Conrad Maynadier Arensberg (1910-1997)

by Lambros Comitas
Teachers College, Columbia University*

Conrad Maynadier Arensberg, a pivotal figure in that transformative period of American anthropology, when the study of complex societies came of age, died February 10, 1997, at the age of 86. Admired for his erudition, his research, his collegiality, and, perhaps most importantly, for his teaching and mentoring of seemingly countless numbers of graduate students at Columbia University, he was an anthropologist of very considerable substance. His searching mind, finely honed intellect, and truly liberated spirit blended with virtues treasured by many — dignity, principle, compassion, concern for others, and an abiding faith in the lasting values of his society and culture.

An iconoclast who regularly breached the internal hedgerows that segment the academy, Arensberg was a man of many facets: an ethnographer of extraordinary skill who through his work in Ireland helped open Europe to ethnographic study, a seminal thinker of international stature who made major theoretical and methodological contributions to mainstream anthropology; and a pragmatist who demonstrated the value of an applied anthropology based on the firm linkage of scientific rigor and high ethical standards. He saw no gulf, unlike many of his colleagues, between mainstream and applied anthropology, arguing that they were but two facets of a single endeavor with application providing an essential laboratory for testing the theories and models generated by the academy. His ecumenicalism, certainly a minority stance at mid-century, was to become much more the prevailing position in the years that followed. As he stated in 1981, “anthropology as service, and anthropology as theory, can and do inter-fertilize.

The changing subject matters of a contemporary ethnography and the professional involvement of anthropologists in them will lead to a healthy, if not an easy, maturation of our science.” And Arensberg’s critical role in this process of maturation was acknowledged in his lifetime by a rare double distinction — election to the presidencies of both the Society for Applied Anthropology (1945–46), an organization which he helped found, and the American Anthropological Association (1980), an organization in which he had been nurtured.

Born on September 12, 1910, Conrad Maynadier Arensberg was the first son of Charles F. C. Arensberg, a lawyer of German-English extraction who ultimately became President of the Pennsylvania Bar, and Emily Wright (Maynadier) Arensberg, of French Huguenot ancestry, whose family migrated to the American South in 1688. Raised with his three brothers, Walter, Charles and James in Pittsburgh and its surrounds, Conrad was, according to his son Cornelius, “a quiet, bookish child, not favored with good looks, and keenly embarrassed by a stammer,” but who developed as the exceptional sibling, the one with the most academic promise, a “near prodigy.” A success at secondary school, he was editor of The Shadyside News and graduated “First Honor Student Overall.” He excelled at History, with English, Latin and French. He taught himself German, stood for the College Boards in it without benefit of schooling, and amazed his teachers by earning the highest score in the nation, despite the fact that no German was spoken at home.

Arensberg, having been accepted by Harvard, left for Cambridge in 1927. It must have been a rapturous departure since, years later, he confessed to his son that the day he left was one of the happiest of his life, “singing for joy over each of the seven ridges of the Alleghenies, vowing never ever to return, but to remain forever in the greater world of Boston and beyond.”

Harvard and Arensberg seem to have been made for each other. The intellectual and social environment of the campus inspired the young Arensberg, expanding his old interests and introducing him to new currents of thought and praxis. An atmosphere that made early choice of career impossible for an impressionable undergraduate, it was almost certain that the scintillating environment there would prepare and ultimately propel that student into an active life of scholarship. Not long after his arrival at Harvard, he wrote his mother:

All my ideas, as usual, and my hopes and ambitions, are in a great jumble, without any definite center around which to group themselves. One day I feel sure that history is my field of concentration here, for I like my history course immensely. Another day I want to look into anthropology, in fact every time I read anything even suggested of that field. And another time I want to write (I always do anyway) and therefore I think English is the only right field. But the study of literature, for that’s what English means here, can be dry as pure dust, when you spend your time unearthing literature better left dead, as these professors seem so many of them to do. Before I make any definite decision — and that isn’t necessary until March — I’m going to call on Tozzer, the anthropologist-archeologist, you know, and find out what concentration there means. Perhaps there is a training there as good as any for writing, for anthropology is no more than a psychological history of mankind — as nowadays all [not decipherable] are psychological.

