Franz Boas Essay - Critical Essays

Boas, Franz


Franz Boas 1858-1942

German-born American anthropologist.

Boas is widely acknowledged as the father of modern anthropology. In addition to bringing scientific techniques to the discipline, he was instrumental in developing the modern anthropology curriculum and, through his teaching, inspired the work of such notable figures as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Boas also did extensive field-work among native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and his writings on that subject remain an important source of anthropological data.

Biographical Information

Boas was born in Westphalia, the son of a successful businessman. After attending local schools, he studied mathematics and the natural sciences at universities in Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, receiving a doctorate in 1881. Two years later, he traveled to Baffin Island to do geographic research, and biographers believe it was his contact with and great admiration for the native people there that first interested him in the study of human cultures. After working in Berlin as a museum curator and lecturer, he returned to North America in 1886 to study the natives of the Pacific Northwest, the first of thirteen field trips he made to the area. Boas permanently relocated to the United States in 1887, accepting a position as an assistant editor for the journal Science. In 1888 he published his first book-length anthropological study, The Central Eskimo.

During the early 1890s Boas assisted in the creation of anthropological exhibits for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and afterward stayed on to help develop the Field Museum, which occupies one of the pavilions originally erected for the exposition. In 1896 he became an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and in that same year he began teaching at Columbia University, a position he retained until his retirement in 1937. During the last years of his life, Boas remained active, opposing the policies of Nazi Germany, working to end racial discrimination in the United States, and collecting his earlier writings for publication. He died in December 1942, during a meeting he had convened to discuss the problems of totalitarianism and racism.

Major Works

From the beginning of his career, Boas was dissatisfied with the basic assumptions of social science, many of them based on Western ideological biases. One of the central tenets of anthropology at the time was the evolutionary concept: the idea that human societies develop according to a single pattern from the primitive state to what was then regarded as civilization, with variations caused largely by environmental factors. Boas's early research among native tribes convinced him that environment played only a minor role in differentiating one group from another, and that societies formerly dismissed as primitive sometimes possessed highly developed social and linguistic features. Boas suggested that the development of societies was the result of a complex interaction of human psychology and unique historical factors, which he termed the "culture" of the group, and that there was in fact no single pattern for all human societies. Boas further proposed that only through exhaustive research and comparison could the universal principles governing the development of culture be discovered, and in his own studies of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest he attempted to exhaustively document the beliefs, customs, institutions, and language of the people he studied. In addition to his ethnographical and linguistic studies, Boas conducted research in physical anthropology, and through this research he was able to expose various racial fallacies, which were being used to justify discrimination against blacks as well as the extermination of various groups by the Nazis.

Critical Reception

Boas created controversy during his lifetime by adopting strident, sometimes unpopular, positions on many of the issues of the day. However, his contributions to the field of anthropology earned him wide respect, and he was revered by his many students, who expanded upon his ideas and dominated the field throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Some anthropologists have argued that while Boas clearly identified the importance of culture in the development of human societies, he failed to propose any viable theories concerning the properties of culture. However, his defenders argue that it was precisely in his reluctance to draw conclusions based on what might be incomplete evidence that constituted Boas's primary contribution to modern anthropology, elevating it from a speculative, elitist endeavor to one of the primary branches of the natural sciences.

Principal Works

The Central Eskimo (nonfiction) 1888

The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (nonfiction) 1909

Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (nonfiction) 1911

Handbook of American Indian Languages [editor] (non-fiction) 1911

The Mind of Primitive Man (nonfiction) 1911

Tsimshian Mythology (nonfiction) 1916

Primitive Art (nonfiction) 1927

Anthropology and Modern Life (nonfiction) 1928

Race, Language, and Culture (essays) 1940

Race and Democratic Society (essays) 1945

Kwakiutl Grammar (nonfiction) 1947

Kwakiutl Ethnography (nonfiction) 1966


Donald Slesinger (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: A review of Anthropology and Modern Life, in The Yale Law Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 5, March 1929, pp. 694-96.

