Richard Thurnwald 1869-1954


by Robert H. Lowie

Richard Thurnwald, one of the most productive ethnologists of his time, was born in Vienna on September 18, 1869: The only child of well-to-do parents, he enjoyed the advantages of an upper middle-class Austrian upbringing. At an early age he was seized with a longing for strange places and would wistfully gaze at the railroad tracks that led to foreign parts.

After a year of military service he registered at the University of Vienna in 1889, substituting jurisprudence, economics, and Oriental languages for the nonexistent curricula in ethnology and sociology. At this stage of his career he displayed marked individuality in taking up bicycling and skiing. Even more aberrant was his advocacy of total abstinence, to which he adhered throughout his life.

After obtaining his Doctor juris, Thurnwald entered the state service, going to Bosnia in 1896. As a result of his studies of the natives, he prepared several papers on their socioeconomic conditions, notably an essay contributed to a many-volumed work on the Austro-Hungarian monarchy sponsored by Crown Prince Rudolf (1901). A vacation trip to Egypt stimulated him to devote several years to Egyptology and Assyriology in Berlin, where he had come to settle in 1901 and become an assistant at the Museum für Volkerkunde. Five years later this institution sent him on a collecting trip to Micronesia and Melanesia, where he not only gathered specimens but also investigated aboriginal life, especially in southern Bougainville, for which purpose he recognized the indispensability of texts in the vernacular (1912b:119). Returning in 1909 via the United States, he visited the American Museum of Natural History. At lunch he amused me by scanning the menu for outlandishly named dishes, which he drolly declared to be alone worthy of an ethnographer's palate.

A second expedition in 1912 took him to the Sepik River in what was then German New Guinea, where the news of the first World War reached him some months after its outbreak. A year later he was obliged to leave, though under fairly pleasant circumstances. For a year and a half he lingered in Berkeley, hobnobbing with Kroeber and Gifford, indulging his athletic urges on the Faculty Club's tennis court, and preparing a treatise on the Bánaro (1916, 1921). In 1917 an opportunity developed to return to Germany, and Thurnwald hurried across the continent, only briefly lingering in New York, where I met him for the second time.

The postbellum era was hardly favorable for normal academic development, but Thurnwald settled in Halle as a Privatdozent (1919-1923), transferring to Berlin in 1924. There he lectured as a Professor extraordinarius on both ethnology and sociology. During this period he founded the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie, subsequently renamed Sociologus, and, with the aid of American scholars, transformed it into a bilingual journal. An honorary fellowship in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1925) also marked his relations with Anglo-Saxondom. During these years he contributed a host of articles to Max Ebert's Reallexikon der Vorgeschichte, the basis of one of his major works (1931-1935).

In 1930 the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures invited him to study culture change in Tanganyika, where he spent a year, aided by his one-time student, Mrs. Hilde Thurnwald. Their results were partly presented in Black and White in East Africa (1935). Soon there followed a visiting professorship at Yale, and in 1933-34, the Australian Research Council made it possible for Thurnwald to revisit the Solomon Islanders he had investigated a quarter of a century before. On this trip, too, he was assisted by Mrs. Thurnwald. Coming and going, they tarried in the United States, again renewing old ties with American colleagues.

Toward the close of 1937 the Thurnwalds were back in Berlin, and not long after their return, the second World War brought its difficulties. The uncertainties that came even after the cessation of hostilities did not prevent the composition of a major book (1951) and numerous articles nor the founding of the Institute of Social Psychology and Ethnology. Thurnwald was among those professors who seceded from the Humboldt University when it fell under Russian influence and created the Free University of Berlin. In September, 1949, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, which had promoted the revival of Sociologus, also enabled the Thurnwalds to attend the International Congress of Americanists held in New York. Thurnwald's eightieth birthday occurred toward the end of the sessions and was duly celebrated by a group of old friends and former students.

The last two years were clouded by intermittent illness and hospitalization, which, except toward the very end, failed to halt the restive patient's scholarly labors. Mrs. Thurnwald relieved her husband of the direction of Sociologus, but even the latest issue contains a lengthy review from her husband's pen. His fairly frequent letters constantly surprised me by the indomitable spirit with which he continued to plan and execute new tasks. The end came on January 19, 1954.

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Thurnwald's travels, including appearances at international congresses, and his editorship or coeditorship of learned journals, made him known far beyond the German culture sphere; and the versatility of his interests brought him into contact not only with anthropologists, but also with psychologists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, jurists, and economists. He was, in fact, a social scientist par excellence; witness his articles, notes, and reviews in the early volumes of the Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie. There we find him dealing with a strike of Westphalian miners, colonial policy, British alien legislation, rural versus urban longevity, Wm. I. Thomas' Source Book, and Eduard Hahn's theories of early economic developments; and these diverse themes are all treated with sobriety of judgment, on the basis of wide and careful reading.

