Eric Wolf Research Paper

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Anthropologist Eric Robert Wolf was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1923 and died in Irvington, New York, in 1999. The son of an Austro-Russian marriage, Wolf passed a cosmopolitan childhood in Vienna and the Sudetenland before being sent to school in England as Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) destruction loomed. After emigrating with his parents to New York, he served in World War II (1939-1945). After the war, Wolf completed his undergraduate degree at Queens College (1946) and a PhD at Columbia University (1951), both in anthropology. Along with returning veterans such as Morton Klass (1927-2001), Robert F. Murphy (1924-1990), Stanley Diamond (1922-1991), and others, Wolf formed the Mundial Upheaval Society to discuss the influence of classical social theory, especially Marxism, in the social sciences. During early fieldwork in Puerto Rico and Mexico, Wolf combined Marxian and Weberian frameworks with Middle European political-economic debates arising from the 1917 Russian Revolution, examining the praxis of grounded power relations. From this work emerged contributions to anthropologist Julian Steward’s (1902-1972) People of Puerto Rico (1956), and Wolf’s classic Sons of the Shaking Earth (1959), which synthesized archaeological and ethnohistorical knowledge of Mesoamerican civilization within a class-sensitive framework. Wolf also authored or coauthored groundbreaking articles that addressed the history and sociology of cultural forms—for example, the Virgin of Guadalupe, compadrazgo, corporate communities, and Santa Claus—as these forms build liens of redistribution across class, caste, and nation. In early publications as in later ones, Wolf served as a translator of European social thought into American anthropology.

Over a long and distinguished teaching career at the universities of Illinois, Virginia, Chicago, and Michigan, and at Lehman College at the City University of New York Graduate Center, from which he retired in 1992, Wolf was a prolific and iconoclastic scholar, publishing more than one hundred articles, and editing many journal issues and books. In addition to Sons of the Shaking Earth, his books include: Anthropology (1964), Peasants (1966), Peasant Wars of the 20th Century (1969), The Human Condition in Latin America (1972, with Edward Hansen), The Hidden Frontier (1974, with John Cole), and the magisterial Europe and the People Without History (1982), followed by Envisioning Power (1999). Pathways to Power, edited with his wife, the anthropologist Sydel Silverman, appeared posthumously in 2001. All illustrate coherent themes central to his scholarship: connections between intellectual histories and social movements and broad political economic trends; ties binding specific cultural forms to class-inflected power relations; and embedded local class relations that play out articulations of global history. Thus, the daily political and social lives of family, community, faction, religious-ethnic group, state, and nation may appear as somewhat autonomous, but in Wolf’s writings they all serve as termini of concrete international processes. His work underlines the historical depth of these interconnections within and across shifting national boundaries of modernity, and he insists on the historical incorporation of the small-scale societies anthropologists conventionally study into larger webs of power, exploitation, and occasionally resistance. It is Wolf’s enduring achievement to have enabled individuals to understand such societies in new ways, as dependent on connections of political economy and culture.

In Anthropology, Wolf labeled his field “the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanist of the sciences” (1964, p. 88). Later texts carried humanist scientific study into the interstitial connections throughout modern history. His synthetic intelligence and highly comparative method enabled Wolf to produce books that remain beacons of social scientific clarity in anthropology. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (1969) illuminated the limited, class-fragmented, and constrained agency of the peasants who helped to topple and transform regimes in Mexico, Russia, China, Vietnam, Algeria, and Cuba, too often at their own expense. Europe and the People Without History (1982) showed that the bands, tribes, and villages once considered classical anthropological subjects were actually products of the socioeconomics of the modern capitalist world. After its publication, anthropologists could never again work in the “ethnographic present.” It was Wolf’s accomplishment, as the subtitle of his last book forcefully proclaims, to have oriented his field toward Building an Anthropology of the Modern World.


  1. Ghani, Ashraf. 1995. Writing a History of Power: An Examination of Eric R. Wolf ’s Anthropological Quest. In Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf, eds. Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp, 31–48. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Schneider, Jane. 1995. Introduction: The Analytic Strategies of Eric R. Wolf. In Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf, eds. Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp, 3–30. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Wolf, Eric R. 1964. Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  4. Wolf, Eric R. 2001. Introduction: An Intellectual Biography. In Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World, 1–10. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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