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national academy of sciences

clyde kay maBen kluckhohn


A Biographical Memoir by
melville J. herskovits

Any opinions expressed in this memoir are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biographical Memoir Copyright 1964
national aCademy of sCienCes washington d.C.

January n,igo^—July 28, ig6o BY MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS

was seventeen years old ill health caused him to spend two years in New Mexico and Arizona, on what he later described as "the fringes of the Indian Country." This experience was to be decisive in shaping his subsequent career as an anthropologist. It brought into focus what, in his own words, was "the fact that I grew up in an English settlement inIowa and early perceived, however dimly, a cross-cultural situation." It was this perception, steadily sharpened by continuous field research, omnivorous reading, and constant probing for theoretical implication, that brought him to the point of achievement and reputation he had attained when a coronary thrombosis abruptly ended his life in the very Indian country where he had worked, and which heso greatly loved. During all his scientific career he consistently followed both microethnographic and macroethnographic lines of anthropological interest. There are, in various parts of die world, those who are distinguished because of the skill with which they have probed ever more deeply into particular cultures, but it is difficult to name one who is as deeply concerned with theoreticalsignificance as with ethnographic fact. The reverse is equally true. Anthropology has its theoreticians. But seldom are tfiose who are committed to the extension of the theoretical base willing to accept an equivalent commitment to the drudgery of gathering and ordering the factual data essential for the testing of their theories. Kluckhohn did both.




The work of Kluckhohn, when taken in its totality, can be best envisaged as a canon on these two themes. Constantly deepening his understanding of Navaho culture by repeated field trips, aided by his command of the language, he used his insights into this particular culture to sharpen the questions he raised concerning the nature and significance of human behavior in general. Hiswork in both these facets of his interest, too, was materially aided by the essential humanism of his approach. It is characteristic of his research that he continuously took into full account the interplay between the individual and the patterns of the culture which orders his life. He never lost sight of the fact that human beings function within the institutional setting of human societies. Atthe same time he fully recognized the importance of the reciprocal of this fact, that the institutions of any society being studied must be taken as resulting from and reflecting the patterned system of values of the human beings who live their lives in terms of the framework of traditional sanctions they provide. It was this humanism that led him to what he himself, in a private communication,stated was in his opinion his "most important theoretical contribution . . . the idea of 'implicit culture'." Even here, however, his claim was expressed in terms consonant with the best scientific tradition, which recognizes the continuity of scientific thought. "This derived from Boas, Sapir, Linton and others but was, I think, forced upon me by my inability to understand—without some suchnotion—various assemblages of fact on the Navaho." And in this direct statement, we see Kluckhohn not only accepting his place as a link in the historic chain of the development of his discipline, but having a clear conception of the canonical interplay between fact and theory to which he was committed, the first informing the second, the second enriching perception of the first. Another outstanding...
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