Developments in Anthropology, 1900-1949

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Developments in Anthropology, 1900-1949


Before 1900 anthropology was in one way a racist science. The nineteenth-century idea of evolution gave some European peoples (including those in North America) a reason to believe they had a superior culture because they had "evolved" more than other races. In the early twentieth century, the German anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) challenged the conception that non-European cultures were inferior. He inspired a number of anthropologists in America and Europe to study all cultures with the belief that every culture is unique and should be studied on its own terms, instead of within the all-encompassing and judgmental evolutionary scheme. The variety of approaches that anthropologists developed in the period 1900-1949 reveals that they did as Boas suggested. Thus, by 1949, the notion that Europeans were superior to other cultures and races had been significantly challenged by anthropologists.


Anthropology appeared as a distinct human science in the second half of the nineteenth century. During that period the separate social sciences as we know them today were emerging: economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology. These new sciences had as their goal the study of the growth and development of social relations among humans—hence the term social sciences. In its earliest stages, anthropology was to be the study of the peoples that nineteenth-century Europeans considered "primitive." These "primitive peoples" included many vanished, prehistoric cultures and existing tribes of natives in places like Africa, Australia, and South America. It was thought that these "primitive peoples" represented simple or undeveloped cultures—in contrast to the advanced cultures of Europe. In the nineteenth century, therefore, anthropology was based upon a European presumption of superiority.

This presumption of superiority derived in part from the doctrine of evolution. Ideas of evolutionary development had been around before Charles Darwin (1809-1882), but when Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, evolution was given scientific credibility. Also during the nineteenth century, Europeans, especially the British, had colonized much of the rest of the world. The non-European peoples they encountered seemed "primitive" by their own standards. This reconfirmed European beliefs that the process of evolution had made them a superior race. Thus nineteenth-century anthropology was a racist science. Ethnocentrism, the belief that one's own culture is superior, was given scientific credibility by evolution.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Boas challenged this ethnocentric view. In 1883 he spent time in northern Canada and became interested in the Eskimo peoples. In 1886 he returned to North America to study the natives of the pacific northwest. He then spent time in Chicago before settling in New York. He lectured and wrote on the results of his anthropological studies, and did museum work as well. Boas's primary interest was in cultural anthropology—the active study of individual cultures and the belief that each one had a unique and significant development. This view went against the evolutionary anthropologists, who studied cultures as being either advanced (usually meaning "European") or primitive (usually meaning "non-European").

Boas emphasized fieldwork and direct observation. He encouraged his students to go among the peoples whom they studied to learn their customs, record observations, and obtain artifacts. This was the beginning of a new method for anthropologists. Understanding a culture meant understanding individuals within that culture, according to Boas. He also encouraged his students to record the life histories of individuals in a culture, so that they could make connections between the larger culture and the individuals within it. Boas taught that each member of a culture, as an active, thinking being, helped shape the culture. Cultures were, in part, mental creations.

Boas's method of cultural anthropology had a component called functionalism. Functionalism meant that anthropologists should consider each culture to be like machines or organisms—complex objects with many interrelated parts. The goal of the functionalist anthropologist was to understand how the many parts of a culture (family life, food preparation, religious beliefs, etc.) functioned together as a working whole.


Boas's teachings would change the practice of anthropology in America, where he lived and taught. His first two doctoral students were Robert Lowie (1883-1957) and Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960). Lowie, like Boas, rejected the evolutionary approach to the study of culture. Instead, he helped to advance Boas's notion that every culture is unique and has to be studied on its own terms. Kroeber, however, disagreed with Boas's view that individuals within a culture are as significant as the culture as a whole. Thus, for much of his career Kroeber was interested in the general patterns found in a culture instead of the actions of individual members.

