NOTE: I wrote this article at Wikipedia; having just finished it, I have posted it here as well, to keep a record of my original version (1/25/05)
Franz Boas (July 9, 1858-December 22, 1942) was one of the pioneers of modern anthropology and is often called the "Father of American Anthropology". Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography.
Early life and education
Franz Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia, on July 9, 1858. Although his grandparents were observant Jews, his parents, like most German Jews, embraced Enlightenment values, including their assimilation into modern German society. Boas was sensitive about his Jewish background, and while he vocally opposed anti-Semitism, and refused to convert to Christianity, he did not identify himself as a Jew. In an autobiographical sketch, Boas wrote:
The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force. My father, liberal, but not active in public affairs; my mother, idealistic, with a lively interest in public matters; the founder about 1854 of the kindergarten in my home town, devoted to science. My parents had broken through the shackles of dogma. My father had retained an emotional affection for the ceremonial of his parental home, without allowing it to influence his intellectual freedom.
From his early experience at the Froebel kindergarten in Minden, to his studies at gymnasium, Boas was exposed to, and interested in, natural history. Of his work at gymnasium, he was most excited by and proud of his research on the geographic distribution of plants. Nevertheless, when Boas attended university -- first at Heidelberg, then Bonn -- he focused on mathematics and physics (although he also attended a few courses in geography, including one taught by Theobald Fischer). He intended then to study physics at Berlin, but chose to attend the university at Kiel, in order to be closer to his family. There he studied physics with Gustav Karsten. Boas wished to conduct research concerning Gauss's law of the normal distribution of errors, but Karsten instructed him to research the optical properties of water instead. That research became the basis of his doctoral dissertation.
Boas received his doctorate in physics from the university at Kiel in 1882. He was unhappy with his dissertation, but intrigued by the problems of perception
that plagued his research. Boas had developed an interest in Kantian thought when he took a course on aesthetics with Kuno Fischer at Heidelberg, and at Bonn took courses with Benno Erdmann, leading Kantian philosophers. This interest led him to "psychophysics," which addressed psychological and epistemological problems in physics. He again considered moving to Berlin to study psychophysics with Hermann von Helmholtz, but psychophysics was of dubious status, and Boas had no training in psychology.
Coincidentally, Theobald Fischer had moved to Kiel, and Boas took up geography as a way to explore his budding interest in the relationship between subjective
experience and the objective world. At the time, German geographers were divided over the causes of cultural variation. Many argued that the physical environment
was the principal determining factor, but others (notably Friedrich Ratzel) argued that the diffusion of ideas through human migration is more important. In
1883 Boas went to Baffin Island to conduct geographic research on the impact of the physical environment on native (Inuit) migrations. He returned to Berlin to
finish his studies, and in 1886 (with Helmholtz' support) he successfully defended his habilitation thesis, Baffin Land, and was named privatdozent in geography.
While on Baffin Island he began to develop his interest in studying non-Western cultures (in 1888 he published a book, The Central Eskimo). Moreover, in 1885 Boas went to work with physical anthropologist Rudolf Virchow and Ethnologist Adolf Bastian at the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Boas had studied anatomy with Virchow two years earlier, while preparing for the Baffin Island expedition. At the time, Virchow was involved in a vociferous debate with his former student, Ernst Haeckel, over evolution. Haeckel had abandoned his medical practice to study comparative anatomy after reading Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, and vigorously promoted Darwin's ideas in Germany. Like most other natural scientists prior to the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1909 and the development of the modern synthesis in 1918, however, Virchow felt that Darwin's theories were weak because they lacked a theory of cellular mutability. Accordingly, Virchow favored Lamarckian models of evolution. This debatcue resonated with debates among geographers. Lamarckians believed that environmental forces could precipitate rapid and enduring changes in organisms that had no inherited source; thus, Lamarckians and environmental determinists often found themselves on the same side of debates.
But Boas worked more closely with Bastian, who was noted for his antipathy to environmental determinism. Instead, he argued for the "psychic unity of mankind;" a belief that all humans had the same intellectual capacity, and that
all cultures were based on the same basic mental principles. Variations in custom and belief, he argued, were the products of historical accidents. This view resonated with Boas's experiences on Baffin Island, and drew him towards anthropology.
While at the Royal Ethnological Museum Boas became interested in the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and after defending his habilitation thesis,
he left for a three month trip to British Columbia via New York. In January, 1887, he was offered a job as assistant editor of the journal Science, in New York. Alienated by growing anti-Semitism and nationalism, as well as the very limited academic opportunities for a geographer, in Germany, Boas decided to stay in the United States.
Aside from his editorial work at Science, Boas secured an appointment as dozent in anthropology at Clark University, in 1888. Boas's opportunities at Clark were
limited, however, because the university did not have an anthropology department. Moreover, Boas was concerned about University president G. Stanley Hall's interference in his research. In 1892 Boas joined a number of other Clark
faculty in resigning, to protest Hall's infringement on academic freedom. Boas was then appointed chief assistant in anthropology at the World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago.
Boas and Fin de Siècle Intellectual Debates
Science versus History
Some scholars, like Boas's student Alfred Kroeber, believed that Boas used his research in physics a model for his work in anthropology. Many others, however -- including Boas's student Alexander Lesser, and later researchers such as Marian W. Smith and Matti Bunzl -- have pointed out that Boas explicitly rejected physics in favor of history as a model for his anthropological research. This distinction between science and history has its origins in 19th century German academe, which distinguished between Naturwissenschaften (the sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities), or between Gesetzwissenschaften (the law-giving sciences) and Geschichteswissenschaften (history). Generally, the first term in either binary refers to the study of phenomena that are governed by objective natural laws; the second term refers to those phenomena that have meaning only in terms of human perception or experience. In 1884 Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband coined the terms nomothetic and idiographic to describe these two divergent approaches. He observed that most scientists employ some mix of both, but in differing proportions; he considered physics a perfect example of a nomothetic science, and history, an idiographic science. Moreover, he argued that each approach has its origin in one of the two "interests" of reason Kant had identified in the Critique of Judgement -- one "generalizing," the other "specifying." (Winkelband's student Heinrich Rickert elaborated on this distinction in The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science : A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences; Boas's students Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir relied extensively on this work in defining their own approach to anthropology.)
