Anthropology Eric R. Wolf
Josiah McC. Heyman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0042


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.

Background and Bibliographies

Eric Wolf’s life history connects closely with his intellectual enterprise (Friedman 1987, Ghani 1987, Wolf 1998, Wolf 1982, Wolf 2001a). He turned often in his work to questions of ethnicity and nation-building processes, grounded in his youth in central Europe (Austria and the Sudetenland [now in the Czech Republic]). Clearly, his early life influenced his conflict and power emphases. Late in his life he examined the Nazis as a power project and an ideology (Wolf 1999), with himself and his family being Jewish refugees from their reign of terror. He was an important participant in the change in anthropology from 1910s–1940s culturalist, particularist Boasianism to late-1940s–1960s neoevolutionism, the latter emphasizing transformations and comparisons of complex social orders. In parallel, he experienced the powerful military, political, and ideological systems of World War II and Cold War America. Reflecting on this parallel intellectual and societal history, he developed a forceful critique of the avoidance of power questions by American anthropologists. He was a major figure in the US academic protest against the Vietnam War, which culminated in profound conflicts in the profession over anthropology’s relationship with the national security state, a fundamental ethical question that endures in the early 21st century. His work from the beginning was central to critical approaches to inequality and power in anthropology, development, and Latin American studies (including the work of Latin Americans). He was a towering figure in the scholarly New Left, his thinking both shaping and being shaped by the transition from the chill of the 1950s into the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. Intellectually, this trajectory culminated in his mature work of the 1970s–1990s, a fundamental synthesis of world history in a Marxian perspective and probing examination of the relation of power to culture and ideology. Wolf was generous with interviews and historical reflections, which helps us understand these connections. Two sources, Schneider and Rapp 1995 and Wolf 2001b, provide a near-comprehensive bibliography of his works.

  • Friedman, Jonathan. 1987. An interview with Eric Wolf. Current Anthropology 28.1: 107–118.

    DOI: 10.1086/203501

    The interview by Friedman details Wolf’s personal and intellectual trajectory through the mid-1980s, emphasizing world historical relationships as mattering to anthropology. This article closely resembles Ghani 1987.

  • Ghani, Ashraf. 1987. A conversation with Eric Wolf. American Ethnologist 14.2: 346–366.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.1987.14.2.02a00110

    The interview by Ghani details Wolf’s personal and intellectual trajectory through the mid-1980s, emphasizing world historical relationships as mattering to anthropology. This article closely resembles Friedman 1987.

  • Schneider, Jane, and Rayna Rapp. 1995. Works by Eric R. Wolf. In Articulating hidden histories: Exploring the influence of Eric R. Wolf. Edited by Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp, 351–356. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A complete bibliography of works published through 1991.

  • Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Bibliographic notes. In Europe and the people without history. By Eric R. Wolf, 393–425. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This passage is more essayistic than the title would indicate; Wolf presents it as “to some extent . . . an intellectual autobiography” built around reflections on books he has read.

  • Wolf, Eric R. 1998. Entrevista: Cultura, ideologia, poder e o futuro da antropologia. Mana 4.1: 153–163.

    A late period interview that stresses Wolf’s final concerns with power, ideation, and culture. In Portuguese.

  • Wolf, Eric R. 1999. Envisioning power: Ideologies of dominance and crisis. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    The three case studies here are selected because of their resonances, personal (Nazis), anthropological (Kwakiutl), and both (Aztecs).

  • Wolf, Eric R. 2001a. Introduction: An intellectual autobiography. In Pathways of power: Building an anthropology of the modern world. By Eric R. Wolf, 1–10. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Wolf offers a brief autobiography that combines personal events and intellectual developments. The section introductions throughout the text are also highly informative.

  • Wolf, Eric R. 2001b. Pathways of power: Building an anthropology of the modern world. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    A collection, selected by Eric Wolf and his wife, the anthropologist Sydel Silverman, of articles, book chapters, and previously unpublished papers. Although not comprehensive, the chapters include works by Wolf published after the terminal date of Schneider and Rapp 1995.

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