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Summary Article: Westermarck, Edward
from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

Edvard (Edward) Alexander Westermarck (1862-1939), the Finnish social anthropologist and philosopher, is known for his studies on the evolution of human marriage and morality, as well as for his fieldwork in Morocco. At the London School of Economics, he was a teacher of the first generation of professional anthropologists in Britain.

Biography and Major Works

Westermarck was born in Helsingfors (Helsinki), what was then the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, to upper-middle-class parents with university connections. An elder brother of his died of tuberculosis, and Edward, too, had early health problems. Due to asthma, he was frequently cut off from school and social life, although he passed his matriculation exam on schedule in 1881. It was only in 1886, during a spell of strenuous mountaineering in Norway, that he gained confidence in his physical fitness. Westermarck never married. He was not outgoing, but he was friendly and got along with people, regardless of culture and class background. He had some lifelong good friends.

In 1881, Westermarck enrolled at the Imperial Alexander University at Helsingfors (today the University of Helsinki). He graduated with a thesis in philosophy in 1886. The naturalistic tendencies of European thought in the 1880s made a lasting impact on him. He was skeptical of German idealism, and he dismissed Christianity as untenable both philosophically and ethically. At 24, inspired by Darwin's views on the early development of humans, he learned English to study the reports by colonial administrators and missionaries that were kept at the British Museum Library.

Westermarck spent the academic year of 1887-1888 in London, writing his doctoral thesis. His friendship with the psychologist James Sully (1842-1923) proved crucial at this time. They had met in Norway 2 years earlier, and it was Sully who introduced Westermarck into his academic network. Sully also presented Westermarck to the Couplands, with whom Westermarck lodged and who also had connections with leading British intellectuals.

Westermarck defended his thesis at Helsingfors in 1889, and E. B. Tylor recommended the work to Macmillan Publishers. Macmillan published an extended version, with a preface by Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1891, The History of Human Marriage. The book and the huge publicity it received were, according to Westermarck, the turning point of his career.

After this tour de force, Westermarck embarked on a work of even more encyclopedic dimensions: a general, comparative account of the development of morality. The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas was published in two volumes in 1906 and 1908.

The year 1898 saw the beginning of Westermarck's lasting connection to Morocco. At first, he intended his trip to be just one leg of a comprehensive research journey. However, he soon realized that Morocco alone presented enough material for his research. Even in general, the interests of social anthropologists at the time were shifting toward the intensive study of geographically limited areas. Westermarck's active field research covered 6 years, on and off from 1898 to 1913. He traveled widely, even in regions considered out of bounds not only for Europeans but also for Moroccan government officials. After 1923, he again regularly spent some part of the year in Tangier, where he bought a house. Shereef Sîdi Abdessalam el-Baqqâli (1876-1942) was Westermarck's crucial contact and friend in Morocco. El-Baqqâli was employed as Westermarck's guide and the head of his staff, but he also gave Westermarck language instruction and collected fieldwork data. El-Baqqâli is explicitly acknowledged as the coauthor in Wit and Wisdom in Morocco (1930), a collection of proverbs. In 1926, Westermarck published the main results of his Moroccan research in his two-volume Ritual and Belief in Morocco.

In 1904, Westermarck was enrolled as Appointed Teacher of Sociology (in effect, social anthropology) at the London School of Economics. In 1907, the 3-year appointment was converted to a professorship, which Westermarck held until his retirement in 1930.

At Helsingfors, Westermarck sought the chair of philosophy. The university senate voted in his favor, but the appointment was blocked for reasons connected with language policy. The university was bilingual, with Finnish and Swedish as the media of instruction. Westermarck's first language was Swedish, but he refused to sit the required exam for Finnish. The chair was given to a Finnish speaker, but in compensation, a new professorship was created for Westermarck in 1906. It was agreed that Westermarck could also keep his job in Britain and spend part of the year there.

At the turn of the 20th century, Finnish bourgeois politics was dominated by two central concerns: (1) relations to the Russian central government and (2) the rivalry between ethnic Finns and ethnic Swedes. Nationalist politicians in Russia hoped to dismantle the constitutionally guaranteed Finnish autonomy. Westermarck made use of his international contacts to gain sympathy for the Finnish cause. In Finnish domestic politics, Westermarck stressed Swedish language rights. After Finnish independence, he was part of the Finnish delegation to the League of Nations, sent to represent Finland in a dispute with Sweden over the Aaland Islands. He advocated Swedish cultural autonomy within a territorially unified Finnish state.

