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Eric Robert Wolf (February 1, 1923 – March 6, 1999) was an Americananthropologist, best known for his studies of Latin America, and his advocacy of Marxist perspectives within anthropology. Wolf promoted the view that human societies evolve not only as static entities bounded within a fixed physical and social environment, but should be understood in the wider context of their history and interactions with other human societies.
Eric Wolf was born in Vienna, Austria, but to avoid persecution, his Jewish family moved first to England and then, in 1940, to the United States, where they lived in New York City. Wolf initially enrolled in Queens College, but had to halt his studies due to American involvement in World War II.
He married Kathleen Bakeman, a social worker, on September 24, 1943. Subsequently, he joined the army and went to fight overseas. It is probably there that Wolf developed a deep interest in other cultures. After the war ended, like many returning soldiers, he took advantage of the newly minted GI Bill of Rights to obtain his college education. Wolf began studying anthropology at Columbia University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology in 1946, and his Ph.D. in 1951. His professors were Ruth Benedict and Julian Steward.
Columbia had been the home of Franz Boas for many years, and was the central location for the spread of anthropology in America. By the time Wolf arrived, Boas had died and his anthropological style, which was suspicious of generalization and preferred detailed studies of particular subjects, was also out of fashion. The new chair of the anthropology department was Julian Steward, a student of Robert Lowie and Alfred L. Kroeber. Steward was interested in creating a scientific anthropology that explained how societies evolved and adapted to their physical environment.
Wolf was part of the clique of students that formed around Steward. The Marxist orientation of these students worked well with Steward's less politicized evolutionism. Many anthropologists prominent in the 1980s, such as Marvin Harris, Sidney Mintz, Morton Fried, Stanley Diamond, and Robert F. Murphy, were among this group.
Wolf joined Steward in his field study in Puerto Rico in 1949, where he first became interested in peasants, power struggle, and political economy. He visited Mexico three times between 1951 and 1956, studying the formation of Mexican national identity. He went to Europe in 1960 for fieldwork in the Italian Alps.
Over the years, Wolf held many academic appointments. He taught at the University of Illinois from 1952 until 1955, at the University of Virginia from 1955 until 1958, at Yale from 1958 till 1959, at the University of Chicago from 1959 till 1960, at the University of Michigan from 1961 until 1971, and at the City University of New York (CUNY) for the rest of his career.
In 1972, he divorced his wife and married Sydel Silverman, an anthropologist. Wolf struggled with cancer later in life, and died in 1999, in Irvington, New York.
The significance of Wolf's work in anthropology lies in the fact that he focused on issues of power, politics, and colonialism during the 1970s and 1980s when these topics were moving to the center of disciplinary concerns. His ideas can be characterized as Marxist in nature. He studied the power struggles of peasants against capitalist elite, and the influence of capitalism on the cultural identity of local communities. These were the lenses through which Wolf viewed anthropology.
Based on his experience with the life of peasants, Wolf was against the idea of society as a bounded entity. He saw that local communities are not isolated on the local level, but that they are a functional part of a larger society. Therefore, to understand any local community, one has to observe it within the complex system of political, economic, cultural, and other relationships. In addition, he argued that one has to approach society from a historical perspective, seeing it in a historical context within the larger human community.
Wolf recognized that no society is isolated in time and space, but each one interacts with other societies across boundaries and across time. Thus, in his book, Europe and the People Without History, Wolf wrote about different tribes, bands, and small states that were developing within the larger system of capitalist expansion around the globe. He discussed non-European societies being caught up in global processes like the fur trade and slave trades, influences of colonialism on such communities. Thus, they were not "frozen in time" or "isolated," but had always been deeply implicated in world history.
Cultures are not integral wholes carried by social isolates. We must distinguish between reality culture and ideology-making, and recognize that the creation or dismantling of cultures always goes on within extensive social fields, structured by the dominant modes of production. It is suggested that ideology-making derives from the prevalent mode of production and is entailed in its operations (Wolf 1984: 393).
Towards the end of his life, Wolf warned of the "intellectual deforestation" that occurred when anthropology focused on esoteric theories instead of remaining grounded in the realities of fieldwork and real life.
Wolf’s contribution to anthropological science involves two levels. The first level is that of time. He saw society in a historical context, not static, but a dynamic entity, always in the process of changing. That change is caused not only by the internal dynamics within the society, but also due to the interactions of the society beyond its boundaries.
