Boas, Franz

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Boas, Franz

The science of anthropology


Physical anthropology




Franz Boas (1858–1942), American anthropologist, was born and educated in Germany. He visited the United States in 1884 and 1886 in the course of expeditions to the Arctic and British Columbia and began his American career in New York in 1887. He became the most influential anthropologist of his time, a major force in the academic and professional development of the science, considered by many the architect of its modern structure. To Boas can be credited a critical reconstruction of anthropology and its principal branches as well as the emergence of the modern concept of culture—a concept central to the integration of anthropology as the study of man “as a member of social groups,” and fundamentally influential with respect to all modern thinking in behavioral sciences. Boas led physical anthropology from taxonomic “race” classification into a field of viable research in human biology, and he exposed and eliminated traditional ambiguities in the area of race and culture study. His leadership in the study of American Indian languages became the established reference point for the development of structural linguistics and for questions of the relation of language to thought and culture. His critique of nineteenth-century unilineal (orthogenetic) cultural evolution established both the historicity of cultural developments and the primary role of culture in human history.

Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia. At school and the Gymnasium in Minden, and at the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, he received the thorough German education of his time in sciences, mathematics, languages, and humanities. He took his doctorate at Kiel in 1881; physics and mathematics attracted him, and his principal doctoral thesis, Beitrdge zur Erkenntniss der Farbe des Wassers (1881), led him into problems of psychophysics, the forerunner of experimental psychology. But he also wrote three theses in geography, his favorite subject in the Gymnasium, and he began his career as a geographer. It was as a geographer that he planned his Arctic expedition of 1883–1884 to Baffin Land. He later was appointed docent in geography at the University of Berlin.

Ethnology, however, had a stronger appeal. Even as a schoolboy he wanted to study cultural history, to travel to “unknown lands,” to learn about primitive peoples; and these interests were nourished by his studies in human geography. In 1882, before his Eskimo trip, he frequented meetings of the Berlin Anthropological Society, contacting Adolf Bastian and Rudolf Virchow and arranging with Virchow for instruction in anthropometry. Among the Eskimos he carried out extensive ethnological research in addition to his geographical work, which became his monograph “The Central Eskimo” (1888). Sometime in 1885, as he came to understand his Eskimo experience, he turned to anthropology as his primary field. That year he was writing his Eskimo monograph and, as assistant in Bastian’s Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, he was associating with leading anthropologists and deepening his relationship with Virchow. Working with British Columbia collections at the museum, and with two Bella Coola Indians then in the city, Boas found the “attraction” of North Pacific culture, and especially its art, “irresistible”; he planned the ethnological expedition which took him to British Columbia in 1886 to begin the study of the region, and especially of the Kwakiutl Indians, that he continued throughout his life. For some years after 1888 he carried on these studies under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

In New York in January 1887, after returning from the field, Boas made a major decision: he gave up his German career to become an American scientist and citizen; accepting an assistant editorship of Science, he married and settled in New York. It was not a sudden decision: he was unhappy with his immediate German position—his docentship in physical geography—and for personal and political reasons he had sought for some years to transfer his career to the United States. Coming from a home “where the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force” and where, with parents who had given up their formal Jewish faith, he “was spared the struggle against religious dogma that besets the lives of so many young people” (1938b), Boas was alienated by the antiliberal climate of Bismarck’s Germany. He had experienced its anti-Semitism at first hand, and he could not accept the state requirement that to hold a scientific position he must make a declaration of religious affiliation. In New York he found a con-genial atmosphere of intellectual, personal, and political freedom. Relatives and friends of the Boas family who had left Germany after the revolution of 1848 were already there—among others, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, an uncle; Carl Schurz, who introduced Boas into academic and cultural circles; and Marie Krackowizer, Boas’ fiancée, whom he had met four years earlier on a vacation in the Harz mountains.

Boas’ work on Science was primarily geographical. Anthropology in the United States, still in a preacademic and largely preprofessional era, offered limited opportunities. From 1888 to 1892 Boas held a post in anthropology at Clark University; and from 1892 to mid-1894 he was chief assistant in anthropology at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and then curator of the museum there established to house its permanent collections. (The museum was first called the Columbian Museum, later the Field Museum.) After he left the museum, Boas was without a regular position for eighteen months. In December 1895 he joined Frederic Ward Putnam at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, becoming assistant curator in 1896 and curator from 1901 until 1905. Concurrently, he joined Columbia University in May 1896 as lecturer in physical anthropology and became professor of anthropology in 1899, his lifetime post, from which he retired in 1936.

Early in his American career Boas became active in promoting the academic and professional development of anthropology. He established anthropology at Clark University and at Columbia; and among the men he trained at Columbia were A. L. Kroeber, who established a department at the University of California in 1903, and F. G. Speck, who did likewise at the University of Pennsylvania in 1909. The work of Putnam and Boas made the Chicago World’s Fair a landmark in the development of anthropology: its collections founded a permanent museum and its “Congress of Anthropology” set the stage for basic research and professional organization to follow. Boas played a leading role in modernizing the American Anthropologist in 1898 and in founding the American Anthropological Association in 1902. In 1899–1900 he reorganized the American Ethnological Society in New York as a viable scientific society; founded in 1842, it had long been inactive. He was tireless in promoting research and in establishing and editing scientific journals and publications. From 1897 to 1902 he organized and directed through the American Museum of Natural History the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, a major research investigation of man in the Americas. He founded and edited the major American publications in anthropological linguistics, and he was a founder of the American Folk-lore Society in 1888 and of its Journal, which he edited from 1908 to 1925. He took the lead in developing anthropology in Mexico, collaborating on the establishment of the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology there and directing it from 1911 to 1912. He was active in the development of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and of its Journal.

Boas was equally indefatigable in his own scientific work, contributing year after year to all branches of anthropology. To these efforts he brought a commitment to empiricism and rigorous scientific methods, an awareness of the complexity of natural phenomena, and a readiness to re-examine traditional ideas. By 1911, when he published The Mind of Primitive Man, collecting some of his important studies “in revised form and enlarged,” he had restructured anthropology, defining in modern terms the scope and problems both of the general field and of its separable branches. Boas’ work thereafter, as that of most modern anthropology, built upon the new base lines he had established.

The science of anthropology

Before Boas, anthropology as a subject matter was little more than a miscellany of anthropometric, linguistic, ethnographic, and archeological data about the evolution of man and his works. Race and language, or race and culture, understood as phases of the same evolution, were treated as inherently interrelated. Culture was defined essentially as the expression of the rational thinking of the human mind, and it was considered a single phenomenon, humanistic and evolutionary, manifested by all mankind but in different degrees. Culture differences or similarities were explained by differences or similarities in racial factors, in geographical factors, or in stages of a progressive (orthogenetic) evolution.

Boas’ work transformed the field by basing it on the conception of cultures as the environments of both human biological and behavioral life, and by establishing the relative autonomy of physical anthropology, linguistics, and ethnology as branches of the general science.

Elementary today, although not at all obvious before his time, was Boas’ demonstration that physical type (race), language, and culture have had relatively independent histories. Traditional classifications of man had assumed that race and language, race and culture, or all three, are interdependent, that they “are in a way interchangeable terms.” Boas showed that classifications based upon racial or biological criteria cannot be reconciled with those based upon linguistic or cultural criteria, nor can linguistic or cultural classifications be reconciled with racial classifications or with one another. The principle established—that human biological history and classification must be based on biological data, linguistic history on linguistic data, and cultural history on cultural data—is fundamental in modern anthropology. Neither variations nor similarities of culture can be explained by considerations of race.

Critique of geographical determinism

During the time that Boas was a university student, the dominant approach to cultural history was geographical determinism. Under Theobald Fischer, Boas wrote a thesis on geography as the foundation of history, and he planned an empirical demonstration of the theory for his Baffin Land expedition— specifically, an investigation of the relations between Eskimo migrations and the physical geography of their region. After his return he published results which he considered satisfactory (1885), unaware for some time of the impact of his Eskimo experience upon his thinking (Stocking 1965). Yet within two years he turned from anthropogeography toward ethnology as his primary work, and in retrospect he saw his Eskimo research on geographical determinism as “a thorough disappointment” and his Eskimo year as a turning point in his interests (1938b). He had found that Eskimo behavior could not be explained by geographical environment except in trivial and shallow ways and that Eskimos often did things not because of geographical conditions but in spite of them.

In his critique of geographical determinism Boas showed that its logical conclusion—“that the same environment will produce the same cultural results everywhere”—is untenable in the light of the facts. Human culture is not simply an adaptation to nature; similarities and differences cannot be explained by geography alone. Environments, Boas showed, interact with pre-existing cultures—cultures “which themselves are due to historical causes” and cannot be explained by “action of the environment alone.”


Even in his early thought, Boas interpreted the evolutionary view of nineteenth-century ethnology in historical terms. In 1889 he wrote:

The development of ethnology is largely due to the general recognition of the principle of biological evolution. It is a common feature of all forms of evolutionary theory that every living being is considered as the result of an historical development. The fate of an individual does not influence himself alone, but also all the succeeding generations.… This point of view introduced an historical perspective into the natural sciences and revolutionized their methods. The development of ethnology is largely due to the adoption of the evolutionary standpoint, because it impressed the conviction upon us that no event in the life of a people passes without leaving its effect upon later generations. The myths told by our ancestors and in which they believed have left their impress upon the ways of thinking of their descendants.… ([1889] 1955, p. 633)

To Tylor, Morgan, Spencer and other nineteenth-century cultural evolutionists, evolution was more than a principle of historical continuity and change. It derived not from Darwin—whose conception of natural selection recognized the historical character of evolutionary events—but from eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century ideas of inevitable progress, of order and direction in the events of history. Cultural history was viewed as a universal, unilineal, unfolding process; variations were expressions of differences in stage of development. To Tylor, for example, “civilization” among more evolved peoples was a higher manifestation of culture as a universal attribute of man.

Boas’ critique was directed not against the principle of evolution as historical development, which he accepted, but against the orthogenesis of dominant English and American theory of the time. He opposed history to orthogenesis, showing that sequential developments of technology, religion, art, social organization, moral ideas, and language did not follow the single course required by the orthogenetic theories, or move necessarily from simple to complex. A particular development involved many historical factors and was not simply a realization of inherent potentials. Similarities on which evolutionary conclusions were being based had been torn from their meaningful cultural-historical contexts; the similarity of the phenomena was “more apparent than real”; they were in reality noncomparable. Alleged parallel developments used as evidence were in fact not parallel but convergent outcomes of different histories. The course of historical evolution, Boas argued, must be derived from the comparison of actual histories (19l1b).

Historical evolution made the “progress” inherent in orthogenetic views a separate, additional question—namely, an evaluation of the historic record in terms of human ideals and standards inevitably culture-based and culture-bound. In some aspects of culture, as in social organization, religion, or art, “our own ideals are not uniform” and progress is difficult to define. There is a general consensus, however, that since earliest times there has been progress “in knowledge and control of nature.… If we should value progress entirely by the development of invention and knowledge, it would be easy to arrange the divisions of man-kind in order of progress, beginning with the simplest cultures of early Paleolithic man and leading up to modern civilizations …” (1938a, pp. 676–677).

Boas’ critique was thought by some to be an attempt to disprove the historical reality of evolution, but this is a reflection of the thought and usage of the time rather than of Boas’ meaning. Evolution and orthogenetic development had been identified in biology as well as anthropology. In biology the present understanding of evolution as the history of genetic change was achieved only after a long critical struggle against orthogenetic evolution that lasted into the twentieth century. The critique of cultural evolutionary theory, which Boas led, was a parallel effort in anthropology to displace orthogenetic preconceptions and promote the acceptance of history.

Culture and man

Boas’ work established the relative autonomy of cultural phenomena. Cultural forms are not expressions of differences in outer environment, inner biology, or some directive force within culture itself; they are diverse historical developments, each the outcome of a prior history in which many factors and events, cultural and non-cultural, have played a part. Cultures rather than culture became fundamental to the study of man.

In addition to this critical work Boas added new dimensions to the understanding of the relation of cultures and man: psychological considerations, which defined cultures as the environments of human thought and behavior; and biological considerations, which established the role of cultural environments (and hereditary factors) in human biological life, growth, and variation. This conception of cultures gave anthropology its modern integration: “All the various aspects of human life: bodily form, language, culture, as well as the environment in which man is placed, are interrelated, and the form of culture is a result of this integration” (1930c, p. 98).