Corresponding catholicity marks his early field research, which included geographic, somatological, linguistic, and psychological no less than ethnographic objectives. Ethnographically, he neglected no major department of culture. His preliminary report on the Sepik area contains suggestive remarks on the comparative distribution of dart-throwers and bows (1917); he participated in the symposium on totemism inaugurated by Father Schmidt in 1917; and his essay on Buinese “profane literature” (1936) constitutes one of the rare studies of primitive literature by a European scholar. It remains true, however, that he was most actively and persistently concerned with the problems envisaged by British social anthropologists. His early essay on Bosnian guilds (1901) has already been referred to, as well as his monograph on the social structure of the Bánaro, which Malinowski (Crime and Custom, p. 24 [London, 1926]), called “perhaps the best account of the social organization of a savage tribe extant.” In his probably foremost work (1931-1935) the first volume is devoted to a historicotheoretical introduction and a series of synthetic sketches, but its successors deal, respectively, with kinship and associations; comparative economics; the state; and law. Characteristically, in assuming the editorship of the Archiv für Anthropologie in 1938 he announced that the journal would thenceforth pay special attention to the impact of Western civilization on native tribes.

To use a trite catchword, Thurnwald was a functionalist bent on ferreting out the ways in which diverse aspects of a culture were interwoven. A splendid sample of his results in a concrete case is the exposition of Buinese “precapitalistic” economy (1937). Historical reconstructions and their basis, distributional studies, appealed to him far less, without arousing the contempt for them characteristic of Malinowski. To a moderate degree he did suggest the effects of ethnic contacts, but he was always much more concerned with the process of diffusion than with establishing the mere fact of a cultural loan. His charges against the Kulturkreis school were that they neglected the psychological correlates of borrowing, ignored the differential rate of diffusion of different traits, and altogether proceeded too schematically to do justice to the actual complexity of past developments (1917: 173 f.). A regrettable tension developed between him and the scholars in question, but he remained kindly disposed toward historically minded American ethnologists (1948: 8) and even had an occasional word of appreciation for Frobenius (Archiv für Anthropologie 26: 77 f. [1941]). Whatever the merits of the controversy, those interested primarily in the geographical range of elements and in ambitious historical reconstruction will obviously look elsewhere. One aspect of the indifference to distributional studies must be noted. Thurnwald did frequently suggest correlations between diverse phenomena, but he did not systematically gather the evidence that would support his impressions. Thus, there is the undocumented assertion that the sororate and levirate occur mainly in clanless societies and—in consonance with Father Schmidt and many others—the appealing theory that the status of woman derives from her economic activity (1931-1935, 2:34, 265). Neither of these propositions can evidently be validated without a vast assemblage of the relevant data, without some sort of statistical approach.

Thurnwald was not averse to evolutionary schemes of development, say for the family or the state, but he expressly rejected immutable laws of sequence. “Such sequences,” he warned, “frequently make their appearance and have misled some to interpret the totality of human history according to their seemingly unilinear pattern. However, such sequences represent only tendencies that can at any time be 'disturbed' and deflected by more potent occurrences, above all by alien influences that make themselves felt in some form, whether in peace or war” (ibid. 4:24 f., 303; 1948:37 f.). His deep sense of the complexity of cultural happenings likewise made him reject the doctrines that simple features necessarily come first and that similar antecedents inevitably yield like results. Characteristically, however, he clung to the concept of progress, especially but not exclusively from a technological point of view (1948: 34-39). He compared progress with a pilgrimage through mountainous terrain, where one peak does not necessarily lead to the next higher one, yet where the conquest of each signifies an achievement and where, irrespective of ravines and declivities, the end result is ascent.

Keenly aware of the intricacy of our problems and eager for a balanced approach to them, Thurnwald's attitude at times lacks incisiveness. E.g., he brings out clearly enough the difference between matrilineate and matriarchate, yet clings without further proof to the “axiomatic” proposition that matrilinear institutions per se go with a higher status of women (1931-1935, 2:192). This quality of mind has its positive aspects when he warns, with Boasian caution, against resting content with catchwords. The “couvade,” for instance, can be understood only as a type of natal taboo; “matrilocal residence” covers more than a single social reality (ibid. 2 :94 f.; 4:248).