Although Kant considered these two interests of reason to be objective and universal, the distinction between the natural and human sciences was institutionalized in Germany, through the organization of scholarly research and
teaching, following the Enlightenment. In Germany the Enlightenment was dominated by Kant himself, who sought to establish principles based on universal rationality. In reaction to Kant, German scholars such as Johann Gottfried
Herder argued that human creativity, which necessarily takes unpredictable and highly diverse forms, is as important as human rationality. In 1795 the great
explorer and naturalist, Wilhelm von Humboldt, called for an anthropology that would synthesize Kant's and Herder's interests. Humboldt founded the University of Berlin in 1809, and his work in geography, history, and psychology provided the milieu in which Boas's intellectual orientation matured.
Historians working in the Humboldtian tradition developed ideas that would become central in Boasian anthropology. Leopold von Ranke defined the task of
the historian as "merely to show what really happened," which is a cornerstone of Boas's empiricism. Wilhelm Dilthey emphasized the centrality of "understanding" to human knowledge, and that the lived experience of an
historian could provide a basis for an empathic understanding of the situation of an historical actor. For Boas, both values were well-expressed in a quote
from Goethe: "A single action or event is interesting, not because it is explainable, but because it is true."
The influence of these ideas on Boas is apparent in his 1887 essay, "The Study of Geography," in which he distinguished between physical science, which seeks
to discover the laws governing phenomena, and historical science, which seeks a thorough understanding of phenomena on their own terms. Boas argued that geography is and must be historical in this sense. In 1887, after his Baffin
Island expedition, Boas wrote "The Principles of Ethnological Classification," in which he developed this argument in application to anthropology:
Ethnological phenomena are the result of the physical and psychical character of men, and of its development under the influence of the surroundings ... 'Surroundings' are the physical conditions of the country, and the sociological phenomena, i.e., the relation of man to man. Furthermore, the study of the present surroundings is insufficient: the history of the people, the influence of the regions through which it has passed on its migrations, and the people with whom it came into contact, must be considered.
This formulation echoes with Ratzel's focus on historical processes of human migration and culture contact, and Bastian's rejection of environmental
determinism. It also emphasizes culture as a context ("surroundings"), and the importance of history. These are the hallmarks of Boasian anthropology (which Marvin Harris would later call "historical-particularism"), would guide Boas's research over the next decade, as well as his instructions to future students.
Although context and history were essential elements to Boas's understanding of anthropology as Geisteswissenschaften and Geschichteswissenschaften, there is one essential element that Boasian anthropology shares with Naturwissenschaften: empiricism. In 1949 Boas's student, Alfred Kroeber summed up the principles of
empiricism that define Boasian anthropology as a science:
- The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgements.
- Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies "already formulated in everyday life," since these are themselves inevitably traditional and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.
- Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgements are characteristic of totalitarian attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicial.
Orthogenetic versus Darwinian Evolution
One of the greatest accomplishments of Boas and his students was their critique of theories of physical, social, and cultural evolution current at that time.
This critique is central to Boas's work in museums, as well as his work in all four fields of anthropology.
For this reason, some people have argued that Boasian anthropology is at odd's with Darwin's theory of evolution. This argument is unfounded, and mistakenly assumes that people using the word "evolution" always mean the same thing. In fact, Boas supported Darwinian theory, although he did not assume that it automatically applied to cultural and historical phenomena. The notion of evolution that the Boasians ridiculed and rejected was the then dominant belief in "orthogenesis" -- a determinate or teleological process of evolution in which change occurs irregardless of natural selection. Boas rejected the prevalent theories of social evolution developed by Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer not because he rejected the notion of "evolution" per se, but because he rejected orthogenetic notions of evolution in favor of Darwinian evolution.
The difference between these prevailing theories of cultural evolution and Darwinian theory cannot be overstated: these theorists argued that all societies
progress through the same stages in the same sequence. Thus, although the Inuit with whom Boas worked at Baffin Island, and the Germans with whom he studied as a graduate student, were contemporaries of one another, evolutionists argued that the Inuit were at an earlier stage in their evolution, and Germans at a later stage. This echoed a popular misreading of Darwin that suggested that human beings are descended from chimpanzees. In fact, Darwin argued that chimpanzees and humans are equally evolved. What characterizes Darwinian theory is its attention to the processes by which one species transforms into another; "adaptation" as a key principle in explaining the relationship between a species and its environment; and "natural selection" as a mechanism of change. In
contrast, Morgan, Spencer, and Tylor had little to say about the process and mechanics of change.
Furthermore, Darwin built up his theory through a careful examination of considerable empirical data. Boasian research revealed that virtually every claim made by cultural evolutionists was contradicted by the data, or reflected a profound misinterpretation of the data. As Boas's student Robert Lowie remarked, "Contrary to some misleading statements on the subject, there have been no responsible opponents of evolution as scientifically proved, though there has been determined hostility to an evolutionary metaphysics that falsifies the established facts."
Early career: Museum Studies
In the late 1800s anthropology in the United States was dominated by the Bureau of American Ethnology, directed by John Wesley Powell, a geologist who favored Lewis Henry Morgan's theory of cultural evolution. The BAE was housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the Smithsonian's curator for ethnology, Otis T. Mason, shared Powell's commitment to cultural evolution. (The Peabody Museum at Harvard University was an important, though lesser, center of anthropological research).
