Alexander Goldenweiser

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Alexander Alexandrovich Goldenweiser (January 29, 1880 – July 6, 1940) was a Ukrainian-born, American anthropologist and sociologist. He is famous for his work on totemism, which he considered to be based on symbolic and mystical principles and affected by psychological factors. He was opposed to theories of "cultural diffusion," proposing the "principle of limited possibilities" as an alternative explanation. This principle states that there are only a limited number of ways in which any activity can be carried out or belief structured, and thus apparent similarities between the rituals of separate cultures do not imply any necessary connection between them. Thus, societies may have developed similar beliefs or activities in parallel.

Goldenweiser also argued that when cultures meet, there is no automatic assimilation of ideas and practices from one to another, but whether or not any new items will be incorporated depends on the receptivity of the society, which depends on several psychological and social factors. Many areas of the social sciences have found his principle valuable. While his incorporation of psychological and social factors, as receptivity, certainly enriches our understanding of how cultures acquire new ideas from each other, limiting the possibilities within the human sphere, however useful a tool, may not capture the essential uniqueness of each individual and their creative potential inherent in all of us.


Alexander Alexandrovich Goldenweiser was born on January 29, 1880, in Kiev, Russian Empire (today Ukraine), the son of a lawyer. In 1900 his father brought his whole family to the United States. Upon his arrival, Goldenweiser decided to study anthropology at Columbia University. His mentor there was the famous Franz Boas, who greatly influenced Goldenweiser. He earned his bachelors degree in 1902, his masters in 1904, and his Ph.D. in 1910. His doctoral dissertation on totemism immediately became a well-known work, and ensured him fame.

After obtaining his Ph.D., Goldenweiser started to teach. His first teaching post was at Columbia University from 1910 to 1919. In 1919 he joined the group of distinguished scholars, among others Charles Beard, Thorstein Veblen, James Harvey Robinson, and John Dewey, in the New School for Social Research, in the New York City. He stayed there for the next seven years. At the same time he was a lecturer at the Rand School for Social Science (1915-1929). He was known as a great lecturer, who supplemented his classes with discussion groups on current affairs in social science.

After the New School decided not to hire a full-time faculty staff in his position, Goldenweiser moved on. He first became a member of the editorial board of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, where he helped launch this multi-volume encyclopedia. After that he taught at the University of Oregon (1930-1938). He also worked as a visiting professor of sociology at Reed College (1933-1939) and the University of Wisconsin (1937-1938), and lecturer in psychology and anthropology at Rand School (1915-1929), and a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington (1923).

Goldenweiser lectured on a variety of topics, from race and gender, to cultural diffusion and psychoanalysis. He never held a full-time academic post. In addition to teaching he wrote many books, articles, and reviews. Among his most popular are Early Civilization, 1922; Robots or Gods, 1931; History, Psychology and Culture, 1933; Anthropology, An Introduction to Primitive Culture, 1937.

Goldenweiser died on July 6, 1940, in his home in Portland, Oregon.


Goldenweiser was not much interested in fieldwork. He carried out only a few field studies, less than ten months total, on six trips to study the Iroquois on the Grand River Reservation in Ontario (1911-1913). He focused his whole energy in teaching, and was among the most popular professors at any university he went to.

Goldenweiser believed that the conceptual world of primitive people was not essentially different from the world of modern man. His 1922 book Early Civilization (in 1937 revised and renamed Anthropology) was among the first textbooks of anthropology in the United States. In it he explained in simple and practical terms the life of people. The book was used for several generations of anthropologists.

The main concerns in his studies were theory and methodology, writing often about folk psychology, social organization, religion and magic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was focused more on the present then the past.

Goldenweiser’s work on totemism, however, is what made him famous. He believed that totemism is founded on symbolic, mystical relationships, every tribe having its own set of totemic practices, which are meaningful only within that particular tribe. Being deeply interested in psychology, especially psychoanalysis, Goldenweiser saw psychological factors as playing a significant role in totemism.

As with totemism and religion in general, Goldenweiser believed that psychological factors play a significant role in cultural diffusion. He rejected the notion held by many of his contemporary colleagues that cultural diffusion can explain the passing of traits from one culture to another. He rather believed that it depends in part on the receptiveness of a culture to proffered traits. Goldenweiser coined the term “principle of limited possibilities,” to combat the idea of hyper-diffusionist theory. This principle explains that there are only so many ways to build a building, or to paint a vase. The human mind cannot create something that cannot be created. That is why similar rituals or similar architecture can be found in distinct cultures around the world. Similarities do not necessarily mean that the transmission of culture occurred.

Goldenweiser believed that every culture is a closed system in itself, with its own rules and distinctive patterns of behavior. As such, any externally induced change is perceived as a threat, and even innovation from within is discouraged. Change, if it takes place, is only a slight modification in the existing pattern, but only with limited consequences. A good example of this is a ritual, where exact practices are preserved over thousands of years. Changes were made only by modifying some small parts of it, not changing the whole. So at the end the ritual, and it can be argued the culture in genera,) did not evolve, but "involve." Goldenweiser wrote:

This feature has often been commented on by observers of primitive life. The all pervading ceremonialism of the Todas, the interminable exchanges of presents attending Trobriand marriages, the minute apportionment of a hunting booty among the Central Australians (just such and such apiece to such and such a relative), the elaborateness of Maori or Marquesan Art (arts that overreach themselves), the ravages of taboo in Polynesia (taboo run amuck) - all of these and many similar cultural traits exhibit development by involution. (Anthropology, 414).

In Goldenweiser's account, innovation and progress were thus rather limited in primitive societies, while tradition was respected over all.


Goldenweiser was a famous lecturer who influenced many generations of anthropologists. Among his most famous students was Ruth Benedict. His "principle of limited opportunities" explained how and why cultures develop a structural resistance to change. The principle is still in use today in economics, sociology, and other social sciences.


  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1910. Totemism: An analytical study. The Journal of American Folklore.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1913. Remarks on the social organization of the Crow Indians. New Era Printing Co.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1918. History, psychology and culture: A set of categories for an introduction to social science. New Era Printing Co.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1922. Early civilization, An Introduction to Anthropology. Alfred A. Knopf
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1931. Race and race relations, with special reference to alleged racial inferiority and superiority. American Council, Institute of Pacific Relations.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1931. Robots or gods: An essay on craft and mind. A. A. Knopf.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1967 (original 1918). Form and content in totemism. Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1971 (original 1937). Anthropology: An Introduction to Primitive Culture. Johnson Reprint Corp. ISBN 0384190901
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. 1990 (original 1933). History, psychology and culture. Peter Smith Publisher Inc. ISBN 0844606472
  • Goldenweiser, Alexander A. and William F. Ogburn. 1974. Social Sciences and Their Interrelations. Ayer Co. Pub. ISBN 0405055161

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnard, Alan. 2002. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Routledge. ISBN 0415285585
  • Moore, Jerry D. 1996. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. AltaMira Press. ISBN 0803970978
  • Sapir, Edward. 1912. “Review of A. A. Goldenweiser, Totemism: An Analytical Study.” Psychological Bulletin 9: 454-461.
  • Wallers, Wilson D. 1941. “Goldenweiser, Alexander A.” American Anthropologist 43: 250-253.


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