Boas brought to anthropology a knowledge of the German psychology of his time: he was familiar with psychophysics, on which he published several papers; and he had studied the folk psychology movement, especially in the work of Wilhelm Wundt, whose conception of a comparative psychology based on studies of language, myth, and custom influenced Boas deeply. Early in his life, the declaration of a theologian friend that “one [has] not the right to doubt what the past [has] transmitted” had made him sharply aware of “the psychological origin of the implicit belief in the authority of tradition” as a fundamental problem (1938b). In psychophysics he found that the experience of the subject plays an important part in perception: quantitative methods alone do not ex-plain the phenomena; and Neo-Kantian philosophy raised fundamental questions in his mind about the role of subjective mental activity in the perception of the external world. A “desire to understand the relations between the objective and subjective worlds” became a lifelong interest of his work in anthropology (Boas 1938b; Benedict 1943). This desire is evident in the problem he studied among the Eskimos, and it drew him to the study of the North Pacific Coast. He was “struck by the flight of imagination” in Northwest Coast art and surmised that “a wealth of thought lay hidden behind the grotesque masks and the elaborately decorated utensils of these tribes” (1909, p. 307). Thus, in his work on Northwest peoples, as in a great deal of his lifework in ethnology, he focused on language, mythology, religion, and art—the symbolic aspects of the cultures, the objective cultural manifestations of inner thought (Codere 1959).

The new psychological dimensions which Boas gave to the relation of man and culture made a radical break with the rationalism of Tylor and the English school. In Tylor, customs and beliefs and culture itself are the rational products of the human mind. In Boas the emphasis is essentially reversed: cultures—the diverse, cumulative results of diverse complex histories—are the behavioral environments in which human thought and feeling are structured and operate. The traditional is learned as habits from childhood on; these habits of thought, of feeling, of behavior become largely unconscious and automatic; and the individual thinks and acts largely in conformity with the traditional and customary (1911b).

What is handed on varies from culture to culture, and the differences are not superficial but involve the fundamentals of human behavior and thought—the modes of experiencing phenomena, of grouping and organizing sense impressions, of understanding what are objects and what are qualities or attributes and how these are associated. The difference in types of thought and feeling between different peoples, as between primitive and modern, are not expressions of organic or biological differences but are the products “of the diversity of the cultures” (1904). The idea of instincts as factors in the adult behavior and thought of man is eliminated, being replaced by the concept of habits learned in society. The understanding of human nature is radically altered: no longer fixed and unchangeable, it is a function of culture, not nature, modifiable by changes in cultural institutions and forms (Dewey 1932).

Boas saw in this view an important implication for education. The comparative study of cultures offered a way to discover and expose the traditional elements in thought and belief, which is essential for freedom of thought and objective scientific inquiry. The philosopher and reflective thinker in any culture, as well as the average individual, reflect the attitudes and ideas current in their social and cultural environment (1902). Only by recognizing the “shackles” that tradition has laid upon us are we “able to break them” (1889; 1938b).

Limits of generalization

Boas’ historical approach—which involved “the consideration of every cultural phenomenon as the result of historical happenings” (1927, p. 1)—conveys the infinite complexity of ethnological data, a complexity not easily factorable into components and determinable relations. It does not deny the possibility of regularities or “laws” in cultural phenomena, as is often asserted by critics of Boas, but stresses the inherent difficulty of discovering them. Boas himself called attention to regularities—for example, the relation of population size and density to food supply and mode of economic life, to complexity of culture, and to forms of political organization; the relation of economic conditions to social, political, and legal organization; the relation of technological complexity to division of labor (1911b; 1930c). But the complexity of the phenomena and the difficulty of controlled analysis of an almost unlimited number of variables made him doubt that the degree of general validity of laws achieved in the natural sciences can be attained in ethnology. “In short, the danger is ever present that the widest generalizations that may be obtained… are commonplaces” ([1930a] 1955, p. 268). He was less skeptical of discoverable regularities in social conditioning than in “sequences of cultural achievement” or “the study of cultural integration.” He wrote, “… if we look for laws, the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological, and social conditions …” (Boas [1920c] 1955, p. 287; Benedict 1943).

Boas saw the historical (ideographic) goal of science, rather than the generalizing (nomothetic), as the goal of ethnology (1887). The establishment of general abstract laws, as in physics, in which particular phenomena are significant only as the data of research, cannot satisfy the human interest in human phenomena. Only the thorough under-standing of individual cultural phenomena, as found in history, will suffice. Toward that under-standing, generalizations, when discoverable, are not the end of research but are instrumental and heuristic.

Methods of study

By precept and example Boas made field work among living cultures a hallmark of American ethnology. In the course of his own research effort to understand and record cultural data from the native viewpoint—in particular, in his Northwest Coast studies—he developed new trends in field work, training natives as informants and investigators, recording all basic ideas in native texts, and gathering all relevant native views, however divergent.

He continued for more than forty years to focus on the culture of one people, the Kwakiutl, seeking on the one hand to understand Kwakiutl culture in the historical cultural context of the Northwest Coast and on the other hand to provide as comprehensive and rounded an archive record of a culture as he was able to obtain.

Under Boas’ leadership, field work among non-literate peoples had a special urgency. He had seen among the Eskimos how rapidly natives were changing or disappearing, and he felt a pressing need to record their languages and cultures before they became extinct.

Although Boas referred to the history of culture as an aim of ethnology, in practice “history” to him was more a dimension of the data than an end of research. He was less concerned with historical reconstructions than with techniques for dealing with the historicity of the phenomena involved in a particular problem. He saw in archeology a way to reconstruct history with some accuracy and contributed directly to its development: under his direction, stratigraphy, used for the first time in American archeology in excavations in the Valley of Mexico, revealed the sequence of prehistoric cultures that became the foundation of Central American archeology (Boas 1913; Mason 1943). Distribution studies of similar phenomena on a world, continental, or area scale, supplementing archeology and used cautiously, make some historical inferences possible. For Boas such studies were simply instrumental, and he was critical of tendencies to make them ends of research or to make “culture areas” used in museum presentation into natural classifications.

Boas used distributions instrumentally in studies of mythology and art (1896a; 1903b; 1908; 1916b) and in his general approach to the understanding of an individual culture. Knowing what features a culture has acquired by diffusion and what it has invented independently can reveal the creative individuality of a particular culture, mythology, or art. Boas’ contributions to mythology and folklore and his work on primitive art advanced modern methods in both fields of study (Benedict 1931; Jacobs 1959; Boas 1927). His works on Tsimshian and Kwakiutl mythology were pioneer studies of the ways in which the culture of a people is expressed in its mythology, and they revealed mythology as a rich source of native values and thought (1916b; 1935). His historical treatment of mythologies demonstrated the complexity and diversity of their sources, references, and meanings, and it showed that attempts to explain mythology as “symbolizing or anthropomorphizing natural phenomena” were inadequate ([1891] 1955, p. 445; 1933).

An individual culture was never a unified, organic system to Boas. Its long history, the diverse origins of its content and form, its continuing change, and the continuing influence of other cultures upon it all make complete integration virtu-ally impossible. “Holism” for Boas therefore was not the idea, entertained by some, that a culture can be treated as a unified system; it referred to the importance of understanding a particular phase or pattern in relation to its entire relevant cultural background. It also referred to the necessary investigation of the interrelations of different aspects of culture within the whole cultural frame-work. Boas was critical of attempts to describe a culture or a society in unified, general terms. Such configurations, however suggestive, are inevitably partial and selective, not exhaustive, and affected by subjective attitudes of the observer (1938a; 1933).


It is difficult to overestimate the central importance of Boas’ work. His contributions broke sharply with philological tradition, opening new horizons and establishing modern linguistic anthropology. Boas saw languages, like cultures, as diverse products of diverse histories, each an essentially unique configuration at a given time. He found in language a model of the way in which the traditional and the habitual in human behavior become virtually automatic and unconscious in individual minds. As Boas saw it, the scientific problem of linguistics—the thorough understanding of languages and their historical development and the intricate role of language in human thought and culture—called for an immense research effort in the study of individual languages, and especially of unwritten languages ignored in traditional philology. He devoted himself untiringly to that effort throughout his life, recording and analyzing many languages himself, inspiring the participation of others by precept and example, and finding sources of financial support for linguistic research and publication.

American Indian languages took a large part of his attention; many were on the verge of extinction, and both in phonology and morphology their features challenged the preconceptions of traditional philology. Boas founded and edited the Publications of the American Ethnological Society, begun in 1906, the Handbook of American Indian Languages, begun in 1910, and the International Journal of American Linguistics, established in 1917. In 1925 Boas organized with Sapir and Bloomfield the Committee on American Indian Languages of the American Council of Learned Societies, which for many years centralized research in this field.

“Inner form.”

Boas’ empiricism—description and analysis of a language in its own terms—was directed by the conception of the “inner form” of a language, which he accepted from Heymann Steinthal, a nineteenth-century folk psychologist and linguist; the concept itself goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt. In Boas’ inductive approach, linguistic data are accepted as found, regardless of philological preconceptions. The effect of his approach was a breakthrough of traditional limits and the discovery of a wider range and diversity of linguistic phenomena in both phonetics and morphology than had been thought to exist. For example, such phenomena as words without vowels and unfamiliar principles of classifying nominal or verbal ideas were found. For discovering the “inner form” of a language, the limited phonetic and lexical data used by philology in historical reconstruction of genetic relationships were not enough; the process required description in a grammar “treated as though an intelligent [speaker] was going to develop the forms of his own thoughts by an analysis of his own form of speech” (1911a, p. 81). This requirement led Boas to stress the importance of native texts and the use of speakers who could be taught to write texts in their own language. Grammars of non-Indo-European languages, only occasional earlier, became after Boas an integral part of linguistic work in anthropology.

Boas maintained high technical standards in his own work in descriptive linguistics and contributed significantly to the development of modern linguistic techniques. His phonetic work laid the foundations for the development of modern phonemics by Sapir, as did his comparative morpho-logical studies for the development of structural linguistics.

Language and thought

It has been said that “with Boas almost the total scope of American linguistic anthropology until the present time became defined and adumbrated” (Hymes 1964, p. 9). Of signal importance is how his attempt to understand and compare the “inner form” of different languages led him into considerations of language and thought, of language and culture—a phase of his lifelong concern with the problem of the “relation between the objective world and man’s subjective world as it has taken form in different cultures” (Benedict 1943, p. 27). This approach has inspired the more recent work of others on what has become known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of the determining role of language in human thought. Boas, it should be noted, demonstrated fundamental ways in which the structure of language influences the direction of thought of its speakers, but he took the position that culture influences language more than language influences culture.

Boas’ conception of linguistic phenomena as part of ethnological phenomena in general, subject to similar influences, led him, in historical linguistics, to challenge traditional naturalistic views of genealogical classification of languages. In American Indian languages he found distributional evidence that lexical, phonetic, and morphological borrowing had occurred, that languages can develop by convergence from diverse sources as well as, in the traditional view, by divergence from a common origin. Historical study therefore requires investigation not only “of the similarities of languages, but equally intensively” of “their dissimilarities”: “the problem … is not one of classification but… [of tracing] the history of the development of human speech. … Classification is only a means to an end” ([1920b] 1955, pp. 212–213). His conclusion —that “the whole theory of an ‘Ursprache’ for every group of modern languages must be held in abeyance until we can prove that these languages go back to a single stock and that they have not originated, to a large extent, by the process of acculturation” (ibid., p. 217)—has not been adopted in linguistics, although there are indications in Indo-European philology that the fundamental question it raises has not been finally settled (Boas 1929; Jakobson 1944).

Physical anthropology

In physical anthropology, as in other areas, Boas’ pioneer efforts opened up the modern field. His contributions to the study of human growth, hereditary and environmental influences in man, and race and the composition of human populations led physical anthropology from a static taxonomic field of anthropometric description and race classification into a dynamic science of human biology. Skilled in mathematics as no other anthropologist of his time, he devised techniques for handling problems that were innovations in statistics and biometrics (Howells 1959).


Boas’ work on race is transitional between the nineteenth-century tradition of viewing races as readily classifiable natural subdivisions of the human species and the contemporary trend toward a denial that race is a meaningful biological concept in the study of man. Although he saw taxonomy for its own sake as barren, he did not reject the concept of race, but rather refined and limited its meaning, avoiding naturalistic assumptions and making it instrumental in the analysis of human genetic history. He found in the biological phenomena of human populations a complexity that traditional views failed to recognize. Human groups —“local or social varieties,” composed of “a series of individuals whose bodily form depends on their ancestry and environment”—cannot be scientifically described by subjective characterizations of type or by statistical averages alone; nor can groups be compared or classified by single features alone —like cephalic index—or by an arbitrary selection of a few features, even if the chosen features are stable and hereditary. Statistical description must include the variability of a group around the average, indicating its relative homogeneity or heterogeneity. And, since groups may be alike in one or a few features but different in others, Boas opposed a “cast-iron system” of selected measurements; more exhaustive description is an essential preliminary to the comparison and classification of groups (1899a).

Although Boas recognized that “the principles of biological science forbid us to assume a permanent stability of bodily forms,” he accepted in his early work the dominant view that “anatomical characteristics of the present races” have been permanent at least since neolithic times (1911b, pp. 41, 44). Impermanence of features primarily involves variations within a race (1899a). Several considerations later led him to recognize a larger influence of environmental factors upon human types, a greater biological plasticity of the species: (1) the consideration of man as a self-domesticated animal form; (2) the discovery that head form (cephalic index) changes significantly with changes of environment; and (3) the phenomena of retardation and acceleration in human growth, involving environmental as well as hereditary factors.