It was while working on museum collections and exhibitions that Boas formulated his basic approach to culture, which led him to break with museums and seek to
establish anthropology as an academic discipline. During this period Boas made five more trips to the Pacific Northwest. His continuing field research led him to think of culture as a local context for human action. His emphasis on local context and history led him to oppose the
dominant model at the time, cultural evolution.
Boas initially broke with evolutionary theory over the issue of kinship. Lewis Henry Morgan had argued that all human societies move from an initial form of matrilineal organization to patrilineal organization. Indian groups on the northern coast of British Columbia, like the Tsimshian and Tlingit, were organized into matrilineal clans. Indians on the southern coast, like the Nootka and the Coastal Salish, however, were organized into patrilineal groups. Boas focused on the Kwakiutl, who lived between the two clusters. The Kwakiutl seemed to have a mix of features. Prior to marriage, a man would assume his wife's father's name and crest. His children took on these names and crests as well, although his sons would lose them when they got married. Names and crests thus staid in the mothers' lines. At first, Boas suggested that -- as Morgan suggested -- the
Kwakiutl had been matrilineal like their neighbors to the north, but that they were beginning to evolve patrilineal groups. In 1897, however, he repudiated himself, and argued that the Kwakiutl were changing from a prior patrilineal
organization to a matrilineal one, as they learned about matrilineal principles from their northern neighbors.
Boas's rejection of Morgan's theories led him, in a 1907 article, to challenge Otis's principles of museum display. At stake, however, were more basic issues of causality and classification. The evolutionary approach to material culture led museum curators to organize objects on display according to function or level of technological development. Curators assumed that changes in the forms
of artefacts reflect some natural process of progressive evolution. Boas, however, felt that the form an artefact took reflected the circumstances under which it was produced and used. Arguing that "though like causes have like effects, like effects have not like causes," Boas realized that even artefacts that were similar in form might have developed in very different contexts, for
different reasons. Otis's museum displays, organized along evolutionary lines, mistakenly juxtapose like effects; those organized along contextual lines would reveal like causes.
Boas had a chance to apply his approach to exhibits when he was hired to assist Frederick Ward Putnam, director and curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, who had been appointed as head of the Department of Ethnology and Archeology for the Chicago Fair in 1892. Boas arranged for fourteen Kwakiutl Indians from British Columbia to come and reside in a mock Kwakiutl village, where they could perform their daily tasks in context.
After the Exposition Boas worked at the newly-created Field Museum in Chicago until 1894, when he was replaced (against his will) by BAE archeologist William Henry Holmes. In 1896 Boas was appointed Assistant Curator of Ethnology and Somatology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1897 he organized the Jesup Expedition, a five-year long field-study of the natives of the Pacific Northwest, whose ancestors had migrated across the Bering Strait from Siberia. He attempted to organize exhibits along contextual, rather than evolutionary,lines. He also developed a research program in line with his curatorial goals: describing his instructions to his students in terms of widening contexts of interpretation within a society, he explained that "...they get the specimens; they get explanations of the specimens; they get connected texts that partly refer to the specimens and partly to abstract things concerning the people; and they get grammatical information." These widening contexts of interpretation were abstracted into one context, the context in which the specimens, or assemblages of specimens, would be displayed: "...we want a collection arranged according to tribes, in order to teach the particular style of each group." His approach, however, brought him into conflict with the President of the Museum, Morris Jesup, and its Director, Hermon Bumpus. He resigned in 1905, never to work for a museum again.
Later Career: Academic Anthropology
Boas had been appointed lecturer in physical anthropology at Columbia University in 1896, and had been promoted to professor of anthropology in 1899. Nevertheless, the various anthropologists teaching at Columbia had been assigned to different departments. When Boas left the Museum of Natural History, he negotiated with Columbia University to consolidate the various professors into one department, of which Boas would take charge. Boas's program at Columbia became the first Ph.D. program in anthropology in America.
During this time Boas played a key role in organizing the American Anthropological Association as an umbrella organization for the emerging field. Boas originally wanted the AAA to be limited to professional anthropologists,
but W.J. McGee (another geologist who had joined the BAE under Powell's leadership) argued that the organization should have an open membership. McGee's position prevailed and he was elected the organization's first president in
1902; Boas was elected a vice-president, along with Putnam, Powell, and Homes.
At both Columbia and the AAA, Boas encouraged the "four field" concept of anthropology; he personally contributed to physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, as well as cultural anthropology. His work in these fields was pioneering: in physical anthropology he led scholars away from static taxonomical classifications of race, to an emphasis on human biology and evolution; in linguistics he broke through the limitations of classic philology and established some of the central problems in modern linguistics and cognitive anthropology; in cultural anthropology he (along with Bronislaw Malinowski)
established the contextualist approach to culture, cultural relativism, and the participant-observation method of fieldwork.
The four-field approach understood not merely as bringing together different kinds of anthropologists into one department, but reconceiving anthropology through the integration of different objects of anthropological research into one over-arching object, was one of Boas's fundamental contributions to the discipline, and came to characterize American anthropology against that of
England, France, or Germany. This approach defines as its object the human species as a totality. This focus did not lead Boas to seek to reduce all forms of humanity and human activity to some lowest common denominator; rather, he understood the essence of the human species to be the tremendous variation in human form and activity (an apprach that parallels Charles Darwin's approach to species in general).
