Main Point


The theory of historicism focuses on a specific context, such as a local culture, historical period, or geographical place and examines a society using the concept of cultural relativism. This theory dates back to the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is presented in two forms: diffusionism and historical particularism. This theory hoped to offer different explanations of cultural change and largely developed out of rejection of social evolutionists who, instead, believed that humans share characteristics which go beyond individual culture; which was believed to, perhaps, unintentionally produce ethnocentrism (Murphy: 2009). Historicism is largely an empirical anthropological theory.

Moreover, historicism gives a better explanation for cultural change and its influences. Anthropologists who follow this theory believe that it is important to explain what happened and where as well as why and how something occurred which led to the cultural change. In short, this theory was created after intellectuals, such as Franz Boas, became displeased with eighteenth century evolutionist thought which proposed that primitive man operated at a base level of mental functioning and therefore, they were seen as less intelligent as civilizations (in Western Europe) who were at the top level of mental functioning (Murphy: 2009). Those who followed historicism rejected this and believe that in order to understand cultural change one must look into that culture’s unique history using an emic approach to studying humans. They also rejected the idea that there was only one point or path to cultural development; instead, they explored alternative paths that are unique to each culture. Also, those who were proponents of historicism believed that there was not a hierarchy between civilizations, therefore a particular societies’ culture was not seen as better or worse than another, just different. In other words, the proponents believed in cultural relativism and rejected anthropological racism that was prevalent at the time. 

Key Figures

Edward Sapir (b. 1884, d. 1939)

Fritz Graebner (b. 1877, d. 1934)

Ruth Benedict (b. 1887, d. 1948)

Alfred Louis Kroeber (b. 1876, d. 1960)

Grafton Elliot Smith (b. 1871, d. 1937)

Franz Boas (b. 1858, d. 1942)

Key Texts

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Boas, Franz. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Macmillan.

Sapir, Edward. 1916.  Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, A Study in Method. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

Smith, Grafton Elliot. 1933. The Diffusion of Culture. London, Watts.


Murphy, Michael D. "Anthropological Theories." The University of Alabama: Department of Anthropology. 2009.

New World Encyclopedia. "Historicism.". 2014.