Those early years at Harvard provided excellent preparation for a career in American anthropology. He read voraciously in the humanities and social sciences. History had always been a preferred subject (and had been since early childhood); economics was another. Languages were always important to him, and so he continued the study of French, German, Latin, and began to learn Russian. In his junior year, he declared anthropology his major, a decision undoubtedly influenced by three years of undergraduate summer travel to Europe where he “polished” his French, “perfected” his German, “picked up” some Italian, and “toyed” with Spanish and Dutch. After being exempted by the Dean of the College from all senior year final examinations as “being completely unnecessary in Conrad’s case,” he graduated summa cum laude in 1931.

During much of his senior year as well as the following summer and part of 1932, he carried out anthropological field work in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Under the supervision of W. Lloyd Warner, he helped to set up a study of ethnic minorities later to be published by Warner and Leo Srole in the Yankee City series as The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups (1945). This professional link to Warner and his group, as well as the emotional and intellectual impact of his initiatory fieldwork in a depressed New England town, planted the seeds of Arensberg’s lifelong interest in the significance of community in complex societies, the factory, the work place, and most certainly, in the application of anthropology to real-life problems in these units of analysis. During the course of his productive career, Arensberg developed many methodological and theoretical interests. Diverse and far-flung as these concerns might have appeared, for Arensberg they were never conceptually disconnected. Underlying all of his work was an understanding of anthropology as a natural science, existing in a hierarchy of natural sciences, each with its own focus of observation — that of anthropology being human interaction. It was this early experience that helped form his view and approach to anthropology.

In 1932 Arensberg was invited to join a Harvard anthropology department project designed to study Ireland. A graduate student at that time, he was assigned by the project to explore Irish rural life in County Clare. Accompanied during the summer of 1932 by Warner, then in charge of the social anthropology of the project, and joined later by Solon T. Kimball, a fellow Harvard student and Yankee City research alumnus, Arensberg was to spend nearly three years in the Irish Free State. The data collected during that period produced his doctoral dissertation and Ph.D. in 1934; a series of invited lectures given at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1936 on which his widely acclaimed first book, The Irish Countryman, was based; and voluminous material for the well-received monograph Family and Community in Ireland, coauthored with Kimball. Cora Du Bois described the latter work as a classic functional description . . . which demonstrated that land reforms, decreasing population, increasing wealth, emigration, the high percentage of unmarried adults, late marriage combined with a high fecundity rate, the high age level, and even the disappearance of the artisan were all to be wholly or partly understood in terms of the familial concepts of the small Irish farmer. [Du Bois 1941:460] Both books were groundbreaking, graphically illuminating a substantially new anthropology, a comparative field-based science that could contribute significantly to the interdisciplinary study of modern European and North American societies. Together these books signaled a marked acceleration in a hitherto slow disciplinary shift away from a monolithic focus on preliterate and/or non-European societies. And both together emphasized the scientific benefits of analyzing human behavior and not just form and situation.

Over the years, these pioneering works on the anthropology of Europe and Old World civilization led Arensberg and Kimball to additional writing on related methodological and theoretical issues. Of these, ten articles by Arensberg and seven by Kimball were republished in 1965 in a collection entitled Culture and Community, in which the authors define community as “a master institution or master social system; a key to society; and a model, indeed perhaps the most important model of culture . . . that the community has shown itself, in the research of recent years, to be a main link, perhaps a major determinant, in the connections between culture and society” (1965: ix). Several of Arensberg’s contributions to this collection such as “The Community-Study Method” (1954), “American Communities” (1955), and “The Community as Object and as Sample” (1961) were profoundly influential in the preparation of a generation of graduate students in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, many of whom were to go on to study the small but highly complex societies of the Caribbean or town and country in Europe, Latin America, and the Indian subcontinent.