In his 1907 essay, "Anthropology," Boas identified two basic questions for anthropologists: "Why are the tribes and nations of the world different, and how have the present differences developed?" Amplifying these questions, he explained the object of anthropological study thus:
We do not discuss the anatomical, physiological, and mental characteristics of man considered as an individual; but we are interested in the diversity of these traits in groups of men found in different geographical areas and in different social classes. It is our task to inquire into the causes that have brought about the observed differentiation, and to investigate the sequence of events that have led to the establishment of the multifarious forms of human life. In other words, we are interested in the anatomical and mental characteristics of men living under the same biological, geographical, and social environment, and as determined by their past.
These questions signal a marked break from then-current ideas about human diversity, which assumed that some people have a history, evident in a historical (or written) record, while other people, lacking writing, also lack history. For some, this distinction between two different kinds of societies explained the difference between history, sociology, economics and other disciplines that focus on people with writing, and anthropology, which was supposed to focus on people without writing. Boas rejected this distinction between kinds of societies, and this division of labor in the academy. He understood all societies to have a history, and all societies to be proper objects of anthropological society. In order to approach literate and non-literate societies the same way, he emphasized the importance on studying human history through the analysis of other things besides written texts. Thus, in his 1904 article, "The History of Anthropology, Boas wrote that
The historical development of the work of anthropologists seems to single out clearly a domain of knowledge that heretofore has not been treated by any other science. It is the biological history of mankind in all its varieties; linguistics applied to people without written languages; the ethnology of people without historic records; and prehistoric archeology.
Historians and social theorists in the 18th and 19th centuries had speculated as to the causes of this differentiation, but Boas dismissed these theories,
especially the dominant theories of social evolution and cultural evolution as speculative. He endeavored to establish a discipline that would base its claims
on rigorous empirical study.
One of his most important books, The Mind of Primitive Man (published in 1911), he integrated these various concerns and established a program that would dominate American anthropology for the next fifteen years. In this study he established that in any given population, biology, language, material and symbolic culture, are autonomous; that each is an equally important dimension of human nature, but that no one of these dimensions is reducible to another. In other words, he established that culture does not depend on any independent variables. He emphasized that the biological, linguistic, and cultural traits of any group of people are the product of historical developments involving both cultural and non-cultural forces. He established that cultural plurality is a fundamental feature of humankind, and that the specific cultural environment structures much individual behavior.
Boas also presented himself as a role-model for the citizen-scientist, who understand that even were the truth pursued as its own end, all knowledge has moral consequences. The Mind of Primitive Man ends with an appeal to humanism:
I hope the discussions outlined in these pages have shown that the data of anthropology teach us a greater tolerance of forms of civilization different from our own, that we should learn to look on foreign races with greater sympathy and with a conviction that, as all races have contributed in the past to cultural progress in one way or another, so they will be capable of advancing the interests of mankind if we are only willing to give them a fair opportunity.
Boas's work in physical anthropology brought together his interest in Darwinian evolution with his interest in migration as a cause of change. His most important research in this field was his study of changes in body form among
children of immigrants in New York. Other researchers had already noted differences in height, cranial measurements, and other physical features between Americans and people from different parts of Europe. Many used these differences to argue that there is an innate biological difference between races. Boas's primary interest -- in symbolic and material culture and in language -- was the study of processes of change; he therefore set out to determine whether bodily forms are also subject to processes of change. Boas studied 17,821 people, divided into seven ethno-national groups. Boas found that average measures of cranial size of immigrants was significantly different from members of these groups who were born in the United States. Moreover, he discovered that average measures of cranial size of children born within ten years of their mothers' arrival were significantly different from those of children born more than ten years after their mothers' arrival. Boas did not deny that physical features such as height or cranial size were inherited; he did, however, argue that the environment has an influence on these features, which is expressed through change over time. This work was central to his influential argument that differences between races were not immutable.
These findings were radical at the time and continue to be debated. In 2002 the anthropologists Corey S. Sparks and Richard L. Jantz claimed that differences between children born to the same parents in Europe and America were very small and insignificant, and that there was no detectable effect of exposure to the American environment on the cranial index in children. They argued that their
results contradicted Boas's original findings and demonstrated that they may no longer be used to support arguments of plasticity in cranial morphology. However Jonathan Marks - a well-known physical anthropologist and former president of the General Anthropology section of the American Anthropological Association -- has remarked
that this revisionist study of Boas's work "has the ring of desperation to it (if not obfuscation), and has been quickly rebutted by more mainstream biological anthropology." In 2003 anthropologists Clarence C. Gravlee, H. Russell Bernard, and William R. Leonard reanalyzed Boas's data and concluded that Boas's original findings were correct. Moreover, they applied new statistical, computer-assisted methods to Boas's data and discovered even stronger evidence for cranial plasticity. In a later publication, Gravlee, Bernard and Leonard reviewed Sparks and Jantz' analysis. They argue that Sparks and Jantz misrepresented Boas's claims, and that Sparks' and Jantz's
data actually support Boas. For example, they point out that Sparks and Jantz look at changes in cranial size in relation to how long an individual has been in the United States in order to test the influence of the environment. Boas, however, looked at changes in cranial size in relation to how long the mother had been in the United States. They argue that Boas's method is more useful,
because the prenatal environment is a crucial developmental factor.
Although some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have suggested that Boas was opposed to Darwinian evolution, Boas in fact was a committed proponent
of Darwinian evolutionary thought. In 1888 he declared that "the development of ethnology is largely due to the general recognition of the principle of biological evolution;" since Boas's times, physical anthropologists have established that the human capacity for culture is a product of human evolution. In fact, Boas's research on changes in body form played an important role in the
rise of Darwinian theory. It is crucial to remember that Boas was trained at a time when biologists had no understanding of genetics; Mendelian genetics became
widely known only after 1900. Prior to that time biologists relied on the measurement of physical traits as empirical data for any theory of evolution. Boas's biometric studies, however, led him to question the use of this method
and kind of data. In a speech to anthropologists in Berlin in 1912, Boas argued that at best such statistics could only raise biological questions, and not answer them. It was in this context that anthropologists began turning to genetics as a basis for any understanding of biological variation.
