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Julian Steward

Julian Haynes Steward (January 31, 1902 - February 6, 1972) was an American anthropologist best known for his role in the development of a scientific theory of cultural evolution in the years following WWII.


Steward was born to a family of devout Christian Scientists in Washington, D.C.. His family were wealth member of Washington's civil service -- his father was the chief of the Board of Examiners of the patent office while his uncle was the chief forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Steward showed no particular interest in anthropology as a child, but at the age of sixteen he enrolled at Deep Springs, a remote prep school high in the south-eastern Sierra Nevadas designed to produce future political leaders. His experience of the high mountains and local Shoshone and Paiute peoples awakened an interest in life in this area. After spending a year at Berkeley, Steward transferred to Cornell. Cornell lacked an anthropology department, and he studied zoology and biology while the college's president, Livingston Farrand, continued to nurture his interest in anthropology. Steward earned his B.A. in 1925 and returned to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology.

Berkeley in the 1920s was a center of anthropological thought. The discipline originated in the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University, and two of Boas's greatest students, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie established the department at Berkeley. Along with Edward Gifford , they established Berkeley as a west-coast beachhead for the discipline. Steward proved to be a star student, and quickly earned a reputation as a scholar of great potential. He graduated in 1929 after completing a library thesis entitled The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian, a Study of Ritualized Clowning and Role Reversals and went to teach at the University of Michigan, establishing an anthropology department there that would later become famous under the guidance of fellow evolutionist Leslie White. In 1930 he moved to the University of Utah, which was closer to the Sierras, and conducted extensive fieldwork in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon.

In 1935 Steward began a long involvement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was key in the reform of the organization known as the 'New Deal for the American Indian,' a restructuring which involved Steward in a variety of policy and financial issues. For the next eleven years Steward became an administrator of considerable clout, editing the Handbook of South American Indians. He also took a position at the Smithsonian Institute, where he founded the Institute for Social Anthropology in 1943. He also served on a committee to reorganize the American Anthropological Association and played a role in the creation of the National Science Foundation. He was also active in archaeological pursuits, successfully lobbying Congress to create the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains (the beginning of what is known today as 'salvage archaeology') and worked with Wendell Bennett to establish the Viru Valley project, an ambitious research program centered in Peru.

Steward's career reached its apogee in 1946 when he took up the chair of the anthropology department at Columbia University -- the center of anthropology in the United States. At this time, Columbia saw an influx of WWII veterans who were attending school thanks to the GI Bill. Steward quickly developed a coterie of students who would go on to have enormous influence in the history of anthropology, including Sidney Mintz , Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond , Robert Manners , Morton Fried , Robert Murphy, and influenced other scholars such as Marvin Harris. Many of these students particpated in the Puerto Rico Project, yet another large-scale group research study that focused on modernization in Puerto Rico.

Steward left Columbia for the University_of_Illinois_at_Urbana-Champaign, where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1968. There he undertook yet another large-scale study, a comparative analysis of modernization in eleven third world societies. The results of this research were published in three volumes entitled Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies. Steward died in 1972.

Contributions to anthropology

In addition to his role as a teacher and administrator, Steward is most remembered for his contributions to the study of cultural evolution. During the first three decades of the twentieth century, American anthropology was suspicious of generalizations and often unwilling to draw broader conclusions from the meticulously detailed monographs that anthropologists produced. Steward is notable for moving anthropology away from this more particularist approach and developing a more social-scientific direction. His theory of "multilinear" evolution examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment. This approach was more nuanced than Leslie White's theory of "unilinear evolution," which was influenced by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer. Steward's interest in the evolution of society also led him to examine processes of modernization. He was one of the first anthropologists to examine the way that national and local levels of society were related to one another.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 13:15:31
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12