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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 November 2012

Department of History, University of Richmond E-mail:


The history of the rise and fall of “modernization theory” after World War II has been told as a story of Talcott Parsons, Walt Rostow, and other US social scientists who built a general theory in US universities and sought to influence US foreign policy. However, in the 1950s anthropologist Robert Redfield and his Comparative Civilizations project at the University of Chicago produced an alternative vision of modernization—one that emphasized intellectual conversation across borders, the interrelation of theory and fieldwork, and dialectical relations of tradition and modernity. In tracing the Redfield project and its legacies, this essay aims to broaden intellectual historians’ sense of the complexity, variation, and transnational currents within postwar American discourse about modernity and tradition.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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I would like to thank Charles Capper, Daniel T. Rodgers, Hugh West, Eric Yellin, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions on previous versions of this essay.


1 Robert Redfield to Lisa Redfield, 9 Nov. 1948, Box 1, Folder 14, Robert Redfield Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library (hereafter RRP); Wen-tsao Wu to Robert Redfield, 21 March 1949, Box 7, Folder 3, RRP; Fei Hsiao-tung (Xiaotong) to Robert Redfield, 22 May 1948, Box 7, Folder 3, RRP.

2 In 1949, Redfield predicted that China would “modify” Marxism and free-enterprise principles to match its own long-standing “ideals of life.” Robert, Robert, “Visit to China,” University of Chicago Magazine 42 (1949), 20Google Scholar.

3 The term first appears on page 4 of Robert, Robert, Tepoztlan, a Mexican Village (Chicago, 1930)Google Scholar. For histories that identify Redfield's interwar scholarship as a model for later modernization theorists see Clifford, Clifford, Robert Redfield and the Development of American Anthropology (Lanham, MD, 2006)Google Scholar; Jordan, Jordan, “Modernization,” in Fox, Richard Wightman and Kloppenberg, James T., eds., A Companion to American Thought (Oxford, 1995), 462–4Google Scholar. Howard, Howard, The Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (Ithaca, NY, 2001), 48–9Google Scholar, positions Redfield as the originator of a “Chicago school” of modernization distinct from a “Harvard school” led by Parsons but does not examine Redfield's postwar work.

4 Neither of Redfield's two biographers devotes much attention to the comparative-civilization project. Wilcox, Robert Redfield; Kathryn Kadel, “Little Community to the World: The Social Vision of Robert Redfield, 1897–1958” (unpublished PhD thesis, Northern Illinois University, 2000); Andrew, Andrew, “Robert Redfield's Comparative Civilization Project and the Political Imagination of Postwar America,” Positions 6 (1998), 3365Google Scholar, has examined the project as a case study in the Cold War uses of area studies knowledge. Gilkeson, John S., Anthropologists and the Rediscovery of America, 1886–1965 (Cambridge, 2010), 218–37Google Scholar, has written on Redfield's postwar “turn to history” and his interest in “civilization” as a conceptual category.

5 Edward, Edward, The Intellectual between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation (Hague, 1961), 19Google Scholar. For a representative cataloguing of the obstacles see Hagen, Everett E., “The Process of Economic Development,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 5 (1957), 193215CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Rostow, Walt W., The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-communist Manifesto (New York, 1960)Google Scholar.

7 One prominent exception was the economic historian Andre Gunder Frank. Frank, Andre Gunder, “The Sociology of Development and the Underdevelopment of Sociology,” Catalyst 3 (1967), 2073Google Scholar; O'Brien, Donal Cruise, “Modernization, Order, and the Erosion of a Democratic Ideal: American Political Science, 1960–70,” Journal of Developing Studies 8 (1972), 351–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alejandro, Alejandro, “Modernity and Development: A Critique,” Studies in Comparative International Development 8 (1973), 249–79Google Scholar.