The methodological foundations of what is often referred to as interaction theory were first formalized within the interdisciplinary Society of Fellows at Harvard by Eliot Chappie in collaboration with Arensberg, who had recently returned from Ireland. The product of this collaboration was a short, but extremely influential monograph, Measuring Human Relations: An Introduction to the Study of the Interaction of Individuals, published in 1940. In general, advocates of this approach attempt to understand human social and cultural behaviors, from the most fleeting to the most lasting, through the discrimination, measurement, and sequencing of interpersonal interactions. Human interaction is seen as the catalyst of social organization, and it was Arensberg’s strong conviction that culture emerges from regularities in human interactions in the more frequent life events which he termed “minimal sequence process modeling.” These critical elements of his thought are perhaps best detailed in his AAA presidential address “Cultural Holism through Interactional Systems” (1981), and in “Culture as Behavior: Structure and Emergence” (1972), in which he points out that interactional study has proliferated in many directions and taken on many guises. But, much more importantly, it is in these articles that he put forward an operationalized method for the comparative study of human social behavior, a contribution for which he was justifiably proud.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was Arensberg’s first posting away from Harvard. In 1938, he joined its Department of Social Sciences and Economics and launched a series of ethnographic studies on social behavior, morale, and productivity in New England industrial settings. His fieldwork was among French Canadian, Italian, Polish, and Finnish working-class groups reported on in several articles including “Determination of Morale in an Industrial Company,” coauthored with Douglas McGregor (1942). During this period, he also held active consultancies with the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and State as well as the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Three years later, he left New England for the very different environment of New York to chair the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Brooklyn College, an appointment that was interrupted by four years service during World War II as a military intelligence officer in Washington, DC and Japan.

Demobilized in 1946, he accepted the chairmanship of the Department of Sociology at Barnard College, the first of three appointments he was to hold on Morningside Heights, the urban campus of Columbia University and its affiliates. Some five years later in 1952, very likely as a result of the resignation of Julian Steward, Arensberg was offered what essentially had been Steward’s position in the graduate department of anthropology. He held that post with cascading honor and distinction until his retirement nearly three decades later. He was associate professor from 1952 to 1953, professor from 1953 to 1970, chairman from 1956 to 1959, and holder of the endowed Buttenwieser Professorship of Human Relations from 1970 to 1979. In a department of strong personalities like William Duncan Strong, Margaret Mead, Joseph Greenberg, Charles Wagley, Harry Shapiro, Marvin Harris, Morton Fried, and Robert Murphy, to name just a few, Arensberg, a gentle man of principle, was always the mediator, the conciliator, and the defender during the tumultuous years of the ’60s and ’70s.

At Columbia, his self-inflicted workload was legendary. He served on countless numbers of social science doctoral defenses, and he was advisor, formal or informal, to almost every social or cultural anthropology graduate student on campus or in the field. His research interests kept apace, ranging from studies of bureaucracies and international development; to those on social change (with Arthur H. Niehoff in Introducing Social Change: A Manual for Americans Overseas, 1964); to perfecting the community study method (with Solon Kimball in Culture and Community); and, to the empirical study of cultural stabilities in a modernizing India. With a generous and open intellect, he collaborated not only with anthropologists such as Kimball, Chappie, and Niehoff but with scholars from other disciplines on a variety of subjects: with the economist Karl Polanyi on the economies of ancient empires and contemporary market systems (Trade and Markets in the Early Empires, 1957); with the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax on cantometrics and choreometrics (Folk Song Style and Culture, 1968); and the physicist Arthur Iberall (“Homeokinetic Physics of Societies — A New Discipline: Autonomous Groups, Cultures, Polities,” 1981); with sociologists, philosophers of science, and ecologists interested in general systems theory and the integration of science.

On the occasion of his formal retirement in 1979, a festschrift entitled Culture and Community in Europe and edited by Owen M. Lynch, was issued by his students. In 1991, he received the prestigious Malinowski Award of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Most appropriately, on that same year, he was honored as the first recipient of The Conrad M. Arensberg Award of The Society for the Anthropology of Work.

After retirement, he remained a presence on Morningside Heights, living in the neighborhood, maintaining his ties to former students, drinking on occasion with his anthropological colleagues at the “Thursday Club,” and continuing to teach and advise at the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology located across “the widest street in the world” at Teachers College. He was, I believe, the only anthropologist ever to have held formal appointments in all three Columbia corporations — Barnard College, Columbia College and Graduate Faculty, and Teachers College.

