About Franz Uri Boas
Franz Boas (July 9, 1858 – December 21, 1942) was a German American anthropologist a pioneer of modern anthropology who has been called the "Father of American Anthropology" and "the Father of Modern Anthropology." Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography. He applied the scientific method to the study of human cultures and societies; previously this discipline was based on the formulation of grand theories around anecdotal knowledge.
Boas once summed up his approach to anthropology and folklore by saying: "In the course of time I became convinced that a materialistic point of view, for a physicist a very real one, was untenable. This gave me a new point of view and I recognized the importance of studying the interaction between the organic and inorganic, above all the relation between the life of a people and their physical environment."
Franz Uri Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia. Although his grandparents were observant Jews, his parents, like most people with Jewish ancestry at their place and time, embraced Enlightenment values, including their assimilation into modern German society. Boas’s parents were educated, well-to-do, and liberal; they did not like dogma of any kind. Due to this, Boas was granted the independence to think for himself and pursue his own interests. Early in life he displayed a penchant for both nature and natural sciences. Boas was sensitive about his Jewish ancestry, and while he vocally opposed anti-Semitism and refused to convert to Christianity, he did not identify himself as a Jew; indeed, according to his biographer, "He was an 'ethnic' German, preserving and promoting German culture and values in America." 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 Fröbel 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, where he joined the fraternity Burschenschaft Alemannia zu Bonn, in which he stayed for his whole life, — he focused on mathematics and physics (although he also attended a few courses in geography, including one taught by Theobald Fischer). He had intended to go to Berlin to study physics, but chose to attend the university at Kiel to be closer to his family. Boas had wished to conduct research concerning Gauss's law of the normal distribution of errors, but his thesis supervisor Gustav Karsten instructed him to research the optical properties of water instead. Boas received his doctorate in physics from Kiel university in 1881.
Boas was not happy with his doctoral thesis, and was being intrigued by the problems of perception that had plagued his research. Boas had been interested in Kantian philosophy since taking a course on aesthetics with Kuno Fischer at Heidelberg. Boas also attended Benno Erdmann's seminar at Bonn University, another notable Kantian. This interest led Boas 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 growing 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. The first of many ethnographic field trips, Boas culled his notes to write his first monograph titled The Central Eskimo, which was published in the 6th Annual Report from the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1888. Boas lived and worked closely with the Inuit peoples on Baffin Island, and he developed an abiding interest in the way people lived.
In the perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter, Boas reported, he and his traveling companion became lost and were forced to keep sledding for twenty-six hours through ice, soft snow, and temperatures that dropped below -46 °C. Eventually, they secured shelter to rest and recuperate from being “half frozen and half starved.” The following day, Boas penciled in his letter diary:
I often ask myself what advantages our 'good society possesses over that of the 'savages' and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them. . . We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We 'highly educated people' are much worse, relatively speaking. . . Franz Boas to Marie Krackowizer, December 23, 1883. Franz Boas’ Baffin Island Letter-Diary, 1883-1884, edited by Herbert Cole (1983:33).
Boas went on to explain in the same entry that “all service, therefore, which a man can perform for humanity must serve to promote truth.” Boas was forced to depend on various Inuit groups for everything from directions and food to shelter and companionship. It was a difficult year filled with tremendous hardships that included frequent bouts with disease, mistrust, pestilence, and danger. Boas successfully searched for areas not yet surveyed and found unique ethnographic objects, but the long winter and the lonely treks across perilous terrain forced him to search his soul to find a direction for his life as a scientist and a citizen.
Boas's interest in indigenous communities grew as he worked at the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin where he was introduced to members of the Nuxálk Nation of British Columbia, which sparked a lifelong relationship with the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.
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. However, like most other natural scientists prior to the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900 and the development of the modern synthesis, Virchow felt that Darwin's theories were weak because they lacked a theory of cellular mutability. Accordingly, Virchow favored Lamarckian models of evolution. This debate 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 antisemitism and nationalism, as well as the very limited academic opportunities for a geographer, in Germany, Boas decided to stay in the United States. His decision also may have been influenced by his romance with Marie Krackowizer, whom he married in the same year.
Aside from his editorial work at Science, Boas secured an appointment as docent in anthropology at Clark University, in 1888. Boas was concerned about university president G. Stanley Hall's interference in his research, yet in 1889 he was appointed as the head of a newly-created department of anthropology at Clark University. In the early 1890s he went on a series of expeditions which were referred to as the Morris K. Jesup Expedition. The primary goal of these expeditions was to illuminate Asiatic-American relations.
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 to F.W. Putnam at the Chicago World’s Fair. These exhibits later served as the basis for the Field (Columbian) Museum, where Boas would serve as the curator of anthropology before being replaced by Wm. H. Homes. In 1896 Boas was named the assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, again under Putnam.
In the late 19th century 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. First Nations groups on the northern coast of British Columbia, like the Tsimshian and Tlingit, were organized into matrilineal clans. First Nations on the southern coast, like the Nootka and the 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 stayed in the mother's line. At first, Boas — like Morgan before him — suggested that 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 an 1887 article, to challenge Mason'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 "[t]hough 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. Mason'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 Frederic 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 aboriginals 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 1897 he organized the Jesup North Pacific 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.
Boas was appointed lecturer in physical anthropology at Columbia University in 1896, and promoted to professor of anthropology in 1899. However, 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 Holmes.
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 Polish-English anthropologist Bronisław 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 as 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 approach 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 Boas's most important books, The Mind of Primitive Man (published in 1911), integrated his theories concerning the history and development of cultures 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.
Franz Boas died of a stroke at the Columbia University Faculty Club on December 21, 1942. By that time he had become one of the most influential and respected scientists of his generation.
Between 1901 and 1911, Columbia University produced 7 PhD.s in anthropology. 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 preeminent 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 at Columbia was Alfred L. Kroeber (1901), who, along with fellow Boas student Robert Lowie (1908), started the anthropology program at the University of California, 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 to 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 at the University of Washington together with his wife Erna Gunther, also one of Boas´ students, and Melville Herskovits (1923) who started the anthropology program at Northwestern University. He also trained John R. Swanton (who studied with Boas at Columbia for two years before receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1900), Paul Radin (1911), Ruth Benedict (1923), Gladys Reichard (1925) who had begun teaching at Barnard College in 1921 and was later promoted to the rank of professor, 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), E. Adamson Hoebel (1934), Jules Henry (1935), Ashley Montagu (1938).
His students at Columbia also included Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, who earned his M.A. after studying with Boas from 1909–1911, and became the founding director of Mexico's Bureau of Anthropology in 1917; Clark Wissler, who received his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1901, but proceeded to study anthropology with Boas before turning to research Native Americans; Esther Schiff, later Goldfrank, worked with Boas in the summers of 1920 to 1922 to conduct research among the Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo Indians in New Mexico ; Gilberto Freyre, who shaped the concept of "racial democracy" in Brazil; Viola Garfield, who carried forth Boas's Tsimshian work; Frederica de Laguna, who worked on the Inuit and the Tlingit; and anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who graduated from Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia, in 1928.
He was also an influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom he met during the latter's stay in New York in the 1940s (and in whose arms Boas expired in 1942).
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 index (systematic variations in head form) 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's student, Julian Steward developed theories of "cultural ecology" and "multilineal evolution."
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."
Franz Boas's Timeline
July 9, 1858
Minden, Westphalia, Germany
March 10, 1887
February 4, 1891
Worcester, MA, USA
January 8, 1902
New York, NY, USA
December 21, 1942
New York City, New York, USA