8 Intellectual historians have traced the domestic origins of social-scientific visions about the Third World, documented tensions and debates among theorists, and examined the institutional formations and social practices upon which theory was built. Historians of US foreign relations have investigated the political uses of modernization ideologies and the hand that social scientists played in policymaking about the Third World. On the rise and fall of postwar modernization theory see Nils, Nils, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore, 2003)Google Scholar; Brick, Age of Contradiction, 44–65. On the social practice of postwar theory building see Joel, Joel, “Theorist at Work: Talcott Parsons and the Carnegie Project on Theory, 1949–1951,” Journal of the History of Ideas 71 (2010), 287311CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For histories that emphasize the connections between social science and US foreign policy see David, David, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton, NJ, 2010)Google Scholar; Michael, Michael, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000)Google Scholar; Joel, Joel, “Tangled Loops: Theory, History, and the Human Sciences in Modern America,” MIH 6 (2009), 397424Google Scholar.

9 I borrow the term “rooted cosmopolitans” from political theorists who have in recent years examined the historical and contemporary contours of cosmopolitan and national identity. On “rooted” cosmopolitanism see Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “Cosmopolitan Patriots,” in Cheah, Pheng and Robbins, Bruce, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (Minneapolis, 1998), 91114Google Scholar; Hollinger, David A., “Not Universalists, Not Pluralists: The New Cosmopolitans Find Their own Way,” in Vertovec, Steven and Cohen, Robin, eds., Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, Practice (Oxford, 2002), 228–39Google Scholar; Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, “Cosmopolitanism and the Circle of Reason,” Political Theory 28/5 (Oct. 2000), 619–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Hollinger, David A., “How Wide the Circle of the ‘We’? American Intellectuals and the Problem of the Ethnos since World War II,” American Historical Review 98 (1993), 317–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Robert, Robert, “Civilization,” in Human Nature and the Study of Society: The Papers of Robert Redfield, vol. 1, ed. Redfield, Margaret (Chicago, 1962), 414Google Scholar.

12 Kadel, “Little Community,” 15–52; Eric, Eric, “Robert Redfield,” in Silverman, Sydel, ed., Totems and Teachers (Walnut Creek, CA, 2004), 178–9Google Scholar.

13 Redfield took courses with anthropologists Fay Cooper-Cole and Edward Sapir, but sociology dominated anthropology in the combined department. Park, Robert E., “The City as Social Laboratory,” in Smith, T. V. and White, Leonard D., eds., Chicago: An Experiment in Social Science Research (Chicago, 1929), 119Google Scholar, 3. Park, Robert E., “Human Migration and the Marginal Man,” American Journal of Sociology 33 (1928), 881CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Thomas, W. I. and Znaniecki, Florian, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Chicago, 1920)Google Scholar.

15 In addition to early graduate studies in Germany and travels in Europe as secretary to Booker T. Washington, Park spent the last years of his career traveling and lecturing in the West Indies, Hawaii, China, India, and Brazil. On Park and the Chicago school see especially Matthews, Fred H., Quest for an American Sociology: Robert E. Park and the Chicago School (Montreal, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Park's influence on Redfield see Wilcox, Redfield, 22–32.

16 Robert, Robert, Linton, Ralph, and Herskovits, Melville, “Memorandum for the Study of Acculturation,” American Anthropologist 38 (1936), 149–52Google Scholar.

17 Robert, Robert, “Culture Changes in Yucatan,” American Anthropologist 36 (1934), 62Google Scholar; idem, The Folk Culture of Yucatan (Chicago, 1941); idem, “The Folk Society,” American Journal of Sociology 53 (1947), 293–308.

18 See, for example, Stuart, Stuart, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas (New York, 1931)Google Scholar, which compared Tepoztlán and Muncie, Indiana, as studied by the sociologist Robert Lynd.

19 Sol, Sol, “Culture and Civilization in Guatemalan Societies,” Scientific Monthly 48 (1939), 463–7Google Scholar; Mintz, Sidney W., “The Folk–Urban Continuum and the Rural Proletarian Community,” American Journal of Sociology 59 (1953), 136–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lewis, Oscar, Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied (Urbana, IL, 1951)Google Scholar.

20 Robert, Robert, “The Maya and Modern Civilization,” Scientific Monthly 37 (1933), 111Google Scholar; Smith, Mark C., Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918–1941 (Durham, NC, 1994)Google Scholar.