Modification of bodily forms

Boas credited the idea that man is a self-domesticated animal form to two German scientists, Johannes Ranke and Eduard Hahn (Boas 1938a, p. 109). He noted that the domestication of animals and the development of human culture involve similar changes in nutrition and mode of life and that the great variability found in domesticated animal types when compared to related wild forms occurs especially in features used in racial description and classification, namely pigmentation, hair, eye color, head and body proportions (1911b; 1938a, pp. 108–110). Boas suggested that the environmental conditions of human cultural life and its diversification—the self-domestication of man—had been a factor in modifications of human anatomy and physiology.

The changes in head form which Boas reported in “Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants” (1912) surprised him as much as other anthropologists and influenced his thinking as profoundly as it affected the discipline. Boas had defended the cephalic index as a measure of a stable, hereditary trait (1899a; 1899b), but the assumption of its stability was based on data gathered in Europe, where no environmental change was involved. In the New York study Boas compared children with their European immigrant parents and compared parent–child measurements in cases of children born before immigration with cases of children born in America after immigration. Some 18,000 individuals were studied— Bohemians, Hebrews, Sicilians, and Neapolitans— and stature, weight, and head measurements were taken. The results showed significant changes in measurements of the head and in the cephalic index calculated from them.

The impact of this study on anthropology cannot be overstated. It ended the obsessive reliance of anthropologists upon cephalic index as a key to genetic history and, as no other work, it compelled recognition of environmental influences upon human anatomy and physiology.

Initially Boas wrote that he had no adequate explanation of the changes but that they indicated “a great plasticity of human types” in response to changes of environment. Some of his remarks may have been overstatements, as Tanner has suggested, but the criticism aroused by publication of the study was directed indiscriminately both at his interpretations and at the validity of the study’s methods and results. However, the findings have been confirmed by later work and are not challenged today. Similar changes have been found in studies of other migrant groups—in Hawaii, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Seattle, New York, and Philadelphia (Shapiro 1939; Goldstein 1943; Boas 1916c, 1920a, 1928a; Spier 1929; Tanner 1959; Herskovits 1943). Boas’ own work on human growth clarified the meaning of the 1912 study, and he later wrote of a “limited plasticity,” meaning that the results do not involve genetic changes but show “that the type as we see it contains elements that are not genetic but an expression of the influence of environment” (Boas 1936, p. 523; Tanner 1959).

Human growth

The study of human growth was new when Boas entered the field, its cross-sectional data compiled from height and weight measurements of different individuals, wherever and whenever gathered. Although the importance of longitudinal studies—successive measurements of the same individuals over a period of years— had been suggested in 1874, it was Boas’ discoveries that made inevitable “the longitudinal studies which have been the chief characteristic of progress in the field in the first half of this century” (Tanner 1959, p. 107).

Boas began the first American longitudinal growth study in 1891, and in 1892 he questioned “in how far the results (of cross-sectional studies) have a physiological meaning and in how far they are purely statistical phenomena” (1892). He found that differences in the acceleration and retardation of individuals account for the increased variability at adolescence shown in cross-sectional data and for the distortion of the statistical curves from the “normal” or Gaussian form. Individuals differ in tempo of growth, and in later studies Boas showed that the variability at adolescence is greatly reduced when data on individuals are plotted by “time of peak velocity” of growth rather than by chronological age (1930b).

Boas’ concept of physiological or developmental age in these studies gained currency through its use by Crampton (1908) as well as by others, and its impact on the social sciences (especially education) has continued, though it has not been fully accepted. Retardation and acceleration occur in mental as well as physical development, but, as Boas showed, physical and mental development do not determine one another; they are linked through common causes. The retarded child may develop, even accelerate, both physiologically and psychologically. Intelligence tests developed by Binet and others, based on chronological age and cross-sectional data, largely disregarded these findings, primarily because they assumed that they were testing innate, inherited intelligence. Recent intelligence studies, using longitudinal methods, indicate the presence of tempo of growth in mental ability (Tanner 1959).

Heredity and environment

It has been erroneously asserted that Boas stressed the role of environmental factors in human biology at the expense of a recognition of heredity. The scientific problem, as he saw it, was to determine the relation between environmental and hereditary factors. He wrote: “… it seems justifiable to define racial characteristics as we do those of a variable plant, namely, by stating that under definite environmental conditions the bodily form of a race and its functioning are such as we observe, without prejudging … [the influence of environment]. The actual problem, then, would be to determine whether and how far the traits of the body may be so influenced” ([1922] 1955, p. 37). In pioneer studies in biometrical genetics Boas attempted to isolate the role of heredity in head form, face form, and other anthropometric traits (1899b 1903a; 1907). Stimulated by Johannsen’s work on beans, he analyzed populations into component family lines and showed that the variation of a population is composed of the variation of family lines (between-fraternity variance) and the variation of fraternities (within-fraternity variance) (Boas 1916a; Tanner 1959).

In this work Boas did not oppose Mendelian genetics, as is commonly thought. In his earliest effort, in 1894, he found in a bimodal distribution of face breadth in the offspring of French–Indian parents a “tendency to reproduce one of the ancestral types”—a phenomenon contrary to the traditional (Galton) conception of “blending” inheritance, which came to be known, after Pearson, as “alternating” inheritance (1894). This discovery pre-disposed Boas, after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, toward a limited acceptance of Mendelian principles. He found that while the simple ratios of “classical” Mendelian inheritance, with their “unit” characters and evidence of dominant and recessive traits, do fit the genetic phenomena of some human traits, like eye color, they do not fit others, like stature. Actually, the apparent conflict between biometric studies of continuous variation, like stature, and Mendelian studies of discontinuous variation, like eye color, has been reconciled only more recently by developments in both biometrics and genetics (Tanner 1959).


Boas believed that truth, widely shared through publications and education, can serve to liberate the mind from traditional confusion, error, and prejudice. The findings of anthropology challenged traditional thinking at many points, and Boas spoke out boldly throughout his life against racism and race prejudice, against narrow nationalism and war, and for an internationalism based on “the common interests of humanity” (1928b; 1904–1943). Supplementing his own work on race and the situation of the American Negro, Boas stimulated or guided research by others, including the work of Klineberg on race differences, of Herskovits on the America Negro, and of Gilberto Freyre and Rudiger Bilden in their pioneer studies of race in Brazil. His influence was far-reaching; as Gossett has written: “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history” (Gossett 1963).

As a teacher, Boas’ influence was profound. Between his years at Clark University and his retirement in 1936 he taught generations of anthropologists, including: A. F. Chamberlain, A. L. Kroeber, Edward Sapir, A. A. Goldenweiser, R. H. Lowie, Frank G. Speck, Fay-Cooper Cole, H. K. Haeberlin, Paul Radin, Leslie Spier, Erna Gunther, J. A. Mason, Elsie C. Parsons, Ruth F. Benedict, Margaret Mead, G. A. Reichard, M. J. Herskovits, Franz Olbrechts, A. I. Hallowell, R. L. Bunzel, M. J. Andrade, George Herzog, Frederica de Laguna, M. Jacobs, Ruth M. Underbill, Giinter Wagner, Jules Henry, Rhoda Métraux, Marcus S. Goldstein, Alexander Lesser, G. Weltfish, M. F. Ashley Montagu, E. A. Hoebel, May M. Edel, Irving Goldman, as well as students in other fields who came to him for his teaching of anthropology. In his teaching Boas was consistently open-ended, moving from problem to problem in physical anthropology, linguistics, or ethnology, examining theoretical questions in the context of empirical data and handling data in the context of relevant theory (Mead 1959b).

Boas continued his scientific activity to the moment of his death at an anthropology luncheon on December 29, 1942. His contributions, besides six books, include more than seven hundred mono-graphs and articles (Andrews et al. 1943). He was honored during his lifetime throughout the scientific world by honorary degrees, by honorary memberships in scientific societies of many countries, by a Festschrift on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his doctorate (Boas Anniversary Volume … 1906), by membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1900, and by election as president of the American Anthropological Association from 1907 to 1909, the New York Academy of Sciences in 1910, and the American Association for the Ad-vancement of Science in 1931. His scientific legacy is the modern science of anthropology; his greater legacy the manner in which he changed our conception of man.

Alexander Lesser

[For the historical context of Boas’ work, see the biographies ofBastian; Putnam; Spencer; Tylor; Wundt. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies ofBenedict; Cole, Fay-Cooper; Goldenweiser; Herskovits; Kroeber; Lowie; Parsons; ElsieClews; Radin; Sapir; Speck; Spier; and the entriesAnthropology; Ethnography; Evolution; Linguistics; Physical anthropology; Race.]


1881 Beiträge zur Erkenntniss der Farbe des Wassers. Kiel: Schmidt & Klaunig.

1885 Baffin-Land: Geographische Ergebnisse einer in den Jahren 1883 und 1884 ausgefiihrten Forschungsreise. Petermanns Mitteilungen, Vol. 17, Supplement 80. Gotha (Germany): Perthes.

(1887) 1955 The Study of Geography. Pages 639–647 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Volume 9 of Science.

(1887–1936) 1955 Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → A collection of papers written between 1887–1936. First published in book form in 1940.

1883 The Central Eskimo. Pages 399–669 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Sixth Annual Report, 1884–1885. Washington: Government Printing Office. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by the Univ. of Nebraska Press.

(1889) 1955 The Aims of Ethnology. Pages 626–638 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.

(1891) 1955 Dissemination of Tales Among the Natives of North America. Pages 437–445 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Volume 4 of the Journal of American Folk-lore.

1892 The Growth of Children. Science 19:256–257, 281–282; 20:351–352.

(1894) 1955 The Half-blood Indian. Pages 138–148 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Volume 45 of Popular Science Monthly.

(1896a) 1955 The Growth of Indian Mythologies: A Study Based Upon the Growth of the Mythologies of the North Pacific Coast. Pages 425–436 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Volume 9 of the Journal of American Folk-lore.

(1896b) 1955 The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology. Pages 270–280 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Science.

(1899a) 1955 Some Recent Criticisms of Physical Anthropology. Pages 165–171 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the American Anthropologist.

l899b The Cephalic Index. American Anthropologist New Series 1:448–461.

(1902) 1955 The Ethnological Significance of Esoteric Doctrines. Pages 312–315 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Science.

1903?a Heredity in Head Form. American Anthropologist New Series 5:530–538.

(1903b) 1955 The Decorative Art of the North American Indians. Pages 546–563 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Popular Science Monthly.

1904 Some Traits of Primitive Culture. Journal of American Folk-lore 17:243–254.

(1904–1943) 1945 Race and Democratic Society. New York: Augustin. → A collection of articles and lectures.

1907 Heredity in Anthropometric Traits. American Anthropologist New Series 9:453−469.

(1908) 1955 Decorative Designs of Alaskan Needlecases: A Study in the History of Conventional Designs, Based on Materials in the U.S. National Museum. Pages 564–592 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum.

1909 The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Jesup North Pacific Expedition, Publications, Vol. 5, No. 2. Leiden: Brill; New York: Stechert.

191la Introduction. Part I, pages 1–83 in Franz Boas (editor), Handbook of American Indian Languages. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin No. 40. Washington: Government Printing Office.

(1911b) 1963 The Mind of Primitive Man. Rev. ed. New York: Collier. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

1912 Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. American Anthropologist New Series 14:530–562. → A partial summary of this article was published in Boas’ Race, Language and Culture.

(1913) 1955 Archaeological Investigations in the Valley of Mexico by the International School, 1911–1912. Pages 530–534 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the Proceedings of the 18th International Congress of Americanists.

1916a On the Variety of Lines of Descent Represented in a Population. American Anthropologist New Series 18:1–9.

1916b Tsimshian Mythology. Pages 29–1037 in U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Thirty-first Annual Report, 1909–1910. Washington: Government Printing Office.

(1916c) 1955 New Evidence in Regard to the Instability of Human Types. Pages 76–81 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

1920a Anthropometry of Porto Rico. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 3:247–253.

(1920b) 1955 The Classification of American Languages. Pages 211–218 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the American Anthropologist.

(1920c) 1955 The Methods of Ethnology. Pages 281–289 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the American Anthropologist.

(1922) 1955 Report on an Anthropometric Investigation of the Population of the United States. Pages 28–59 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association.

(1927) 1955 Primitive Art. New ed. New York: Dover.

1928a Family Traits as Determined by Heredity and Environment. National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings 14:496–503.

(1928b) 1962 Anthropology and Modern Life. New York: Norton.

(1929) 1955 Classification of American Indian Languages. Pages 219–225 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Volume 5 of Language.

(1930a) 1955 Some Problems of Methodology in the Social Sciences. Pages 260–269 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

1930b Observations on the Growth of Children. Science New Series 72:44–48.

