An Unorthodox Boasian: Life and Work of Alexander Goldenweiser

Sergei Kan

Dartmouth College


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Kan, Sergei, 2021. “An Unorthodox Boasian: Life and Work of Alexander Goldenweiser”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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In the annals of the history of anthropology, Alexander Goldenweiser is usually identified as the author of a seminal work on totemism, which offered a thorough criticism of this concept as developed by late nineteenth-century evolutionist anthropologists and argued that totemism as a universal cultural phenomenon did not exist. While this work had indeed been his major contribution to anthropology, Goldenweiser also introduced such important notions as “the limited possibility in the development of culture” and “cultural involution.” Moreover, along with Edward Sapir and Paul Radin, he insisted on the key role of the individual in culture and promoted a rapprochement between anthropology and psychology. Finally, he was also a strong advocate of an interdisciplinary approach to the social sciences, i. e., combining anthropological with historical and sociological interpretations of culture history.

A Life in Two Cultures

Alexander Alexandrovich Goldenweiser was born in Kiev (Ukraine, Russian Empire) in 1880 in an educated middle-class family of assimilated Russian Jews where European high culture was greatly valued. [1] He attended a well-known Pecherskaia gymnasium (high school) and spent one year studying at Kiev’s St. Vladimir University.

His father, Alexander Solomonovich Goldenweiser (1855-1915), a prominent liberal lawyer, had a major influence on him. Alexander Solomonovich devoted much of his practice to helping the poor and the underprivileged, including the Jews victimized by the tsarist regime, A follower of Tolstoy’s philosophy, he was a dedicated defender of the rights of every criminal and an opponent of the death penalty (А. S. Goldenweiser 1904; 1908). He was also a follower of Herbert Spencer; in fact, his colleagues described him as a lawyer-social scientist. This combination of an interest in the social sciences and a passion for social justice was passed on to each of his three sons—Alexander (1880-1940), Emmanuel (1883-1953), a prominent economist and one of the creators of the Federal Reserve, and Alexei (1890-1979), a lawyer and a legal scholar who worked on behalf of stateless refugees (Budnitskii 2020).

Eager to protect his older sons from anti-Semitic discrimination and give them an opportunity to live in a democratic country, Goldenweiser Sr. brought Alexander to the United States in 1900 and Emmanuel a couple of years later. [2] Alexander enrolled in Harvard as a special student, majoring in philosophy, but after one year he transferred to Columbia where his academic interests shifted to religion and later anthropology.

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Fig. 1

Alexander Solomonovich Goldenweser, Alexander Goldenweiser’s father.

Courtesy of Leslie English

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Fig. 2

Alexander Goldenweiser as a Kiev University student, 1900.

City Archive of Kiev, Ukraine

Having obtained his M.A. in 1904, [3] he entered a Ph.D. program in anthropology with the minors in psychology and sociology. There he studied under Franz Boas, earning his advanced degree in 1910. While pursuing his Ph.D., Goldenweiser spent 1905-1906 in Berlin pursuing anthropological work at the Ethnological Museum. He also spent a year back in Kiev (1906-1907) to carry out his military duties. [4] In 1906 Alexander married Anna Hallow (ca. 1878-1952), a Jewish immigrant from Russia. They had one child, Alice Rosalind, born in 1914. The couple divorced in 1927.

While in New York, Goldenweiser was the center of a small but lively group of young intellectuals, most of them anthropologists or anthropology graduate students like himself (e.g., Robert Lowie, Paul Radin, Elsie Clews Parsons) who gathered frequently to discuss their discipline as well as broader issues such as the philosophy of the social sciences, psychology, politics, and literature (Kan 2015). He was the organizer and the heart and soul of several study ”circles” and intellectual groups. Best known among them were “The Pearson Circle” and “The Unicorns” (Deacon: 1997: 449). At that time, Goldenweiser was seen by many as Boas’ favorite and most promising student. Not surprisingly his mentor offered him a lecturer position in his own department at Columbia. For about a decade, Goldenweiser taught many of the core undergraduate anthropology courses and was widely admired as an effective and charismatic instructor.