Although Boas published descriptive studies of Native American languages, and wrote on theoretical difficulties in classifying languages, he left it to colleagues and students such as Edward Sapir to research the relationship
between culture and language.
His 1889 article "On Alternating Sounds," however, made a singular contribution to the methodology of both linguistics and cultural anthropology. It is a response to a paper presented in 1888 by Daniel Garrison Brinton, at the time a professor of American linguistics and archeology at the University of Pennsylvania. Brinton observed that in the spoken languages of many Native Americans, certain sounds regularly alternated. This is clearly not a function
of individual accents; Brinton was not suggesting that some individuals pronounced certain words differently from others. He was arguing that there were many words that, even when repeated by the same speaker, varied considerably in their vocalization. Using evolutionary theory, Brinton argued that this pervasive inconsistency was a sign of linguistic inferiority, and evidence that Native Americans were at a low stage in their evolution.
Boas understood what Brinton was talking about; he had experienced something similar during his research in Baffin Island and in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, he argued that "alternating sounds" is not at all a feature of
Native American languages -- indeed, he argued, they do not really exist. Rather than take alternating sounds as objective proof of different stages in cultural evolution, Boas considered them in terms of his longstanding interest in the subjective perception of objective physical phenomena. He also considered his earlier critique of evolutionary museum displays. There, he pointed out that two things (artefacts of material culture) that appear to be similar may in fact be quite different. In this article he raises the possibility that two things (sounds) that appear to be different may in fact be the same.
In short, he shifted attention to the perception of different sounds. Boas begins by raising an empirical question: when people describe one sound in different ways, is it because they cannot perceive of the difference, or might there be another reason? He immediately establishes that he is not concerned with cases involving perceptual deficit -- the aural equivalent of color-blindness. He points out that the question of people who describe one
sound in different ways is comparable to that of people who describe different sounds in one way. This is crucial for research in descriptive linguistics: when studying a new language, how are we to note the pronunciation of different
words? (in this pont, Boas anticipates and lays the groundwork for the distinction between phonemics and phonetics.) People may pronounce a word in a variety of ways and still recognize that they are using the same word. The issue, then, is not "that such sensations are not recognized in their individuality" (in other words, people recognize differences in pronunciations); rather, it is that sounds "are classified according to their similarity" (in other words, that people classify a variety of perceived sounds into one category). A comparable visual example would involve words for colors. The English word "green" can be used to refer to a variety of shades, hues, and tints. But there are some languages that have no word for "green." In such cases, people might classify what we would call "green" as either "yellow" or "blue." This is not an example of color-blindness -- people can perceive differences in color, but they categorize similar colors in a different way than English speakers.
Boas applies these principles to studies of British Columbian Inuit languages. Researchers have reported a variety of spellings for a given word. In the past,
researchers have interpreted this data in a number of ways -- it could indicate local variations in the pronunciation of a word, or it could indicate different dialects. Boas argues an alternative explanation: that the difference is not in how Inuit pronounce the word, but rather in how English-speaking scholars perceive the pronunciation of the word. It is not that English speakers are physically incapable of perceiving the sound in question; rather, the phonetic system of English cannot accommodate the perceived sound.
Although Boas is making a very specific contribution to the methods of descriptive linguistics, his ultimate point is far reaching: observer bias need not be personal, it can be cultural. In other words, the perceptual categories
of Western researchers may systematically cause a Westerner to misperceive or to fail to perceive entirely a meaningful element in another culture. As in his critique of Otis Mason's museum displays, Boas demonstrated that what appeared to be evidence of cultural evolution was realy the consequence of unscientific methods, and a reflection of Westerners beliefs about their own cultural superiority. This point provides the methodological foundation for Boas's cultural relativism: elements of a culture are meaningful in that culture's terms, even if they may be meaningless (or take on a radically different meaning) in another culture.
Boas was strongly committed to empiricism, and was skeptical and critical of attempts to formulate "scientific laws" of culture. He was also a strong advocate of ethnographic fieldwork, insisting that his students reside for an extended period among the people being researched, and conduct research in the native language.
The essence of Boas's approach to ethnography is found in his early essay on "The Study of Geography." There he argued for an approach that
considers every phenomena as worthy of being studied for its own sake. Its mere existence entitles it to a full share of our attention; and the knowledge of its existence and evolution in space and time fully satisfies the student.
When Boas's student Ruth Benedict gave her presidential address to the American Anthropological Association in 1947, she reminded anthropologists of the importance of this idiographic stance by quoting literary critic A.C. Bradley: "We watch ''what is'', seeing that so it happened and must have happened."
Boas argued that in order to understand "what is" -- in cultural anthropology, the specific cultural traits (behaviors, beliefs, and symbols) -- one had to examine them in their local context. As such, he was a major contributor to the anthropological concept of cultural relativism. He also understood that as people migrate from one place to another, and as the cultural context changes over time, the elements of a culture, and their meanings, will change, which led him to emphasize the importance of local histories for an analysis of cultures.
During Boas's lifetime, as today, many Westerners saw a fundamental difference between modern societies, which are characterized by dynamism and individualism, and traditional societies which are stable and homogeneous. Boas's empirical field research, however, led him to argue against this comparison. For example, his 1903 essay, "Decorative Designs of Alaskan Needlecases: A History of Conventional Designs, Based on Materials in a U.S. Museum," provides another example of how Boas made broad theoretical claims based on a detailed analysis
of empirical data. After establishing formal similarities among the needlecases, Boas shows how certain formal features provide a vocabulary out of which individual artisans could create variations in design. Thus, his emphasis on culture as a context for meaningful action made him sensitive to individual variation within a society (William Henry Holmes suggested a similar point in an
1886 paper, "Origin and development of form and ornament in ceramic art," although unlike Boas he did not develop the ethnographic and theoretical implications).
