German-American Anthropologist Franz Boas is best known for his contributions on ‘cultural relativism’ and the re-organisation of American Anthropology. He specifically explored the cultural and linguistic features of the native North American societies.
Franz Boas: Life History (1858- 1942)
Born on July 9, 1858, in Westphalia, Franz Boas grew up as a liberal and intellectually conscious individual. He first studied physics and mathematics at the Heidelberg University on a collegiate level. He arrived in the USA in 1886. He had many unstable professions in the first decade before he finally developed an interest in anthropology by participating in the 1893 Columbia Explosion at the Field Museum of Natural History. He was appointed as a professor of anthropology, specialising in biological aspects, at the Columbia University, New York from 1989. He acted as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History between 1899-1905. He is a founding member of the American Anthropological Association and the American Folklore Society. He has also established the International Journal of American Linguistics and Journal of American Folk-lore. Boas has trained some of the greatest anthropological minds, including Melville Herskovitz, Zora Neal Hurston, A.L. Kroeber, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.
The Reorganisation of American Anthropology
Franz Boas is credited with developing the four-field approach of American anthropology: (1) Physical (or biological) anthropology focusses on collecting evidence to explain the biological differences and similarities of the human race. (2) The next branch of anthropology, archaeology, looks into the window of past with tools and techniques adopted from disciplines like geology, chemistry, architecture etc. (3) Communication is a significant aspect of every human structure and forms a huge part of it; hence, the third branch, anthropology linguistics, is a separate field which learns about the ‘relativity’ in cultural communication found in different parts of the world. (4) Ethnology, or its contemporary denotation, cultural anthropology, is the study of interpreting human cultures and their socio-political-economic pattern.
Other conceptual and theoretical frameworks
Franz Boas was an influential teacher and researcher. His contributions to the field ranged from physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology to ethnology, art and folklore studies of the American Indian peoples. His view on race as a cultural construct remodelled the world of colonial studies. Boas revamped American Anthropology to reject the ‘evolutionary’ aspects of human origins, which divided the species based on their apparent physiological destiny. His theory on cultural relativism explained that all these views are ethnocentric and come from a colonial bias of understanding society in hierarchical perspectives and through the use of oppressive power dynamics. His theories enabled future anthropologists (20th century onwards) to view the development of races in terms of historical particularism.
His holistic views on scientific method urged the anthropologists to infer the cultures of other people without preconceived notions of judgement. He warned against the generalised understanding of various cultures.
Let’s further delve into some important anthropological terms derived by Franz Boas.
The construction of culture as relative means — a “culture” of any society or group of people is to be studied in isolation, and as a journey to go through. It is a socio-cultural reality of individuals living and creating different meanings and experiences, in their own perceptions. This theory was generated in response to the ‘evolutionary’ views of scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries. Cultural relativism reminded an anthropologist to reject the gross colonial distortions of the conditions of the supposedly ‘uncivilised’ and ‘savage’ non-Western people. A social enquiry was an important element of re-defining the cultural elements of misrepresented communities. It is an inquiry into opening one’s mind to the isolated historically developed elements of a geographically-centred community and to remove oneself from the assumptions conditioned by identity politics and personal bias.
In the simplest of words, it is “the ability to understand a culture on its own terms.” It eradicates the idea of cultural superiority and the comparison of systemic differences of polity, economy, religion and other social realities. It is categorised in two different concepts: (1) Absolute theory explains that a culture exists in isolation and the outsider is in no position to pass judgements or form conclusions based on their mind’s standards and conditioning. (2) Critical relativism acknowledges the power dynamics in one’s culture and requires to induce inferences based on the recipients and vessels of that particular cultural aspect.
Boas school of thought presents particularism, or historical particularism, in opposition to the European positivist school of thought and environmentalist determinism, both of which viewed the human evolution in points of analytical and functional observations. Franz Boas was influenced by the historicist reaction and thus, he denied the positivist claims of knowledge and appointed culture as the middle man. He rejected the comparative methods of these pre-formed ideologies and favoured the understanding of culture in its own terms, namely through cultural relativism. Boas explained that cultures should be held to their own standards, in isolation from other cultures that have developed historically, geographically, politically, economically, and demographically in varying degrees of relativity from the former. The theory of particularism gained popularity in American scholarship in the first half of the 20th century and during the 1980s.
The Uniqueness of Boasian Anthropology
Each generation of scholars believe that they must disassociate themselves from their predecessors. Boas was no exception to this anomaly. His influence was huge, and his rejection on the ideas of race and culture set him apart from his contemporaries and predecessors alike. He wanted to achieve the pursuit of truth through the science of anthropology. His science was well-rounded, taking a little bit from everything, including historicist, humanistic and physical sciences. His works contributed to removing the fear of unknown and ignorance, the supposed ethical standards which created a misrepresentation of indigenous and monarchical cultures by the outsider Westerners and ‘enlightened’ ethnographers.
Boas fought against the dominant ideologies of racial determinism, evolutionism and Social Darwinism in American society, all of which promoted the oppression of the indigenous peoples. In his 1911 book, The Mind of the Primitive Man, Boas asked for a cultural reset of these oppressive paradigms. He pleads for tolerance towards the ‘foreign races’
Some of Franz Boas more famous works are:
- The central Eskimo (1877)
- The Mind of the Primitive Man (1911)
- Anthropology and modern life (1928)
- Race and democratic society (1945)
- Kwakiutl Ethnography
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Lowie, R. (1944). Franz Boas (1858-1942). The Journal of American Folklore, 57(223), 59-64. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/535755
Perusek, D. (2007). Grounding Cultural Relativism. Anthropological Quarterly, 80(3), 821-836. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/30052726
Rivet, P. (1958). Tribute to Franz Boas. International Journal of American Linguistics, 24(4), 251-252. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/1263970
Tax, S. (2019). Franz Boas. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography