Boas Publishes

In The Mind of Primitive Man, Franz Boas expressed his views on human variation, laying the conceptual foundations of modern cultural anthropology.

Summary of Event

In the contemporary world, the use of the word “culture” to indicate customs, beliefs, and material factors that characterize the lives of particular social groups is so widespread that it is difficult to imagine that it has a short history. This use, however, was first developed by Franz Boas at the beginning of the twentieth century. Boas presented it in his book The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), and it was popularized through the influence of the anthropological tradition that he and his students built. Mind of Primitive Man, The (Boas)
Cultural anthropology
[kw]Boas Publishes The Mind of Primitive Man (1911)
[kw]Publishes The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas (1911)
[kw]Mind of Primitive Man, Boas Publishes The (1911)
[kw]Primitive Man, Boas Publishes The Mind of (1911)
[kw]Man, Boas Publishes The Mind of Primitive (1911)
Mind of Primitive Man, The (Boas)
Cultural anthropology
[g]United States;1911: Boas Publishes The Mind of Primitive Man[02700]
[c]Anthropology;1911: Boas Publishes The Mind of Primitive Man[02700]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1911: Boas Publishes The Mind of Primitive Man[02700]
Boas, Franz

When Sir Edward B. Tylor Tylor, Edward B. —a wealthy Englishman and amateur scholar—published the book Primitive Culture
Primitive Culture (Tylor) in 1871, he was the first to define anthropology as the study of human culture and culture as the knowledge and traditions acquired by humans as members of society. He used the culture concept as a synonym for “civilization,” understood as the common human heritage that becomes increasingly complex and refined as human beings advance on the ladder of progress from “primitive” to more advanced stages. Tylor, in line with the prevalent ideology of his time, was a confirmed evolutionist, a believer in the existence of great qualitative differences between primitive and civilized societies.

The approach of the classic social evolutionists, Social evolutionary theory as Tylor and some of his contemporaries came to be known, gave valuable results insofar as it led to the collection, classification, and comparison of much information on societies that had not been studied. The problem with their theory was that it provided an ideal scientific framework for the racial taxonomies that had been developing since the eighteenth century and had become particularly influential. In restrospect, the definition of particular racial groups as “inferior” seems a self-serving, even naïve, attempt to justify not only European colonialism but also the more specifically exploitative institution of slavery. Yet, by perfectly dovetailing with evolutionist theory, it led to the constitution of a very convincing historical model at the time of its formulation.

Fighting such a model, with all of its undemocratic implications, became Boas’s life mission; the 1911 publication of The Mind of Primitive Man marked the first step in a process of popular dissemination of Boas’s ideas that was to have long-range impacts on Western intellectual life. The title of the book is not very representative of its content; the title of the German edition, Kultur und Rasse (culture and race), published in 1914, is more apt but fails to give a complete picture of the range of subjects treated in this classic. Boas does not discuss only preliterate mentality or the concepts of race and culture; he also discusses the concept of heredity, the importance of adopting a historicist and holistic method in anthropological studies, the correlation between psychology and culture, and the relationships among race, culture, and language.

Boas’s ideas, developed over several decades of research and reflection, laid the conceptual foundations of modern cultural anthropology. These ideas evolved from an experience Boas had in 1883. Born and educated in Germany, he developed an interest in the natural sciences and, after obtaining a doctorate in physics, set out to do some geographic research on Baffin Island, in the Arctic. There he had his first encounter with the “primitive” Eskimo, and this experience led him toward a career in anthropology. What struck him about the Eskimo was the complexity and beauty of their customs; one finds many expressions of genuine empathy for Eskimo culture in his diary, with frequent questions about the supposed superiority of Western “civilized” people.

Boas’s belief in the need to understand any culture on its own terms was further confirmed through field research he conducted with the Kwakiutl and other Native American groups inhabiting the Pacific Northwest coast. By 1887, when he decided to leave his native Germany to live in the United States, many of his distinctive views of culture had matured, and he was prepared to disseminate them. In 1899, he accepted a professorship in anthropology at Columbia University and began to attract a large number of gifted students who became instrumental in imbuing American anthropology with his ideas.

Franz Boas.

(Library of Congress)

The most controversial views that Boas expressed in his book concerned race. Racial indeterminism Boas’s arguments ran completely against the grain of the racial determinism implicit in social evolutionary theory (this later became the specific cause of the violent Nazi ostracism of Boas’s work), but they were not easy to dismiss. After reviewing the evidence derived from his analysis of hereditary processes, from general studies of physical anthropology, and particularly from his statistical approach to the description of bodily types, Boas presented clear conclusions. Racial purity simply does not exist, and, because of human plasticity, it is impossible to prove a strict connection between race and the genotypical or phenotypical characteristics of individuals; in particular, there is no provable correlation between race and intelligence or personality.

One of the immediate consequences of Boas’s racial indeterminism was the conviction that, as genetic endowment cannot explain cultural differentiations, these can be understood only as results of the historical development of cultural traits within a particular culture. By so arguing, Boas introduced a fundamental shift in the meaning given to the word “culture” by evolutionist anthropologists. Rather than labeling civilization in a general way, “culture” for Boas came to mean the specific heritage of a particular social group, which must be understood only within its own historical context. As a consequence, he emphasized holism and historicism in the study of cultures; also, he propounded the concept of “cultural relativism,” Cultural relativism a concept still central in contemporary anthropology.

