Short Portrait: Richard Thurnwald

Richard Thurnwald
Richard Thurnwald

Richard Thurnwald was born in Vienna in 1869 and grew up in a well-situated family. After finishing school he did his military service and then took up his studies of Law, Oriental Languages and Economics in 1889. He not only learned Arabic and Turkish but also Serbian and Russian.

In 1994 Thurnwald graduated. He took up a position in Bosnia in 1896, where he also did his first field research on the the local social and economical situation. Inspired by a journey to Egypt, Thurnwald did further studies between 1901 and 1905, this time attending courses on Egyptology and Assyriology in Berlin. Moreover, he began to work at the Ethnological Museum Berlin (formerly: Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde).

On behalf of the Ethnological Museum Thurnwald did several journeys throughout the following years, leading him to Micronesia and New Guinea. Due to the vicissitudes of World War I he could return to Germany but went to the USA. There he lectured in Berkeley, California, and had contact to contemporary american anthropologists like Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber. In 1917 Thurnald returned to Germany and completed his habilitation thesis in Halle.

In 1924 Thurnwald took up a professorship in Berlin. Besides lecturing he founded the journal »Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Soziologie« (today: »Sociologus«) in 1925. Moreover, Thurnwald did further researches between 1930 and 1932 (e.g., in Eastern Africa) and held visiting professorships in the USA (e.g., at the Harvard University, Cambridge).

In 1946/47 Thurnwald carried out research for the American administration about the situation in Berlin.
After World War II Thurnwald initially held a professorship at the Humboldt-Universtity in East-Berlin; he was among those professors who seceded from the Humboldt University when it fell under Russian influence and created the Free University of Berlin (in West-Berlin). Thurnwald became an associated professor at the Free University, where he founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Thurnwald is the first representative of Ethnosoziologie, a theoretical approach which rejected the study of cultural-historical objects but emphasized the research on social cohesion (also see glossary for: Ethnosoziologie). Moreover, Thurnwald was the academic to establish an Anthropology of Law and an Anthropology of Economics in Germany. He sympathized with british Structural functionalism and his work was more well perceived in Great Britain and the US than in Germany.

Thurnwald also advocated a stationary long-term field research. On his researches since the 1930s he was accompanied by his wife, the anthropologist Hilde Thurnwald, who also kept publishing the journal »Sociologus« after his death.

Richard Thurnwald died in 1954.

(This text based on the »Ethnologenverzeichnis«, by courtesy of Weißensee-Verlag and Sibylle Alsayad)

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