In a programmatic essay in 1920, "The Methods of Ethnology," Boas argued that instead of "the systematic enumeration of standardized beliefs and customs of a
tribe," anthropology needs to document "the way in which the individual reacts to his whole social environment, and to the difference of opinion and of mode of
action that occur in primitive society and which are the causes of far-reaching changes." Boas argued that attention to individual agency reveals that "the activities of the individual are determined to a great extent by his social
environment, but in turn his own activities influence the society in which he lives, and may bring about modifications in form." Consequently, Boas thought of
culture as fundamentally dynamic: "As soon as these methods are applied, primitive society loses the appearance of absolute stability.... All cultural forms rather appear in a constant state of flux...."
Having argued against the relevance of the distinction between literate and non-literate societies as a way of defining anthropology's object of study, Boas argued that non-literate and literate societies should be analyzed in the same way. Nineteenth century historians had been applying the techniques of philology to reconstruct the histories of, and relationships between, literate societies. In order to apply these methods to non-literate societies, Boas argued that the task of fieldworkers is to produce and collect texts in non-literate societies. This took the form not only of compiling lexicons and grammars of the local language, but of recording myths, folktales, beliefs about social relationships and institutions, and even recipes for local cuisine. In order to do this, Boas relied heavily on the collaboration of literate native ethnographers (among the Kwakiutl, most often George Hunt), and he urged his students to consider such people valuable partners, inferior in their standing in Western society, but superior in their understanding of their own culture (see Bunzl 2004: 438-439)
Using these methods, Boas published another article in 1920, in which he revisited his earlier research on Kwakiutl kinship. in the late 1890s Boas had tried to reconstruct transformation in the organization of Kkwakiutl clans, by comparing them to the organization of clans in other societies neighboring the Kwakiutl to the north and south. Now, however, he argued against translating the Kwakiutl principle of kin groups into any English word. Instead of trying to fit the Kwakiutl into some larger model, he tried to understand their beliefs and practices in their own terms. For example, whereas he had earlier translated the Kwakiutl word numaym as "clan," he now argued that the word is best understood as referring to a bundle of privileges, for which there is no English word. Men secured claims to these privileges through their parents or wives, and there were a variety of ways these privileges could be acquired, used, and transmitted from one generation to the next. As in his work on alternating sounds, Boas had come to realize that different ethnological interpretations of Kwakiutl kinship were the result of the limitations of Western categories. As in his work on Alaskan needlecases, he now saw variation among Kwakiutl practices as the result of the play between social norms and individual creativity.
Scientist as Activist
There are two things to which I am devoted: absolute academic and spiritual freedom, and the subordination of the state to the interests of the individual; expressed in other forms, the furthering of conditions in which the individual can develop to the best of his ability &mdash as far as it is possible with a full understanding of the fetters imposed upon us by tradition; and the fight against all forms of power policy of states or private organizations. This means a devotion to principles of true democracy. I object to teaching of slogans intended to befog the mind, of whatever kind they may be. (letter from Boas to John Dewey, 11/6/39)
Many social scientists in other disciplines often agonize over the legitimacy of their work as "science," and consequently emphasize the importance of detachment, objectivity, abstraction, and quantifiability in their work. Perhaps because Boas, like other early anthropologists, was originally trained in the
natural sciences, he and his students never expressed such anxiety. Moreover, he did not believe that detachment, objectivity, and quantifiability were required to make anthropology scientific. Since the object of study of anthropologists is different from the object of study of physicists, he assumed that anthropologists would have to employ different methods and different criteria for evaluating their research. Thus, Boas used statistical studies to demonstrate the extent to which variation in data is context-dependent, and argued that the context-dependent nature of human variation rendered many
abstractions and generalizations that had been passing as scientific understandings of humankind (especially theories of social evolution popular at the time) in fact unscientific. His understanding of ethnographic fieldwork
began with the fact that the objects of ethnographic study (for example, the Inuit of Baffin Island) were not just objects, but subjects, and his research called attention to their creativity and agency. More importantly, he viewed the Inuit as his teachers, thus reversing the typical hierarchical relationship between scientist and object of study.
This emphasis on the relationship between anthropologists and those they study -- the point that, while astronomers and stars; chemists and elements; botanists and plants are fundamentally different, anthropologists and those they study are equally human -- implied that anthropologists themselves could be objects of
anthropological study. Although Boas did not pursue this reversal systematically, his article on alternating sounds illustrates his awareness that scientists should not be confident about their objectivity, because they too see
the world through the prism of their culture.