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Fig. 3

Alexander Goldenweiser and his wife Anna Hallow, 1909.

Courtesy of Leslie English.

Goldenweiser’s only ethnographic field research involved several trips to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario in 1911-1913, where he worked with Iroquois consultants, having been recruited by Edward Sapir, the chief ethnologist of the Division of Anthropology of the Geological Survey of Canada. He published several short articles based on that research, but the full reports on this work were never published because of the division’s falling out with the Government (Goldenweiser 1922a). Thanks to Margaret Mead, an erroneous notion that Goldie disliked fieldwork became firmly entrenched among American anthropologists (Kan 2013a). He actually appears to have enjoyed it and managed to collect a good deal of data on social organization, religion and mythology and several other topics. Shoora developed a particularly close relationship with John A. Gibson, the head chief of the Seneca Tribe of the Grand River reserve in Ontario, and his family. [5] A prominent leader of the Longhouse religion of the prophet Handsome Lake, Gibson shared his deep knowledge with the young ethnographer. When the chief died in 1912, Goldenweiser published a warm obituary of this extraordinary man (Goldenweiser 1912a). According to William Fenton, to whom Goldenweiser turned his fieldnotes over in the 1930s and who later worked with some of the same consultants, his data were first-rate. [6]

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Franz Boas with his students. Goldenweiser is seated next to Boas. Standing first from left is Fay-Cooper Cole. Third from left is Robert Lowie.

American Philosophical Society. Franz Boas Papers.

In addition to teaching undergraduate courses at Columbia, Goldenweiser also taught anthropology at the Rand School, affiliated with the Socialist Party between 1915 and 1929, and gave numerous public lectures to earn badly needed money but also spread Boasian ideas on race, immigration, sex and marriage, and cultural relativism. For the same reasons he published numerous articles and book reviews in such liberal and left-leaning magazines as The Nation, The New Republic, The Modern Quarterly, etc. In some of his publications he used such anthropological concepts as, for example, magic and mana to make sense of contemporary social issues. [7] As far as Goldenweiser’s politics were concerned, he was a leftist but with a strong anarchist bend. He rejected Marxist theory as economic determinism and distrusted American Communists because of their authoritarianism and pro-Stalinist position (Goldenweiser 1935). With his Russian background, he understood the totalitarian nature of the Soviet political system and was never seduced by it the way many left-leaning American intellectuals were. [8] With his anarchist individualism, he was not only a strong critic of fascism but also condemned what he perceived as President Roosevelt’s encroachment on the rights of the individual. In his words, “An equally significant instance of group control is presented in the United States in which a semi-dictatorial executive branch is assuming unprecedented functions of transformation and control checked only by surviving fragments of democratic ideology and the rapidly fading ghost of what was once the economic doctrine of laissez faire.” [9]

Boas’ efforts to obtain a permanent position for his protégé failed and in 1919 Columbia let him go. While many of his contemporaries as well as subsequent commentators believed that his Jewishness and his own as well as Boas’ leftist politics were the reasons for this, Goldenweiser’s “irregular” behavior, including his failure to return university library books and pay personal debts played a major role in his dismissal. Luckily 1919 was also the year when a group of distinguished progressive social scientists, with Goldenweiser among them, established The New School for Social Research. Here his courses were pitched at a higher level and he had a lot more freedom to choose their subject matter. In addition to lecture courses in the social sciences he taught seminars in which students had to undertake their own field research. For example, in 1924-1925 he offered a seminar entitled ‘Racial Groups in Greater New York’. Among Goldenweiser’s anthropology students at the New School were such prominent future scholars as Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovitz, and Leslie White. He had a particular influence on Benedict whom he persuaded to enroll in Columbia’s graduate anthropology program (Benedict 1940). Goldenweiser’s concept of Gestalt, developed in the late 1920s, influenced Benedict’s own thinking as articulated in her Patterns of Culture. After the New School decided not to offer him a full-time appointment, Goldenweiser became a member of the editorial board of as well as a contributor to the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, a major multi-volume reference work. In fact, the entire encyclopedia project had been his own idea, even though a different chief editor was chosen for it.