Boas argued that researchers studying languages should adopt a holistic approach, exploring the characteristics of a language for their intrinsic relevance rather than through an artificial comparison with Western linguistic categories. Furthermore, Boas pointed out that language is an expression of culture, and thus its study can provide insights into culture. At the same time, culture is itself a system of symbolic significance, and cultural understanding can shed light on the cognitive processes that become expressed in a particular linguistic system.

Finally, in presenting his views on the correlation between culture and personality, Boas insisted that humankind shares psychic unity. That is, whereas the evolutionists proclaimed the existence of a qualitative difference between the way of thinking of primitive man and that of civilized Western society, Boas believed that differences are produced only by the specific needs and objectives of cultures. He asserted that there are no mental notions that primitive people cannot possibly attain as primitives; if members of a certain culture do not seem to pursue some mental operations, then those operations are not necessary or desirable within that culture. If the necessity should arise, the mental operations will also appear.


The Mind of Primitive Man is a slight book (even the revised edition, published in 1938, is not very long), yet its general impact has been remarkable. The book became a popular target of people committed to theses of racial superiority; its German edition was one of the titles selected for the Nazi book burning of May 10, 1933. Also, over the years the book has intermittently attracted the scorn of anthropologists who use it as an example of Boas’s theoretical vagueness, of the inadequacy of his methodological arguments, or of the inherent contradiction of some of his approaches to the study of culture.

Many of Boas’s disciples built on his ideas in ways that took them away from his original positions. For example, one of Boas’s early students, Edward Sapir, Sapir, Edward proposed that certain basic aspects of culture—such as language—fundamentally affect the way individuals perceive the world, so that in the long run culture itself is determined by those aspects. Other students, including Ruth Benedict Benedict, Ruth and Margaret Mead, Mead, Margaret combined Boas’s ideas on the correlations between culture and personality with the basic Freudian tenets on personality development and defined specific cultures on the basis of the types of “temperaments” characterizing them. Although it is generally accepted that Boas was the founder of American anthropology, it is also evident that his influence did not lead to a theoretically homogeneous tradition of research. This was not the result of the incompleteness of his theory; rather, it stemmed from the desire of many of Boas’s students to find answers for questions he had specifically chosen to leave unanswered.

Boas did not devote much discussion to theory building, but his books, including The Mind of Primitive Man, do offer clear theoretical statements. Boas believed that to make anthropology into a science, it was more important to insist on stringent adherence to a particular research method than to establish a particular theory. He also believed that good theory could be built only after adequate amounts of empirical data were collected; therefore, he constantly gave priority to research over analysis.

Finally, and most important, many of the conceptual innovations Boas presented in The Mind of Primitive Man are now so taken for granted that their originality is not fully appreciated. It is now generally accepted that culture is learned, adaptive behavior, quite independent from all other variables such as physical traits, heredity, and geography. Because there is no predetermined process whereby cultural similarities or differences may be interpreted, the enfolding of developmental stages is rarely contested. Furthermore, by pointing to the plural reality of cultures and to the necessity of documenting cultural diversity from the inside, through direct participation, and with an eye to the internal organization and historical development of cultural patterns, Boas established the fundamental research procedures of a discipline that has acquired increasing relevance in the contemporary world.

Whenever the cultural characteristics of particular national or ethnic groups are discussed, whenever race as a determinant of cultural traits is discounted, and whenever the importance of relativism in cross-cultural understanding is mentioned, quintessential Boasian concepts are being utilized. These concepts have transformed society’s view of human diversity in a fundamental way. Mind of Primitive Man, The (Boas)
Cultural anthropology

Further Reading

  • Boas, Franz. Race, Language, and Culture. 1940. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. A selection of scientific papers that Boas collected for publication two years before his death. Provides an excellent overview of the great range of his interests and of the way his anthropological ideas developed over time.
  • Bohannan, Paul, and Mark Glazer, eds. High Points in Anthropology. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. An excellent collection of anthropological readings. Offers a sample of the ideas of most of the recognized masters in the discipline, including Tylor and Boas. The chronological arrangement of the articles and informative introductions produce a history of anthropology through its classic works.
  • Cole, Douglas. Franz Boas: The Early Years, 1858-1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. A personal and intellectual biography covering Boas’s early life and career. Draws on his correspondence with family members in examining his childhood, schooling, and marriage as well as his early studies of the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter, ed. The Anthropology of Franz Boas. Menasha, Wis.: American Anthropological Association, 1959. An excellent collection of papers assessing Boas’s legacy on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Of particular interest are the articles by Leslie Spier, Margaret Mead, and Marian Smith.
  • Herskovits, Melville J. Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making. 1953. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1973. The standard intellectual biography of Boas by one of his students who maintained a close affiliation with Boas’s original conceptual approach.
  • Kroeber, A. L., et al. Franz Boas, 1858-1942. Menasha, Wis.: American Anthropological Association, 1943. A collection of articles written on the occasion of Boas’s death by his students and associates. Contains the definitive bibliography of Boas’s published writings.
  • Lesser, Alexander. “Franz Boas.” In Totems and Teachers: Key Figures in the History of Anthropology, edited by Sydel Silverman. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2003. A passionate account, written by one of Boas’s students, of the role Boas played in the establishment of anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States. Gives special attention to Boas’s activities as a “citizen scientist,” fighting for peace, democracy, and racial equality.
  • Stocking, George W., Jr. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. 1968. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. A very influential series of essays by the foremost historian of American anthropology. Presents the controversial view that most of Boas’s students—even those who apparently moved farthest from his original ideas—expanded only on themes that were implicit in Boas’s writings.

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