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...
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