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Leslie White



Taken Directly from: [1]

  • B.A. 1923, M.A. 1924, psychology, Columbia College
  • Ph.D. University of Chicago 1927
  • Wrote a dissertation on medicinel societies among Southwestern Indians under Sapir
  • On-going summer fieldwork with Pueblo Indians made him an authority on the area
  • Taught at the University of Michigan for 40 years
  • Led a revolt against Boas’s particularism and atheoretical approach
  • Reintroduced evolutionism
  • Also a functionalist, like Malinowski, in that he believed the function of culture was to meet the survival needs of the human species; i.e., it is an adaptation or adaptive mechanism
  • Interested primarily in the broad cultural development of the human species (Culture), like Tylor and Morgan, which he called Culturology
  • Like Spencer and Kroeber, he argued that culture is extrasomatic, suprabiological (superorganic)--separate from individuals
  • Culture, once established, is sui generis (as, to Durkheim, society was sui generis)
  • Identified four subsystems of culture: technological, sociological, ideological, sentimental or attitudinal
  • The technological subsystem is the most basic and fundamental—the “prime mover”
  • Technological development leads to cultural evolution
  • Technological development depends on the capture of energy
  • Cultures can be compared in terms of the horsepower or calories they produce
  • E x T = C
  • Culture will evolve if the amount of energy harnessed increases or if the efficiency of the technology improves
  • A scientific approach--measure and test propositions, search for universal principles that explain particular phenomena
  • New forms grow out of old forms--regardless of individuals (refutes the Great Man theory of history)
  • Influenced by Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx and Lewis Morgan
  • Embraced by many archaeologists in the 60s
  • One of the few scholars who dared to build on Marx during the McCarthy era (although he doesn’t cite Marx)


These are the references for the page the above information was copied from - see note at start.

Richard Beardsley. An appraisal of Leslie A. White’s scholarly influence. American Anthropologist 78:617-620, 1976.

Jerry D. Moore. Leslie White: Evolution Emergent. Chapter 13 of Visions of Culture. Pp. 169-180. AltaMira, 1997.

Elman Service. Leslie Alvin White, 1900-1975. American Anthropologist 78:612-617, 1976.

Selected Publications

These are the selected publications from the page the above information was copied from - see note at start.

The Acoma Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology, 47th annual report, pp. 1-192. Smithsonian Institution, 1932.

The Pueblo of San Felipe. American Anthropological Association Memoir No. 38, 1932.

The Pueblo of Santo Domingo. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60, 1934.

The symbol: The origin and basis of human behavior. Philosophy of Science 7:451-463, 1940.

The Pueblo of Santa Ana, New Mexico. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60, 1942.

Energy and the evolution of culture. American Anthropologist 45(3):335-356, 1943.

The Science of Culture. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1949.

The Evolution of Culture. McGraw-Hill, 1959.

White's Law

Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased. … We may now sketch the history of cultural development from this standpoint. Leslie White, 1949

Reference: [2]

Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:38:43
Last updated: 02-19-2005 10:50:26