This emphasis also led Boas to conclude that anthropologists have an obligation to speak out on social issues. Boas was especially concerned with racial inequality, which he had demonstrated was not biological in origin, but rather social. An early example of this concern is evident in his 1906 commencement address to Atlanta University, at the invitation of W. E. B. DuBois. Boas began by remarking that "If you did accept the view that the present weakness of the American Negro, his uncontrollable emotions, his lack of energy, are racially inherent, your work would still be noble one." He then went on, however, to argue against this view. To the claim that European and Asian civilizations are, at the time, more advanced than African societies (a claim still dominant today, see Guns, Germs, and Steel), Boas objected that against the total history of humankind, the past two thousand years is but a brief span. Moreover, although the technological advances of our early ancestors (such as taming fire and inventing stone tools) might seem insignificant when compared to the invention of the steam engine or control over electricity, we should consider that they might actually be even greater accomplishments. Boas then went on to catalogue advances in Africa, such as smelting iron, cultivating millet, and domesticating chickens and cattle, occurred in Africa well before they spread to Europe and Asia. He then described the activities of African kings, diplomats, merchants, and artists as evidence of cultural achievement. From this, he concluded, any social inferiority of Negroes in the United States cannot be explained by their African origins:
If, therefore, it is claimed that your race is doomed to economic inferiority, you may confidently look to the home of your ancestors and say, that you have set out to recover for the colored people the strength that was their own before they set foot on the shores of this continent. You may say that you go to work with bright hopes, and that you will not be discouraged by the slowness of your progress; for you have to recover not only what has been lost in transplanting the Negro race from its native soil to this continent, but you must reach higher levels than your ancestors ever had attained.
Boas proceeds to discuss the arguments for the inferiority of the Negro race, and calls attention to the fact that they were brought to the Americas through
force. For Boas, this is just one example of the many times conquest or colonialism has brought different peoples into an unequal relation, and he mentions "the conquest of England by the Normans, the Teutonic invasion of
Italy, and the Manchoo conquest of China" as resulting in similar conditions. But the best example, for Boas, of this phenomena is that of the Jews in Europe:
Even now there lingers in the consciousness of the old, sharper divisions which the ages had not been able to efface, and which is strong enough to find -- not only here and there -- expression as antipathy to the Jewish type. In France, that let down the barriers more than a hundred years ago, the feeling of antipathy is still strong enough to sustain an anti-Jewish political party.
Boas's closing advice is that Negroes should not look to Whites for approval or encouragement, because people in power usually take a very long time to learn to sympathize with people out of power. "Remember that in every single case in history the process of adaptation has been one of exceeding slowness. Do not look for the impossible, but do not let your path deviate from the quiet and steadfast insistence on full opportunities for your powers."
Despite Boas's caveat about the intractability of White prejudice, he also considered it the scientist's responsibility to argue against White myths of racial purity and racial superiority, and to use the evidence of his research to fight racism.
Boas was also critical of one nation imposing its power over others. In 1916 Boas wrote a letter to The New York Times which was published under the headline, "Why German-Americans Blame America." Although Boas did begin the
letter by protesting bitter attacks against German-Americans at the time of the war in Europe, most of his letter was a critique of American nationalism. "In my
youth I had been taught in school and at home not only to love the good of my own country, but also to seek to understand and to respect the individualities of other nations. For this reason one-sided nationalism, that is so often found nowadays, is to me unendurable." He writes of his love for American ideals of freedom, and of his growing discomfort with American beliefs about its own superiority over others.
I have always been of the opinion that we have no right to impose our ideals upon other nations, no matter how strange it may seem to us that they enjoy the kind of life they lead, how slow they may be in utilizing the resources of their countries, or how much opposed their ideals may be to ours .... Our intolerant attitude is most pronounced in regard to what we like to call "our free institutions." Modern democracy was no doubt the most wholesome and needed reaction against the abuses of absolutism and of a selfish, often corrupt, bureaucracy. That the wishes and thoughts of the people should find expression, and that the form of government should conform to these wishes is an axiom that has pervaded the whole Western world, and that is even taking root in the Far East. It is a quite different question, however, in how far the particular machinery of democratic government is identical with democratic institutions .... To claim as we often do, that our solution is the only democratic and the ideal one is a one-sided expression of Americanism. I see no reason why we should not allow the Germans, Austrians, and Russians, or whoever else it may be, to solve their problems in their own ways, instead of demanding that they bestow upon themselves the benefactions of our régime.
Although Boas felt that scientists have a responsibility to speak out on social and political problems, he was appalled that they might involve themselves in
disingenuous and deceitful ways. Thus, in 1919, when he discovered that four anthropologists, in the course of their research in other countries, were serving as spies for the American government, he wrote an angry letter to The Nation. It is perhaps in this letter that he most clearly expresses his understanding of his commitment to science:
A soldier whose business is murder as a fine art, a diplomat whose calling is based on deception and secretiveness, a politician whose very life consists in compromises with his conscience, a business man whose aim is personal profit within the limits allowed by a lenient law -- such may be excused if they set patriotic deception above common everyday decency and perform services as spies. They merely accept the code of morality to which modern society still conforms. Not so the scientist. The very essence of his life is the service of truth. We all know scientists who in private life do not come up to the standard of truthfulness, but who, nevertheless, would not consciously falsify the results of their researches. It is bad enough if we have to put up with these, because they reveal a lack of strength of character that is liable to distort the results of their work. A person, however, who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.
Although Boas did not name the spies in question, he was referring to a ring led by Sylvanus G. Morley, who was affiliated with Harvard University's Peabody Museum. While conducting research in Mexico, Morley and his confederates looked for evidence of German submarine bases, and collected intelligence on Mexican political figures and German immigrants in Mexico.
Boas's stance against spying took place in the context of his struggle to establish a new model for academic anthropology at Columbia University. Previously, American anthropology was based at the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington and the Peabody Museum at Harvard, and these anthropologists competed with Boas's students for control over the American Anthropological Association (and its flagship publication American Anthropologist). When the National Academy of Sciences established the National Research Council in 1916 as a means by which scientists could assist the United States government prepare for entry into the war in Europe, competition between the two groups intensified. Boas's rival, W.H. Holmes, was appointed to head the NRC; Morley was a protegé of Holmes.
