A Critical Analysis of Eric Wolf's Theory on the Realms of Anthropology

“My primary interest is to explain something out there that impinges me, and I would sell my soul to the devil if I thought it would help.” Eric Wolf’s interest into the realm of anthropology emerged upon recognition of the theorist- imposed boundaries, encompassing both theories and subjects, which current and past anthropological scholars had constructed.

These boundaries, Wolf believed, were a result of theorist tending to societies and cultures as fixed entitiesstatic, bounded and autonomous, rather then describing and interpreting societies within a state of constant change, ceaselessly vulnerable to external influence, and always interconnected with other societies.

Yet to transcend current anthropological theories and boundaries, and to explain this interconnectedness, in attempt to understand the world, Wolf believed three criteria must be met:

  1. To trace the world market and the course of capitalist development,
  2. To develop this theory of this growth and development and finally, one must be able to relate both the history and theory of that unfolding development to processes that affect and change the lives of local populations Wolf, 1982:21)

By tracing the formation of Wolf’s theory through these criteria, from Marxist and beyond, one can see how, although Marxist in orientation, he goes beyond current anthropological theory and attempts to diminish the boundaries, by suggesting that a political economic theory laden with history in a macrocosomic context is the only means in which one can begin to attempt to understand the world.

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The influence of Lewis Henry Morgon and his unilinear version of social evolution posed as the backbone for Karl Marx and Fred Engels.

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Yet rather then transcending from the primitive to the civilized upon “the classification of cultures into seven distinct ethical periods” based on the development of subsistence techniques (Kuper, 66), Marx and Engels based their course of creation from primitive communism, through to feudalism and capitalism judged in terms of the “Modes of Production” which dominated each stage.

It was these “Modes of Production”, referring to the specific technologies, which form the base or the “infrastructure” of a society. From this base, Marx purposed a “Superstructure Theory” in which the base determines the superstructure, that is laws and government, while both the Superstructure and the Base determine the ideology, the philosophies, religion and the ideals that are prevalent in society.

In other words, the economic base provided the cultural superstructure, thus culture could only be understood by drawing upon the changing nature of human production and reproduction, which inevitably is controlled by those in which power is invested-read the ruling class.

Change or advancement towards the teleological goal of civilization therefore became a class struggle, those with little power, against those with power. To maintain this power, Marx believed, the ruling class will resort to whatever means they can, especially through futility in ideological mystification, resulting in the construction of a false consciousness, or a false belief of the lower class.

This false consciousness and false belief resulted eventually in a conceptualized delusion, subjecting them (the lower class) unconsciously to the dominant ideals of society-a concept also known to Gramsci as “Hegemony” Wolf adapted this Marxist approach in his theorizing, that is paying attention to the fundamental dynamics of change and phenomena such as exploitation, domination and colonialism from the get-go of his anthropological inquiry.

In his Ph.D dissertation (1951) while probing into the lives of Puerto Rican societies and cultures he suggested that communities and their socio-cultural traits could not be completely understood without analyzing the impact of existing forces such as national power relations, international trade and world markets (Abbink, 95) It was through these forces which he saw us as all interconnected.

From his fieldwork with peasants he discovered that these smaller communities form a centralcomponent of larger, more complex societies. Therefore occurrences at local levels needed to be understood in terms of reactions of the local people to the economic and political forces expelled from the larger societies, as it is these larger societies which are subjecting the smaller societies to a false consciousness based on the ideology of those in power. Communities which form part of a complex society can thus be viewed no longer as self-contained and integrated systems in their own right.

It is more appropriate to view them as the local termini of a web of group relations which extend through intermediate levels from the level of the community to that of the nation. In the community itself, these relationships may be wholly tangential to each other (Wolf, 1956). This notion of interconnectedness between small communities and large “power centers” therefore allowed Wolf to view society as heterogeneous and interacting across boundaries, rather then as simply a bounded system of ordered relations (Wolf, 1988:757).

His model of a society henceforth developed as one vulnerable to a continual process of change and structuring subjected by the people in the “outside world” and the capitalist mode of production, emphasizing the power exerted to produce ideology, ultimately unintentionally dominates each member of society, making Wolf’s theory a process of politics and economy, of structural power and Marxist Mode of production As illustrated above Wolf views society as “interpenetrating, complex and interconnected” (Wolf, 1988:753), but the world is interconnected on a much deeper level then that simply purposed by mode of production and Marxist theory.

Therefore he argues, it is important to see the world and societies, and their interconnectedness framed in a macroscopic historical context, as the history itself is like a “organized flow-process of fusion and fission” (Wolf, 1988:757). By calling attention to the history of a society it allows one to look at the processes unfolding over time, these processes of change and refashion are seen then more clearly once they are immersed with an all encompassing macrosetting where each society is seen as connected to those in its periphery.

The combination of these two vices thus allows changes, such as those imposed by capitalist penetration upon communities, as in the instance of the full-out erosion of kin based social order as a result of secularization of beliefs, or simply the use of kinship systems as ideologies, more specifically as ways to regulate social labor, and cover-up exploitation, to be recognized (Wolf, 1982)

It is only with this recognition, and the dismembering of “ahistorical functionalism” that Wolf believes will bring down the barriers between the traditional and the modern spheres, also known as the “West and the Rest.” Cultures are not integral wholes carried by social isolates.

We must distinguish between reality culture and ideology-making, and recognize that the creation or dismantling of cultures always goes on within extensive social fields, structured by the dominant modes Wolf’s angle of theory demonstrates a cornucopia of processes and ideas, ultimately illustrating the relationship between society, culture, ideology and modes of production. Although backboned by a Marxist ideology, his drive to illuminate the interconnectedness between anthropologically constructed spheres, demonstrates his desire to stem away from rigid distinctions which “pure” Marxist thought offers.

It is this desire which pushes him beyond simply an economic based theory towards one that is also political, situated upon the structural power exerted in society, ultimately making his analysis one of economic and political processes, only seen through macroscopic historical lenses.


  1. Work Cited Abbink, Jan and Hans Vermeulen. History and Culture: Essays on the Work of Eric R. Wolf. Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis, 1992.
  2. Kuper, A. The Invention of Primitive Society. London: Routledge, 1988. Friedman, Johnathan. “An Interview with Eric Wolf” Current Anthropology 28 (1987) 107-118
  3. Wolf, Eric. Europe and the People Without History. Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
  4. “Culture: Panacea or Problem?” American Antiquity 49(2)1984: 393-400 “Inventing Society” American Ethnologist 15 (1988): 752-761
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A Critical Analysis of Eric Wolf's Theory on the Realms of Anthropology. (2021, Oct 06). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/a-critical-analysis-of-eric-wolf-s-theory-on-the-realms-of-anthropology-essay

A Critical Analysis of Eric Wolf's Theory on the Realms of Anthropology

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