1930c Anthropology. Volume 2, pages 73–110 in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

(1933) 1955 [Review of] G. W. Locher, The Serpent in Kwakiutl Religion: A Study in Primitive Culture. Pages 446–450 in Franz Boas, Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

1935 Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology. American Folk-lore Society, Memoir No. 28. New York: The Society.

1936 The Effects of American Environment on Immigrants and Their Descendants. Science New Series 84:522–525.

1938a Boas, Franz (editor) General Anthropology. New York and Boston: Heath.

1938b An Anthropologist’s Credo. Nation 147:201–204.


Andrews, H. J. et al. 1943 Bibliography of Franz Boas. Pages 67–109 in Franz Boas, 1858–1942. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 61. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Benedict, Ruth 1931 Folklore. Volume 6, pages 288–293 in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Benedict, Ruth 1943 Franz Boas as an Ethnologist. Pages 27–34 in Franz Boas, 1858–1942. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 61. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Boas Anniversay Volume: Anthropological Papers Written in Honor of Franz Boas. 1906 New York: Stechert.

Codere, Helen 1959 The Understanding of the Kwakiutl. Pages 61–75 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Crampton, C. Ward (1908) 1944 Physiological Age: A Fundamental Principle. Child Development 15:3–52.

Dewey, John 1932 Human Nature. Volume 7, pages 531–536 in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Freeman, John 1965 University Anthropology: Early Departments in the United States. Kroeber Anthropological Society, Papers 32:78–90.

Goldschmidt, Walter R. (editor) 1959 The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Goldstein, Marcus S. 1940 Recent Trends in Physical Anthropology. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 26:191–209.

Goldstein, Marcus S. 1943 Demographic and Bodily Changes in Descendants of Mexican Immigrants, With Comparable Data on Parents and Children in Mexico. Austin: Univ. of Texas, Institute of Latin-American Studies.

Goldstein, Marcus S. 1948 Franz Boas’ Contributions to Physical Anthropology. American Journal of Physical Anthropology New Series 6:145–161.

Gossett, Thomas F. 1963 Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1943 Franz Boas as Physical Anthropologist. Pages 39–51 in Franz Boas, 1858–1942. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 61. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Herskovits, Melville J. 1953 Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making. New York: Scribner.

Howells, William W. 1959 Boas as Statistician. Pages 112–116 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Hymes, Dell H. (editor) 1964 Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: Harper.

Jacobs, Melville 1959 Folklore. Pages 119–138 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Jakobson, Roman 1944 Franz Boas’ Approach to Language. International Journal of American Linguistics 10:188–195.

Kluckhohn, Clyde; and Prufer, Olaf 1959 Influences During the Formative Years. Pages 4–28 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Kroeber, A. L. 1943 Franz Boas: The Man. Pages 5–26 in Franz Boas, 1858–1942. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 61. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Lowie, Robert H. 1947 Biographical Memoir of Franz Boas: 1858–1942. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 24:303–322.

Mason, J. Alden 1943 Franz Boas as an Archeologist. Pages 58–66 in Franz Boas, 1858–1942. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 61. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Mead, Margaret 1959a An Anthropologist at Work:Writings of Ruth Benedict. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A critical study of Ruth Benedict, illustrated from her own writing.

Mead, Margaret 1959b Apprenticeship Under Boas. Pages 29–45 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Shapiro, Harry L. 1939 Migration and Environment: A Study of the Physical Characteristics of the Japanese Immigrants to Hawaii and the Effects of Environment on Their Descendants. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Smith, Marian W. 1959 Boas’ “Natural History” Approach to Field Method. Pages 46–60 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Spier, Leslie 1929 Growth of Japanese Children Born in America and in Japan. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 3, No. 1. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Spier, Leslie 1959 Some Central Elements in the Legacy. Pages 146–155 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

Stocking, George W. JR. 1965 From Physics to Ethnology: Franz Boas’ Arctic Expedition as a Problem in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1:53–66.

Stocking, George W. Jr. 1966 Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective. American Anthropologist New Series 68:867–882.

Tanner, James M. 1959 Boas’ Contributions to Knowledge of Human Growth and Form. Pages 76–111 in Walter R. Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth. American Anthropological Association, Memoirs, No. 89. Menasha, Wisc.: The Association.

Boas, Franz

views updated May 17 2018

Boas, Franz

(b. Minden, Germany, 9 July 1858; d. New York, N. Y., 21 December 1942)


Boas exercised considerable influence in the “historical” and “scientific” reorientation of anthropology from about 1890 to 1925, especially in the United States. He made significant contributions to formulation of probelms and methods in human growth, linguistics, folklore, art, and the ethnology of the Indians of the Northwest Coast.

Franz was one of six children of Meier Boas, a moderately successful merchant, and Sophie Meyer, who founded a Froebel-type kindergarten in Minden. At an early age he expressed an interest in traveling to far-off lands to study the life and customs of exotic peoples, but as he pursued his studies at the Gymnasium in Minden, mathematics and physics claimed his attention and remained the focus of his graduate work at Heidelberg. Bonn, and Kiel. At twenty-three Boas received a doctorate in physics, but during his university career his desire to travel and to understand “nature as a whole” was renewed, probably by the inspiration of the naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt. A friendship with the geographer Theobald Fischer also influenced the turn to anthropology.

In the fall of 1882 Boas attended meetings of the Berlin Anthropological Society, where he sought out Adolf Bastian, the foremost German ethnologist, and Rudolf Virchow, the famous anthropometrist. From Virchow he received anthropometric training, while Bastian gave him “good advice,” encouragement, and friendly assistance. By June 1883 Boas was on his way to Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island, on the Polar research schooner Germania.

Before setting out for the Arctic, Boas read widely on Eskimo culture and studied the language, apparently intending to gather both geographic and ethnographic materials. He had every reason to be satisfied with his geographic researches, completed in 1884, for he had corrected many misconceptions about Baffin Island and had established the presence of two large lakes (not one) in the interior. He had also charted some 250 miles of coastline, often at great discomfort and hazard to his life. The expedition was crucial in turning Boas to anthropology, for he not only came to admire the Arctic people but also observed firsthand that geographic forces were not the prime determinants of human behavior. Obviously the source of these determinants must be sought elsewhere, and Boas elected to follow Bastian in focusing on mental processes. By the time Boas published The Central Eskimo in 1888, ethnological contributions were outrunning the geographic.

On Boas’ return to Germany, Bastian found him a position in the Museum für Völkerkunds as an assistant, and in 1886 he became lecturer in geography at the University of Berlin. At the time he was undecided about pursuing a career in Germany, for he felt frustrated by the discrimination and insults to which he had been subject because of his Jewish origins. Still fresh from the Arctic adventure, he was excited by the visit of some Bella Coola Indians “on exhibit” in Berlin. Boas interviewed them and threw himself into the task of ordering the museum’s collection of Northwest Coast materials. He soon had managed a shaky financing that would enable him to live among the Indians of the Northwest Coast for a few months. This was the first of thirteen field trips to the area (the last was in 1931). Altogether he spent some two and a half years among the coastal Indians.

Contact with F. W. Putnam during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Buffalo, New York, developed into an enduring association; it provided new opportunities for Boas and influenced his decision to remain in the United States. Putnam arranged for Boas to become a foreign associate member of the Association and in 1887, When Boas appeared at the New York office of Science to present an article, he was asked to become assistant editor. This provided a small income, whereupon Boas married Mary krackowizer of New York, whom he had met in Germany.

A chance meeting with G. Stanley Hall led to an invitation to become a lecturer in anthropology at Clark University, a position Boas held until 1892, when he accepted Putnam’s invitation to become his anthropological assistant in charge of exhibits for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In that same year, under Boas’ direction, the first Ph.D. in anthropology in North America was conferred on A.F. Chamberlain, who became his successor at Clark. Boas stayed with Putnam during the formative years of the Field Museum, which had been founded to house some of the riches of the ethnological exhibits of the Columbian Exposition. When Putnam left in 1894, Boas became curator of anthropology, but difficulties already afoot soon provoked his resignation. Boas was virtually destitute until 1896, when Putnam offered him the post of curator of ethnology and somatology at the American Museum of Natural History. The museum appointment led to a lectureship in physical anthropology at Columbia University, followed by a professorship in 1899 (he retired in 1937). Putnam left the museum in 1901, and Boas assumed the post of curator of anthropology, resigning in 1905.

Boas made a number of basic assumptions about the nature of reality which guided his approach to the phenomenon of man and dictated his contributions to anthropology. The heart of his position was the assumption that reality is structured. It has an inner core that remains relatively stable in the face of altered conditions and an outer form that changes in response to alterations in conditions. The scientific problem lay in uncovering the inner core and in finding to what extent it was affected by variations in external form and vice versa. The only way to uncover this hidden reality, in Boas’ view, was to study the variations, and when the variable aspects of range and nature had been determined, it would be possible to describe the inner form with confidence. This empirical-inductive position was not novel, however; it echoed the usual approach of natural scientists at that time. However, the application of an inductive orientation to the “evolutionary” anthropology of the day was bound to produce profound alterations in problem definition, methodology, and results.

Boas’ most general and signal contributions to anthropology stem from his earnest desire to make the discipline a rigorous and exact science. No anthropologist at the time seems to have understood so well as Boas the full implications of the inductive position and why the path of deduction then followed in anthropology must lead to erroneous conclusions and perpetuation of a quasi-science. No one pressed more vigorously for abandonment of uncritical inferences and comparisons than Boas, as he systematically destroyed the popular and “scientific” myths of the day. Except for his ethnographic texts, which presented material with little commentary, he used every review, public lecture, article, introduction, and analytical monograph to rephrase problems and to point out the complex logical and technical operations involved in achieving precise controls and conclusions. Most of the rephrasings picked up the complexities glossed over by uncritical classification: What criteria shall be used when we say that a culture or a custom is simple in comparison with another? How does one classify cultures that are simple in technology, yet complicated in social organization? How can the criteria employed be freed from subjective bias traceable to the relativistic categories of thought found in one’s own culture?

Boas has been cited as a destroyer of the “evolutionist” position, but as a scientist, he was the opponent of any kind of speculation. “Evolutionary” anthropology, dominant when Boas entered the discipline, operated deductively with a number of unproved assumptions. It was therefore necessary to replace this pseudo anthropology and its uncritical “comparative method” with a “scientific” anthropology grounded in a critical use of detailed factual materials. Attention should be directed to process—how forms change.

In the course of unseating “evolutionary” anthropology, Boas contributed some basic principles to practice. (1) All Classifications are relative, and the scientist must realize this when he seeks to conceptualize his findings. The error of forcing the logic of one’s own categories of thought on the “primitive” must be avoided, or the product of research will be useless. (2) Classification is no substitute for process—for what actually happens. Data must be collected in such detail that the operation will record variations in forms and the causes of these variations, thereby offering clues to process. (3) For items to be comparable, they must show similarities not only in outward form but also in their histories. One must beware of using functional analogies produced by convergence as if they were homologies—which alone can pass muster for scientific comparison. (4) Coincidence must not be taken for causal connection. Boas’ classic target here was the alleged relation linking race, language, and culture. With well-known historic illustrations, supplemented by examples out of his own fieldwork, Boas was able to show that race, language, and culture varied independently of each other. (5) No system of explanation can account for everything, yet there can be no scientific explanation at all without accounting for the variations insofar as objective controls can be brought to bear. (6) Valid interpretations are possible only when derived from a relevant context. To seek the source of religious behavior in a “contemplation” of nature is suspect because more likely sources for religious ideas are the “feelings” and “imaginative play’s accompanying “social experience”. (7) The data compared must be quantified before “laws” can be extracted.

The determination to reorient anthropology came gradually, as Boas developed field experience and began to analyze his Northwest Coast materials, especially myths and legends, in the light of their geographic distributions. He paid special tribute to the geographer Friedrich Ratzel in supplying this methodological lead. As early as 1888 he called attention to the great importance of “cultural contact” for the cultural development of “primitive” societies, but he was nevertheless willing to admit that comparative evolutionary studies were sound enough to allow the conclusion that the “human mind develops every where according to the same laws.” By 1896, however, Boas was convinced that the “vain endeavor to construct a uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture” with the aid of the traditional “comparative method” had to be renounced if anthropology were to become a science. The method he advocated was the “historical”.

The historical method would uncover process through a meticulous consideration of individual forms and their variations. By plotting culture “elements” in space, historic relations could be outlined and psychological processes recovered, as one noted alterations in form and meaning made by individual peoples when reinterpreting borrowed traits according to their own social traditions. Properly applied, the historical method would disclose how diverse elements had been accumulated and ordered in a kind of unity not only within particular tribes but also within areas where they seemed to be especially characteristic. Once the variations had been disposed of, the local culture base would be recognizable. In applying the historical method, it was best to begin with a limited area and gradually extend one’s controlled comparisons outward. Certain uniformities could be found in the cultures of societies located in geographic areas suggesting a kind of natural culture region with which to begin.

