Son of noted psychologists Fritz and Grace (neé Moore) Heider, Karl Gustav Heider was born on January 21, 1935 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He began his post-secondary studies at Williams College, but transferred after two years to Harvard University and earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1956. He spent the next year (1956-1957) in Asia as a Sheldon Traveling Fellow, including leading an archaeological survey at the Kwae Noi River Valley in Thailand. Heider continued to study anthropology at the University of Vienna in Austria (1957-1958), and returned to Harvard University to earn his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in 1959 and 1966, respectively.
His first film was created as part of an archeological expedition of Tikal, a Mayan ceremonial center in Gautemala. The film, aptly named Tikal (1961), centers around the excavation of a Mayan house mound and illustrates the archeological methods in practice at the time. Though not ethnographic in content, this film embodies Heider’s direct, academic approach to storytelling and image-making found in his later ethnographic projects.
Heider is best known for his work in visual and psychological anthropology, with specific foci on emotions and sexuality. His fieldwork includes a continuing interest in the Dugum Dani, a Papuan society in the Central Highlands of West New Guinea. Heider spent 26 months with the Dani: 18 months from April 1961 to October 1962, and 8 months from April until early December 1963. In collaboration with Robert Gardner, Heider contributed to the making of Dead Birds (1963) and also filmed two short observational films released in 1974, Dani Sweet Potatoes and Dani Houses.
In the mid-1980s and again in 2000 and 2001 he worked in Indonesia, mainly with the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, exploring the cultural shaping of emotions and is now completing a book on this research called The Wisdom of the Rice: Emotion and Folk Psychology in West Sumatra. During the ’80s he also studied Indonesian movies, looking at the ways they both reflected and shaped Indonesian national culture (see Heider’s Indonesian Cinema, 1991).
In line with his focus on visual anthropology and its didactic purposes (or as teaching tools), Heider compiled – among many other film and literary projects – a list of films and accompanying text for use in teaching anthropology entitled Films for Anthropological Teaching (8th edition, 1995). He is also the Visual Anthropology section editor for American Anthropologist, the journal for the American Anthropological Association.
In 2008 he retired from the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina and was honored at the 107th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
University of South Carolina profile
Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age
Films For Anthropological Teaching
The Dugum Dani: A Papuan Culture in the Highlands of West New Guinea
The Dani of West Irian: An Ethnographic Companion to the Film Dead Birds
Grand Valley Dani: Peaceful Warriors
Indonesian Cinema: National Culture on Screen
Landscapes of Emotion: Mapping Three Cultures of Emotion in Indonesia
Images of the South: Constructing a Regional Culture on Film and Video
Seeing Anthropology: Cultural Anthropology Through Film