When Boas's letter was published, Holmes wrote to a friend complaining about "the Prussian control of anthropology in this country" and the need to end
Boas's "Hun regime." The Anthropological Society of Washington passed a resolution condemning Boas's letter for unjustly criticizing President Wilson; attacking the principles of American democracy; and endangering anthropologists abroad, who would now be suspected of being spies. This resolution was passed on to the American Anthropological Association and the National Research Council. Members of the American Anthropological Association (among whom Boas was a founding member in 1903), meeting at the Peabody Museum, voted by 20 to 10 to
censure Boas. As a result, Boas resigned as the AAA's representative to the NRC, although Boas remained an active member of the AAA. This censure was rescinded in 2004.
Boas continued to speak out against racism and for intellectual freedom. When the Nazi Party in Germany denounced "Jewish science" (which included not only
Boasian Anthropology but Freudian psychoanalysis and Einsteinian physics), Boas responded with a public statement signed by over 8,000 other scientists,
declaring that there is only one science, to which race and religion are irrelevant. (In 1982 the evolutionary psychologist Kevin B. MacDonald resurrected the notion of a "Jewish science" in his book The Culture Of Critique; this book has been criticized for shoddy scholarship and anti-Semitism).
Influence and students
Between 1901 and 1911, Columbia University produced only 7 PhD.s. Although by today's standards this is a very small number, at the time it was sufficient to establish Boas's Anthropology Department at Columbia as the preeminant
anthropology program in the country. Moreover, many of Boas's students went on to establish anthropology programs at other major universities.
Boas's first doctoral student was Alfred L. Kroeber (1901), who, along with fellow Boas student Robert Lowie (1908), founded the anthropology program at the
University of California at Berkeley. He also trained William Jones (1904), one of the first Native American Indian anthropologists (the Fox nation) who was
killed while conducting research in the Philippines in 1909, and Albert B. Lewis (1907). Boas also trained a number of other students who were influential in the
development of academic anthropology: Frank Speck (1908) who trained with Boas but received his PhD. from the University of Pennsylvania and immediately proceeded do found the anthropology department there); Edward Sapir (1909) and Fay-Cooper Cole (1914) who developed the anthropology program at the University of Chicago; Alexander Goldenweiser (1910), who, with Elsie Clews Parsons (who received her doctorate in sociology from Columbia in 1899, but then studied ethnology with Boas), started the anthropology program at the New School for
Social Research; Leslie Spier (1920) who started the anthropology program ath the University of Washington, and Melville Herskowits (1923) who started the anthropology program at Northwestern University. He also trained John Reed Swanton (who studied with Boas at Columbia for two years before receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1900), Paul Radin (1911), Ruth Benedict (1923), Ruth Bunzel (1929), Alexander Lesser (1929), Margaret Mead (1929), and Gene Weltfish (who defended her dissertation in 1929, although she did not officially graduate until 1950 when Columbia reduced the expenses required to graduate). He was also an influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom he met during the latter's stay in New York in the 1940s. His students at Columbia also included anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who graduated from Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia, in 1928.
Several of Boas's students went on to serve as editors of the American Anthropological Association's flagship journal, American Anthropologist: John R. Swanton (1911, 1921-1923), Robert Lowie (1924-1933), Leslie Spier (1934-1938), and Melville Herskovits (1950-1952). Edward Sapir's student John Alden Mason was editor from 1945-1949, and Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie's student, Walter Goldschmidt, was editor from 1956-1959.
Most of Boas's students shared his concern for careful, historical reconstruction, and his antipathy towards speculative, evolutionary models. Moreover, Boas encouraged his students, by example, to criticize themselves as
much as others. For example, Boas originally defended the cephalic (head form) index as a method for describing hereditary traits, but came to reject his earlier research after further study; he similarly came to criticize his own
early work in Kwakiutl (Pacific Northwest) language and mythology. Encouraged by this drive to self-criticism, as well as the Boasian commitment to learn from one's informants and to let the findings of one's research shape
one's agenda, Boas's students quickly diverged from his own research agenda. Several of his students soon attempted to develop theories of the grand sort that Boas typically rejected. Kroeber called his colleagues' attention to
Sigmund Freud and the potential of a union between cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis. Ruth Benedict developed theories of "culture and personality" and "national cultures", and Kroeber and Lowie's student, Julian Steward developed theories of "cultural ecology" and "multilineal evolution" (a term originally coined by Lowie).
Nevertheless, Boas has had an enduring influence on anthropology. Virtually all anthropologists today accept Boas's commitment to empiricism and his methodological cultural relativism. Moreover, virtually all cultural
anthropologists today share Boas's commitment to field research involving extended residence, learning the local language, and developing social relationships with informants. Finally, anthropologists continue to honor his
critique of racial ideologies. In his 1963 book, Race: The History of an Idea in America, Thomas Gossett wrote that "It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history."
Writings by Boas
- Boas, Franz 1911 The Mind of Primitive Man
- Boas, Franz 1940 Race, Language, and Culture
- Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1974 A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology 1883-1911
Writings on Boas and Boasian Anthropology
- Bashkow, Ira 2004 "A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries" in American Anthropologist 106(3): 443-458
- Bunzl, Matti 2004 "Boas, Foucault, and the 'Native Anthropologist,'" in American Anthropologist 106(3): 435-442
- Cole, Douglas 1999 Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858-1906
- Kuper, Adam 1988 The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion
- Kroeber, Alfred 1949 "An Authoritarian Panacea" in American Anthropologist 51(2) 318-320
- Lesser, Alexander 1981 "Franz Boas" in Sydel Silverman, ed. Totems and Teachers: Perspectives on the History of Anthropology
- Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1996 Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition
Boas, Anthropology, and Jewish Identity
- Glick, Leonard B. 1982 "Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimilation" in American Anthropologist 84(3) pp. 545-565.
- Frank, Gelya 1997 "Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology" in American Anthropologist 99(4), pp. 731-745.