Westermarck's work for the Academy of Åbo (today, Åbo Akademi University) must be seen in this context. In 1918, the academy was founded as a private university, with Swedish as its language of instruction. Westermarck was appointed to the chair of philosophy, which he held until 1932. He was also elected the first rector for 1918 to 1921. As head of the new university, he was active in recruiting staff and securing donations. He hoped to foster a modern research university with a strong profile for the social sciences. No doubt he had the London School of Economics in mind as a possible model. However, the senate failed to renew Westermarck's rectorate for another 3-year period. Westermarck's friends saw this as a power grab by the vice rector and his retinue in the science faculty.

The outcome was probably a blessing in disguise, as it left Westermarck with more time for research. His years at Åbo saw the completion of many long-term projects. There were three volumes on Morocco and some new work on sex and marriage. In 1932, he finished Ethical Relativity. His very readable memoirs, Memories of My Life, were published in 1929. Westermarck's very last book, Christianity and Morals, sums up his various moral objections to Christianity.

On September 1, 1939, Nazi troops crossed the Polish border, plunging Europe into war. Westermarck, on hearing the news on the radio, reacted with a severe attack of asthma and died on September 3.

Critical Contributions to Anthropology

At the turn of the 20th century, the boundaries between anthropology and moral philosophy were sometimes vague. Westermarck's research spans both. He addressed three major themes: marriage and sexuality, the nature of morality, and popular religion in Morocco.

Marriage and Sexuality

In The History of Human Marriage, Westermarck's main finding was that monogamy was the original form of human conjugal life. The theory of original promiscuity, which had been the received view, was refuted with a wealth of evolutionary argument and historical data. Westermarck explained monogamy and prohibition of incest in terms of instincts, which in turn had biological explanations.

Westermarck's explanation of incest aversion between siblings is known as the Westermarck hypothesis. It is sometimes seen as his most important contribution to modern research. He claimed that the physical proximity of two individuals during childhood activates in them an inborn disposition to avoid sexual contact. What activates aversion is cohabitation, not genetic relatedness per se. This still makes evolutionary sense. It reduces inbreeding, because individuals who grow up together are for the most part also genetically related.

Sigmund Freud rejected Westermarck's theory. Famously, he believed that the earliest human sexual impulses are directed toward the child's immediate family members. There would be no reason for the incest taboo unless humans were actually tempted to commit incest, something that Westermarck's theory would deny. Westermarck responded in a revised edition of his book in 1921. He pointed out that activities that humans instinctively avoid may also be prohibited by law and custom. But Westermarck did not describe exactly how incest aversion, as a psychological propensity of individuals, gives rise to social norms and institutions relating to incest. The final assessment of Westermarck's hypothesis perhaps depends on whether it is taken to explain only incest aversion or also the social prohibition against incest.

Theory of Morality

Westermarck presents his theory of morality in The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas. The bulk of this study consists of historical and anthropological data. But it also develops a philosophical position. Morality is based on emotions of a particular kind, called retributive emotions. Higher animals, including humans, have a natural propensity to react to each others’ behavior by paying back in kind, for good or ill. Moral emotions appear when retributive emotions acquire a universal, impartial, and disinterested character. During cultural evolution, moral judgments increasingly target the agents’ motives instead of external behavior. Their range of application extends beyond the individual's immediate surroundings, while increasingly excluding animals, children, and the mentally ill as subjects of moral evaluation.

Ethical Relativity reiterates Westermarck's theory, with a focus on philosophical argument. He argues that a normative science of ethics is impossible. Ethical systems that claim rational grounds, such as utilitarianism and Kantianism, in fact reach their conclusions on the basis of emotions. In the last analysis, moral judgments are generalizing claims about emotions that the relevant actions would normally evoke in impartial observers. But Westermarck sometimes just makes the more modest claim that moral concepts are “ultimately based” on emotions.

Westermarck believes that moral emotions give rise to mores and customs, which are later codified into laws. However, he is not very specific about the process or about the role of society in it. Westermarck is sometimes accused of reducing social phenomena to psychology. This is not quite true, but his main emphasis nevertheless lies on shared human nature, not on the social dynamics that influence moral outlook.

