Redfield, Robert, 1897-1958

Alternative names
Birth 1897-12-04
Death 1958-10-16

Biographical notes:

Anthropologist. J.D., University of Chicago, 1924; Ph. D., University of Chicago, 1928. Assistant professor of anthropology, University of Chicago, 1928-1934; professor, 1934-1958; dean, Division of the Social Sciences, 1934-1946; chairman, Department of Anthropology, 1947-1949. Died 1958.

From the description of Papers, 1925-1958 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52250075

The association of Robert M. Hutchins and Robert Redfield led to the creation of the Ford Foundation cultural studies program. Hutchins, while Chancellor of the University of Chicago wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation in 1949, to request funding, without response. Late in 1950, Paul Hoffman, a member of the University Board of Trustees, accepted the position of president at the Ford Foundation on condition that Hutchins would be offered a post as associate director. Hutchins accepted in 1951. With Hutchins to introduce the idea, Robert Redfield applied to the Ford Foundation for $75,000 for the academic year of 1951-1952 to study intercultural relations. The grant was approved in August 1951 for Robert Redfield to designate the monies for the project. Milton Singer and Eliseo Vivas were chosen by Redfield to help administer the program. Redfield summarized his goals for the project in a report to the Ford Foundation in 1954: "It holds a hope of modifying in some degree the separateness with which study of Western Civilization has been carried on, and of supplementing, through a more central vision, the efforts made in UNESCO and elsewhere to develop a world community of ideas."

The first years of the project were spent in gathering information about current research efforts in the United States and Europe, holding conferences and seminars and supporting a few projects. The first projects proposed were Milton Singer's study on national character, G. A. Borgese's comparative study of Chinese, Christian and Indian philosophical and religious traditions, and Arthur Wright's and John K. Fairbank's study on Chinese thought. Through these studies and others, a methodology for the analysis and comparison of civilizations could be developed. The 'great traditions' in China, India, Islam, and Meso-America became the focus of the project. After 1954 the project concentrated its efforts on the study of India. The project oversaw publication of the Comparative Studies of Cultures and Civilizations including: Language in Culture, edited by Harry Hoijer, Studies in Chinese Thought, edited by Arthur F. Wright, The Little Community, by Robert Redfield, Village India, edited by McKim Marriott, and three titles on Islam edited by Gustave E. von Grunebaum.

In the summer of 1953 Robert Hutchins warned Redfield that he was not to expect further funding for intercultural studies from the Ford Foundation. Hutchins left the Ford Foundation in 1954 to become president of the Fund for the Republic. In that same year the Foundation granted Redfield a final appropriation of $100,000 with the agreement that this would be the amount needed to complete the work of the project by June 30th, 1958. Milton Singer, the most active of Redfield's associates, oversaw responsibilities of the program when Redfield became ill and then died in October 1958. Funds left over from the grants were used for publications and related expenses until 1961.

From the guide to the Redfield, Robert. Ford Foundation Cultural Studies Program. Records, 1951-1961, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

Most of Robert Redfield's life and distinguished career were closely linked to the University of Chicago. He had graduated from the University's Laboratory School and its College, and had received the JD degree before beginning graduate work in anthropology with Fay-Cooper Cole and Edward Sapir in 1924. Upon the completion of his PhD in 1928 he was made an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and from that date until his death in 1958 he was an active member of the faculty of the Anthropology Department. Promotions came quickly for him: by 1934 he was a full professor and in the same year was made Dean of the Division of Social Sciences: after giving up the Deanship in 1946, he served as chairman of the Department of Anthropology from 1947 to 1949.

When Redfield began his graduate work in anthropology, anthropology was taught in a department combined with sociology, thus giving him the full benefit of training in both fields. Faye-Cooper Cole and Edward Sapir guided much of his graduate training: in the field of sociology, the most influential member of the faculty, Robert E. Park, was the man who had first encouraged Redfield to pursue anthropological studies and whose work was to have an important effect on Redfield's conception of the nature of the social sciences. As a reflection of his student years, a few of Redfield's own student term papers are found in the section of "Student Papers: and in the "Personal Correspondence" can be found a record of his archaeological experiences in Bainbridge, Ohio, in the summer of 1925. Other than these, the collection contains very little record of his graduate training before beginning fieldwork in Middle America.

Redfield married Margaret Park, Robert Park's daughter, in 1920 and, because of her training in anthropology and sociology and her strong natural interest in people, Mrs. Redfield was always an active and important participant in fieldwork. In 1926, the Redfields began their first fieldwork in the small village of Tepoztlan, Morelos, Mexico. The eight months spent in Tepoztlan was the more difficult because the Redfields needed to keep their children safe during several incidents of Mexican civil unrest. A few field notes are found in the "Middle America Field Materials," but more extensive documentation of these months exists in the correspondence between Redfield and family members in Chicago, and his correspondence with Mrs. Redfield while she was temporarily in Tacubaya, Mexico.

From the work in Tepoztlan Redfield wrote his PhD dissertation, which was later, published as Tepoztlan: Life in a Mexican Village (1930). The body of the dissertation was published virtually unchanged, but with a new introduction. The original introduction to the dissertation is also very interesting: it can be consulted with the copy of the dissertation found in the general collection of the University of Chicago Library.

