The Bridge between Human Geography and Anthropology

A major figure in this transition was Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), trained as a zoologist and an admirer of Darwin. He was appointed to the chair of geography at Leipzig (1886) but carried out his most influential work in what today is anthropology. Traveling widely, he worked as an itinerant reporter in the USA (1872–75), publishing Urban and Cultural Images of North America in 1876. With a first appointment in geography, he wrote his Anthropogeographie (1882–91) in which volume 1 organized and explicated the new subfield of human geography. Volume 2 attempted to deal with global cultural complexity by offering a novel social framework with concepts equivalent to migration, geographical speciation, adaptive radiation, and response to information exchange (diffusion). Evolutionary and historical, this work anticipated a systemic approach and some of its ideas influenced US anthropology and Berkeley over the next 60 years. This was accompanied by a great compendium on ethnography (1886–88; translated as A History of Mankind, 1896), and further writings on political geography.

Ratzel was an innovative, synthetic, and theoretical scholar who first attempted to create order from the chaos of a vast body of information on material culture and human difference. In the spirit of the time, he was Eurocentric, but occasional claims that he was a determinist, let alone a Nazi precursor, are based mainly on linguistic and cultural misreadings. It is now recognized that his views on culture areas and political structures were paralleled in French geography, under different labels.

The second key personality was Franz Boas (1858–1942) who, by comparison with Ratzel, was empirical and skeptical of theory. Based on long term fieldwork in the Arctic and Pacific Northwest, and complemented by extensive museum studies, he sought an 'insider' perspective on indigenous peoples and espoused a stance of cultural relativism, in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). Moving almost directly from his doctorate in physics and geography in Germany to the USA in 1888, he became an influential professor of anthropology at Harvard in 1899. He strongly supported the clustering of cultural anthropology, together with cognitive linguistics, archaeology, and physical anthropology in a single discipline. While his ideas were scattered in papers, reports, and lectures, his dedication to indigenous studies and his interest in archaeology were imparted to his major students. Of these, Alfred Kroeber (1876–1960) had a significant impact on the creation of the Berkeley tradition and subsequently on some of the basic concepts of cultural ecology.