Julian Steward life and biography

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Julian Steward biography

Date of birth : 1902-01-31
Date of death : 1972-02-06
Birthplace : Washington D.C., U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arhitecture and Engineering
Last modified : 2010-08-28
Credited as : Anthropologist, teacher, studies of American Indian tribes

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Julian Haynes Steward (January 31, 1902 – February 6, 1972) was an American anthropologist, best known for his role in the development of a scientific theory of cultural development in the years following World War II. An excellent scholar, Steward was one of those instrumental in establishing anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States. As a teacher, he influenced numerous students to become researchers and theorists in the field, and as a researcher himself, he undertook extensive studies of American Indian tribes in both North and South America. His neoevolutionary approach emphasized the importance of adaptation to the physical environment in the development of human societies. While influential, albeit often criticized, Steward's view ultimately lacked recognition of the leading role of the spiritual or religious component of human life.


Julian Steward was born in Washington, DC, the second child of Thomas and Grace Steward. His father was the chief of the Board of Examiners of the U.S. Patent Office, and his uncle was the chief forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau. His father was a staunch atheist, but his mother converted to Christian Science when Julian was nine. This event played an important role in his life, because it seemed to precipitate his parents’ divorce and so turned Julian against religion.

Steward showed no particular interest in anthropology as a child, but at the age of sixteen he enrolled in Deep Springs College, high in the southeastern Sierra Nevada, designed to produce future political leaders. His experience with the high mountains and local Shoshone and Paiute peoples awakened his interest in life in this area. After spending a year at UC Berkeley, Steward transferred to Cornell University. Cornell lacked an anthropology department, and he studied zoology and biology while the college's president, Livingston Farrand, continued to nurture his interest in anthropology. Steward earned his B.A. in 1925 and returned to Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology.

In the 1920s, Berkeley was the center of anthropological thought. The discipline had originated in the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University, and two of Boas' greatest students, Alfred L. Kroeber and Robert Lowie, established the department in Berkeley. Along with Edward W. Gifford, they made Berkeley the West Coast center for the discipline.

Steward proved to be a star student, and quickly earned a reputation as a scholar of great potential. He earned his Ph.D. in 1929, after completing a library thesis entitled The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian: A Study of Ritualized Clowning and Role Reversals.

Steward fulfilled his academic potential, teaching anthropology at several universities, and conducting extensive ethnographic field research among American Indian tribes in both North and South America. He retired from teaching in 1968 and died in 1972.


Steward's first academic appointment was at the University of Michigan, where he established the anthropology department, which later became famous under the guidance of fellow evolutionist Leslie White. In 1930, Steward moved to the University of Utah, which was closer to the Sierras, and conducted extensive fieldwork in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon.

Steward took a position at the Smithsonian Institute in 1935. There, he founded the Institute for Social Anthropology in 1943, serving there as director until 1946. Through the Institute, Steward was involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was key in the reform of the organization known as the "New Deal for the American Indian," a restructuring that involved Steward in a variety of policy and financial issues. His well-known book Handbook of South American Indians comes from this period. In addition, Steward was a member of a committee to reorganize the American Anthropological Association, and played a role in the creation of the National Science Foundation. He was also active in archaeological pursuits, successfully lobbying Congress to create the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains (the beginning of what came to be known as "salvage archaeology") and worked with Wendell Bennett to establish the Viru Valley project, an ambitious research program based in Peru.

Steward's career reached its highest point in 1946, when he took up the chair of the anthropology department at Columbia University—the center of anthropology in the United States. At this time, Columbia saw an influx of World War II veterans who were attending school thanks to the GI Bill. Steward quickly developed a coterie of students who would go on to have enormous influence in the history of anthropology, including Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Robert Manners, Morton Fried, Robert F. Murphy, and influenced other scholars such as Marvin Harris. Many of these students participated in the Puerto Rico Project, yet another large-scale group research study that focused on modernization in Puerto Rico.

Steward left Columbia for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he undertook yet another large-scale study, a comparative analysis of modernization in 11 Third World societies. The results of this research were published in 1967 in three volumes entitled Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies.

In addition to his role as a teacher and administrator, Steward is most remembered for his contributions to the study of cultural evolution, through his model of "cultural ecology." During the first three decades of the twentieth century, American anthropology was suspicious of generalizations and often unwilling to draw broader conclusions from the meticulously detailed monographs that anthropologists produced. Steward is notable for moving anthropology away from this more particularistic approach and developing a more social-scientific direction. Together with Leslie White, he contributed to the formation of the theory of multilinear evolution, which examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment. This neoevolutionary approach was more nuanced than the nineteenth-century theory of unilinear evolution, developed by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer.

Steward's interest in the evolution of society led him to examine processes of modernization. He analyzed the way in which national and local levels of society were related to one another. Questioning the possibility of creation of a social theory encompassing the entire evolution of humanity, he still argued that anthropologists are not limited to descriptions of specific, existing cultures. He believed it to be possible to create theories analyzing typical, common cultures, representative of specific eras or regions.

As the decisive factors determining the development of given culture he pointed to technology and economics, and noted there are secondary factors, like political systems, ideologies, and religion. All those factors push the evolution of given society in several directions at the same time. In other words, the society does not develop in a straight line, as “unilinearists” suggested, but has several lines of development: economical, technological, political, religious/ideological, etc. Each line develops based on specific circumstances of the environment, like terrain, surrounding materials, and other social groups. Thus, Steward's (1955) analysis of societies in arid climates showed how the effect of working together to irrigate the land led to the development of a certain type of social structure. In this way, Steward used the Darwinian notion of “adaptation” through natural selection and applied it to sociocultural development.


Influenced by Darwinian theory, Julian Steward sought to apply the evolutionary model to sociocultural development. Together with Leslie White (who worked on the same matter but with a different approach), Steward succeeded in establishing a paradigm known as neoevolutionism.

Numerous anthropologists followed White and Steward. Marshall Sahlins and Elman Rogers Service attempted to synthesize White's and Steward's approaches. Others, such as Peter Vayda and Roy Rappaport, building on or responding to work by White and Steward, developed theories of cultural ecology and ecological anthropology. By the late 1950s, students of Steward such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz turned away from cultural ecology to Marxism, and Marvin Harris's "cultural materialism."

Despite criticism, revisions, and outright rejection, Steward's work did provide an alternative to the discredited unilineal theory of cultural evolution and Boasian cultural relativism. Unfortunately, Steward's resentment against religion led him to embrace the view that the physical, material aspects of human existence have the greatest impact on human society, leaving his analyses lacking in their understanding of the significant role of the more internal, spiritual aspects, which must be included in a peaceful society that satisfies true human desires.

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