Franz Boas Introduction - Essay


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.