Eric R. Wolf

Josiah McC. Heyman

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:
Eric R. Wolf

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Eric R. Wolf (b. 1923–d. 1999) received a BA in anthropology from Queens College, City University of New York, and a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. At Columbia he formed part of an important cohort of students of Julian Steward and participated in the People of Puerto Rico field research project. Wolf then conducted a second period of fieldwork, mainly archaeological and ethnohistorical, in Mexico and finally ethnographic fieldwork in the Tyrolean Alps of Italy. Early on, he and Sidney Mintz (another student of Steward’s) developed a distinctive view of social and cultural formations, such as peasant communities, landed estates, and industrial plantations, and their component microsocial and cultural practices, as built out of differentiated societal segments involving relations of unequal power and emerging within and changing across historical time. Wolf and Mintz were especially attentive to European imperialism and capitalism. Wolf’s impact first was felt in Mesoamerican/Mexican studies, in which he examined broad power formations and long historical time lines (versus the localism typical of most anthropologists), and also peasant studies, in which he viewed peasant lifeworlds as unstable balances between local ecologies and external, surplus-taking power holders. This work culminated in a critical anthropology of peasant revolutions, done in conjunction with directly political work during the era of the US–Southeast Asian wars. Wolf was a founding member of the teach-in movement against the Vietnam War and in 1970 (with Joseph Jorgensen) exposed and critiqued the involvement of anthropologists in counterinsurgency activities in Southeast Asia. His magnum opus, Europe and the People without History (Wolf 1982, cited under Marxian Anthropology), articulates the central themes of his work: power, history, dynamics, criticism of mainstream anthropology and other social sciences, and the Marxian perspective. Subsequently, Wolf focused on how his historical, power-oriented perspective applied to ideology and culture. Wolf, together with Mintz, Ángel Palerm, June Nash, and Eleanor Leacock, moved anthropology away from a stripping away of evidence of historical change and contemporary setting in order to capture primitive essence, toward an anthropology that attends to historical and contemporary interactions, addresses complexity and fluidity, and discusses power and inequality. Because of the influence of Wolf and his colleagues, anthropology in the early 21st century offers more empirically realistic, analytically penetrating, and socially critical depictions of the peoples studied and represented. This is a fundamental contribution to anthropology and has been particularly central to its political economy tradition.

Article.  6562 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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