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Leslie A. White

Leslie A. WhiteAKA Leslie Alvin White

Born: 19-Jan-1900
Birthplace: Salida, CO
Died: 31-Mar-1975
Location of death: Lone Pine, CA
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Anthropologist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: The Science of Culture

Military service: US Navy (WWI)

Leslie White was an American anthropologist best known for championing the once controversial concept of cultural evolutionism. An admirer of Marxist theory before it was fashionable in anthropology, White attracted a great deal of negative public attention for his pro-socialist stance and for his public remarks against organized religion. In general White is credited with reintroducing anthropology to grand scale theorizing and for paving the way for later breakthroughs in our understanding of the ways in which civilizations develop. In addition, White was perhaps the world's leading scholar on Lewis Henry Morgan. And his outspoken criticisms of Franz Boas helped balance the historical record on the man considered the father of American Anthropolgy. White was a prolific writer, and his best known works include The Science of Culture: A Study of Man & Civilization (1949), The Evolution of Culture (1959), The Concept of Culture (1973), and The Concept of Cultural Systems: A Key to Understanding Tribes & Nations (1976).

Leslie Alvin White was born 19 January 1900 in Salida, Colorado. His father was an engineer and the family moved often, living in various parts of Kansas and Louisiana. When White was five years old his parents divorced, with his father taking custody of all three children. A couple years later his father left his job, purportedly for health reasons, and moved with the children to a farm near Greeley, Kansas. Here they lived simply, with no indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity. But living out in the countryside meant they had a fine view for the advent of Halley's comet, and White developed a keen interest in astronomy. As the time for college neared he made plans to enter Louisiana State, intending to major in physics.

But various delays arose and then the U.S. entered World War I. White joined the Navy, and it was here that his primary focus turned to issues of human behavior. As he later explained it, "All that I had been taught about my society, my country, and related subjects was a gross distortion of reality." In his new quest to understand "why peoples behave as they do" he enrolled at Louisiana State University as a student of psychology and sociology. After earning his B.A. in psychology in 1923, he moved on to Columbia where he received his M.A. a year later.

Although White was present at Columbia during the same period as Franz Boas, he never took a single course with the now legendary ethnologist. Rather, like Ruth Benedict, White's passion for anthropology was ignited through courses at the New School for Social Research, under Alexander Goldenweiser. Through Goldenweiser, himself a former student of Boas, White imbibed Boasian methodologies and developed the characteristic emphasis on ethnology and antipathy for cultural evolutionism. Ironically, in later years White would grow to become a tendentious critic of Boas, bashing the man and his ideology at every opportunity, to the detriment of his own career and perhaps even the development of his own original ideas.

White's initial work in anthropology was unremarkably conventional. His work among the southwestern pueblos was well executed but sparked no new observations. Its theoretical underpinnings were, as with his lectures, completely Boasian in orientation. Still, when he parroted the Boasian rejection of earlier, evolutionary theorists, like Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, he found it hard to really field student objections as he had never read their works himself. When he did eventually read them directly, he found much that was praiseworthy and reasonable to his own way of thinking. They may have gotten some details wrong, he felt, but the general premise -- that culture tended to evolve from simple forms to ever more complex forms -- seemed basically true.

Eventually, he began to champion this opinion in both lectures and papers, building on it to create his own notion of "culturology". It was time, he felt, for anthropologists to stop merely collecting data and to begin examining the implications of it -- a sentiment that would be echoed elsewhere in the rising popularity of social anthropology, via LÚvi-Strauss, Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. But while these later theorists were interested in political and social structures and the ways in which these maintain cultures and societies, White was interested in the way that societies harness "energy", in the sense of manpower and creativity. In White's view culture was evolving, according to rules inherent only to itself, in the direction of greater complexity and the ability to harness and direct greater and greater amounts of energy.