Given the balkanized nature of the so-called Acropolis of the West, this was a significant feat. Critical as were his organizational and scholarly contributions to the discipline of anthropology, there is a further dimension to Arensberg’s legacy, something more difficult to measure that was even more important to the growth and florescence of the field. It was his unflagging encouragement to learn and then to apply the principles of the discipline, and to probe not just the traditional, not just the fashionable in the anthropology of the time but to venture into terra incognita and across disciplinary boundaries without fearing loss of professional integrity. It was remarkable that he did this in academic environments historically characterized by parochial, Maginot Line mentalities that rarely, if ever, approved straying from the disciplinary nest or encouraged the real life testing of their findings. In all, as scholar, practitioner, teacher, and mentor, he was a man well ahead of his time.

For me, as I am sure for very many others, Arensberg epitomized the best in an anthropology devoted to the service of mankind. With his formidable understanding of the nature of society and the complexity of culture, he taught anthropologists to proceed in their investigations and applications with reliance on and sensitivity to theory and method, to examine complex problems in all their multifaceted dimensions, and above all, to proceed with principle and responsibility. He did this with modesty, gentility, humor, and utmost civility. Countless numbers of students of the human condition are forever in his debt.

Over the past century and a half, America has produced and nurtured anthropologists of the very first rank. Conrad Arensberg is distinguished among them. A poem by the nineteenth-century Russian, Zhukovsky, which I first read as an undergraduate years ago, says it well:

How many dear companions who enlivened for us the world’s rough road are gone, each fellow traveler much missed; yet say not sadly: they have left us!
But rather say, with gratitude, they were.


References Cited
Arensberg, Conrad M.

1937 The Irish Countryman. New York and London: The Macmillan Company.
1954 The Community-Study Method. The American Journal of Sociology 60(2): 109–124.
1955 American Communities. American Anthropologist 57(6): 1143–1160.
1961 The Community as Object and as Sample. American Anthropologist 63(2), Part I: 241–64.
1972 Culture as Behavior: Structure and Emergence. Annual Review of Anthropology. 1:1–26.
1981 Cultural Holism through Interactional Systems. American Anthropologist 83(3):562–81. Arensberg, Conrad M., and Solon T. Kimball
1940 Family and Community in Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
1965 Culture and Community. New York, Chicago, Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. Arensberg, Conrad M., and Douglas McGregor
1942 Determination of Morale in an Industrial Company. Applied Anthropology 1(2): 12–34. Arensberg, Conrad M., and Arthur H. Niehoff
1964 Introducing Social Change: A Manual for Americans Overseas. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company. Arensberg, Cornelius N.d. Conrad Maynadier Arensberg: A Personal History 1910–199-. (unpublished manuscript written five years before father’s death). Chappie, Eliot D., and Conrad M. Arensberg
1940 Measuring Human Relations: An Introduction to the Study of the Interaction of Individuals. Genetic Psychology Monographs 23:3–147. DuBois, Cora
1941 Review of Family and Community in Ireland. American Anthropologist 43:460.
Iberall, Arthur, Harry Soodak, and Conrad M. Arensberg
1981 Homeokinetic Physics of Societies — A New Discipline: Autonomous Groups, Cultures, Polities. In Perspectives in Biomechanics. H. Reul, D. N. Ghista, and G. Rau, eds. Pp. 433–519. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers. Lomax, Alan
1968 Folksong Style and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. Lynch, Owen M.
1984 Culture and Community in Europe: Essays in Honor of Conrad M. Arensberg. Delhi: Hindustan Publishing Corporation (India). Polanyi, Karl, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry Pearson, eds.
1957 Trade and Markets in the Early Empires. Glencoe, PL: Free Press.
Warner, W. Lloyd, and Leo Srole
1945 The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups. Yankee City series, 3. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Zhukovsky, Vasily
1949 Remembrance (written in 1821). In A Treasury of Russian Verse. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, ed. New York: The Macmillan Company.

* NOTE: This article first appeared as an obituary notice in American Anthropologist 101, no. 4 (December 1999): 810–817 and is used by permission of the author.


Remembering Cornelius Wright Arensburg



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