In 1930, Redfield began his association with the Carnegie Institution of Washington and its work in Yucatan. Initially, Redfield went to Yucatan to propose a cultural survey of the peninsula but soon after his arrival, a meeting was held at the headquarters in Chichen Itza and it was decided not to pursue a survey of contemporary cultures. Archeology was the first and biggest interest of the CIW in Yucatan and from this had sprung a very strong historical-reconstructionist approach to the study of modern cultures. Redfield made it clear he would not engage in this type of study (which he considered a search for survivals), but would go ahead, nonetheless, and draft a proposal for a different kind of study. Alfred Kidder, who was then associated with the CIW and who had attended the meeting in Chichen Itza, took an interest in Redfield's approach to the study of contemporary cultures and, after the proposal was submitted, advocated its implementation. The project, as outlined by Redfield, was undertaken and was destined to be both large and important. The preliminary events surrounding the cultural survey of Yucatan are documented by Redfield's correspondence to his wife (see the "Personal Correspondence"), and by the project proposals and their drafts found in the "General Files" under Carnegie Institution of Washington.

In 1931, the Redfields began their fieldwork in Yucatan. Chan Kom had been chosen as one of four communities to be studied and Alfonso Villa-Rojas, then a young schoolteacher, had already begun working in the village under Redfield's supervision. The Redfields joined him there for further work. These labors resulted in Chan Kom: A Maya Village (1934), jointly authored by Redfield and Villa, and was the first of the Yucatan community studies to be published. During the years of work in Yucatan other communities were studied: Asael Hansen undertook intensive work in the capitol city of Merida, Villa studied several villages in Quintana Roo, and Redfield studied the town of Dzitas. The entire project was done under Redfield's direction and as a result there are in the collection extensive field notes, field diaries, and correspondence relating to all this work.

Redfield was responsible for the supervision of similar work, also sponsored by the CIW, being done in the neighboring highlands of Guatemala by Sol Tax. In the spring of 1935, Redfield made an exploratory trip to Guatemala with a brief stopover in Yucatan. This trip is described in Redfield's letters to his family but the expected arrival of the Redfield's fourth child was the uppermost concern in his mind (he returned to Chicago just a few hours before the birth of his son James). During this trip, however, arrangements were begun for the Redfields to take up fieldwork in Agua Escondida, Guatemala.

In the spring of 1937, and from October to February of 1938-1939 the Redfields were working in Agua Escondida. At the time of the 1938-1939 trip Redfield was finishing The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941) which synthesized all of the work which had been done in Yucatan in the 1930s and which included part of the results from Sol Tax's work in Guatemala. It was an enormous task, which reflected Redfield's ability to extract general trends from a morass of data.

All of the work done in Guatemala is substantiated by a large number of diaries, ethnographic field notes, and correspondence between Tax and Redfield. Also present are Benjamin and Lois Paul's notes from work done in Guatemala under the supervision of the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology.

In the late 1940s, Redfield's interest began to turn away from “the folk” and centered on “civilization.” Late in 1948 the Redfields set out for China where he was to teach at National Tsinghua University, Peiping. After a brief stay in Peiping the Redfields were forced to go to Lingnan University, Canton, and soon after that to leave the country in the face of the advancing Communist Army. The Redfields returned from China by way of Europe where Redfield delivered a series of lectures in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1949. The "Personal Correspondence" contains documentation of the China-Europe trip: related correspondence can be found in the "General Files" under Helen and Everett Hughes. The Frankfurt Lectures themselves are found in the section of "Redfield Publications." Photographs are the only material present from the brief stay in China and India. Scattered documents throughout the collection, however, clearly reveal his increasing interest in the study of comparative civilization.

From the beginning of this career Redfield had also been involved in a large number of national and international activities and had been active as a private citizen in many social causes. He was president of the American Anthropological Association (1944): was a member of the Commission on the Freedom of the Press: was a director of the American Council on Race Relations: a member of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution: and had been an advisor for the War Relocation Authority during the war years. In addition to these activities he was also a frequent guest lecturer at various universities and served on the boards of several foundations. As a man of great integrity who held high standards for himself and for things with which he was associated, his assistance was highly valued in the academic world: his name was often sought to back public causes. The records of these activities are found throughout the "General Files."

In the 1950s, Redfield began to remove himself from the strenuous obligations imposed by these and other activities and turned instead to more concentrated teaching and writing at the University of Chicago. Perhaps of greatest interest to him was the comparative study of civilization largely made possible through the generous grants of the Ford Foundation. This claimed the greatest part of his attention in the 1950s: the records of this project were deposited in the University Archives in 1972 and have been organized as a separate collection: "Comparative Cultures Project Papers."

After the mid-1950s Redfield had less time and energy to devote to his work because he suffered from leukemia. His remaining time was enthusiastically devoted to those activities, which had come to have special importance for him. These included work on the concepts of civilization, the nature and role of general education in modern society, and human nature. Even in the face of ebbing strength Redfield worked diligently and maintained, as always, his self-imposed standards. He passed away on 16 October 1958, in Billings Hospital from leukemia.

From the guide to the Redfield, Robert. Papers, 1917-1958, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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  • Indians of Central America--Languages
  • Indians of Central America--Social life and customs
  • Indians of Mexico--Languages
  • Anthropology--Research--United States
  • Indians of Mexico--Social life and customs


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