It is remarkable, indeed, how often Thurnwald either anticipated or independently arrived at points of view generally associated with other names. To Malinowski's credit be it said that, in the passage already quoted, he acknowledges Thurnwald's adumbration of the principle of reciprocity; and Radcliffe-Brown's “equivalence of siblings,” along with the distinctive character of the Biblical levirate, is recognized in the Bánaro treatise (1921:207). The continued emphasis on the process of diffusion recalls Rivers' and Boas' ideas on cultural dynamics. And the equally stressed concept of Siebung, i.e., the sifting out of personalities perhaps not objectively superior, but conforming to the pre-existing value-system (1931-1935, 4:264, 284), closely parallels Ruth Benedict's thinking. All this is said not by way of raising futile discussions of priority, but merely to indicate that Thurnwald was abreast and, in some respects, ahead of his time. As might be expected, he derived some of his general views from direct observation of natives, notably their great individual variability, their ability to think logically in the daily routine, and the importance of leadership among them (1910: 146; 19123:3).

Though it is too early for a definitive judgment, there can be no question of Thurnwald's unique contributions. Apart from rich and varied accretions to factual information, he gave us the first systematic up-to-date account of primitive economics in the third volume of his major treatise and he injected into the study of social organization those sociopsychological considerations which many readers, Boas among them, found sadly lacking in my Primitive Society. Altogether he worthily represented those anthropological interests which are not, above all, concentrated on historical problems. Among those directly influenced by him as students or otherwise may be mentioned Herbert Baldus (São Paulo), Wolfram Eberhard (Berkeley), Gerdt Kutscher (Berlin), Wilhelm Mühlmann (Mainz), Hilde Thurnwald (Berlin).

Selected bibliography

(Since a probably complete bibliography of 353 titles was published in the Festschrift, I here present merely a selection of outstanding or especially characteristic publications from this list. However, I have added a book and a lecture that have appeared since 1950.)

  1. 1901 Bosnien und Hercegovina. Die Österreichisch-ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild; Band “Bosnien und Hercegovina,” pp. 487-99. Vienna.
  2. 1904 Zur rassenbiologischen Bedeutung von Hammurabis Familiengesetzgebung. Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie 1:124-31.
  3. 1910 Ermittlungen über Eingeborenenrechte in der Südsee. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft 23:309-64.
  4. 1912a Forschungen auf den Salomo-Inseln und dem Bismarck-Archipel. Vols. 1 and 3. Berlin. (Vol. 2 apparently never published.)
  5. 1912b Probleme der ethno-psychologischen Forschung; zur Praxis der ethno-psychologischen Ermittlungen besonders durch sprachliche Forschungen. Beiheft 5, Zeitschrift für angewandte Psychologie.
  6. 1916 Bánaro society. Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 3:251-391. (See also under 1921.)
  7. 1917 Vorläufiger Bericht uber Forschungen im Innern von Deutsch-Neu Guinea in den Jahren 1913-1915. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 49:147-79.
  8. 1921 Die Gemeinde der Bánaro. Ehe, Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaftsbau eines Stammes im Innern von Neuguinea. Stuttgart. (Also in 1920 as two articles in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft 38:362-474; 39:68-219.)
  9. 1922 Psychologie des primitiven Menschen. Handbuch der vergleichenden Psychologie (ed. G. Kafka) 1:147-320. Munich.
  10. 1928 Ethnologie und Psychoanalyse. In Krisis der Psychoanalyse (eds. H. Prinzhorn and K. Mittenzwey) 1: 114-33. Leipzig.
  11. 1931-35 Die menschliche Gesellschaft in ihren ethno-soziologischen Grundlagen. 5 vols. Berlin. (See also under 1951.)
  12. 1934 Adventures of a tribe in New Guinea. Essays presented to C. G. Seligman, pp. 345-60. London.
  13. 1934 Pigs and currency in Buin. Oceania 5:119-41. (See also 1937.)
  14. 1935 Black and white in East Africa. London.
  15. 1936 Profane literature of Buin. Yale University Publications in Anthropology.
  16. 1937 Ein vorkapitalistisches Wirtschaftssystem in Buin. Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 31:1-37.
  17. 1939 (Ed.) Lehrbuch der Vökerkunde. Stuttgart.
  18. 1940 Die fremden Eingriffe in das Leben der Afrikaner und ihre Folgen. In Hermann Baumann, R. Thurnwald and Diedrich Westermann (eds.), Völkerkunde von Afrika, pp. 455-573. Essen.
  19. 1948 Aufbau und Sinn der Völkerwissenschaft. Abhandlungen der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Nr. 3.
  20. 1951 Des Menschengeistes Ehrwacheh, Wachsen und Irren. Berlin, Duncker und Humblot. (Originally conceived as Volume VI of Die menschliche Gesellschaft, 1931-35.)
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