Like Morgan and Spencer he was clearly enamored of progress, and he believed in a definite one-to-one correlation between technological progress and cultural progress. Despite the strident objections of his peers, he dismissed the notion that there existed any society which had a low level of technological development yet also a high level of cultural complexity. The Australian Aborigines for example did not possess "real" social differentiation, according to White, but merely complicated kinship affiliations.

Certainly White's argument was not without merit. Technologically advanced societies had managed to accomplish some very gee-whiz things in the area of science, communication, medicine, and transportation. The development of civilization, and more specifically culture, in order to produce such seeming miracles is fascinating and noteworthy in it's own right. But what White apparently missed out on entirely, is a fact all too obvious to modern cultural observers and historians: i.e. even the most impressive civilization can become the victim of its own belief structures, and that the new influx of ideas which can revitalize the civilization, empowering it to continue on and to reach new heights, may not be technological in nature.

Rather, they may be relational. Thus we have seen that even as the advent of the Internet was poised to birth the World Wide Web and the so-called global village, artists, philosophers, spiritual seekers, psychologists, ecologists, and others were clamoring about the problems of isolationism and alienation -- and looking for solutions not merely in technology, but also in the social structures and cultural traditions of tribal peoples. Rituals of community, spiritual ways of relating to nature, kinship traditions, all have undergone renewed scrutiny in hopes of restoring psychological and ecological viability to modern civilization. None of which implies that White was wrong to urge anthropology to incorporate the evolutionary paradigm. However, it does suggest that he would been better served by moving past Spencer and Morgan and going straight back to Darwin, whose own notions of evolution emphasized pluralism and the notion of diversity as a kind of genetic bank from which new possibilities can be pulled whenever current developments hit hurtles or dead-ends.

Be this as it may, Leslie White was frank and fearless in the presentation of what were, at the time, extremely unpopular ideas. In this he set an outstanding example of scholarly integrity that inspired legions of students. And his insistence on incorporating the evolutionary paradigm paved the way for others who would make profound contributions to our understanding of the ways in which technology, ecology, and culture interact to shape the development of societies. Ironically, like Boas, his career advancement suffered because of his outspokenness. For example, besides his support for cultural evolutionism, White's open support for socialism and his disdain for theism and organized religion made him a lightning rod for criticism and ridicule. When newspapers ran headline articles containing comments by White that implied the U.S.S.R. was a more advanced nation than the U.S. because (having reached the phase where it could launch rocket ships into space) it no longer needed gods, or religion, of any kind, an enraged public screamed for White's dismissal. Fortunately the University of Michigan, which had weathered similar furor over White's public predictions that socialism would one day replace capitalism and free enterprise, stood firm in its commitment to free speech. But White's chances of advancement were damaged nonetheless.

Although Leslie White retired from the University of Michigan in 1970, he spent his final years working at U.C. Santa Barbara where he maintained an office in the anthropology department. White died suddenly of a heart attack near Death Valley, California, on 31 March 1975. Since his passing he has been much criticized for the apparent schism in his thinking, which maintained both that culture developed independent of ecology and other factors of historical contingency, and simultaneously supported (especially in his own ethnographic works) the Boasian ethnologic principle of the primacy of historical developments. Gertrude Dole may have addressed this best with her observation that White distinguished between Culture and specific cultures. That is, while he believed that Culture developed generally toward states of higher complexity and greater harnessing of energy, he acknowledged that individual cultures developed in response to a variety of particular factors.

    University: Louisiana State University (two years, 1919-20)
    University: BA Psychology, Columbia University (1923)
    University: MA Psychology, Columbia University (1924)
    University: PhD Sociology, University of Chicago
    Professor: University of Buffalo (1927-29)
    Professor: University of Michigan (1930-70)
    Professor: University of California at Santa Barbara

Author of books:
The Science of Culture (1949, anthropology)
The Evolution of Culture (1959, anthropology)
The Concept of Culture (1973, anthropology, with Beth Dillingham)
The Concept of Cultural Systems: A Key to Understanding Tribes & Nations (1976)

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