Donald Slesinger (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.)