Unable to find any teaching position on the East Coast, Shoora (as he was known to his friends and family members) moved to Portland in 1930, where he taught anthropology, sociology and even European history at the University of Oregon’s Extension between 1930 and 1938; simultaneously he taught anthropology, sociology and even social psychology at Reed College as a Visiting Professor in the department of history and the social sciences between 1933 and 1939. He was popular with Reed students, a number of whom shared their leftist political views with him. While he continued to enjoy a reputation as a great teacher, Goldie (another nickname used by his American colleagues and friends) viewed Portland as a provincial backwater and made several attempts to obtain a position in larger West Coast cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. However, except for a one-year visiting appointment at the University of Wisconsin, Madison plus occasional summer teaching at SUNY Buffalo, Stanford and the University of Washington, none of his efforts came to fruition. Eventually Goldenweiser’s reputation as an iconoclast and a leftist, who was also known for not attending faculty meetings and not turning his grades on time, led to some serious conflicts between him and Reed’s administration, so that in 1939 the latter decided not to renew his contract. At the same time, in the 1930s he finally found personal happiness when in 1933 he married a younger woman by the name of Ethel Cantor. Goldenweiser died suddenly of a heart attack on July 6, 1940. [10]

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Fig. 5

Alexander Goldenweiser at SUNY Buffalo, mid-1930s.

Courtesy of Leslie English.

Despite having spent two thirds of his life in the United States, Shoora never felt entirely at home in the New World or in the twentieth century (e.g., he never learned to drive). Instead he was a cosmopolitan European intellectual with a strong identification with nineteenth-century Russian culture. As far as his Jewish identity was concerned, he was a typical assimilated Russian Jew who believed that by assimilating American Jews would help bring an end to anti-Semitism. At the same time, he thought that thanks to their worldly cosmopolitanism the Jews were the best advocates of internationalism and opponents of nationalism and racial and ethnic prejudice (Kan 2009).

Critical Contributions to Anthropology

In his Ph.D. dissertation, published in 1910 as Totemism: An Analytical Study, and a series of subsequent articles, Goldenweiser demonstrated that the presumed unity of totemic phenomena was a scholarly invention. In fact, he argued, that totemism was a blanket term for a wide variety of practices. He also suggested that it was based on symbolic or mystical relationships, with every society having its own totemic practices. Goldenweiser’s work prompted a lively debate among anthropologists and provided one of the theoretical bases for Lévi-Strauss’s 1962 Le totémisme aujourd’hui (translated in 1963 by Rodney Needham as Totemism). [11]

His other important contribution to anthropological theory in general and the study of cultural dynamics in particular was a 1913 article ’The Principle of Limited Possibilities in the Development of Culture,” in which he argued that institutions and objects with a limited number of forms were almost certainly contrived independently by cultures located at a great distance from each other. This idea helps explain those cases in which convergence provides a much better solution than diffusion. [12]

Goldenweiser also developed an important concept of “involution,” which he articulated in a brief 1936 essay “Loose Ends of Theory on the Individual, Pattern, and Involution in Primitive Society.” According to him, involution described culture patterns that in reaching a definitive form stopped evolving into new patterns but continued developing only in the direction of internal complexities, leading to ’progressive complication, a variety within uniformity, virtuosity within monotony.’ Thirty years later Clifford Geertz (1969) used this concept to study Indonesian agriculture.

In several of his publications, Goldenweiser also argued that when cultures come into contact, there is no automatic assimilation of ideas and practices from one to another, but whether or not any new items will be accepted depends on the receptivity of the culture, which in turn depends on various social and psychological factors. Many areas of the social sciences have found this idea useful.