At all times the investigator must stay within the limits of his data and avoid inferences that have not been checked against facts. The occurrence of similar forms in adjacent tribes usually indicated that diffusion had taken place, but the researcher must consider other contingencies. Likewise, a wide and continuous distribution would suggest an ancient history for the culture element in question, but an age-area principle could not be applied to ethnographic facts as a blanket rule, because historic exceptions were known. To hold that distant tribes with similar customs were linked historically would not be reasonable unless a more or less continuous chain of distribution of elements held in common could be traced, or migration were likely. Boas thus admitted that parallel developments in widely separated areas could occur and that such might owe their similarities to identical psychological processes. In this regard he noted how language elements were distributed so irregularly throughout the world that some phonetic, morphological, and classificatory features must owe their similarities to “psychological causes” operating in the context of a limited number of alternatives. Such an admission would not lend wholehearted support to a unilinear type of development, however. Boas’ viewpoint stressed a generalized psychological base, an impulse as it were, that could be expressed in any number of ways. Therefore, differentiation was more expectable than restriction to a single response. It followed that no unilinear parallelism based on identical psychological processes could be granted until the strictures of historic contact, migration, and convergence had been satisfied. The inner form thus would stand in relief only as the variations had been accounted for.

By the time Boas wrote the introduction to the Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911), he was able to outline the essentials of his position. He intended to establish the “historical method” and then move on to “problems of cultural dynamics, of integration of culture and of the interaction between individual and society”. All these efforts were programmed to uncover the ultimate anthropological reality— the psychological laws governing human behavior.

Once convinced that he was on the track of a scientific anthropology, Boas drove himself tirelessly and systematically toward the goal. He preferred to operate in the context of problems and methods rather than to formulate neat definitions for the classification and manipulation of data. In consequence, the conceptual language of anthropology owes little to Boas, who rarely offered a definition of culture, the alleged hallmark of anthropology. He was, however, a prime contributor to the emergence of the culture concept, stressing the weight of “social tradition” as a molding force in human behavior. Boas thus was in the vanguard of those who recognized that what individuals experienced and learned as members of a society represented a basic problem for social science investigation, and that the key to human behavior would be found in sociopsychological processes rather than in common human psychological tendencies stressed by evolutionists when reconstructing the stages of culture growth. From his field experience Boas was convinced that the sociopsychological processes linking primitive men to social tradition were basically little different from those of civilized societies. By 1930 two of his students, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, were breaking new ground in learning how cultures stimulate the development of unique personality types.

Boas distinguished three important problems to which anthropology must be directed: “reconstruction of human history”—biological, linguistic, and social; “determination of types of historical phenomena and their consequences”; and the “dynamics of change.” In starting with problems and methods, it is apparent that Boas wished to reorient his readers to the intricate processes involved in human phenomena. Aware of his own deficiencies in ethnographic details, he had no wish to forestall a scientific advance by presentingan elaborate explanatory system. Classifications and explanations must come later—after full description of the phenomena. Ultimate understandings would emerge as psychological processes came to light, but Boas wanted to make it clear that anthropology, since it dealt with “secondary [historic] features,” could not use psychology as a jumping-off point. Rather, “The psychological problem [of inner form] is contained in the results of the historic inquiry.”

when casting about for the most sensitive indicators of psychological processes, Boas was drawn to language, for in the “linguistic categories” of specific languages he hoped to uncover the “unconscious” impulses that had given rise to the “fundamental ideas of language.” Since ethnology could be considered the “science dealing with mental phenomena of the life of the peoples of the world,” the two stood to gain by mutual cooperation, and Boas encouraged the thought that linguistics would make a greater contribution to anthropology as a part of ethnology than were it to go its own way. The study of folklore was selected as the second center of investigation because Boas had observed that “nothing seems to travel as readily as fanciful tales.” Some elements were widely distributed throughout North America, and there were obvious connections between the mythology of northeast Asia and that of the Northwest Coast. Boas labored for thirty years to produce a compilation of folklore elements from throughout the Northwest Coast area and from which he could extract the psychological processes by which they had been altered during their spread and reinterpretation. Many of the conclusions advanced in the voluminous quantitative study Tsimshian Mythology (1916) had been foreshadowed in shorter papers on how folklore traits drawn from a number of sources accumulated gradually and were integrated into the folklore traditions and narrative styles of a particular tribe.

Boas’ theory of culture history, and his view of the integration of culture, owed much to his pursuit of mythological elements on the Northwest Coast. Since mythic elements could be disengaged from narratives and plots and widely diffused, he became convinced that culture seldom, if ever, diffused as a complex and unified whole. He therefore opposed the Kulturkreislehre, who assembled disparate elements into “culture complexes” and treated them as if they had diffused en bloc. Again he found confirmation for his notion that any cultural tradition was a complicated product of intricate historical and psychological processes rooted in the “social life of the people.” Under such circumstances one could hardly expect mythology to be a “direct reflex of the contemplation of nature” and to present a uniform “organic growth” expressing uniformities in the human mind. It was true that incidents and actors in folktales had a way of becoming associated with natural phenomena (stars, animals, mountains, trees), but these were secondary symbolizations projected through the “play of imagination with the events of human life.” In Boas’ historical view, individual cultures might develop some tendencies toward becoming a unity, but none could become a thoroughly consistent and integrated whole.

Myths also proved a useful touchstone for language studies, literary analysis, and world view. When they were dictated by the informant and recorded phonetically in text, a corpus of materials was available for linguistic analysis. Myths often contained theological, philosophical, and scientific explanations, and thus provided an important channel to primitive thought. But although Boas was aware of the uses to which myths could be put in understanding the psychology of a people in their choice of metaphor, in the symbolism expressed in the personalities of the actors, and in explanations of events, he never explored these dimensions in any depth.

Art was the third medium Boas used to demonstrate that human phenomena are highly variable and have complex historic, social, and psychological roots. He confounded those who interpreted the history of art as an evolution from a realistic to an abstract representation by pointing out that within any society there may be found examples of both realistic and geometric design. Actually, an utterly realistic treatment did not occur in primitive art. The intent might he representative, but “symbolic forms” or conventions representing heads, legs, and other body details normally were used, and the primitive artist knew very well that he had not succeeded in duplicating what he portrayed. The imaginative stimulus the artist received from materials and tools while approaching the task within a traditional context provided the key to much of the variation in the artistic expression of any tribe, and Boas cautioned against assuming that conventionalization was so rigid that no variations could occur in primitive art.

Stress on the interplay of tradition, material, tool, and technical virtuosity channeled Boas’ focus on process in art, and helped him explain why individual variations and stylistic conventionalizations must occur. Only the total context of any art could provide relevant and valid source materials for scientific generalization. The elements of art could be explained much better by the rhythmic and alternating movements involved in technical operations than by contemplation of nature’s analogues. Uniformities found in any art were a product of stylistic traditions, which limited human inventiveness, and not the consequence of uniform responses by the human mind.

Physical anthropology constituted Boas’ fourth instrument to promote a scientific anthropology. It seemed highly probable to him that the predominance of heredity over environment assured a great permanence of human types. However, the problem of physical variability had to be dealt with first because variability was not a matter of biology but the result of unknown influences on the more permanent characteristics. The plotting of human types according to their geographic distribution therefore must be the first order of business, paying due attention to variations stemming from “mixture,” the fixing of types through inbreeding and isolation, and differentiations that followed natural tendencies for succeeding generations to vary from parental stems. Subtle physiological changes induced by nutrition and mode of life could not be ignored, because man, like other domesticated species, was not impervious to such influences. The races that anthropologists so easily assumed to be homogeneous and stable in type actually masked a considerable heterogeneity that would become apparent—and significant—as the complex histories of the “genetic lines” of which they were composed came to the surface. When the historic analysis had revealed the range and sources of variations, the permanent features would stand clear and would allow definition of local “genetic” types instead of “ecotypes.” Boas was soon convinced that historic complexities in anatomical variation were such that it would be futile to expect to find any “pure races” or an original race from which a rigid genealogy could be plotted.

Boas set out to document physical variation by investigating alterations that might be due to rates of growth, intermixture, and mode of life. Knowing individuals differed in their maturational rates, he asked how these uneven rates influenced distributions and classifications. He admitted that development of a dynamic set of growth statistics would increase the complexities of research problems, but a vast and interesting array of challenging questions would open up as “physiological changes in the individual and the types and variabilities of these changes become accessible to investigation.”

Measurement of nearly 18,000 immigrants in New York provided Boas with a controversial study in physical variation. In the New World urban setting, round-headed east European Jews became more long-headed, while south Italians, long-headed to begin with, became more short-headed. Two ethnic groups with differing head shapes thus tended to converge in a new urban environment. The changes were registered in children, and native-born children registered a greater shift in stature and in head form than did foreign-born. The study excited anthropometrists, who had viewed physical types as quite stable and had relied on head form as a special index for racial classification and history. Although Boas drew on his data to emphasize the “plasticity” of human types, he realized that genetic organization had not been altered. Nonetheless the study called attention to the dynamic relation linking type and environment, and cautioned against the ready acceptance of external form as a mirror image of genetic type.

Stimulated by an experimental study in which “pure lines” of beans had shown variations apparently traceable to both inheritance and environment, Boas attempted to determine the relative importance of these variables for human physical types. By statistical correlation of variance “averages” among “fraternities” comprising a line of descent, he hoped to measure the heterogeneity of the line. Boas was sufficiently knowledgeable in mathematics to attempt innovations in correlational procedures to suit his anthropometric data, but these ad hoc efforts had no lasting effect, for Pearson and Fisher developed more sophisticated techniques.

With variations the key to his initial scientific purpose, Boas turned to controlled observation and recording of detailed information as prerequisites to the critical and “exhaustive” analysis that must take place. There could be no substitute for facts, which alone could lead to the understanding of forms and processes. Hence, the somewhat natural history approach of Boas to the collection of anthropological data. The anthropologist must be a fieldworker, but he could not approach his task with preconceived ideas. A properly trained anthropologist would observe, but above all he would depend on the people he was studying to supply their own categories of thought for sifting the phenomena. It followed that the interview would not be directed, except incidentally. The informant would be presented with a problem, but he then would be left free to develop his narrative and to follow the lead of his own interests. A fieldworker should strive for language mastery, but in the absence of the language skill, texts dictated by the informant in his own language could be recorded phonetically.

Boas recommended the collection of comparable materials from several informants, but he made no real effort to increase the number of his informants in the hope of increasing reliability. Instead, he customarily sought control through numbers by expanding the list of elements. The historic emphasis tended to focus attention on issues other than the determination of culture patterns or literary style, but Boas’ treatment invariably turned to the presence or absence of literary expression in riddles, moralizing fables, epic poetry, and the like to show that primitive literature had a history and was not a natural and spontaneous product of common human mental processes.

In reviewing Boas’ substantive contributions to anthropology, it is apparent that the key to his success lay in a determined massing of data, a quick grasp of the ramifications of problems, and a perceptive utilization of leads furnished by investigators in related fields.

A restrained and businesslike tone governed Boas’ relations with his Indian informants, preventing him from probing their offbeat habits, but his methodical record established a platform upon which subsequent investigators could build. His publications, often with ethnographic notes, concerned a remarkable number of Pacific Coast and inland tribes: Northern and Southern kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Tsimshian, Chinook, Tillamook, Kathlamet, Kutenai, and a Keresan-speaking pueblo of the Southwest.

In his search for the inner world of the primitive, Boas pioneered in using those who had been raised among the Indians or who were their close associates. He went to some pains to train George Hunt, a mixed-blood Tlingit reared among the Kwakiutl, in phonetic transcription, and Hunt rewarded him with many pages of text, including mythology, potlatch narratives, and Kwakiutl recipes. James Teit, a sheep-herder, also was encouraged to publish extensively on the Thompson and other Indians of the plateau region.

Boas was largely responsible for conduct of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1900), which sought answers to cultural relation linking Siberianand Northwest Coast peoples. His efforts to establish an international school of American archaeology and ethnology dedicated to research in Mexico ultimately failed as a result of the revolution that erupted in 1910, but during his directorship (1911- 1912), Boas was able to acquaint the school and the Mexican appointee, Manuel Gamio, with the uses of stratigraphy and typology in formulating a sequence of cultures for the Valley of Mexico. The interest Boas generated in folklore was passed on to students and associates, including William Jones, George A. Dorsey, Edward Sapir, Pliny E. Goddard, Robert H. Lowie, Melville J. Herskovits, Gladys Reichard, and Melville Jacobs. During his editorship (1908- 1924) of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, Boas assured an outlet for the texts and translations he had inspired. Publications of the American Ethnological Society and of the Columbia University series Contributions to Anthropology also were utilized for folklore works until 1940.

In linguistics, Boas’ accomplishments parallel his achievements in folklore. A self-taught linguist, he used his editorship of the Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911–1941) to outline a proper study of language and to provide “grammatical sketches” that would serve as models for future research. His intent was to achieve uniform presentations, treating the grammar “as though an intelligent Indian was going to develop the forms of his own thoughts by analysis of his own form of speech.” In 1917 Boas took the initiative in launching the International Journal of American Linguistics, which he not only edited until his death but also maintained with personal funds.

