royal Geographical Society of Germany. In 1873, he founded the Museum für Völkerkunde (Berlin Ethnological Museum) and helped establish, in 1878, the German Africa Society of Berlin, which did much to encourage German colonization in Africa.

Bastian served as the main editor of the Zeitschrift fur Ethnologic from 1869, in conjunction with Virchow and Robert von Hartmann. In the 1880s, Bastian left Germany to begin his traveling in Africa and the Americas. In 1886 he was honored for his extraordinary accomplishments by being elected as a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society.

He died during one of his journeys, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1905.


Bastian’s work must be observed in the context of its time. Only then can one see the full picture of the genius that he was. In a time when most ethnographers were theorists, rarely conducting any serious field study, Bastian was practical, with extensive field experience. He was influenced by the work of Johann Gottfried Herder (1774-1803) and Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788). Bastian learned the languages and religious rituals of the people he studied, and regarded them as partners in research, rather than subjects. Even though he did not belong to any particular faith, Bastian had a deep regard for people’s spirituality and religious beliefs, and often relied on his own intuition and revelation.

In his work, he tried to bridge the gap between science and religion. One of his ideas in that direction was his concept of “psychic unity of mankind.” He regarded ethnology as the tool to bring humanity closer to each other:

Ethnology will give to culture history, which was until now restricted to the areas of European, Western Asian and Northern African civilizations, the tools for comparative equations with which to look over all the five continents.

Psychic unity

Bastian is remembered as one of the pioneers of the concept of the "psychic unity of mankind"—the idea that all human beings share a basic mental framework. After traveling to different parts of the world, Bastian noticed similarities in different cultures. He noticed that similar themes can be found in different myths and ceremonial customs of peoples separated by thousands of miles, living in the different parts of the world. This led him to question the source of that similarity.

His answer was that all humans share the same basic ideas, universal to all people. He called these basic ideas Elementargedanken (elementary ideas), which essentially are universal, transcultural, and transhistorical. Due to the effects of the environment, however, those elementary ideas undergo certain changes, and cultural variations emerge. Völkergedanken (folk ideas) develop as a result of this process. Nevertheless, it is important to notice, claimed Bastian, that folk ideas are just different expressions of the common elementary ideas that are found throughout the whole of humanity. This concept influenced Carl Jung's idea of the collective unconscious.

Bastian tried to support his idea of psychic unity by collecting artifacts and recording behavior from different cultures, and comparing and drawing parallels among them. Based on his observations, he concluded that innovations and culture traits tended not to diffuse across different geographical areas. Rather, each area takes its unique form as a result of its environment. This approach was part of a larger nineteenth century interest in the "comparative method," as practiced by researchers such as Edward Burnett Tylor.

Cultural evolution

Bastian is sometimes referred as an evolutionist with rather unique beliefs. Rather revolutionary for that time, when the majority of scientists supported Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Bastian did not believe in unilinear cultural evolution, the theory originated by scientists like Auguste Comte, Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer. Bastian did not agree with the claim that societies start out in a primitive state and gradually become more civilized over time. Rather, he suggested that there were multiple possible outcomes from the same beginning. In another words, cultures develop in their unique environments, each in their individual historical context.

While other scientists believed that the races evolved separately, Bastian had a monogenetic view of human origins:

What we see in history is not a transformation, a passing of one race into another, but entirely new and perfect creations, which the ever-youthful productivity of nature sends forth from the invisible realm of Hades. (Bastian, 1868)

Criticism of his work

While Bastian considered himself to be extremely scientific, it is worth noting that he emerged out of the naturalist tradition that was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder and exemplified by figures like Alexander von Humboldt. For Bastian, empiricism meant a rejection of philosophy in favor of scrupulous observations. As a result, he was extremely hostile to Darwin's theory of evolution because the physical transformation of species had never been empirically observed. Bastian was much more concerned with documenting unusual civilizations before they vanished than with the rigorous application of scientific observation. As a result, his work tended to consist of collections of interesting facts, rather than coherently structured or carefully researched empirical studies.


Bastian’s work influenced numerous social scientists. His concept of “psychic unity of mankind” laid the foundation for the “collective unconscious” of Carl Jung and depth psychologist Karl Kerenyi, and many similar ideas of anthropologists such as Paul Radin and Claude Lévi-Strauss. With his ideas of multilinear cultural development, Bastian was the forerunner of the great anthropological traditions of Franz Boas, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, and Bronislaw Malinowski.

Bastian recognized the value of conducting long-term studies of particular subjects, in order to perform in-depth analyses. In this way, he established a rigorous (although, in today’s terms, rather simple) scientific method for doing fieldwork.


  • Bastian, Adolf. 1860. Der Mensch in der Geschichte (“Man in History”).
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1868. Das Besdändige in den Menschenrassen und die Spielweite ihrer Veränderlichkeit.

II. Reisen in Birma in den Jahren 1861-1862. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1421217694

  • Bastian, Adolf. 1870. Sprachvergleichende Studien mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der indochinesischen Spracher.
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1878. Die Kulturldnder des alten Amerika.
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1881. Der Buddhismus in seiner Psychologie.
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1885. Der Fetisch an der Kiiste Guineas.
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1900. Die mikronesischen Kolonien.
  • Bastian, Adolf. 1902. Die Lehre vom Denken zur Ergänzung der Naturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie, für Überleitung auf die Geistewissenschaften. (3 volumes)
  • Bastian, Adolf. 2001. (original 1866). Die Voelker des Oestlichen Asien: Studien und Reisen: Band

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Koepping, Klaus-Peter. 1983. Adolf Bastian and the Psychic Unity of Mankind: The Foundations of Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Germany. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0702218707
  • Lowie, Robert. 1937. The History of Ethnological Theory. Holt Rinehart & Winston. ISBN 003009030X
  • McGee, J.R. & Richard Warms. 1996. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN 1559342854
  • Tylor, Edward B. 1905. Professor Adolf Bastian. Man 5: 138-143.

External links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.


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