Sociology Monday: Alfred Kroeber

Dropped on:September 15, 2014
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Alfred (Louis) Kroeber (1876-1960) was an American anthropologist born in Hoboken, New Jersey to parents of German Protestant extraction. Fluent in both English and German (which was the predominant language of use growing up in his childhood home) he received a classical training in Latin and Greek and other humanistic subjects. He became interested in studying anthropology through his contact with Franz Boas in the latter’s class on linguistics at Columbia University. Kroeber was the first to complete a doctorate in anthropology at Columbia, a path soon to be followed by many of Boas’ students who later went on, like Kroeber, to become leading anthropologists in the United States. Less well-known is the fact that Kroeber became interested in psychoanalysis, underwent a personal analysis and was the first person to practice as a psychoanalyst in the Bay area in California:

“The first psychoanalyst to actually practise in San Francisco was Alfred L. Kroeber, PhD (1876-1960), the famous anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley. Kroeber had a familiarity with psychoanalysis from his reading of the literature and his visits to the European psychoanalytic groups in 1915 or 1916. Being personally troubled and somewhat at sea, professionally, he obtained an analysis with Gregory Stragnell, in New York, in 1917. Following his analysis he returned to San Francisco and set up a psychoanalytic practice which he maintained from 1918-1923, first at Stanford Hospital (located where the California Pacific Medical Center is located today) and then in a private office downtown, on Sutter Street.

Kroeber’s first psychological publication was his 1918 review of two of Carl Jung’s books. This was followed by two important critiques of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, the first published in 1920 and the second in 1939… He also organized the Bay Area’s first psychoanalytic study group on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1920s with Edward Chace Tolman, Jean Macfarlane and others.

Ultimately, Kroeber gave up the practice of psychoanalysis to devote himself fully to anthropology. Nonetheless, he maintained an interest in psychoanalysis and was later to become closely associated with both Erik H. Erikson and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.” [1]

As we see, Kroeber reviewed Freud’s Totem and Taboo twice, first for the respected journal American Anthropologist and a second time in the flagship journal The American Journal of Sociology 19 years later.


Kroeber as an Anthropologist


Kroeber was one of the first anthropologists to advance cultural anthropology in opposition to the emphasis given biological and environmental approaches in the discipline. In keeping with his focus on culture as the realm of the super-organic, a concept for which he later substituted the ‘socio-cultural’, he fought against the automatic reductionism of the cultural domain to other more fundamental levels of explanations of phenomena under investigation. Not unlike Emile Durkheim, Kroeber believed that cultural phenomena could only be understood as deriving from other cultural phenomena. Although he studied particular groups on indigenous peoples in California, then in Mexico and Peru, he believed that anthropology should look for larger patterns in culture and engage in both comparative and historical analyses within and across cultures. From his humanistic background he was motivated not only to study the specifics of particular cultures but to look for common patterns that enable us to learn something more general about the human species. Nevertheless, Kroeber proceeded most cautiously and he accused Malinowski of being both too particularistic and too universalistic in the latter’s study of Northwest Melanesia.


Kroeber as a Broker between Anthropology and Psychoanalysis


Kroeber did not believe in an easy integration of psychoanalysis and anthropology. His first review of Freud’s Totem and Taboo in American Anthropologist in 1920 (based on the first English translation of that work) was highly critical. In that review he outlined the main theme of the work which linked the two principle taboos of Totemism, according to Freud, namely, the taboo against the killing and eating of the totemic animal and the taboo against incest (sexual relations within the gens or clan), with the two themes of the Oedipus conflict – the hatred of the father by the male child and the lust for the mother. Kroeber then went on to list 11 objections to Freud’s argument and it’s applications and concluded by linking Freud with his predecessors, Edward Burnett Tyler and especially James Frazer, in their attempts to “psychologize with ethnological data.” And yet Kroeber himself admitted that it was impossible, indeed undesirable for anthropology to free itself from psychology: “However much cultural anthropology may come to lean more on the historical instead of the psychological method, it can never ultimately free itself, nor should it wish to, from the psychology that underlies it.” But even though Kroeber attempted to balance his withering critique of the book – he made a few pusillanimous comments recommending it to his anthropologist colleagues: “…the book thus is one that no ethnologist can afford to neglect…197)”[2] – the review was a devastating one.


Freud himself commented on Kroeber’s review of the book in Chapter X of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, referring to Kroeber as an English critic who, Freud suggested, referred to his hypothesis of the primal horde as a ‘Just-so-Story’ thus confusing Kroeber’s review in American Anthropologist with that of R. R. Marett’s in The Athaneum. And even though Freud referred to the critic as “not unkind,” Kroeber felt that he had been so harsh in his review of the book that he wrote a second review 19 years later:


“But I found myself somewhat conscience-stricken when, perhaps a decade later, I listened to a student in Sapir’s [Edward Sapir-author] seminar in Chicago making his report of Totem and Taboo, who like myself, first spread its gossamer texture and then laboriously tore it to shreds. It is a procedure too suggestive of breaking a butterfly of the wheel. An iridescent fantasy deserves a more delicate touch even in the act of demonstration of its unreality.”[3] And even though he concluded this second review with: “I trust that this reformulation may be constructed not only as an amende honourable but as a tribute to one of the great minds of our day”[4] he did not in any way retract from his original attack on psychoanalysis refusing to recognize much of it as science.



Benveniste, D. (2006). The Early History of Psychoanalysis in San Fransisco. Psychoanalysis and History. 8: 195-233.

Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Standard Edition, Volume XVIII, 67-143.

Kroeber, A. L. (1920). Totem and Taboo: An Ethnologic Psychoanalysis. American Anthropologist. Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 48-55.

A. L. Kroeber. Totem and Taboo in Retrospect. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 45, No. 3 (Nov. 1939), pp. 446-451.

[1]Benveniste, D. (2006). The Early History of Psychoanalysis in San Fransisco. Psychoanalysis and History. 8: 195-233.

[2] Kroeber, A. L. (1920). Totem and Taboo: An Ethnologic Psychoanalysis. American Anthropologist. Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 48-55.

[3]A. L. Kroeber. Totem and Taboo in Retrospect. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 45, No. 3 (Nov. 1939), pp. 446-451

[4]op. cit., 451.

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