21 Robert, Robert, “Consequences of Atomic Energy,” Phi Delta Kappan 27 (1946), 221Google Scholar; Kadel, “Little Community,” 231.

22 Julian, Julian, UNESCO: Its Purpose and Philosophy (Washington, DC, 1947), 5Google Scholar.

23 Liping, Liping, Making the World Like Us: Education, Cultural Expansion, and the American Century (Praeger, 2003)Google Scholar; Whitney, Whitney, “Internationalism and the Junior Year Abroad: American Students in France in the 1920s and 1930s,” Diplomatic History 29 (April 2005), 255–78Google Scholar.

24 Two notable exceptions were the Institute of Pacific Relations, founded in 1925 to further peace through scholarly connections across the Pacific, and to a lesser extent the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, which increased its non-Western membership in the 1930s. On interwar cultural internationalism see Akira, Akira, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore, 1997)Google Scholar; Daniel, Daniel, “Transnational Intellectual Cooperation, the League of Nations, and the Problem of Order,” Journal of Global History 6 (2011), 223–47Google Scholar.

25 Historian David Hollinger has called mid-century anthropologists “the grand exemplars of cosmopolitanism.” Hollinger, David A., Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliations in the United States (Madison, WI, 2006), 166Google Scholar.

26 Robert, Robert, “The Study of Culture in General Education,” in The Social Uses of Social Science: The Papers of Robert Redfield, vol. 2, ed. Redfield, Margaret (Chicago, 1963), 111Google Scholar, 113.

27 Glendon, Mary Ann, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York, 2001), 310Google Scholar.

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29 Robert, Robert, “Social Science in the Atomic Age,” Journal of General Education 1 (1947), 120–24Google Scholar, 123.

30 Selcer, “View from Everywhere,” 314.

31 Robert Redfield, “Does America Need a Hearing Aid? Saturday Evening Post, 26 Sept. 1953. Singer, M., “Robert Redfield's Development of a Social Anthropology of Civilizations,” in Murtha, J., ed. Anthropology: The Early Years (St Paul, MN, 1976), 193–4Google Scholar. On the impact of the Cold War on cultural internationalism see especially Frank, Frank, The Diplomacy of Ideas: U.S. Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–1950 (New York, 1981)Google Scholar; Volker, Volker, America and the Intellectual Cold Wars in Europe (Princeton, NJ, 2001)Google Scholar; Christina, Christina, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (Berkeley, CA, 2003)Google Scholar.

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33 Robert Redfield to Lisa Redfield, 13 Feb. 1949, Box 1, Folder 14, RRP; Everett Hagen to Robert Redfield, 14 April 1949, Box 14, Folder 13, RRP.

34 Robert Redfield to Margaret Park Redfield, 7 May 1949, Box 1, Folder 15, RRP.

35 UNESCO Department of Cultural Activities, “Comparative Study of Cultures,” 23 Nov. 1949, Box 18, Folder 13, Robert Redfield Cultural Studies Program Records, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library (hereafter RRFF).

36 The Oriental Institute was founded in 1919 with the mission of studying the “rise and development of civilization.” Bruce, Bruce, Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880–1930 (Princeton, NJ, 1996), 112–14Google Scholar.

37 Childe, V. Gordon, What Happened in History (New York, 1946)Google Scholar; Toynbee, Arnold J., A Study of History (New York, 1947)Google Scholar; Northrop, F. S. C., The Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding (New York, 1946)Google Scholar; “Education: The Challenge,” Time, 17 March 1947.

38 Redfield was not the only US anthropologists to turn to the comparative study of civilizations. As John Gilkeson, Anthropologists, 208–18, notes, Alfred Kroeber also become interested in civilizations as “historical growths.” In the late 1940s, Kroeber exchanged ideas with Northrop and Toynbee and lectured at Harvard on “Civilization as a Field of Comparative History.”

39 Redfield, “Social Science in the Atomic Age,” 123; Robert Redfield to Robert M. Hutchins, 21 March 1951, Box 5, Folder 10, RRFF.