Generally speaking, Goldenweiser was much more interested in broad theoretical questions than many of his fellow Boasians, especially such “strict” ones as, for example, Lowie (Kan 2015). From this perspective, Goldenweiser was much closer to Radin and Sapir whose work he admired greatly. In fact, he considered Sapir to be the most brilliant anthropologist of his time (Goldenweiser 1941). He also shared Sapir’s and Radin’s interest in the role of the individual in “primitive” society and the use of autobiography in anthropological research. Goldenweiser was also one of the first Boasians to pay serious attention to psychology, including psychoanalysis, and his works frequently make references to the key role of psychological motivations in social life and cultural production. Thus, one of his early articles contains an interesting argument about the importance of religious “thrill” in religious experience (Goldenweiser 1915b). [13]

What also distinguished Goldenweiser from many of the other leading figures in American anthropology of the pre-World War II years was his interest in crossing interdisciplinary boundaries and engaging in a dialogue with sociologists, psychologists, historians and other social scientists. This breadth of his scholarly interests is best illustrated by a collection of essays he co-edited with William F. Ogburn, a prominent American sociologist. Entitled The Social Sciences and Their Interrelations (1927), it contains thirty-four chapters, each of them devoted to the interrelation between two specific social sciences and written by a leading scholar of the day. A commitment to this dialogue (combined with a perennial search for honoraria) explains Goldenweiser’s frequent contribution to various edited volumes dealing with such hot contemporary issues as sex, marriage, and others. While Lowie dismissed Goldenweiser’s interdisciplinary activities by calling him the number one among “the liaison officers of the social sciences,” they gained him recognition and respect among many leading figures in the social sciences (see Kan 2015). [14]

Goldenweiser was also the first student of Boas to publish a comprehensive textbook in anthropology. Entitled Early Civilization: An Introduction to Anthropology (1922b), it was based on his lectures at the New School. Fifteen years later he published another textbook, Anthropology: An Introduction to Primitive Culture (1937). In addition, he produced a popular book called Robots and Gods: An Essay on Craft and Mind (1931) as well as a collection of essays, History, Psychology and Culture (1933).

As far as his academic career was concerned, Goldenweiser did not accomplish as much as his fellow-Boasians, but most of the blame for this must rest with his own difficult personality and erratic behavior. For this reason, plus the fact that quite a few of his articles appeared in non-anthropological journals, he receives little attention in many of the histories of anthropology. However, a careful reading of the entire corpus of his work reveals a brilliant mind of a highly erudite scholar.


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[1Some of the material presented here appeared first in Kan (2009; 2013b). Information about Goldenweiser’s biography was obtained from written sources as well as communications with his descendants, particularly Leslie English whom the author would like to thank.

[2Alexei Goldenweiser emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s.

[3His M.A. Thesis was entitled “The Rites of New Religions among the Native Tribes of North America.”

[4It is not clear why Goldenweiser decided to fulfil his military duties, since he had already spent six years in America as an emigrant. It is possible that he was still considering a return to Russia.

[5Goldenweiser entertained his Seneca hosts by playing the piano and took them to hear operas at the nearby Niagara Falls.

[6See William N. Fenton papers, Series III. American Philosophical Society Library.

[7See, for example Goldenweiser (1915a; 1923; 1924; 1925a; 1926; 1932; 1935); see also Kan (2009).

[8An illustration of Goldenweiser’s attitude towards the Stalin regime is the fact that he signed a letter protesting a 1938 Soviet show trial (Kan 2009: 194).

[9Special Collections, University of Washington, Melville Jacobs Papers, folder 23, box 23, accession no. 1693-001.

[10See Goldenweiser’s obituaries by Benedict (1940), Mead (1940), Hook (1940), and Wallis (1941).

[11See also Goldenweiser (1911; 1912b; 1912c; 1918; 1931a) and Shapiro (1991).

[12For Goldenweiser’s view of diffusionism see his 1925 article “Diffusionism and the American School of Historical Ethnology” (Goldenweiser 1925b).

[13Goldenweiser joined Sapir in criticizing Krober’s concept of the “superorganic” (Goldenweiser

[14See also Goldenweiser (1936; 1940a; 1940b).