Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Leslie Alvin White (19 January 1900, Salida Colorado -- 31 March 1975) was an anthropologist known for his advocacy of theories of cultural evolution and his role in creating the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
Born in 1900 in Salinas Colorado to a peripatetic civil engineer, White lived first in Kansas and then Louisiana. He enrolled to fight in the Great War, but saw only the tail end of it, spending a year in the Navy before matriculating at Louisiana State University in 1919. In 1921 he transferred to Columbia University where he studied psychology, taking a BA in 1923 and an MA in 1924. Although at the same university as Franz Boas, Leslie White missed the founding father of American anthropology altogether. However, his interests even at this stage of his career were diverse, and he took classes in several other disciplines and institutions, including philosophy at UCLA, and clinical psychiatry, before finally discovered anthropology via Alexander Goldenweiser’s courses at the New School for Social Research. In 1925 White began studies for a Ph.D. in sociology/anthropology at the University of Chicago and had the opportunity of spending a few weeks with the Menomini and Winnebago in Wisconsin. After his initial thesis proposal -- a library thesis which foreshadowed his later theoretical work -- he conducted fieldwork at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. Ph.D. in hand, White began teaching at the University of Buffalo in 1927, where he began to rethink the anti-evolutionary views that his Boasian education had instilled in him. In 1930, he moved the Ann Arbor, where he would remain for the rest of his active career.
The three-year period at Buffalo marked a turning point in White’s biography. It was during this time that he developed a worldview -- anthropological, political, and ethical -- that he would hold to and actively advocate until his death. The student response to the then-controversial Boasian anti-evolutionary and anti-racist doctrines that White espoused helped him formulate his own views regarding the evolution of human social life. In 1929 he visited Russia and on his return joined the Socialist Labor Party, writing articles under the pseudonym ‘John Steel’ for their newspaper.
White came to Michigan when he was hired to replace Julian Steward who departed Ann Arbor in 1930. Although the university was home to a museum with a long history of involvement in matters anthropological, White was the only professor in the anthropology department itself. In 1932 he headed a fieldschool in the southwest which was attended by Fred Eggan and Mischa Titiev, among others.
It was Titiev that White bought to Michigan as a second professor in 1936. As a student of White -- and who knows, perhaps his status as a Russian immigrant was salient as well -- Titiev suited White perfectly. However, during the Second World War, Titiev took part in the war effort by studying Japan. Perhaps this upset the socialist White -- in any case by war's end White had broken with Titiev and the two were hardly even on speaking terms. More faculty were not hired until after the war, when the two-man department was expanded. This, compounded by the foundation by Titiev of the East Asian Studies Program and the import of scholars like Richard Beardsley into the department, created a split on which most professors fell one way or another.
As a professor in Ann Arbor White trained a generation of influential students. While authors such as Robert Carneiro, Beth Dillingham, and Gertrude Dole were to carry on White's program in its orthodox form, other scholars such as Eric Wolf, Elman Service , and Marshall Sahlins drew on their time with White to elaborate their own forms of anthropology.
White’s views were formulated specifically against the Boasians, with whom he was institutionally and intellectually at odds. This antagonism often took on an extremely personal form: White referred to Boas’s prose style as “corny” in no less a journal than the American Journal of Sociology, while Lowie referred to White’s work as “a farrago of immature metaphysical notions” shaped by “the obsessive power of fanaticism [which] unconsciously warps one’s vision.”
One of the strongest deviations from Boasian orthodoxy was White’s view of the nature of anthropology and its relation to other sciences present. White understood the world to be divided into cultural, biological, and physical levels of phenomenon. Such a division is a reflection of the composition of the universe and was not a heuristic device. Thus, contrary to Kroeber and Kluckhohn or Sapir, White saw the delineation of the object of study not as a cognitive accomplishment of the anthropologist but a recognition of the actually existing and delineated phenomenon which comprise the world. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences was thus not based on of method, but rather on the nature of the object of study – physicists study physical phenomenon, biologists biological phenomenon and culturologists (White’s term) cultural phenomenon.
While the object of study was not delineated by the researcher’s viewpoint or interest, the method by which he approached them could be. White believed that phenomenon could be explored from three different points of view, the historical, the formal-functional, and the evolutionist (or formal-temporal). The historical view was essentially Boasian, dedicated to examining the particular diachronic cultural processes, “lovingly tr[ying] to penetrate into its secrets until every feature is plain and clear." The formal-functional is essentially the diachronic approach advocated by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, attempting to discern the formal structure of a society and the functional interrelations of its components. The evolutionist approach is, like the formal approach, generalizing. But it is also diachronic, seeing particular events as general instances of lager trends.
While Boas claimed his science promised loving penetration, White thought that it would “emasculate” anthropology if it became the dominant position. White viewed his own approach as a synthesis of historical and functional approach because it combined the diachronic scope of one with the generalizing eye for formal interrelations provided by the other. As such it could point out “the course of cultural development in the past and its probable course in the future” a task that was anthropology’s “most valuable function.”
As a result White frequently championed nineteenth century evolutionists in a search for intellectual predecessors unclaimed or — preferably – denounced by Boasians. This can be clearly seen in his views of evolution, which are firmly rooted in the writings of Spencer, Darwin, and Morgan. While it can be argued that White’s exposition of Morgan and Spencer’s was tendentious, it can be safely said that White’s concepts of what science and evolution were firmly rooted in their work. Advances in population biology and evolutionary theory passed White by and, unlike Steward, his conception of evolution and progress remained firmly rooted in the nineteenth century.
For White, culture was a superorganic entity that was sui generis and could only be explained in terms of itself. It was composed of three levels, the technological, the social organizational, and the ideological. Each level rested on the previous one, and although they all interacted, ultimately the technological level was the determining one, what White calls “The hero of our piece” and “the leading character of our play.”
White spoke of culture as a general human phenomenon, and claimed not to speak of ‘cultures’ in the plural. He believed that culture – meaning the sum total of all human cultural activity on the planet – was evolving. The measure by which to judge the relative degree of evolvedness of culture was the amount of energy it could capture. For White, “the basic law of cultural evolution” was “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.”. For White “the primary function of culture” is to “harness and control energy.”
- Leslie A. White: Evolution and Revolution in Anthropology by William Peace. University of Nebraska Press, 2004. (the definitive biography of White)
- 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.
- The Leslie White Papers - Finding guide and information about Leslie White's papers at the Bentley Historical library.
Ethnological Essays: Selected Essays of Leslie A. White. University of New Mexico Press. 1987.
The Science of Culture: A study of man and civilization. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1949.
The Pueblo of Santa Ana, New Mexico. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60, 1942.
The Pueblo of Santo Domingo. American Anthropological Association Memoir 60, 1934.
The Pueblo of San Felipe. American Anthropological Association Memoir No. 38, 1932.
The Acoma Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology, 47th annual report, pp. 1-192. Smithsonian Institution, 1932.
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