40 Between 1951 and 1961, the foundation provided the project with $375,000 in grants. The foundation's funding of the Redfield project came, in large measure, because of Redfield's professional connection and personal friendship with Robert M. Hutchins, former dean of the University of Chicago, whom the foundation's first president Paul Hoffman had chosen as his second-in-command in 1951. Robert Redfield to Robert M. Hutchins, 18 Dec. 1951, Box 5, Folder 10, RRFF; Sutton, Francis X., “The Ford Foundation: The Early Years,” Daedalus 116 (1987), 4191Google Scholar.

41 Document C. A List of Enterprises Already Begun, ca. March 1952, Box 5, Folder 6, RRFF.

42 Robert, Robert, The Primitive World and Its Transformation (Ithaca, NY, 1953), ixGoogle Scholar; idem, The Little Community (Chicago, 1955), 1.

43 Redfield, The Little Community, 141–2; Robert, Robert, “The Natural History of the Folk Society,” Social Forces 31 (1953), 225Google Scholar.

44 Redfield, “The Natural History of the Folk Society,” 225.

45 Ibid., 225, 228; Redfield, Primitive World, xi, 77–83.

46 Robert, Robert, “The Social Organization of Tradition,” Far Eastern Quarterly 15 (1955), 17Google Scholar.

47 That they saw India as a pure civilization—and not as a product of thousands of years of migration, trade and conquest by myriad cultures and groups—spoke both to their ignorance of Indian history and to the state of US knowledge about India in the early 1950s.

48 Although inspired by Redfield's own village studies, new anthropological interest in Indian villages was also the result of contemporary politics. Where the British had discouraged ethnography in villages, the new government of India, concerned about rural economic development, was eager for knowledge about the Indian village. McKim Marriott, “Roster of Some Social Anthropologists and Sociologists who have worked with Peasant Peoples in South Asia,” c.1953, Box 12, Folder 8, RRFF.

49 Indology, the study of sacred Hindu texts, dominated the study of India in the United States prior to the 1950s. Elder, Joseph W., Dimock, Edward C. Jr, and Embree, Ainslie T., eds., India's Worlds and US Scholars, 1947–1997 (New Delhi, 1998), 1927Google Scholar; Davis, Richard H., South Asia at Chicago: A History (Chicago, 1985), 15Google Scholar.

50 Milton Singer to Robert Redfield, 14 Nov. 1953, Box 5, Folder 14, RRFF.

51 Marx's view of India did not remain constant. In his later writings, Marx altered his view that India lacked its own history, suggesting that developing communal connections might form a basis for resistance to capitalism. On Marx and India, see Anderson, Kevin B., Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago, 2010), 1328CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 208–12; Thomas, Thomas, Ideologies of the Raj (New York, 1995), 66112Google Scholar.

52 Bert, Bert, “Non-economic Barriers to Economic Development,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 1 (1952), 810Google Scholar; Morris, Morris, “The Appeal of Communism to the Peoples of Underdeveloped Areas,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 1 (1952), 2236Google Scholar.

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54 Srinivas, M. N., Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (Oxford, 1952)Google Scholar; idem, “The Social System of a Mysore Village” in Marriott, Village India, 15.

55 Marriott, Village India, xii, 53–77, 211, 225.

56 Milton Singer to Robert Redfield, 14 July 1954, Box 10, Folder 1, RRFF.

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59 Redfield, “Social Organization,” 18, 20–21.

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63 Singer, Traditional India, xviii.

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68 The phrase, belonging to communication specialist Ithiel de Sola Pool, a key member of the MIT group, is quoted in Gilman, Mandarins, 8.

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70 Ibid., 2.

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74 David Apter to Lloyd Fallers, 6 Feb. 1960, Lloyd A. Fallers Papers, Box 2, Folder 7, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

75 Shils, “On the Comparative Study of New States,” 9.

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85 Rostow, Stages, 7, 38, 149.

86 Harry Schwartz, “Nations Have Their Phases,” New York Times, 8 May 1960, BR6.

87 Redfield, Little Community, 141.

88 Redfield, “Folk Society,” 224.