In physical anthropology, Boas’ pioneer efforts led to discovery of individual variability in “tempo of growth.” He was the first to initiate human growth studies in North America, and his was the first chart of standardized heights and weights for American children according to chronological age, corrected statistically to give the standard deviation or variance at each half-year interval. Boas also pointed out the close correlation between the rate of physiological development and mental development; physiologically advanced subjects made better scores in school work and on psychological tests than did physiologically retarded subjects of the same age.

Boas has been criticized for impeding the progress of American anthropology for two or more decades by training a generation of students antagonistic to evolutionary problems and by exercising his commanding influence in publication and organizational channels. Such an accusation is difficult to evaluate, but the existence on the Continent of a similar antievoutionary drive leaves the charge open to doubt. The basic limitations of Boas’ approach stem from his determined efforts to overturn “speculative” evolutionary theories of the origin and development of human thought and culture. He concentrated on investigation of “mental phenomena” in art, language, and mythology and thus was diverted from the study of cultures in their organizational and functional operations. Preoccupation with historic processes also led to an indifference to the processes of change then taking place in Indian cultures. His methodological practice of reducing larger culture units to elemental parts in order to trace historic relations prevented full appreciation of the stylistic integration that cultures might exhibit. Once Boas developed his position, he was little inclined to change course or to go beyond the scientific boundaries he had outlined. This inflexibility is apparent in an inclination to press more rigorous and searching methods upon unfinished research rather than to open up new problems.

Besides holding honorary and regular memberships in many national anthropological organizations in Europe and in the United States, Boas held a number of presidencies, including those of the American Anthropological Association (1907, 1908), New York Academy of Science (1910), American Folklore Society (1931), and American Association for the Advancement of Science (1931). From 1901 to 1919 he served as honorary philologist to the Bureau of American Ethnology.


I. Original Works. A select list of papers (some revised or condensed) assembled by Boas in Race, Language and Culture (New York, 1940) offers an excellent introduction to the range of his activities and his theoretical position. This can be supplemented with such reprints as The Central Eskimo (1888; repr. Lincoln, Neb., 1964); The Mind of Primitive Man (1911; repr. new York, 1963); and Primitive Art (1927; repr. New York, 1955). In Kwakiutl Ethnography (Chicago, 1966), Helen Codere has added a number of published selections to an unfinished manuscript in order to furnish a representative account of Boas’ description of this people. The raw data for Boas’ study of bodily changes in immigrants was published as Materials for the Study of Inheritance in Man (New York, 1928). He was also contributing editor of the Handbook of American Indian Languages, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.-New York, 1911–1941). A full bibliography is in Memoir 61 (see below).

II. Secondary Literature. Two sympathetic views of Boas appeared as memoirs of the American Anthropologist: Franz Boas, 1858–1942, Memori 61 (Menasha, 1943), with contributions by A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, and others; and Walter Goldschmidt, ed., The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth, Memoir 89 (Menasha, 1959). In June Helm, ed., Pioneers of American Anthropology, American Ethnological Society, Monograph 43 (Seattle, 1966), Ross Parmenter describes the friendship of Boas and Zelia Nuttall, the celebrated Mexican researched, and Robert Rohner presents diary and correspondence material relevant to Boas’ fieldwork on the Northwest Coast. M. J. Herskovits, Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making (New York, 1953), offers the appreciative reflections of a student, viewing Boas as teacher, scientist, and citizen of the world. More critical treatments can be found in Leslie white, The Ethnography and Ethnology of Franz Boas, Texes Memorial Museum Bulletin 6 (Austin, Tex., 1963), and The Social Organization of Ethnological Theory, Rice University Studies, Monograph in Cultural Anthropology, 52 , no. 4 (Houston, Tex., 1966). For Boas’ contribution to the concept of culture, see George Stocking, Jr., “Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historic Perspective,” in American Anthropologist, 68 , no. 4 (1966), 867–882.

Fred W. Voget

Boas, Franz

views updated May 14 2018

Boas, Franz 1858-1942




Franz Boas is recognized widely as the father of American anthropology because at Columbia University he trained a generation of graduate students who transformed an assortment of classificatory schemes based on evolutionary hierarchies into a comprehensive four-field discipline that integrated linguistics and archaeology with biological anthropology and cultural anthropology. In addition, Boas was a pioneering public intellectual who used science to challenge ideas of racial inferiority and the barbarism of certain cultures by employing empirical research to demonstrate how racism, the environment, and the history of specific cultures can explain difference and diversity.


Born in Minden, Germany, Boas attended universities in Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel. His first academic appointment was in 1888 at Clark University, where he initiated a comprehensive research program that began to challenge some of the basic assumptions of racial categories; those efforts culminated in a major project for the U.S. Immigration Commission and were published as Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1912). In that work Boas demonstrated that the environment plays a significant role in determining physical attributes, such as head size, that often were used at that time to demarcate racial difference.

During the late nineteenth century racial categories were classified by head size, body type, and skin color and were linked to behavior, language, customs, and morality. Boas asserted that body type and race are discrete modalities and are not linked to customs and belief systems. Furthermore, he argued, one could not demarcate distinct racial categories accurately and cultures could not be rank-ordered within the then-current terminology as savage, barbarian, and civilized. His most definitive treatment of these issues was in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911).

The foundation of that theoretical paradigm shift in the natural and social sciences was Boass understanding that cultures and languages should be evaluated in the context of their own complex histories and on their own terms as opposed to analyzing societies in terms of stages of evolution along a singular road to a civilization or an apex of culture. Much of Boass research and theory was grounded in empiricism, participant observation, and detailed transcription of grammars, myths, kinship terminology, and folklore, using the interpretive framework of the people he studied.

Opposed to imposing an analytical framework on a set of traits and tendencies to deduce laws of culture, Boas instead relied on the use of inductive methods to identify patterns in process and the diffusion of material culture or folkloric themes through time and between cultural groups. Most of his ethnographic fieldwork was focused on the complex indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest. To achieve such exhaustive empirical studies Boas relied on key informants who served as important collaborators. One of the most influential of those collaborators was George Hunt (Lingít), who was raised among the Kwakwakawakw near Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Hunt was instrumental in helping Boas develop his definitive work on the Kwakiutl language and kinship.

In 1896 Boas began to lecture at Columbia University, and in 1899 he became its first professor of anthropology. At that university he developed the distinctly North American four-field approach to anthropology. He also helped curate anthropological exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, where he worked from 1895 to 1905.

In addition to his ethnographic work Boas conducted detailed studies on the growth of children and the head sizes of immigrants. Between 1908 and 1910 he measured 18,000 adults and children, using the data to produce the study Changes in Bodily Forms of Descendants of Immigrants (1912). Although there has been debate about the validity of his data, that study, among others Boas conducted, demonstrated that the physical metrics used to demonstrate the putative superiority and inferiority of racial groups and thus justify Jim Crow segregation and selective immigration restrictions were erroneous. African American intellectuals and early civil rights organizations welcomed the new science, and Boas actively supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and formed lasting working relationships with scholars such as Carter G. Woodson (18751950) and W. E. B. Du Bois. Boas was also a champion of peace, academic freedom, and equal opportunity.


Perhaps Boass greatest contribution to the field of anthropology was inspiring and training a generation of students who shaped the field in enduring ways. Many were women, and several were people of color. The list of students and colleagues whom Boas influenced at Columbia is impressive. Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie established the anthropology program at the University of California at Berkeley, Edward Sapir (18841935) and Faye-Cooper Cole (18811961) developed anthropology at University of Chicago, Leslie Spier (18931961) brought anthropology to the University of Washington, and Melville J. Herskovits organized an anthropology program at Northwestern. Other notable students include Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston whose collective influence on American science and letters is much greater than his male students. Others included William Jones (18711909), a member of the Fox Nation and one of the first American Indian anthropologists; the Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio (18831960); the African American ethnographer Eugene King (18981981); Elsie Clews Parsons (18751945); Gene Weltfish (19021980); Gladys Reichard (18931955); and Alexander Goldenweiser (18801940). Together they went well beyond Boass careful empirical studies to develop an understanding that cultures are dynamic and fluid, language is an integral aspect of culture that has internal structures and logics, history and ethnographic methods are central facets of anthropological research, and racial categories are scientifically untenable bases of analysis.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, Biological; Anthropology, U.S.; Benedict, Ruth; Culture; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Herskovits, Melville J.; Hurston, Zora Neale; Jim Crow; Kroeber, Alfred; Lowie, Robert; Mead, Margaret; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Race



Boas, Franz. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man; A Course of Lectures Delivered before the Lowell Institute, Boston, Mass., and the National University of Mexico, 19101911. New York: Macmillan.

Boas, Franz 1912. Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. New York: Columbia University Press.


Baker, Lee D. 1994. The Location of Franz Boas within the African American Struggle. Critique of Anthropology 14 (2): 199217.

Baker, Lee D. 2004. Franz Boas Out of the Ivory Tower. Anthropological Theory 4 (1): 2951.

Bashkow, Ira. 2004. A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries. American Anthropologist 106 (3): 443458

Bunzl, Matti. 2004. Boas, Foucault, and the Native Anthropologist. American Anthropologist 106 (3): 435442

Cole, Douglas. 1999. Franz Boas: The Early Years, 18581906. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Darnell, Regna. 1998. And Along Came Boas: Continuity and Revolution in Americanist Anthropology. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins.

Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London and New York: Routledge.

Lewis, Herbert. 2001. The Passion of Franz Boas. American Anthropologist 103 (2): 447467

Stocking, George W., Jr. 1968 Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1996. Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Lee D. Baker

Boas, Franz

views updated May 21 2018

Boas, Franz 1858–1942





Franz Boas was the pre-eminent early-twentieth-century American anthropologist who oriented anthropology toward the view that knowledge about race is a product of culture rather than biology. Known as “the father of American anthropology,” Boas trained a whole generation of influential anthropologists who spread this view both academically and publicly. As a result, his impact was widespread.


Boas was born in German Westphalia and attended the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, where in 1879 he earned a doctorate in physics and geography. The subject of his doctoral dissertation was the human perception of the color of water, launching his lifelong interest in the relationship between human science and natural science. Boas, a Jew, had another formative experience in Kiel, for it was there that he first encountered anti-Semitism, sustaining facial injuries in a scuffle with anti-Semitic students. Later, Boas made anthropology into a science that combated racism and other forms of cultural intolerance.

Boas continued his studies at the University of Berlin, where he came under the influence of the historical geographer Adolf Bastian (1826–1905) and the biological anthropologist Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902). From Bastian he learned about the “psychic unity of mankind,” the precept that all human populations have the same mental capacity, with their differing cultural achievements caused by local history and geography. From Virchow, a rigorous empiricist, he learned to anchor biological generalizations with facts while mastering techniques for measuring differences in human body form.

In 1883, Boas undertook a year-long expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to study the Eskimo perception of sea water. The historian of anthropology George W. Stocking Jr. has shown how this experience converted Boas from physics and geography to anthropology, and particularly to ethnography, or anthropological fieldwork. Boas returned to Germany briefly to work for Adolf Bastian at the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnology). He then returned to Canada on the first of many trips to the Pacific Northwest to study the Bella Coola and the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Upon completing the first phase of this fieldwork, he decided to settle in the United States.

After working briefly in New York City, Boas joined the faculty of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924), the president of Clark, envisioned the university as a major center for graduate research, but his vision failed to take hold, and in 1892 Boas joined other faculty members in relocating elsewhere. Along with several of these individuals, Boas relocated to Chicago, where he ended up helping the anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam (1839–1915) prepare exhibits for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. After the Exposition, Boas supervised the transfer of the exhibits to the new Field Columbian Museum, where he expected to become head of the anthropology division. A clash of personalities, however, led to his resignation. He then returned to New York, where in 1895 he became curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. He also continued his fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest, spearheading an ambitious project of the museum’s president, Morris K. Jesup (1830–1908), called the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. At the same time, he began nurturing a relationship between the museum and Columbia University, but administrative conflict thwarted his efforts, and in 1905 he resigned and moved to Columbia full-time. Columbia became his base of operations for almost four decades, during which time it was the major center for academic anthropology in the United States.


When Boas moved to Columbia, American anthropology was operating within a nineteenth-century theoretical legacy that, in retrospect, appears conspicuously racist. In cultural anthropology, the reigning paradigm was cultural evolutionism, a scheme that ranked human populations along a continuum from primitive to civilized and regarded less-than-civilized populations as stunted. In the United States, the foremost cultural evolutionist was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), whose tripartite (or three-part) scheme of savagery/barbarism/civilization implied that the civilized state was superior. Using this scheme to reconstruct prehistory, with archaeological evidence being so limited, anthropologists relied on ethnographic descriptions of living primitive populations to represent past primitive populations. Boas objected strenuously to this logic, known as the comparative method, and in 1896 he published an influential critique of it, showing it to be excessively speculative and blind to the effects of cultural borrowing (or diffusion) rather than parallel evolution in explaining cultural similarities. Every culture with the bow and arrow, for example, need not have evolved it in parallel. One culture might have borrowed it from another culture. These efforts helped overturn the concept that contemporary primitive people were essentially living in the Stone Age. The counter argument was that primitive people, while still primitive, had nonetheless changed over time.

