Robert Redfield

The American anthropologist Robert Redfield (1897-1958) specialized in Meso-American folk cultures. He was concerned with socially relevant applications of social-science skills and researches.

Robert Redfield was born on Dec. 4, 1897, in Chicago, Ill., the son of an attorney. In 1915 he entered the University of Chicago to study law. During World War I he served as a volunteer ambulance driver, returning to the university to receive his bachelor's degree in 1920 and his law degree in 1921. Although he then joined a Chicago law firm, he had already been drawn toward social science by Robert Park (whose daughter he had married in 1920) of the sociology department of the University of Chicago. A 1923 trip to Mexico confirmed Redfield's interest in primitive cultures. He became an instructor in sociology at the University of Colorado in 1925 and the following year received a fellowship for his first Mexican fieldwork.

In 1927 Redfield returned to Chicago to an anthropology department which had just attained independence from sociology. After receiving his doctorate in 1928, he became an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1930 and full professor in 1934, simultaneously becoming university dean of social sciences. The position as dean reinforced his broad conception of the integrated nature of the social sciences. Ties of the Chicago anthropology department to sociology encouraged him to concentrate on social anthropology, effectively excluding the archeology and linguistics which Franz Boas and his students considered integrally related to it. Redfield became chairman of the anthropology department in 1948 and Robert Maynard Hutchins distinguished service professor in 1953.

Redfield's fieldwork produced Tepoztlan (1930) and Chan Kom: A Maya Village (1934), the latter in collaboration with the village schoolteacher, Alfonso Villa. Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941) compared the effects of civilization on four Yucatan communities that shared a Mayan heritage but differed in amount of external communication. Chan Kom: A Village That Chose Progress (1950) dealt with the effort of Mexican peasants to adjust to the modern world.

Redfield's prevailing concern was with the effect of technological change on primitive peoples and the consequent responsibility of the social scientist for defining the resulting disruption of life-styles. He defined, within an established sociological tradition, two ideal types—"folk" and "urban" culture. The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953) attempted to describe conflicts of the "moral order" accompanying the spread of civilization. Redfield's ideal types have been criticized primarily by students of Boas, who prefer to work with descriptions of particular culture histories rather than to find ways of comparing types of community.

The last book by Redfield, The Little Community (1955), drew on studies of Indian civilization. Although his own fieldwork in India was cut short by illness, he defined and contrasted a "great tradition" of urban intellectual life and a persistent "little tradition" of the villages. As in Mexico, communication rather than geography was crucial.

Redfield shared with Boas and many of his students a concern for social problems, maintaining that man and anthropologist were necessarily inseparable. During World War II he advised the War Relocation Authority; he participated in the initial UNESCO conferences in Europe; he became director of the American Council on Race Relations in 1948; and he served as president of the board of the American Broadcasting Company. He died on Oct. 16, 1958.


Further Reading on Robert Redfield

Although articles have appeared criticizing various aspects of Redfield's theoretical formulations, there is no significant biographical study of him. Some background is in Don Martindale, The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory (1960).