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"William Russel Bascom (1912-1981)."
American Anthropologist

SIMON OTTENBERG
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington

This noted Africanist and folklorist was born in Princeton, Illinois. He took an undergraduate degree in physics and then an M.A. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, working on Kiowa Indian culture. He finished his Ph.D. at Northwestern University under Melville J. Herskovits in 1939, writing on Yoruba religion and kinship. It was Herskovits who turned his interests to African religion, folklore, and art, and Bascom returned to Yoruba country numerous times over the years, also researching African themes in Gullah Sea Island culture in 1939 and in Cuba in the late 1940s. In 1946 he carried out research on Ponape in the Pacific for the Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Atolls project.

He taught at Northwestern with Herskovits from 1939 to 1957, except during World War II. At Northwestern he played an active role in training virtually all of the anthropology graduate students, most of whom carried out research in Africa. From 1957 until his death he was Director of the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology and Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. At that institution he taught folklore, but he had few graduate students, as he spent much of his time at museum work. He substantially broadened the museum's holdings, beyond its very strong American Indian collection, particularly in the African area.

Bascom held a strong cultural anthropological viewpoint, although his work on Yoruba family life and association groupings shows considerable skill in handling sociological materials. For him, theory grew out of the investigation of data rather than the other way around; his work was always well-grounded ethnographically. His major interests included Yoruba religion, where he delineated the nature of Yoruba beliefs in gods, studied their cult groups, and laid the groundwork for the many scholars of Yoruba religion who followed him. In a series of articles he considered the nature of traditional Yoruba cities, which did not fit existing sociological concepts of urban centers; his work here broadened our view of urbanism. His strong folklorist interest is evident in his pioneering studies of Yoruba divination, the key to Yoruba culture, particularly through his great work Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa (Indiana University Press, 1969), in which he meticulously translated and analyzed hundreds of divination verses. He wrote intelligently on many other aspects of Yoruba culture, including art, music, and credit associations.

In the general African field, Bascom published a useful guide to African art (he was a great collector and most of his pieces have gone to the Lowie Museum), and he put together a book on African dilemma tales, in both cases giving us a good sense of Africa's general contribution to world culture. While he published a useful summary of Ponape in a monograph and a series of articles, a much greater love was the African connection in Afro-American culture. This led to another monumental work on divination, Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination from Africa to the New World (Indiana University Press, 1980), in which he showed clear connections between the two areas without elaborating a complex theory of diffusion. From his pen also appeared a number of useful basic papers outlining the nature and function of folklore. In his later years he wrote a series of articles convincingly indicating the African baseline of certain Afro-American folktales, whose origins were in dispute.

A pioneer in African studies in the United States, through his teaching and publishing Bascom brought an intelligent understanding of African culture to the scholarly and public world. In this he was greatly aided by his wife, Berta Bascom, who survives him. A bibliography of his writing appears in African Religious Beliefs and Groups: Essays in Honor of William R. Bascom (Simon Ottenberg, ed. Meerut, India/ Berkeley: Archana/Folklore Institute, 1982).

 

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