This interaction constitutes the second level. Wolf saw society within the larger picture of global processes and interactions, where all societies are interconnected on the world level. In Wolf’s model, reflecting his Marxist leanings, the common denominator that tied all societies was capitalism.
While his view that the global context is important in understanding human society has merit, limiting these processes and interactions to the economic sphere also limited his theory. Essential human relationships are internal, religious, or spiritual in nature, and external aspects, including economic and other material interactions, are secondary. Nevertheless, Wolf's work, grounded in data from fieldwork, provided an impetus to research on how societies evolved.
- Wolf, Eric R. 1951. "Culture Change and Culture Stability in a Puerto Rican Coffee Community" in Ph.D. Dissertation. Columbia University, New York.
- Wolf, Eric R.  1999. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806131969
- Wolf, Eric R. 1974. Anthropology. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393092909
- Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People without History. University of California Press. ISBN 0520048989
- Wolf, Eric R. 1984. "Culture: Panacea or Problem?" American Antiquity 49 (2): 393–400.
- Wolf, Eric R. 1988. "Inventing Society." American Ethnologist 15: 752–761.
- Wolf, Eric R. 1994. "Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People." Current Anthropology 35 (1): 1–12.
- Wolf, Eric R. 1999. Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis. University of California Press. ISBN 0520215826
- Wolf, Eric R. 2001. Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World. University of California Press. ISBN 0520223349
- Wolf, Eric R., and Edward C. Hansen. 1972. The Human Condition in Latin America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 019501569X
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Before joining City University in 1971 as a distinguished professor, he had brief teaching stints at the University of Illinois, the University of Virginia, Yale University and the University of Chicago and nine years as a professor at the University of Michigan.
By then he had already established his reputation as an innovative and iconoclastic academic, whose credentials included helping to organize one of the earliest Vietnam teach-ins, at Michigan in 1965.
His 1959 book about Mexico, for example, ''Sons of the Shaking Earth,'' raised eyebrows among established anthropologists -- even as it established a fertile trend -- by drawing on archaeology, history and other alien fields to trace the diverse cultural development of Mexico. It is a reflection of the book's power, as well as of Dr. Wolf's clear and graceful writing style, that it is still used in introductory anthropology courses.
In writing the book, Dr. Wolf not only made unorthodox use of scholarship from other fields but also refined some of his own unorthodox ideas about the very nature of culture. Long seen by anthropologists as a stable set of attitudes and practices that defined various peoples and differentiated them from others, culture, as Dr. Wolf came to see it, was a far more dynamic process that involved endless practical, psychological and other reactions to changing economic and other conditions.
To Dr. Wolf, who outlined his position in a 1964 book, ''Anthropology,'' the notion of unified and unchanging cultures amounted to little more than misleading ethnic stereotyping, sweeping generalizations that failed to notice or account for the variety of differences within a single culture.
Having concluded that established cultural anthropologists tended to neglect many nonconforming elements of a given society, Dr. Wolf helped rectify things with his 1966 book, ''Peasants,'' which traced the common threads of peasantry in otherwise diverse European cultures.
In 1982 he developed another favorite theme, the sometimes cataclysmic impact of colonial capitalism on indigenous cultures, with ''Europe and the People Without History,'' which tracked the impact of colonial economic expansion on less developed societies.
If Dr. Wolf was a champion of the idea that all people, even tribal societies and peasants, are equally important, he also practiced that philosophy in his life as a teacher or, as he saw himself, as a perpetual student for whom life was an endless and delightful field trip.
A brilliant man known for his charming and uncanny ability to make even ordinary people feel he was intensely interested in them, as indeed he was, Dr. Wolf was such a nurturing teacher that he was the preferred go-to guy when his students came up with brilliant but untested ideas. While other professors, they knew, might dismiss such brainstorms as harebrained, Dr. Wolf could be counted on to become as excited as they were.
Even after his retirement in 1992, Dr. Wolf, who was awarded a $375,000 MacArthur Foundation ''genius grant'' in 1990, continued his quest for new answers to old questions, among them the explanation for the Nazis' rise to power.
Finding parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and both the widespread human sacrifice by the Aztecs and the development of a frenzied tradition of Potlatch feasts in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Wolf examined them in his last book, ''Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis,'' published this year by the University of California Press.
Dr. Wolf, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Sydel Silverman; two sons from his first marriage, David, of Burlington, Vt., and Daniel, of Los Angeles; two stepdaughters, Eve Silverman of Wilton, Conn., and Julie Yorn of Santa Monica, Calif., and three grandchildren.Continue reading the main story