The Growth of Children, 1892
The Mind of Primitive Man, 1911, revised 1938
Primitive Art, 1927
Anthropology and Modern Life, 1928
Race, Language, and Culture, 1940
General Anthropology, 1938.
Franz Boas (BOH-as), often called with much justice the dean of American anthropology, was born in Westphalia in 1858 and studied at the University of Heidelberg from 1877 to 1881. He earned a Ph.D. in geography, writing his dissertation on the “Contributions to the Understanding of Water.” Boas was himself later responsible for many contributions to the understanding of anthropology and ethnography. He spent the year following his graduation living with and studying Eskimos in Baffin Land. This was the first expedition in what was to be the hallmark of Boas’s approach to anthropology: the study of native or primitive cultures in their natural habitations. Boas stressed the importance of noncomparative study. He was appointed assistant to the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin and docent in geography as well, but he left Germany in 1886 for British Columbia to study American Indians for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The rest of Boas’s life was to be spent in North America, largely in the study of Indians there, most specifically the Kwakiutl tribe of Vancouver Island, whose language and customs he chronicled and analyzed in scores of publications. He served as docent in anthropology at Clark University (1888-1892) and as chief assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the Chicago Exposition (1892-1895). In 1896, Boas went to Columbia University, where he remained with growing distinction until his death in 1942, becoming Columbia’s first professor of anthropology in 1899 and professor emeritus in 1936. Columbia University was also the first American university to establish a department of anthropology, founded by Boas.
Boas’s influence on American anthropology was immense. A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Underhill, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir are a few of the better-known students of Boas. These people, after studying with him, went on to make their own marks on the field of anthropology. Boas encouraged his students to approach the study of ethnology objectively. He studied the customs, languages, and artifacts of various subcultures because these elements of culture are all parts of the cultural whole. Boas believed that by looking at the distribution of these customs even within neighboring cultures, the ethnologist can develop a more complete ethnography. He wanted to replace the comparative method of study, which he believed to be an unfair paradigm. He urged his pupils to overcome their European prejudices about “primitive” peoples and study them as different from, but no less significant than, so-called advanced civilizations. Boas promoted cultural relativism in response to his dislike of the comparative method. Cultural relativism suggests that all cultures are equal and that it is impossible to order cultures on evolutionary scales. In his book The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas suggests that using evolutionary models in the study of human culture is dangerous because it implies cultural inferiority. For example, if the ethnologist is to compare the culture of so-called primitives to his or her own culture, the ethnologist is assuming cultural superiority. Boas was the first anthropologist to develop and practice a nonracist approach to the study of culture.
In the same manner, Boas argued against biological determinism, which in effect claimed that people act as they do for biological reasons and implied that cultural actions are genetic. He offered historical “possibilism” in its place, in which the ethnologist studies environmental elements of cultures to determine the motivations for cultural actions. His influence upon linguistic anthropology has been, if anything, more marked than that of his general contribution. “We are all students of Boas in one sense or another,” Edward Bloomfield, a linguist, wrote. Boas insisted upon the objective study of native language in its living context and worked arduously at developing procedures for comparing the structural elements of various native tongues in an effort to develop a general science of linguistics. His work in this field inspired Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and numerous others whose work revolutionized the study of language–again by leaving behind prejudices that favor Indo-European languages and studying the languages of other cultures, each sui generis.
Boas married A. E. Krackowizer in 1887. She died in an automobile accident in 1929. He was editor for the American Folklore Society for seventeen years and its president in 1931. His scientific work about the much-disputed subject of race led to his condemnation by Nazi Germany in the 1940’s, when Adolf Hitler’s regime revoked his German degrees and burned his books.