[In the following review of Anthropology and Modern Life, Slesinger commends Boas's scientific methods and applauds his major conclusions concerning the roots of human behavior.]

Anthropology and psychoanalysis became popular in certain circles at about the same time, and for more or less the same reason. They both tended to discredit present day institutions and modes of thought by pointing to lowly origins in the infantile racial and individual past. It was fashionable a dozen years ago to be scornful of adult habits because their origins might be traced to a feeling of guilt, or an attachment to one's mother during the first four or five years of life. It was an equally popular pastime to suggest the ridiculousness of wearing a wedding ring, which was only an ancient symbol of marriage by capture; or of believing in the virgin birth, because it was a direct cultural descendant of primitive tribal myths. This use of some of the spectacular results of scientific inquiry tended to obscure the real value of both psychoanalysis and anthropology, and to make social scientists in related fields skeptical of co-operative enterprises. As late as 1928 a distinguished sociologist expressed the belief that the use of anthropology was purely historical and had no light to throw on contemporary problems.

Boas, in Anthropology and Modern Life, with no special theological axe to grind, makes clear the worth not only of some of the results, but of the methods of anthropological research. With an understanding of the use and limitations of his field of investigation he discusses the light it throws on certain important contemporary problems, and the possible future use of the methodology elaborated in the past quarter of a century. A glance at the chapter headings and the references in the back of the book show a preoccupation on the part of some investigators at least with modern situations, and indicate that Boas is not merely translating his material in order to make it available to the general public or to technicians in other fields; the studies mentioned and the discussion that follows are immediately illuminating, not illuminating by analogy.

The group, not the individual, is always the primary concern of the anthropologist… Theindividual interests us only as a member of the group. We inquire into determinate factors and the manner of their action in the group. The relation between the composition of the social group and the distribution of individual statures interests us. The physiologist may study the effect of strenuous exercise upon the functions of the heart. The anthropologist will investigate the interrelation between social conditions that make for strenuous exercise in a group and the physiological behavior of its members. The psychologist may study the intellectual or emotional behavior of the individual. The anthropologist will investigate the social or racial conditions that determine the behavior as distributed in the group.… We cannot treat the individual as an isolated...

(The entire section is 1322 words.)

Ruth Benedict (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: An obituary in Science, Vol. 97, No. 2507, January 15, 1943, pp. 60-2.

[Benedict was a renowned American cultural anthropologist who studied with Boas. The following excerpt is taken from her obituary tribute to her former teacher.]

[Franz Boas] was born in Minden, Westphalia, and was educated at the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn and Kiel, where his particular fields of study were physics, geography and mathematics. The subject of his doctoral dissertation presented to the University of Kiel was "The Nature of the Color of Sea Water," and his first act after receiving his degree was typical of the man. He had already arrived at his life-long conviction that...

(The entire section is 1645 words.)

Murray Wax (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "The Limits of Boas' Anthropology," in American Anthropologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 1956, pp. 63-74.

[In the following essay, Wax argues that while Boas was successful in introducing a spirit of critical inquiry and empiricism into modern anthropology, he failed to develop viable theories of his own.]

This paper will examine the dominant convictions of Franz Boas on a variety of subjects. We will show that, whatever their individual merits, they formed, when linked together, a chain that constricted creative research in cultural anthropology. By their combined standards, scarcely any research was judged satisfactory. The great talents of Boas himself were so...

(The entire section is 5937 words.)

Margaret Mead (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Apprenticeship Under Boas," in American Anthropologist, Vol. 61, No. 5, 1959, pp. 29-45.

[A respected American anthropologist, Mead is noted for her psychological and cultural studies of primitive societies, most notably Coming of Age in Samoa. Mead also studied with Boas, and in the following essay, which incorporates letters, conversations, and lecture notes, Mead discusses Boas's influence on her work as well as his impact on the field of anthropology.]

The myths that obscure the personality of an intellectual leader gather thickest in the years immediately following his death, when there are many people alive who speak with varyingly authoritative...

(The entire section is 7636 words.)

