Julian Haynes Steward

Julian Haynes Steward

Steward, Julian Haynes, 1902-72, American anthropologist, b. Washington, D.C., grad. Cornell, 1925, Ph.D. Univ. of California, 1929. He taught at the Univ. of Michigan (1928-30), Columbia (1946-52), and the Univ. of Illinois (1952-72), as well as other universities. He conducted both archaeological and ethnographic studies. At the Smithsonian Institution he was anthropologist (1935-43) in the Bureau of American Ethnology, edited for the bureau the monumental Handbook of South American Indians (7 vol., 1946-59), and was director (1943-46) of the Institute of Social Anthropology. He advanced the concept of multilinear cultural evolution, according to which increases in cultural complexity occur in different ways in different societies; he also emphasized the importance of cultural ecology, the way in which adaptation to the environment promotes culture change. His research interests involved both traditional and modern societies. His writings include South American Culture (1949), Area Research, Theory and Practice (1950), Theory of Culture Change (1955), and The People of Puerto Rico: A Study in Social Anthropology (1956).

Julian Haynes Steward (January 31, 1902February 6, 1972) was an American anthropologist best known for his role in the development of a scientific theory of cultural evolution in the years following World War II.


Steward was born in Washington, D.C. His father was the chief of the Board of Examiners of the U.S. Patent Office while his uncle was the chief forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau. While his father was a staunch atheist, his mother became a devout Christian Scientist. Steward showed no particular interest in anthropology as a child, but at the age of sixteen he enrolled at Deep Springs College, high in the south-eastern Sierra Nevada designed to produce future political leaders. His experience with the high mountains and local Shoshone and Paiute peoples awakened an interest in life in this area. After spending a year at 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.

Berkeley in the 1920s was a center of anthropological thought. The discipline originated in the work of Franz Boas at Columbia University, and two of Boas's greatest students, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie established the department at Berkeley. Along with Edward Gifford, they established Berkeley as a west-coast beachhead for the discipline. Steward proved to be a star student, and quickly earned a reputation as a scholar of great potential. He graduated in 1929 after completing a library thesis entitled The Ceremonial Buffoon of the American Indian, a Study of Ritualized Clowning and Role Reversals and went to teach at the University of Michigan, establishing an anthropology department there that would later become famous under the guidance of fellow evolutionist Leslie White. In 1930 he moved to the University of Utah, which was closer to the Sierras, and conducted extensive fieldwork in California, Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon.

In 1935 Steward began a long involvement 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 which involved Steward in a variety of policy and financial issues. For the next eleven years Steward became an administrator of considerable clout, editing the Handbook of South American Indians. He also took a position at the Smithsonian Institution, where he founded the Institute for Social Anthropology in 1943. He also served on 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 is known today as 'salvage archaeology') and worked with Wendell Bennett to establish the Viru Valley project, an ambitious research program centered in Peru.

Steward's career reached its apogee 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, Roy Rappaport, 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 continued to teach until his retirement in 1968. There he undertook yet another large-scale study, a comparative analysis of modernization in eleven third world societies. The results of this research were published in three volumes entitled Contemporary Change in Traditional Societies. Steward died in 1972.

Contributions to anthropology

In addition to his role as a teacher and administrator, Steward is most remembered for his contributions to the study of cultural evolution, specifically neoevolutionism 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 particularist approach and developing a more social-scientific direction. His theory of "multilinear" evolution examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment. This approach was more nuanced than Leslie White's theory of "multilinear evolution," which was influenced by thinkers such as Herbert Spencer. Steward's interest in the evolution of society also led him to examine processes of modernization. He was one of the first anthropologists to examine the way that national and local levels of society were related to one another. He questioned the possibility of creation of a social theory encompassing the entire evolution of humanity, however he argued that anthropologists are not limited to description of specific, existing cultures. He believed it is possible to create theories analyzing typical, common culture, 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 system, ideologies and religion. All those factors push the evolution of given society in several directions at the same time, thus this is the multilinearity of his theory of evolution.


  • DeCamp, Elise. Julian Steward. accessed Dec. 4, 2007
  • Manners, Robert A. Julian H. Steward accessed Dec. 4, 2007
  • Kerns, Virginia. 2003:151 Scenes From The High Desert: Julian Steward's Life and Theory University of Illinois Press.

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