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Boas, Franz

Boas, 1941
AP/Wide World Photos

(born July 9, 1858, Minden, Westphalia, Prussia [Germany]—died Dec. 22, 1942, New York, N.Y., U.S.) German-born American anthropologist of the early 20th century, the founder of the relativistic, culture-centred school of anthropology that became dominant in the 20th century. During his tenure at Columbia University in New York City (1899–1942), he developed one of the foremost departments of anthropology in the United States. Boas was a specialist in North American Indian cultures and languages, but he was, in addition, the organizer of a profession and the great teacher of a number of scientists who developed anthropology in the United States, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits, and Edward Sapir.

Boas was the son of a merchant. He was of delicate health as a child and spent much of his time with books. His parents were free-thinking liberals who held to the ideals of the Revolutions of 1848. Although Jewish, he grew up feeling completely German. From the age of five he took an interest in the natural sciences—botany, geography, zoology, geology, and astronomy. While studying at the Gymnasium in Minden, he became deeply interested in the history of culture. He followed his various intellectual bents in his course of studies at the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, taking his Ph.D. in physics and geography at Kiel in 1881.

After a year's military service Boas continued his studies in Berlin, then undertook a year-long scientific expedition to Baffin Island in 1883–84. Firmly interested now in human cultures, he took posts in an ethnological museum in Berlin and on the faculty of geography at the University of Berlin.

In 1886, on his way back from a visit to the Kwakiutl and other tribes of British Columbia (which became a lifelong study), he stopped in New York City and decided to stay. He found a position as an editor of the magazine Science.

Boas' first teaching position was at the newly founded Clark University (Worcester, Mass.) in 1889. Next, he spent a period in Chicago, where he assisted in the preparation of the anthropological exhibitions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and held a post at the Field Museum of Natural History. In 1896 he became lecturer in physical anthropology and in 1899 professor of anthropology at Columbia University. From 1896 to 1905 he was also curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; in that capacity he directed and edited the reports submitted by the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, an investigation of the relationships between the aboriginal peoples of Siberia and of North America.

From his earliest years in America, Boas was an innovative and prodigiously productive scholar, contributing equally to statistical physical anthropology, descriptive and theoretical linguistics, and American Indian ethnology, including important studies of folklore and art. His personal research contributions alone would have given him an important place in the history of anthropology, but he also exerted enormous influence as a teacher. By the turn of the century, national leadership in anthropology was firmly in Boas' hands. In 1906, at the age of 48, he was presented with the festschrift (volume of tributes), usually awarded by his colleagues to a scholar nearing retirement. The 36 years that followed were no less productive, influential, or honoured. Boas established the International Journal of American Linguistics, was one of the founders of the American Anthropological Association, and served as president (1931) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1911 Boas published The Mind of Primitive Man, a series of lectures on culture and race. It was often referred to in the 1920s by those who were opposed to new U.S. immigration restrictions based on presumed racial differences. In the 1930s the Nazis in Germany burned the book and rescinded his Ph.D. degree, which Kiel University had in 1931 ceremonially reconfirmed. Boas updated and enlarged the book in 1937. Other books by Boas include Primitive Art (1927) and Race, Language and Culture (1940).

The revolutionary significance of Boas' work can only be understood in terms of the differing beliefs of anthropologists about man. Almost all anthropologists have almost always believed that the human species is one; but not as many of them believed in Boas' day that the races of mankind show equally the human capacity to develop cultural forms. It is partly because of Boas' influence that the proposition is now almost universally accepted that every surviving population large enough to have a distribution of individual differences shows equally the human capacity to develop cultural forms, and that differences in outcome are attributed by anthropologists to historic “cultural” rather than genetic factors.

Within this common framework there have sometimes been differences in view as to the actual attainments of particular peoples. Some anthropologists, often calling themselves “evolutionary,” argue that some peoples have achieved “higher” states of culture, leaving behind—at least temporarily—other peoples. They believe that the differences between “civilized” and “primitive” peoples are the result of environmental, cultural, and historical circumstances. Other anthropologists, frequently called cultural relativists, argue that the evolutionary view is ethnocentric, deriving from a human disposition to characterize groups other than one's own as inferior, and that all surviving human groups have evolved equally but in different ways.

Franz Boas was of the second persuasion. Since British and U.S. anthropologists in the last third of the 19th century were not particularly disposed to this view, Boas' success in making it overwhelmingly dominant was all the more remarkable. While he had originally assumed as a natural scientist that universal laws must exist that would explain how different peoples have wound up with their characteristic ways of life, he concluded that the problem was too complex for any general solution. Laws of cultural causation, he argued, had to be discovered rather than assumed.

Boas' view requires the anthropologist to be capable of understanding all factors that might influence the histories of peoples. Thus, to assert that cultural differences are not the result of biological differences, one must know something of biology; and to see the interrelations of man and his environment, the anthropologist must understand such things as migration, nutrition, child-raising customs, and disease, as well as the movements and interrelations of peoples and their cultures. Anthropology then becomes holistic and eclectic, involved in any field of science or scholarship that appears relevant to a particular problem.

Sol Tax

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