In his broad anthropological syntheses, Westermarck shows himself an adherent of evolutionism and comparative method. He hoped to uncover the instincts or emotions that lay at the bottom of various customs and beliefs. Thus, by their “origins,” he did not simply mean their beginning in the prehistoric past but, more important, the emotional background that supports them at the present moment.

Fieldwork in Morocco

In Morocco, Westermarck studied popular religious ideas such as holiness (baraka). Holiness could be inherited, acquired, and lost. Westermarck found its sensitivity to external influences to be its socially most important characteristic. He considered his result to be at odds with Émile Durkheim's theory of primitive religion.

Westermarck's ethnographic material from Morocco is a valuable and accurate historical source. It sheds light on popular beliefs that were unknown to other Westerners and ignored or suppressed in the existing scholarship by Moroccan authors on Islamic law and religion. In his presentation and analysis, Westermarck followed the conventions of comparativist anthropology. He did not attempt to relate native ideas and practices to the general dynamic of society. Nevertheless, he divulged valuable data that make such analysis possible.

Westermarck's Legacy

Westermarck's importance was widely recognized in the early 1900s. However, his fame declined rapidly as the comparative method lost ground. Westermarck, who was criticized by Durkheim, developed an antipathy toward French sociology and functionalism. Westermarck freely acknowledged his intellectual debt to James G. Frazer, Edward Burnett Tylor, and other comparativists of the previous generation. What is less often remembered is that he both trained and helped materially to support the next generation of scholars, many of whom eventually embraced functionalism. Westermarck was among the first to stress the importance of extended fieldwork and of becoming fully conversant in the native languages. By this, he set the standard for subsequent anthropology.

Westermarck's appointment at the London School of Economics was a crucial step in the pro-fessionalization of anthropology in Britain. At the London School of Economics, Westermarck became the teacher of an entire generation of British and international researchers, including E. E. Evans- Pritchard, Raymond Firth, Morris Ginsberg, Ian Hogbin, Lucy Mair, Bronislaw Malinowski, Ashley Montague, Talcott Parsons, Hortense Powdermaker, Isaac Schapera, and Gerald Cambden Wheeler. In the 1920s, Westermarck and Malinowski conducted their seminars together.

Westermarck's Finnish students included the anthropologists Hilma Granqvist, Rafael Karsten, Gunnar Landtman, and Ragnar Numelin; the ethnologists Uno Harva and K. Rob. V. Wikman; and the philosopher Rolf Lagerborg. Due to Westermarck's influence, social anthropology was taught relatively early at Finnish universities. The Westermarck Society, founded in 1940, became the professional association of Finnish sociologists.

The last few years have seen a rise of interest in evolutionary approaches to human behavior, including Westermarck's incest theory. Empirical research appears to support his explanation of incest aversion. In moral philosophy, Ethical Relativity is known as a carefully developed statement of a relativist and emotivist position.

See also Bateson, Gregory; Lewis, Oscar; Tax, Sol

Further Readings
  • Allardt, E. (2000). Edward Westermarck: A sociologist relating nature and culture. Acta Sociologica, 43 (4), 299-306.
  • Bourquia, R.; al Harras, M. (Eds.). (1993). Westermarck et la société Marocaine [Westermarck and Moroccan society]. Université Mohammed V Rabat, Morocco.
  • Ihanus, J. (1999). Multiple origins: Edward Westermarck in search of mankind. Peter Lang Frankfurt, Germany.
  • Lagerborg, R. (1953). The essence of morals: Fifty years (1895-1945) of rivalry between French and English sociology. Transactions of the Westermarck Society, 2, 9-25.
  • Pipping, K. (1984). Who reads Westermarck today? British Journal of Sociology, 35 (3), 315-332.
  • Stroup, T. (Ed.). (1982). Edward Westermarck: Essays on his life and works. Acta Philosophica Fennica, 34, 1-27.
  • Suolinna, K.; af Hällström, C.; Lahtinen, T. (2000). Portraying Morocco: Edward Westermarck's fieldwork and photographs 1898-1913. Åbo Akademis förlag Åbo, Finland.
  • Wolf, A. P. (1995). Sexual attraction and childhood association: A Chinese brief for Edward Westermarck. Stanford University Press Stanford, CA.
  • Olli Lagerspetz
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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