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Franz Boas

Franz Boas (July 9, 1858-December 22, 1942) was one of the pioneers of modern cultural 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, 1958. Although his granparents 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.

Boas attended university first at Heidelberg, then Bonn, where he focussed on mathematics and physics, but attended a few courses in geography, including one taught by Theobald Fischer. Although he intended then to study physics at Berlin, he 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 was unhappy with his dissertation, but intrigued by the problems of perception that plagued his research.  This interest led him to "psychophysics," which addressed psychological and epistemological problems in physics.  Boas took courses with Benno Erdman, a Kantian philosopher, and again considered moving to Berlin to study psychophisics with Hermann von Helmholtz.  But psychophysics was of dubious status, and Boas had no training in psychology.  Coincidentally, 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.  Boas received his doctorate in physics from the university at Kiel in 1882, and prepared for a trip to Baffin Island in 1883 to conduct geographic research on the relationship beteween its native inhabitants and their environment.  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 Adolf Bastien at the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin. There he 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.

After working for the American Museum of Natural History, and teaching at Clark University, he founded the first Ph.D. program in anthropology in America, at Columbia University.

Empiricism and Cultural Relativism

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. Boas argued that specific cultural traits — behaviors, beliefs, and symbols — had to be understood in their local context. As such, he was a major contributor to the anthropological concept of cultural relativism. His ambitious Jesup Expedition focused on human migration from Asia to the Americas. His most important work is perhaps The Mind of Primitive Man .

Contributions to other fields

Boas also encouraged the "four field" concept of anthropology, and contributed not only to cultural anthropology but to physical anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology as well. In physical anthropology he challenged various uses of the notion of race, and argued that there was no necessary or strong connection between race and culture.

Influence and Students

His first doctoral student was Alfred L. Kroeber, another pioneer of American anthropology. He also trained Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and linguist Edward Sapir. He was, via Kroeber, an influence on Claude LÚvi-Strauss. One of 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.

Modern Debates

Skull Plasticity

Boas's most important research in physical anthropology 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 (see [1] ). 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. See [2] . 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. (See [3] .)

Kevin B. MacDonald's criticisms

The evolutionary psychologist Kevin B. MacDonald has criticized Boas in his book The Culture Of Critique (1998, 2002), arguing that the school of anthropology he founded was unscientific and politically motivated and that Boas, like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, identified himself heavily as Jewish and sought to serve what he saw as Jewish interests by undermining the hegemony of Gentile Europeans in the United States and Europe. These proposals have been strongly criticized for their alleged shoddy scholarship and anti-Semitism, and were described as "nauseating" by the writer Judith Shulevitz (see Kevin B. MacDonald for further discussion).

External Link

  • A reassessment of human cranial plasticity: Boas revisited -- Summary of critical paper by Corey S. Sparks and Richard L. Jantz.
  • Franz Boas Out of the Ivory Tower essay on the relationship between the academy and politics, drawing on the example of Boas

Last updated: 02-05-2005 08:17:34
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12