In biological anthropology, the nineteenth-century legacy appears even more racist. At midcentury, biological anthropologists were arguing about the origin of races. The two major camps were monogenists and polygenists. Monogenists argued that human races shared an ancient common origin and then diversified, but that they remained a single biological species. Polygenists countered by arguing that human races had recent separate origins, remained unchanged, and constituted separate biological species. The polygenists were ascendant at this time, especially in the United States, where the anthropologist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) and his followers measured skulls of different races, concluding that the skulls and (in life) the enclosed brains of different races varied in size, and that therefore the races varied in mental capacity. In the period leading up to the American Civil War, Morton’s views found favor among supporters of the institution of racial slavery. After the War, however, hard-nosed polygenism abated because of Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of biological evolution, published in Origin of Species (1859), which showed that all biological populations are interrelated and changing. Still, many anthropologists failed to accept or fully understand Darwin’s theory, and hereditarian views about race persisted. In 1896, the year Boas critiqued the comparative method, the anthropologist Daniel G. Brinton (1837–1899), in his presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, pronounced, “The black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white, especially in their splanchnic [visceral] organs, that even with equal cerebral capacity, they could never rival its results by equal efforts” (Harris 1968, p. 256).

Boas recognized that the scientific fallacy of pronouncements such as Brinton’s lay in the confusion of race, language, and culture. He had spent the equivalent of a number of years living among Pacific Coast Indians, learning their language and culture, and while working for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition he had begun a comprehensive study of the racial, or physical, characteristics of aboriginal North Americans. He knew from these experiences that correlation does not necessarily imply cause; that is, just because a population with particular racial characteristics speaks a particular language and practices a particular culture, the language and culture are not necessarily caused by the racial characteristics. In fact, race, language, and culture are independent, each capable of changing without changing the others. Proof of this assertion was Boas himself, who remained racially white while learning how to speak the Kwakiutl language and participate in Kwakiutl culture. To right the scientific wrong of racial determinism, Boas wrote The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), a watershed book that helped pave the way for the modern understanding of race as a cultural construct. A similar understanding characterized his later book, Race, Language, and Culture (1940).

Boas’s early years at Columbia coincided with great public debate in the United States about the alleged deleterious (or subtle harmful) effects of an influx of eastern and southern European immigrants. Between 1908 and 1910, he conducted a massive study for the United States Immigration Commission, in which he measured the heads of more than 17,000 European immigrants and their American-born children. For decades, going back to the heyday of polygenism, anthropologists had treated the ratio of head length and breath, called the cephalic index, as a fixed mark of racial ancestry. Boas’s statistical study, published in 1911 as Changes

in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants, proved otherwise. In just one generation, the cephalic index of immigrants had changed in response to the American environment, presumably to better diet and health. Since then, however, some anthropologists have statistically reevaluated Boas’s study and questioned the magnitude of its reported change. Nevertheless, the study remains a landmark demonstration of how racial characteristics can change rapidly in response to the environment.


Boas’s influence on American anthropology has been far-reaching. He was a founding member and president of the American Anthropological Association, as well as president of the New York Academy of Science, the American Folklore Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He supervised the journal American Anthropologist, wrote several books, and published more than seven hundred scholarly articles. He exerted his greatest influence, however, through the students he trained at Columbia University.

At Columbia, Boas was a powerful professor who attracted students with his message that, in the words of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, “anthropology mattered.” It mattered because it demonstrated the twin principles of cultural determinism and cultural relativism. Cultural determinism taught that nurture, not nature, was responsible for the overwhelming array of ethnographically observed cultural similarities and differences. Cultural relativism, meanwhile, taught that one culture should not be judged by the standards of another culture. Together, these two principles showed that racism and ethnocentrism were wrong.

Between 1901 and 1928, twenty students earned their doctoral degrees under Boas. Among them were Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), Alexander Goldenweiser (1880–1940), Melville Herskovits (1895–1963), Alfred Kroeber (1876–1960), Robert Lowie (1883–1957), Margaret Mead (1901–1978), Paul Radin (1883–1959), and Edward Sapir (1884–1939). Kroeber and Lowie helped establish anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley; Sapir, at the University of Chicago; and Herskovits, at Northwestern University. As a result, the Boasian view became academically entrenched in the American Midwest, and on its East and West Coasts.

Boasian anthropologists explored and promoted the importance of culture in a variety of ways. Goldenweiser, Herskovits, Lowie, and Radin wrote insightful ethnographies with African-American and Native American settings. Radin pioneered the life history approach with Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1926), and Herskovits wrote the first biography of Boas, Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making (1953). On a more theoretical level, Sapir, in collaboration with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941), demonstrated the power of language to shape categories of thought, including, in principle, thoughts about race. Kroeber and Benedict developed the idea of cultural configuration, or ethos, which they used to characterize cultures and urge respect for behavior that might otherwise appear inexplicable or odd. In Patterns of Culture (1934), an all-time anthropology best-seller, Benedict vividly portrayed three cultures with different standards of normalcy and deviance.

Boas also influenced his most famous student, Margaret Mead. At the time, he thought that much of psychology, especially the psychology of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), overemphasized biology as a contributor to personality development. In particular, he objected to Freud’s assertion that adolescence is necessarily a period of psychological turmoil. Boas urged Mead to conduct her doctoral dissertation research in American Samoa, where she might find that adolescence unfolded differently than it did in the United States. After spending time in Samoa, Mead found just that. In the book based on her research, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she argued that a sexually permissive upbringing allowed Samoan girls to experience adolescence smoothly. Mead followed up this book with others in which she described cultural variation in the behavior of women and men. She went on to become widely known in the United States as an advocate of cultural understanding and tolerance. In 1983, however, the anthropologist Derek Freeman (1916–2001) published a critical account of Mead’s Samoan fieldwork in his book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. He argued that Mead was overly zealous in trying to prove Boas’s claim for the power of culture over biology. Freeman’s account touched off a major debate within anthropology about whether Boas’s cultural determinism was ideological as well as scientific.

During World War II, some of Boas’s students worked actively in Washington, D.C. to help the United States defeat Germany and the racist ideology of Nazism. On December 21, 1942, Boas was having lunch at Columbia University with the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) when suddenly he slumped over and died. Lévi-Strauss observed later that he had witnessed the death of an intellectual giant and the end of an anthropological era.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, History of; Anti-Semitism; Cranial Index; Genesis and Polygenesis.


Boas, Franz. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Macmillan.

———. 1945. Race, Language, and Culture. New York: Macmillan.

Cole, Douglas. 1999. Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858–1906. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy. 2003. A History of Anthropological Theory, 2nd ed. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Freeman, Derek. 1983. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Ann Arbor, MI: Books on Demand.

Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

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

Public Broadcasting System. 1981. Odyssey: Franz Boas (1858–1942). UMBC # VC-83. VHS videotape, 58 minutes.

Spencer, Frank, ed. 1997. History of Physical Anthropology, 2 vols. New York: Garland.

Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1974. The Shaping of American Anthropology 1883–1911: A Franz Boas Reader. New York: Basic Books.

U.S. Immigration Commission. 1911. Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Paul A. Erickson

Franz Boas

views updated Jun 08 2018

Franz Boas

The German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) established the modern structure of anthropology and applied anthropological findings to problems in education, race relations, nationalism and internationalism, war and peace, and the struggle for democracy and intellectual freedom.

Anthropology in America was essentially preprofessional when Franz Boas began its study. The science was not established at any university; amateurs and semiprofessionals were active in it. Its subject matter comprised a miscellany of information about the evolution of man and his works; its theory was an accumulation of 19th-century speculations about race, geographical determinism, and unilinear (orthogenetic) cultural evolution.

Boas restructured anthropology in fundamental contributions on race (physical type) and human biology (growth); on linguistics (Native American languages); on cultures, in inductive field studies (Eskimo and Northwest Coast) and comparative studies; and on the aims, methods, and theory of the field. By 1911, when he published The Mind of Primitive Man, he provided anthropology with the framework used thereafter by most anthropologists and many other social scientists. The cultural anthropological principle that learning and habit (socialization rather than instinct and/or heredity) are the basis of human institutional behavior and its diversity in societies became fundamental in social sciences and social philosophy.

Boas was born in Minden, Germany, on July 9, 1858. He grew up in a home "where the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force" and where he "was spared," by parents who had given up their formal Jewish faith, "the struggle against religious dogma that besets the lives of so many young people."

Boas attended the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, completing his doctorate at Kiel in 1881. His principal dissertation was in physics; it involved him, however, in problems of psychophysics (forerunner of experimental psychology)—questions of human perception which became key problems of his later anthropological work.

Boas came to anthropology circuitously. He started his career as a geographer, and his first research—an expedition to Baffin Land (1883-1884)—was geographical. But with the ethnology he did on that expedition (published as The Central Eskimo, 1888) and the following museum year in Berlin with Adolph Bastian, an anthropogeographer-ethnographer, Boas made his choice. He studied anthropometry with Rudolf Virchow and started research on the Northwest Coast, in British Columbia, in 1885 as an anthropologist.

In 1887 Boas resigned his position as dozent in geography at the University of Berlin—which would have required by law a declaration of religious affiliation, unacceptable to him—married, and settled in New York. His first American position was assistant editor of Science (1887). On the Clark University faculty (1888-1892) he trained the first American to receive a doctorate in anthropology. He was chief assistant for anthropology of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-1893), organized its extensive ethnographical collections, and became the first curator for anthropology of the natural-history museum founded in Chicago (1894) to house the collection. For years he continued North Pacific Coast research, principally under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, thus beginning the focus on the Kwakiutl people which lasted for more than 40 years.

In 1895 Boas became assistant curator of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and was its curator from 1901 to 1905. There he initiated the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, a major research program on man in the Americas. In 1896 he joined Columbia University as lecturer in physical anthropology and in 1899 became professor of anthropology, a post he held until retiring in 1936.

At Columbia, Boas became the most influential anthropologist of his time. He trained a generation of American anthropologists and founded or promoted major anthropological societies and journals, including the American Anthropological Association and its Anthropologist, the American Folk Lore Society and its Journal, the International Journal of American Linguistics, and the American Ethnological Society and its Publications. He carried out and promoted research on Afro-Americans, on race relations in Latin America, and on the Far East. As early as 1903, recognizing two great world areas of civilization, West and East, he attempted unsuccessfully to establish a United States Oriental institute. His publications include more than 30 books.

General Principles

The Mind of Primitive Man, a collection of Boas's 1894-1911 studies, established general principles of modern anthropology. Race, language, and culture have essentially independent historical careers and are not "interchangeable" terms in the classification of man. The "race" concept, far from being objective natural description, involves subjective typological characterization and has to be reduced by statistical analysis to the study of populations and their composition in family lines. Neither race or physical type (inborn human traits) nor geographical conditions (external factors) explain or determine the diversities of human cultures. The complexities of actual cultural histories and the universal fact of cultural borrowing or diffusion made untenable theories from the 19th century that human cultures evolved in a unilinear, orthogenetic progression, with diversities explained as differences in stage of development.

These critiques established the autonomy of "cultures"—that cultural or behavioral communities and their institutions are the outcome of complex histories. Human behavior and the human mind, primitive or modern, are an expression of the cultural or behavioral contexts in which socialization occurs, the character of the traditional contextual material, and the extent to which tradition is open to question and change.

Field Research

Field research among living cultures is inherent in Boas's conception of modern cultural anthropology, and he set standards by precept and example. The native's viewpoint, rather than the observer's, is essential. To secure it, the ethnologist should strive for close association with the native community, and he should record information in the native language when possible, train natives as informants, investigators, and recorders of their own culture, and learn to speak the native language. Boas practiced what he preached. He studied the Eskimo language before his Baffin Land expedition and became fluent in Kwakiutl on the Northwest Coast.

Human Biology

Boas led physical anthropology away from mere taxonomic classification into human biology. His Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1911), proving that head form (cephalic index) is not a fixed hereditary trait but is affected by environmental change, ended its routine use in race classification and challenged other genetic assumptions of traditional taxonomy. The implied relation between environmental and cultural conditions and human biological development led Boas to pioneer in studies of human growth. In them he initiated longitudinal studies and established the fundamental concepts of tempo of growth and of physiological age. Race, Language, and Culture (1940) is a major collection of his papers.

Linguistics Studies

Boas broke sharply with traditional philology in his Handbook of American Indian Languages (4 vols., 1911-1941). He used an inductive approach to derive the "inner form" of each language. His studies revealed a wider range of linguistic phenomena than had been thought to exist and opened new areas of study of the relations of language and thought. His work is the foundation of anthropological linguistics and its recent developments, both in structural linguistics and in the cross-cultural study of human cognition.

