Arensberg, Conrad Maynadier (1910–97), anthropologist and sociologist, was born 12 September 1910 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the eldest of the four sons of Charles F. C. Arensberg, attorney, from a steel and banking dynasty, and his wife, Emily Wright Maynadier Arensberg (née Maynadier). He was a quiet, bookish child with a stammer and without particularly good looks who developed into an academic prodigy. At secondary school he distinguished himself in history, English, Latin, and French, taught himself German, graduated first honour student overall, and left for university vowing never to return to Pittsburgh. He studied anthropology at Harvard from 1927 to 1931, graduating BA summa cum laude. During this time he participated in the ‘Yankee City’ project of William Lloyd Warner (1898–1970), a social anthropology study of Newburyport, Massachusetts, which involved contact with different ethnic groups, including Irish-Americans. Warner, who was influenced by Malinowski and had studied under Radcliffe Browne, was a pioneering figure in the development of a Durkheim-influenced anthropological tradition which sought to blend sociology and anthropology, employing participant-observer fieldwork in ‘modern’ as well as ‘traditional’ societies and focusing on interactions between individuals (rather than individual lives or events). Like his mentors, Warner was reacting against older versions of anthropology which focused on primitive societies with the principal aim of constructing a unilinear narrative of the development of Western/Christian civilisation (seen as the sum of all progress). Arensberg and Solon Toothaker Kimball (1909–82), from Manhattan, Kansas, who also worked on the ‘Yankee City’ project, and whose collaboration with Arensberg on the study of rural Ireland laid the basis of a lifelong professional collaboration and personal friendship, were to play an important role in the development of this American functionalist tradition in succeeding decades. Several jointly authored articles on various subjects were published in Culture and community (1965).
Lacking funding to continue his anthropological studies, Arensberg went on a scholarship to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was called back to Harvard early in 1932 to participate in the Harvard Irish study. This was a project (1931–6) overseen by Professor Earnest A. Hooton (1887–1954) which attempted to combine archaeology, social anthropology, and physical anthropology in an area survey of Ireland (with special reference to Co. Clare, chosen because of its size and variety). The project is recognised as having played an important role in the professionalisation of Irish anthropology and archaeology, but it never achieved its full objectives because of funding problems and the difficulty of coordinating its graduate researchers as they moved on to academic employment and new projects. Arensberg's work formed the basis for his 1934 Harvard Ph.D. (supervised by Warner), ‘A study of rural life in Ireland as determined by the functions and morphology of the family’. (Anthropologists at this period were expected to undertake participant-observer study as an integral part of their dissertation.)
Warner played the leading role in smoothing the ground for the survey in Ireland by carrying on negotiations with prominent figures, including Éamon de Valera (qv) and the bishop of Killaloe, supported by a press campaign. He was assisted by Arensberg, who arrived in Ireland in February 1932 and spent some months studying Irish history, politics, literature, and folklore; he took courses in TCD and established a network of academic and political contacts, among them George O'Brien (qv) and Eoin MacNeill (qv), who presumably advised him on Irish history and the economy, the folklorist Séamus Ó Duilearga (qv), who had collected material in the rural Clare district which became Arensberg's principal focus, and Patrick Meghen, the civil servant who had been appointed town commissioner of Ennis after the elected town council mismanaged its affairs. This involved considerable socialisation (notably a presentation on the survey at an official function), and Arensberg expressed some dismay at the extent to which whiskey operated as a conversational lubricant.
In summer 1932 Arensberg moved operations to Ennis, where he stayed at the Queen's Arms Hotel, carried out research on town society, and built up contacts with country people with the assistance of a local publican/shopkeeper. In March 1933 he spent two weeks living with the Carey family in Luogh (near Ennistymon), talking to the local people and observing customs. He also conducted brief excursions to the Inagh and Corofin districts and particularly to the Rinnamona/Carrownamadra area, where Kimball later spent some months. Soon after Kimball's arrival in late summer 1933 (he stayed until May 1934) Arensberg returned to Harvard to make a preliminary survey of his data and write up his doctoral dissertation; he later spent December 1934–January 1935 in Clare, Belfast, and Dublin. Although Arensberg and Kimball corresponded they were in Clare at the same time only briefly.
In March 1936 Arensberg summarised their research in a lecture series at the Lowell Institute, Boston. This formed the basis for his 1937 book The Irish countryman. Arensberg followed it up with Family and community in Ireland (1940), co-written with Kimball, though the first edition of the book, focusing on small farm society, was largely written by Arensberg. Plans for a second volume centred on Kimball's research on Ennis and its shopkeepers (written up in his 1936 Harvard Ph.D., ‘The tradesman and his family in the economic structure of an Irish town’) were frustrated by the second world war, and this material was eventually published in the form of six additional chapters in the 1968 edition of Family and community. Arensberg and Kimball are known to have intended to write a further account of religious and political life; it is not clear whether this was abandoned because of the pressures which curtailed the overall work of the survey or because this was seen as potentially sensitive, but its absence contributed to later criticisms of the book as presenting an unduly static and quasi-arcadian view of Irish rural life. (The existing book does contain passing references to politics – most of the small farmers mentioned were Fianna Fáil supporters – and religion; although these are not developed at length, The Irish countryman giving more space to fairy-beliefs than to catholicism.) On its first appearance The Irish countryman was portrayed as ‘foreign vindication of the traditional culture of the Irish race’ by the Catholic Bulletin, which advocated the indefinite maintenance of an autarkic rural and small-town society forcibly insulated from foreign economic and cultural influences.
In 1934–7 Arensberg was a junior fellow at Harvard, then in 1937–40 he held a junior fellowship at the industrial relations section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he was made an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science and Economics), and maintained a long-term interest in morale and productivity in industrial settings. In 1942 he moved to Brooklyn College of the City University of New York as head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. During the second world war Arensberg served as a captain with US military intelligence. After visiting Japan with the strategic bombing survey he left the army as a major in 1946 and moved to Columbia University in New York, first as the chair of the Department of Sociology at its affiliated women's college, Barnard, then from 1952 at Columbia's Department of Anthropology. He remained at the university until his retirement in 1979, and was regarded as an incisive and modest mentor to students.
Arensberg also served as research director of UNESCO's Institute for Social Sciences in Cologne and conducted research at the Ruhr Sozialforschungstelle in Dortmund. He was a consultant to the US Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, and edited the journals Human Organization and Journal of Applied Anthropology. Kimball, who had joined the soil conservation survey of the US Department of Agriculture after returning from Ireland, also worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs before being appointed an associate professor at Michigan State University (1945–8); he then worked at the University of Alabama (1948–53), was professor of anthropology and education at Teachers’ College, Columbia University (1953–66), and from 1966 was graduate research professor of anthropology at the University of Florida; his teaching was permanently influenced by his Irish experience of teamwork and multidisciplinary projects.
Arensberg published widely on both European and Old World civilisations; among his principal interests were interaction theory and ethnographic study of social behaviour, bureaucracies and international development, social change, and community study method. He believed that anthropology was a natural science whose central focus was the observation of humans. While he corresponded with some of his Clare informants, he is not known to have revisited the area (Kimball did so in 1968).
Arensberg's central concerns were how societies made the transition to modernity, and understanding social values through observing human interaction. The principal conclusion of his Irish research was that the working of the Irish family system in rural areas was the key to understanding prevalent social conditions in Ireland. Arensberg and Kimball present Irish rural life as ordered around the need to preserve the holding in the family, with children being socialised to submit to parental authority and developing strong emotional ties with the mother. This in turn encourages them to subordinate their personal desires to the perceived good of the family unit, even when this involves delayed marriage (and being treated as a ‘boy’ until late in life) or permanent celibacy. Marriage is seen as an alliance between two families with the aim of reinforcing social networks. Their account of town life similarly emphasises the role of kinship and mutual obligation in the maintenance of shopkeeper–client networks (as distinct from earlier accounts which present such relationships as primarily exploitative).
Until the late 1960s Arensberg and Kimball's work was the only substantial sociological investigation of modern Irish society, and such works as Hugh Brody's Inishkillane (1973), based in Clare near their area of research, treated them as providing a reliable account of ‘traditional’ Irish society before its ‘modernisation’. It then, however, attracted severe criticism on the grounds that its portrayal of a relatively stable society in slowly adjusting equilibrium was based on a selective view and that its inattention to such matters as emigration led it to overlook evidence that the Irish rural society it described was in fact experiencing a terminal crisis. The sociologist Peter Gibbon accused Arensberg and Kimball of consciously or unconsciously ignoring salient material and echoing the views of contemporary nativists and reactionaries. Gibbon has in turn been criticised for treating material from the very poorest fringes of Donegal and Connemara as directly applicable to the somewhat different circumstances of east Clare, and it has been argued by Damian Hannan that Arensberg and Kimball in fact described a semi-commercialised society, selectively adapting to its circumstances to maintain its version of ‘peasant’ culture, in the last decades before its final collapse through rising expectations, and in particular the refusal of new generations of women to marry into small farmer society.
It is certainly possible to find ‘arcadianist’ elements in Arensberg and Kimball's work; the preface to Family and community declares that, ‘far from being on the retreat, the distinctive culture of Ireland is increasing in strength and autonomy’. Although this might be a reference to political independence and the various cultural revivals, Arensberg stated in an interview with the Clare Champion (13 May 1933) that, ‘when most nations are groaning under the weight of vast city populations who can no longer support themselves, it is a relief to watch people capable of providing for nearly all their needs by their own independent efforts’; while noting ‘Ireland has her own problems’, he thought her ‘fortunate in still having her small self-supporting farm families’ (Arensberg and Kimball, lxv).
Arensberg and Kimball's account of familialism and of cooperation between neighbours emphasises their social rationale and relative spontaneity, and the extent to which family members are socialised into accepting their sacrifices, rather than the violence and frustration central to many literary accounts (though these elements are visible if the text is examined with them in mind; Joe Cleary's Outrageous fortune has even described Patrick Kavanagh's (qv) searing Great hunger as a versification of the conditions described by Arensberg and Kimball). Similarly, although the authors provide an account of emigration and population decline as part of their historical introduction and discuss emigration as an outlet for surplus family members, the massive post-famine decline in the population of Clare and the number of family holdings is not emphasised in their micro-study.
These shortcomings may reflect the fact that functionalist approaches are better equipped to handling stability than change (as well as the conscious non-judgementalism of the generation of anthropologists to which Arensberg and Kimball belonged, reacting against the stadial view of human history maintained by older anthropologists, including state-centred advocates of imperialism, and by Marxism). Tony Varley, however, argues that their work escapes the excessive schematism associated with some versions of functionalism (such as that associated with the sociologist Talcott Parsons) and allows significant scope for individual agency in its discussion of how human beings adapt to given surroundings. Most scholars would agree that the work of Arensberg and Kimball, whatever its shortcomings, provides important insights into Irish rural society in the 1930s.
In 1991 the Society for the Anthropology of Work established an annual Conrad Arensberg award (of which he was the first recipient) for contributions to the subject area. Arensberg died 10 February 1997 of respiratory failure in Hazlet, New Jersey. In 2001 his papers were held privately by his widow Vivian (née Garrison), also an anthropologist, with whom he had two daughters; he also had a son from a previous marriage.