Leslie Spier (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Some Central Elements in the Legacy," in American Anthropologist, Vol. 61, No. 5, 1959, pp. 146-55.

[In the following essay, Spier provides an overview ofBoas's contributions to the field of anthropology.]

Boas left no body of dogma as a legacy. What he established, as a foundation to modern anthropology, was a series of guiding principles for action. These were expressed in concrete contributions, with little phrasing of theoretical points in extended form. Hence our survey of central elements here must stay close to the specific as he presented it.

The life of Boas coincided with the establishment of anthropology as a discipline of definite...

(The entire section is 4610 words.)

Ronald P. Rohner and Evelyn C. Rohner (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An Introduction to The Ethnography of Franz Boas, edited by Ronald P. Rohner, translated by Hedy Parker, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp. xiii-xxx.

[In the following excerpt, the critics describe Boas's approach to the study of human societies and place him in the context of nineteenth-century ethnographic theories.]

Even today, a quarter of a century after his death, Franz Uri Boas remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of anthropology. Anthropologists have tended to take a categorical stance approaching adulation or condemnation regarding the value of his work. In 1943, for example, Benedict rhapsodized, "He found anthropology...

(The entire section is 6913 words.)

George W. Stocking, Jr. (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Anthropology as Kulturkampf Science and Politics in the Career of Franz Boas," in The Ethnographer's Magic, and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, pp. 92-113.

[A distinguished American anthropologist, Stocking is the editor of numerous volumes of writings on the subject. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in the 1979 collection The Uses of Anthropology, he discusses the political dimension ofBoas's thought.]

Although it would be presumptuous in the space available to attempt systematic evaluation, one can scarcely avoid a few general comments on Boas' career as a scientific...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

Alexander Lesser (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Franz Boas," in Totems and Teachers: Perspectives on the History of Anthropology, edited by Sydel Silverman, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 1-33.

[Lesser was a distinguished American anthropologist who, like Boas, specialized in the study of Native American cultures. In the following excerpt, he summarizes Boas's achievements.]

In retrospect, Franz Boas was the builder and architect of modern anthropology. This has come to be a general consensus, despite certain controversies. I propose to focus on four themes in his life and work:

  1. The way in which Boas filled the role of architect of modern anthropology.
  2. What...

(The entire section is 8159 words.)

Marshall Hyatt (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Franz Boas, Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity, pp. ix-xii Greenwood Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Hyatt applauds Boas's efforts to effect social change.]

The life and thought of Franz Boas has had a profound impact on many diverse elements of American society. In a sense this German-born anthropologist can be viewed as a symbol of the age in which the United States responded to its rapid modernization at the onset of the twentieth century. Finding himself caught up in the whirlwind that resulted from such wholesale disequilibrium, Boas did his part to ease the national process of readaptation. During his long career in the United States, he...

(The entire section is 1602 words.)

Arnold Krupat (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Irony in Anthropology: The Work of Franz Boas," in Modernist Anthropology: From Fieldwork to Text, edited by Marc Manganaro, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 133-45.

[Krupat is an American critic and scholar who has written extensively on Native American cultures. In the following excerpt, he discusses elements of modernism in Boas's thought, noting the varieties and degrees of irony present in his writings.]

Born in Minden, Westphalia, in 1858, Franz Boas was clearly an extraordinary figure, not only a teacher, but a maltre in the grand sense, whose students often became disciples, and, in several cases (Kroeber, Mead, Sapir, Benedict, Radin), virtual...

(The entire section is 4876 words.)

Further Reading


Herskovits, Melville J. Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, 131 p.

Appreciative biography.

Hyatt, Marshall. Franz Boas: Social Activist. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990, 174 p.

Critical biography that traces the development of Boas's thought.


Beardsley, Edward H. "The American Scientist as Social Activist." ISIS 64, No. 221 (March 1973): 50-66.

Examines Boas's role in furthering racial justice in the United States.

Goldschmidt, Walter. The Anthropology of Franz Boas....

(The entire section is 439 words.)