Robert Harry Lowie

The Austrian-born American anthropologist Robert Harry Lowie (1883-1957) specialized in the culture of the Plains Indians in North America.

Robert H. Lowie was born on June 12, 1883, in Vienna. His parents emigrated to the United States in 1893, and Lowie entered the City College of New York in 1897, studying classics and reading randomly in natural science. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1901, he taught in New York public schools until 1904, when he began graduate study in psychology at Columbia. Lowie soon became involved with the anthropological program taught by Franz Boas and changed his professional aspirations. He received his doctorate in 1908.

Lowie's fieldwork began in 1906, when he studied the heavily acculturated Lemhi Shoshoni for the American Museum of Natural History. He also made a survey of Plains Indians over several consecutive summers and was one of the first to do intensive fieldwork with a single tribe. His focus on Crow ethnology grew out of fieldwork during part of each summer between 1907 and 1916 and again in 1931; he reported his results in many technical papers and in The Crow Indians (1935). Lowie's Indians of the Plains (1954) summarized the survey fieldwork, adding later results by other workers, in a popular form.

In 1921 Lowie became associate professor at the University of California; in 1925 he was promoted to full professor. From 1922 to 1946 he served as cochairman of the anthropology department and from 1946 to 1950 as sole chairman.

Lowie's major contributions to American anthropology were theoretical, although his own fieldwork provided examples. He was familiar with European, particularly German, philosophy, history, and literature and served as American interpreter of German anthropological and psychological theories. In his first book, Culture and Ethnology (1917), he tried to relate "culture," the integrating concept of American anthropology under Boas, to race, psychology, and environment. Primitive Society (1920), again primarily Boasian, was intended to popularize the American approach to anthropology. Primitive Religion (1920) was a more personal statement and had less effect. Introduction to Culture Anthropology (1934) provided a topical exposition of anthropology as then taught in the United States. The History of Ethnological Theory (1937) summarized Lowie's views on the development of his profession. Social Organization (1948) attempted to update Primitive Society with the addition of examples from more recent and sophisticated ethnographic reports. These books were in some ways closer to Lowie's teaching than to his fieldwork since they attempted to place anthropology as he saw it in a meaningful context for students and interested laymen as well as for his colleagues.

Politics and political philosophy concerned Lowie. His works in this field included The Origin of the State (1927) and Are We Civilized? (1929). During World War II he helped with Army training courses. His concept of anthropology made that science relevant to politics and to the study of modern society as well as of primitive tribes in transition from their old ways of life to modern civilization.

Lowie received numerous professional honors, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He was president of the American Folklore Society in 1916, the American Ethnological Society in 1920, and the American Anthropological Association in 1935. He edited the American Anthropologist briefly in 1912 and again from 1924 to 1933. He died of cancer on Sept. 21, 1957, in Berkeley, Calif.


Further Reading on Robert Harry Lowie

Lowie's autobiography, Robert H. Lowie, Ethnologist, was published posthumously in 1959. The development of Boasian anthropology has been discussed in detail by Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968); George Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968); and Regna Darnell, The Development of American Anthropology, 1879-1920: From the Bureau of American Ethnology to Franz Boas.