One of Boas's most important students was Margaret Mead (1901-1978). She focused on Boas's teaching that culture is a mental creation. She incorporated psychology into her study of cultures to explore the interaction between individual personalities and their cultures. Boas encouraged Mead to focus on a small group of individuals within one culture in order to keep her work simple. Mead chose to study adolescent girls in the Samoa islands of the South Pacific. Her study, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), became an important work in the theory of anthropology. Mead showed that the transition from childhood to adulthood for Samoan girls was relatively uncomplicated compared to the similar transition experienced by American girls. Mead argued that this was because Samoan girls were permitted considerable freedom in their interpersonal relationships, especially regarding sex. Her book shocked American readers, as the idea of adolescent promiscuity went against their cultural values. The book's most significant contribution to anthropology, however, was its support of Boas's view that each culture is unique, so each culture develops its own distinct set of morals. The idea that every culture could develop its own moral practices was called cultural relativism.

Another important anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), continued this argument for cultural relativism. Benedict entered the field of anthropology after she was 30. Like Mead, she had also met Boas and applied psychology to the study of culture. Benedict's most significant work was in comparing different cultures and noting their differences. She studied cultures in the American pacific northwest, the American southwest, and in the South Pacific. She then argued that different cultures developed different behavioral patterns depending on a variety of factors unique to each culture. What one culture considered "normal" behavior could be very different from the "normal" behavior of another culture. Where Mead was interested in the psychology of individuals within a culture, Benedict was interested in the psychology of a culture as a whole—that is, general cultural traits, or patterns. Thus, the title of her 1931 book in which she described the different patterns found among cultures was Patterns of Culture.

European anthropologists developed a variety of methods for studying cultures during the period 1900-1949. Some anthropologists looked to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud suggested that much human action results from unconscious desires that have been repressed in the subconscious because of the fear of disapproval. The problem with Freud for anthropologists was that his theories were based on European psychology, and were not useful for studying non-European cultures. One anthropologist who modified Freud's theories was Abram Kardiner (1891-1981). In his book The Psychological Frontiers of Society (1945), Kardiner tried to show how Freud's theories, when properly altered, could help us understand how different types of personalities would develop out of different cultures.

In France, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) brought a different view to anthropology. He argued that knowledge of culture could not come from individuals, and so psychology was a useless tool for anthropologists. Instead, cultures can only be understood on the basis of their social unity. If you want to know what a culture is, he contended, look for its common social bond—its "shared awareness" or "common understanding." In a slightly different way than that of Boas, Durkheim, too, viewed cultures as functioning organisms. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908- ) developed structural anthropology. Strauss studied cultures on the basis of their social structures—the relationships between men, women, families, and groups—and the way these social structures enabled cultures to function.

British anthropologists also wanted to understand cultures as wholes, like living organisms. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) looked closely at the biological and psychological needs of individuals within a culture—nutrition, shelter, and safety, for example. He studied how the individual search for those basic needs affected the way the entire culture functioned. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) was not concerned with the needs of individuals, but rather with the needs of the culture as a whole. He studied the social relationships by which cultures function, in the same way that a biologist studies the relationships between parts of an organism to understand how that organism lives.

In the period from 1900-1949, anthropology became much more conscious of the variety and diversity of cultures in the world. This period in anthropology saw the initial decline of the belief that evolution had made European peoples superior to other peoples. Instead, many of these anthropologists argued for cultural relativism—the belief that each culture has its own valid and unique set of moral, religious, and social practices. They believed that it was unfair to characterize or judge other cultures by European standards. Though not all of the anthropologists mentioned above were followers of Boas, they all shared his view that each culture was unique. Anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century represents a significant change in the way that scientists have come to view the historical and geographical variety of cultures around the world.


Further Reading


Bohannan, Paul, and Mark Glazer, eds. High Points in Anthropology, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Erickson, Paul A., with Liam D. Murphy. A History of Anthropological Theory. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.

Periodical Articles

Bennett, John W. "Classic Anthropology." American Anthropologist 100 (1998): 951-956.

Lewis, Herbert S. "The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences." American Anthropologist 100 (1998): 716-731.

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Developments in Anthropology, 1900-1949

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