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Wolf, Eric Robert

WOLF, ERIC ROBERT (1922–1999), anthropologist. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1922, Eric Robert Wolf was an anthropologist who studied peasant societies. Born in an upper middle class family, his family moved to Sudetenland in 1933. His father was an Austrian textile factory manager; his mother was a member of Russian nobility. Wolf grew up on the Czech-German border at the time the Nazi Party was in its ascendancy and antisemitism was on the increase. His father sent him to England to the Forest School in Walthamstow; his family later escaped Germany and immigrated to England, where they were interred as enemy aliens. They eventually moved to the United States in 1940. When World War II broke out, Wolf was studying biochemistry; he left his studies and served in one of the U.S. Army's mountain troop divisions, earning a Silver Star. He returned to school at the end of the war, changing fields to anthropology. He graduated from Queens College in New York City in 1946 and finished a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1951. He began his career as an academic, first at the University of Illinois and later at the University of Virginia, then Yale and the University of Chicago. He spent 10 years on the faculty at the University of Michigan, from 1961 to 1971, before moving to the Herbert H. Lehman College and Graduate Center at the City University of New York, as a distinguished professor, until his retirement in 1992.

Immediately after graduate school, Wolf focused his work on Mexican history and civilization, looking at the progression of culture and community from pre-Hispanic to Hispanic Mexico. While at Columbia, Wolf became acquainted with Marxism, which led him to his studies of peasantry and their role in complex societies. In the 1950s, he became part of a group of anthropology scholars known as "neo-evolutionists," who challenged the established culturalist tradition. His first book, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, examining six political uprisings, was published in 1969. Later in his career he did ethnographic research on Alpine communities, integrating historical and ethnographic perspectives, introducing the notion of ecological constraints on development. Active in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, he continued his peasant studies, publishing several influential studies of peasant revolutions. He wrote the book many regard to be the masterpiece of his career in 1982, Europe and the People Without History. In this book, Wolf argued market forces created tribes just as they created civilizations and nations. These forces changed world populations by creating giant labor migrations such as the European expansions into Africa, the Americas and the Orient and that the common people in the world were both agents of this change as well as its victims. His last work in 1999, Envisioning Power Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis, compared the violent regimes of the Aztec, the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest, and the Nazis. In addition to being a scholar of great reputation, Wolf was also a dedicated teacher who embraced teaching undergraduates when he might have easily excused himself from such duties. Wolf died in Irvington, New York, of colon cancer.