Robert H. Lowie (June 12, 1883 – September 21, 1957) was an Austrian-born American anthropologist, who influenced the development of modern anthropological theories and practices. A student of Franz Boas, together with Alfred L. Kroeber, Lowie carried out significant work recording details of numerous Native American tribes, preserving our knowledge of these now extinct cultures. Lowie received many academic honors for his work, and was also known as a sincere, gentle, hard-working, humble person. A proponent of "cultural relativism," he regarded all cultures, and thus people, of equal value.
Robert Lowie was born in Vienna, Austria, to an Austrian mother and a Hungarian father. His family immigrated to the United States when Lowie was ten years old, and settled in a traditionally German part of New York City. Although living in a foreign land, the Lowie family kept a strong cultural identity as Austrians, which had an important impact on Robert's entire life. They spoke Viennese German in their home, and read mostly German and Austrian literature. Robert inherited his maternal grandfather's entire library, consisting of all German philosophers and writers. Thus, for Robert, the German-Austrian family life was his primary culture. He is reported to have said that the "American Melting Pot was not doing much melting in his neighborhood" (Murphy 1972, 8).
Robert grew up in such an environment, developing a deep attachment for his ethnic background, which is evident in the two books he published late in his career: The German People (1945) and Towards Understanding Germany (1954). The German influence is also visible in his scientific work, through the influence of Ernst Haeckel, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Wilhelm Wundt, at the beginning of his career, and later Franz Boas.
The American culture, however, left its mark on Lowie as well. Lowie graduated from the City College of New York in 1901, being a top student in his class. He entered Columbia University with the intent to study chemistry, but after meeting with Franz Boas he changed his major to anthropology. The influence that Boas had on Lowie can be seen throughout his work. However, although it was Boas who left the greatest impact on Lowie, Clark Wissler was the one who determined the direction of Lowie's career. Wissler was the chairman of the American Museum of Natural History and a lecturer at Columbia. Under his guidance Lowie started research on Shoshone Indians, and conducted his first field trip into the Great Plains.
Lowie received his Ph.D. in 1908, and spent an additional six years, from 1910 until 1916, carrying out intensive fieldwork on the culture of the Crow Indians. He soon became one of the greatest experts on their culture. In 1921, he received a full time professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he spent the next twenty years. Together with Alfred L. Kroeber, he became the core of the Berkeley Department of Anthropology. It is said that Lowie was an excellent lecturer, whose classes were always full and whose lectures were overflowing with facts.
Lowie served as president of the American Folklore Society from 1916 to 1917, the American Ethnological Society from 1920 to 1921, and the American Anthropological Association from 1935 to 1936. He was the editor of the American Anthropologist from 1924 to 1933.
In 1933, Lowie married Luella Cole, after which he dedicated more time to his family and less to his work. After the Second World War he and his wife visited Germany several times, and Lowie spent the rest of his life studying post-war Germany. He retired from Berkeley in 1950, and died in 1957 from cancer.
He received numerous honors for his work, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1931, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Chicago in 1941. In 1948, he delivered the Huxley lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and received the Viking medal in the same year. Unfortunately, he did not live to fulfill one final desire: to lecture at the University of Hamburg in 1958.
Lowie's theoretical orientation can be generally characterized as lying within the Boasian mainstream of anthropological thought. In his work, Lowie emphasized "cultural relativism," as opposed to the cultural evolutionism of the Victorian era. He argued that individual cultural beliefs and practices can be understood only within that particular culture. Thus, no culture can be called "primitive", as evolutionists suggested. His works, Primitive Society (1920) and Primitive Religion (1924), established him as one of the main opponents of cultural evolutionism.
Lowie advocated the theory of "cultural diffusion," the idea that different cultures borrowed and lent cultural traits from each other, through the migration of peoples. He believed that through studying such traits, the origin, growth, and spread of cultures could ultimately be traced.
Through his fieldwork, Lowie came in touch with many different Indian tribes, including Shoshone, Ute, Chippewa, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, Arikara, Hopi, and Washo. He also studied South American and Mexican Indian cultures. This extensive experience with Native Americans made Lowie unique among anthropologists. However, his particular specialty was the Crow culture, which he studied over many years, collecting and filing even the smallest details. The completeness of this study and the analysis of the data make it the exemplary model ethnography of a social structure.
From the work that he and Alfred L. Kroeber carried out with American Indians, Lowie developed the term "salvage ethnography," to describe the method of rapid data collection of nearly extinct cultures. Since numerous Native American tribes were becoming assimilated into the American culture, their culture of origin was in danger of being completely lost. Lowie held that anthropologists need to collect as much data as possible to make a solid record of such nearly extinct cultures.
Lowie himself was known for his precision and in-depth analysis of every detail in his ethnographic research. He relied primarily on interview techniques, here distancing himself from anthropologists who preferred to immerse themselves in the cultures studied and use the observational method. Lowie published his ideas on issues like these in his two books: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (1934), and Culture and Ethnology (1917).
Lowie was a passionate and dedicated scientist, whose sense for details and precision made him famous in the academic circles of his time. He collected a great amount of data on both North and South American Indians, preserving our knowledge of many, now extinct, cultures.
Following the steps of Franz Boas, together with Alfred L. Kroeber, Lowie became one of the pillars of the Cultural Anthropology Department at the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the leaders in the attack against the theory of cultural evolution. His work, both in the field in his theories, was highly influential in the development of anthropology.
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