The Scientist as Citizen

As scientist and anthropologist, Boas accepted a moral obligation to spread scientific knowledge as widely as possible. He applied anthropology to public problems in Anthropology and Modern Life (1928) and Race and Democratic Society (1945) and in magazine articles. He exposed the fallacies of race prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism before and during the Nazi period and anti-Negroism at all times and places. He held that cultural anthropology impugns chauvinistic nationalism and affirms internationalism. He stood for academic freedom all his life. He fought Nazism by mobilizing more than 10,000 American scientists in the Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom (1938-1939).

Boas died on Dec. 21, 1942. He changed the understanding of human nature and human behavior by eliminating the predeterminism of instinct and heredity and making human institutions cultural, subject to human control for human ends.

Further Reading

A basic work on Boas is Melville J. Herskovits, Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making (1953). Briefer discussions are in Helene Codere's introduction to Boas's Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966) and in Ruth L. Bunzel's introduction to his Anthropology and Modern Life (1962). For background information see Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937); Margaret Mead and Ruth L. Bunzel, eds., The Golden Age of American Anthropology (1960); Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (1961); and George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968).

Additional Sources

Hyatt, Marshall, Franz Boas, social activist: the dynamics of ethnicity, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Williams, Vernon J., Rethinking race: Franz Boaz and his contemporaries, Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. □

Boas, Franz

views updated May 29 2018


BOAS, FRANZ (18581942), German-American anthropologist, was born at Minden, Prussian Westphalia, on July 9, 1858, the son of Jewish parents of comfortable means, both of whom were assimilated into German culture. His education was largely at the local state school and gymnasium. He seems not to have had significant Jewish religious instruction. His mother, Sophie Meyer Boas, who had been part of a circle of liberal and Marxist intellectuals dedicated to the revolutionary principles of 1848, was a major influence in his youth. He studied the sciences at the universities of Heidelberg (1877), Bonn (18771879), and Kiel (18791881), but he decided upon geography as a career. Shortly after receiving his doctorate, he left for a twelve-month expedition to Baffin Island, studying local geography and anthropology. He qualified as a university instructor at Berlin in 1886 but never taught, instead going to the United States, where he undertook a research trip to the Northwest Coast, whose native peoples became the subjects of his most intensive ethnological scrutiny. He worked for a number of scholarly institutions in the United States and Canada from 1887 until 1896, when he found secure employment in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. He left the museum in 1906 but continued at Columbia until his retirement in 1936. In his later years he became increasingly involved in public affairs, speaking out especially against racialist ideas. He died in New York on December 22, 1942.

Boas published in a wide range of anthropological fields, exercising a dominating influence on American anthropology both in his own right and through a network of associates and former students, including A. L. Kroeber, Paul Radin, Alexander Goldenweiser, Robert H. Lowie, Ruth Benedict, Leslie Spier, J. R. Swanton, and Margaret Mead. Many of these, Radin and Lowie in particular, were more systematically concerned with religion than he.

Boas was himself a rationalist without conscious religious views. One of the mainsprings of his intellectual life was the search for an explanation of the "psychological origin of the implicit belief in the authority of tradition," a belief foreign to his own mind, and thus for an explication of how "the shackles that tradition has laid upon us" might be recognized and then broken. Alongside this, however, went a relativist's tolerance of the beliefs and values of others.

Boas's anthropological methodology was so strongly particularistic that his religious descriptions usually have little generalizing value in themselves; his approach was so concerned with the integrated totality of a culture that religion often seems to occur only as a by-product in his work. However, the enormous amount of material, especially texts, that he published on mythology, ceremonialism, and secret societies contains rich material for the study of beliefs, and his shorter treatments, including the religion entry in the Handbook of American Indians and his discussion of esoteric doctrines and the idea of future life among primitive tribes, are valuable.

The fundamental concept bearing on the religious life of the North American Indians, Boas wrote, was a belief in the existence of a "magic power," the "wonderful qualities" of which are believed to exist in objects, animals, humans, spirits, or deities and that are superior to the natural qualities of humans. The actions of the Indians were regulated by the desire to retain the good will of powers friendly to them and to control those that were hostile. Taboos, guardian spirits, charms, offerings and sacrifices, and incantations were all means to these ends. Boas also clearly associated religion with social structure in totemic kinship groups, in ceremonialism, and in explanatory mythology.


Boas's publications are numerous and scattered. He collected some essays into Race, Language and Culture (New York, 1940), including "The Idea of the Future Life among Primitive Tribes" and "The Ethnological Significance of Esoteric Doctrines." George W. Stocking, Jr., edited another collection, including the essay "The Religion of American Indians," in The Shaping of American Anthropology, 18831911: A Franz Boas Reader (New York, 1974), with a fine introduction. Some of Stocking's other studies of Boas are in his Race, Culture, and Evolution, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1982). Boas's Kwakiutl Ethnography (Chicago, 1966) is, with The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (1897; reprint, New York, 1970), his most important discussion of the Kwakiutl. Ake Hultkrantz's The Study of American Indian Religion (New York, 1983), contains a discussion of Boas and his students on the subject. See also Boas's "An Anthropologist's Credo," in The Nation 147 (27 August 1938): 202.

New Sources

Hyatt, Marshall. Franz Boas, Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity. New York, 1990.

Williams, Vernon J. Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries. Lexington, Ky., 1996.

Douglas Cole (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Franz Boas

views updated Jun 11 2018

Franz Boas


German-American Anthropologist

Franz Boas is primarily remembered for his pioneering work as an anthropologist and ethnologist. Boas was the founder of the culture-centered (but still scientifically based) approach to anthropology. He subjected the premises of physical anthropology to rigorous and critical analysis. According to Boas, all cultures must be studied in their totality, including their language, religion, art, history, physical characteristics, environmental conditions, diseases, nutrition, child-raising customs, migrations, and interactions with other cultures. Based on his research of many different cultures, he concluded that no truly pure races exist and that no so-called "race" is innately superior to any other.

Boas was born in Minden, Germany, where his father was a merchant. As a child, he was interested in books and the natural sciences. While he was a student at the Minden Gymnasium, he became interested in cultural history. After studying at the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn, he earned his baccalaureate degree from the University of Heidelberg and his Ph.D. in physics and geography from the University of Kiel. After participating in a scientific exploration of the Baffin Island region of the Arctic from 1883 to 1884, he found positions in an ethnological museum in Berlin and on the faculty of geography at the University of Berlin. In 1886, after a study of the Kwakiutl and other tribes of British Columbia, he immigrated to the United States and obtained a job as an editor of the magazine Science. While teaching anthropology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, he worked on the preparation of the anthropological exhibitions for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. In 1899 he became the first professor of anthropology at Columbia University, where, as a specialist in North American Indian cultures and languages, he was an influential teacher and a leader in his profession. His work contributed to the fields of statistical physical anthropology, descriptive and theoretical linguistics, and American Indian ethnology. Many of his students, including Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), Margaret Mead (1901-1978), Melville Herskovits (1895-1963), Edward Sapir (1884-1939), and Alfred L. Kroeber (1876-1960), became famous anthropologists in their own right. From 1896 to 1905 Boas was curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he directed studies of the relationships between the aboriginal peoples of Siberia and North America. He established the International Journal of American Linguistics and the American Anthropological Association and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Boas can also be considered a pioneer in visual anthropology. He was one of the first anthropologists to use the motion picture camera to collect data in the field in order to study gesture, body movement, and dances. He had been using still photography in the field since 1894. In 1930, when he was 70 years old, he took a motion picture camera and a wax cylinder sound-recording apparatus on another field trip to the Kwakiutl.

Boas made many trips to study the Native American tribes of British Columbia, but he is best known for his work with the Kwakiutl Indians from northern Vancouver and the adjacent mainland of British Columbia. While studying the Kwakiutl, he established a new concept of culture and race, emphasizing the importance of observing all aspects of a culture. Boasian anthropological theory encompassed cultural relativism, which argues that the observed differences among populations are the results of unique historical, social, and geographic conditions. Each culture is, therefore, complete and equally developed in its own framework and is not a stage in a universal scheme of cultural evolution. Boas and his followers opposed the evolutionary view of culture advocated by such ethnologists as Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) and Edward Tylor (1832-1917), who believed that each race, or culture, went through certain "evolutionary" stages as it developed towards "higher" stages of culture according to certain universal laws. Boas also opposed race-based explanations and argued that culture, rather than race, was the fundamental factor in understanding the uniqueness of human societies. For personal as well as theoretical reasons, he was a passionate opponent of anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, especially of Nazi propaganda claiming to provide "scientific" explanations for the racial inferiority of non-Aryans. He argued that no race was innately superior to any other. In the 1930s the Nazis burned his book The Mind of Primitive Man (compiled from a series of lectures on race and culture and published in 1911) and rescinded his Ph.D. from Kiel University.


Boas, Franz

views updated Jun 11 2018


BOAS, FRANZ (1858–1942), U.S. anthropologist who established anthropology as an academic discipline in the U.S.A. Born in Minden, Germany, he taught geography at the University of Berlin, which led to his Arctic expedition to Baffin Island in 1883–84. Gradually his interest in anthropology overtook his interest in cultural geography and in 1885 he became assistant in Bastian's Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin. Boas developed a major interest in North Pacific culture, which in 1886 took him to British Columbia where he began the study of the Kwakiutl Indians, a subject in which he retained a lifelong interest. In 1887 he settled in New York City, and worked as an assistant editor of Science primarily in geography. After some teaching he became affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, where he served as curator of ethnology 1901–05. In 1899 he was appointed professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

After his monograph on the Central Eskimo (1888) he planned and participated in the Jesup North Pacific expedition. He developed into an authority on the Northwest Pacific coast, the Eskimo and Kwakiutl cultures, American Indian languages, and Mexican archaeology where he was among the first to apply stratographic excavations.

In effect he restructured anthropology into a modern science committed to rigorous empirical method and the fundamental idea of the relative autonomy of the phenomena of culture.

In Boas' view, neither race nor geographical setting have the primary role in forming human beings. Culture is the behavioral environment which forms the patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, producing habits which are an internalization of traditional group patterns.

In the field of linguistics his studies of American Indian languages and his contributions to modern linguistic techniques in both phonetics and morphology virtually defined American linguistic anthropology.

Boas' studies of race and environmental factors, employing innovative biometric techniques, moved physical anthropology from static taxonomy to a dynamic biosocial perspective. Proceeding to refine the concept of race based on the notion of a permanent stability of bodily forms, he stressed the influence of environmental factors of human cultural life in modifying anatomy and physiology. In this labor his early training in physics and mathematics was of great use to him in his important investigations of changes in cranial and other measurements in children of immigrants. Thus his Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1912), which measured some 18,000 individuals, comparing European immigrant parents and their children in New York City, demonstrated significant changes in cephalic measurements. He also carried forward pioneer longitudinal studies in human growth and biometrical genetics.

After a lifetime in scientific endeavor and public teaching regarding the dangers of racism, he participated in various efforts on behalf of intellectuals persecuted by the Nazi regime and personally made it possible for many refugees to escape to freedom, while emigration was still possible.

His major works include: Anthropology and Modern Life (19322); Race, Language and Culture (1940); Race and Democratic Society (1945); Primitive Art (1951); The Mind of Primitive Man (19653); The Central Eskimo (U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Sixth Annual Report 1884–85 (1888), 399–669; issued in paperback, 1964); and Ethnology of the Kwakiutl (35th Annual Report 1913–14 (1921), 41–1481).


M.J. Herskovitz, Franz Boas, the Science of Man in the Making (1953), incl. bibl.; R.H. Lowie, in: National Academy of Sciences, Washington, Biographical Memoirs, 24 (1947), 303–22, incl. bibl.; A. Kardiner and E. Preble (eds.), They Studied Man (1961), 134–59; A. Lesser, in: iess, 2 (1968), 99–110, incl. bibl.; M.B. Emeneau, in: T.A. Sebeok (ed.), Portraits of Linguists (1966), 122–7; R. Jakobson, in: ibid., 127–39.

[Ephraim Fischoff]

Boas, Franz

views updated May 29 2018

Boas, Franz (1858–1942) A German-born anthropologist who founded modern cultural anthropology (see SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY) in the United States. He and his students came to dominate American anthropology for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Boas revolutionized fieldwork methodology, relying on analysis of local texts, linguistics, and training local representative researchers to document their own culture. His Primitive Art (1927) greatly influenced later approaches to examining the material culture of peoples.

Using these methods Boas provided an enormous amount of ethnographic data on native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest. He gave priority to empirical ethnographic investigation over any search for scientific laws of cause and effect in culture. Boas was a cultural relativist, arguing that culture should be understood in terms of its own framework of meaning, rather than being judged by outside investigators according to the values of their own culture. He exposed and undermined the grandiose pretensions of evolutionary theory as espoused by Edward Tylor and James Frazer. Instead, Boas insisted on study of cultures as wholes, as systems of many interrelated parts. His later interest in psychology served as a precursor to the culture and personality approach. His other principal works include Race, Language and Culture (1940), and The Mind of Primitive Man (1911).