Eric Wolf

From Academic Kids

Eric Wolf (1923-1999) was an anthropologist best known for his studies of Latin America and his advocacy of Marxist perspectives within anthropology.

Wolf was born in Vienna, but his Jewish family moved first to England and then America to avoid persecution, and Wolf was raised largely in New York. He fought overseas in WWII and developed and interest in other cultures. Like many returning soldiers he took advantage of the newly-minted GI Bill to get a college education. Wolf began studying anthropology at Columbia University.

Columbia had been the home of Franz Boas for many years, and was the central location for the spread of anthropology in America. By the time Wolf had arrived Boas had passed away and his anthropological style, which was suspicious of generalization and preferred detailed studies of particular subjects, was also out of fashion. The new chair of the anthropology department was Julian Steward, a student of Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber. Steward was interested in creating a scientific anthropology which explained how societies evolved and adapted to their physical environment.

Wolf was one of the coterie of students who developed around Steward. Older students' leftist beliefs, Marxist in orientation, worked well with Steward's less politicized evolutionism. Many anthropologists prominent in the 1980s such as Marvin Harris, Sidney Mintz, Morton Fried, Stanley Diamond, and Robert F. Murphy were among this group.

Wolf's dissertation research was carried out as part of Steward's 'People of Puerto Rico' project. Soon after, Wolf began teaching at the University of Michigan, where he spent the remainder of his career. In addition to his Latin American work, Wolf also did fieldwork in Europe.

Wolf's relevance to anthropology lies in the fact that he focused on issues of power, politics, and colonialism during the 1970s and 1980s when these topics were moving to the center of disciplinary concerns. His most well-known book, Europe and the People Without History, is famous for demonstrating that non-Europeans were caught up in global processes like the fur and slave trades. Thus they were not 'frozen in time' or 'isolated' but had always been deeply implicated in world history.

Towards the end of his life he warned of the 'intellectual deforestation' that occurred when anthropology focused on high-flown theory instead of sticking to the realities of life and fieldwork. Wolf struggled with cancer later in life, and died in 1999.


Books by Eric Wolf

  • Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century
  • Anthropology
  • Peasants
  • Europe and the People Without History
  • Envisioning Power
  • Sons of the Shaking Earth
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