The son of Jewish immigrants, Herskovits obtained a Bachelor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1923 and obtained his Master’s and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York under the guidance of the German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. His dissertation, entitled “The Cattle Complex in East Africa”, investigated theories of power and authority in the African region. He studied how some aspects of African culture and traditions were evident in African Americans in the 1900s. In 1927, Herskovits moved to Northwestern University as a full-time anthropologist and established the Department of Anthropology in 1938.
In 1934, Herskovits and his wife spent a little over three months in the Haitian village of Mirebalais, the findings of which research he published in his 1937 book Life in a Haitian Valley. In its time,Life in a Haitian Valley was considered one of the most accurate depictions of the Haitian practice of voodoo, meticulously detailing the lives and voodoo practices of the inhabitants of Mirebalais during Herskovits’ three-month stay.
In 1948, he founded the first major interdisciplinary American program in African studies at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois with a three-year, $30,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, followed by a five-year, $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1951. The Program of African Studies was the first of its kind at an American academic institution. The goals of the program were to “produce scholars of competence in their respective subjects, who will focus the resources of their special fields on the study of aspects of African life relevant to their disciplines.” 
The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, established in 1954, is the largest separate Africana collection in the world. To date, it contains more than 260,000 bound volumes, including 5,000 rare books, more than 3,000 periodicals, journals and newspapers, archival and manuscript collections, 15,000 books in 300 different African languages, extensive collections of maps, posters, videos and photographs, as well as electronic resources. In 1957, Herskovits founded the African Studies Association and was the organization’s first president.
Herskovits’s controversial classic The Myth of the Negro Past is about African cultural influences on American blacks. He rejected the notion that African Americans lost all traces of their past when they were taken from Africa and enslaved in America. Herskovits emphasized race as a sociological concept, not a biological one. He also helped forge the concept of cultural relativism, particularly in his book Man and His Works.
Melville Herskovits’s position formed one half of the debate with Franklin Frazier on the nature of cultural contact in the Western Hemisphere, specifically with reference to Africans, Europeans, and their descendents.