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Franz Boas

Franz BoasBorn: 9-Jul-1858
Birthplace: Minden, Germany
Died: 22-Dec-1942
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Dale Cemetery, Ossining, NY

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Anthropologist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Father of American Anthropology

Franz Boas is considered both the founder of modern anthropology as well as the father of American Anthropology. It was Boas who gave modern anthropology its rigorous scientific methodology, patterned after the natural sciences, and it was Boas who originated the notion of "culture" as learned behaviors. His emphasis on research first, followed by generalizations, stood in marked contrast to the British school of anthropology which emphasized the creation of grand theories (which were only after tested through field work). As a teacher, principally at Columbia University, he served as mentor to many of the top names in American anthropology, including such luminaries as Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Robert Lowie, and Edward Sapir. Many of these went on to found, or profoundly influence, departments of anthropology at other universities. Boas further extended his influence through such important works as The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), and Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966).

Franz Boas was born in Minden, Germany on July 9, 1858. His liberal Jewish parents' held a disdain for dogma, religious or otherwise. And as a result Boas was allowed to think for himself and pursue his own interests unhindered. He was attracted to nature and to the natural sciences at an early age, collecting specimens such as minerals and seashells. As an older youth in gymnasium he engaged in more structured studies and experiments, in his free time assembling and studying the skeletons of various small animals.

His subsequent university education was eclectic, with stints at Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, as he delved into mathematics, physics, as well as geography. He earned his Ph.D. in geography in 1881, at Kiel. He planned and undertook a geographic expedition to the arctic (1883-84). Yet once there, he became fascinated the people, with their appearance, their language, and of course their way of life and traditions. After returning from his journey he decided to make anthropology his life work.

Although serious work was being done in anthropology at the time, the field was heavily peopled with untrained adventurers and armchair philosophers. Racial bias and bigotry was rampant, and the gathering of information was sometimes haphazard and riddled with an assortment of bias. It was common practice to use small scraps of information, or preconceived pet theories, to further prognosticate on the "nature of man." Grand sweeping theories were devised and only after was research done, for the purpose of proving or disproving.

What Boas brought to the field was the methodology of the natural sciences and the belief that one could formulate theories and conclusions only after thorough and rigorous collection and examination of hard evidence. With this approach, careful observation eventually yielded insights, which could themselves be tested for accuracy through restudy. Above all, he taught that theories should be treated as works in progress, until proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. The scientist, he believed, should always remain critical of his own work, alert to ways that sloppiness or bias might have skewed the results.

Because he was so grounded the natural sciences, Boas was aware that what differentiated the study of humankind from geography or zoology was the study of "culture." But culture to Boas was not simply another synonym for "civilization" (i.e. art, technology, and lofty ideas). And unlike many of his predecessors he did not see culture as predestined to some kind of linear progression, onward and upward, until it resulted in the equivalent of civilized European society. He also rejected the corollary prejudice that those who hadn't "arrived", or whose society differed from civilized European society, were simply inferior members of the human species.

In fact Boas rejected all such orthogenesis. Instead he stuck to Charles Darwin's own conception of evolution: that change occurred in response to current pressures and opportunities. And, that the path such change took varied in a multitude of ways. There was no one "right" way. When Darwin surveyed the Galapagos, he did not deem the one variation of a species superior to another simply because it was larger or its markings more elaborate. Rather, he saw them all simply as unique adaptations to their own particular circumstances. And this was precisely how Boas viewed various societies. Each was a unique adaptation to a unique and particular set of circumstances. When Boas applied this to anthropology he introduced the principle of "cultural relativism". The idea that each culture was the product of a unique and particular history, and not merely generated by race and environment, was another important contribution by Boas.

He further helped develop the basic methodology that underlies modern anthropological research. Boas felt that one could only begin to understand a culture by taking on a complete survey of its mythology and tribal lore, religion, social taboos, marriage customs, physical appearance, diet, handicrafts, means of obtaining food, and so on. As the burden of the task of studying culture grew, and and other parts of anthropology became also more complex and embellished, anthropology became divided into a four-fold profession: human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture. The new standards as applied to cultural anthropology required that ethnographers go on location, learn the language, and undertake an intense survey that catalogued all the elements mentioned above as well as whatever other unique feature that were apparent. Above all, anthropologists must follow rigorous scientific standards and put truth and ethical behavior first.

Boas did not limit his outspoken opinion merely to methods of doing anthropology, but on social and political matters as well. He strongly believed that all the greatest advancements to scientific knowledge were worth very little if one did not also work to better society, to improve the lot of one's fellow man. He left Germany as a young man because he knew, with the rising climate of repression, that he would not be allowed to dabble in social and political matters, while still holding an academic post. Yet he was disgusted by the rising tide of nationalism within his homeland, the arrogant derision of all that was not German. And he sensed that, in general, the freedom to voice one's own opinions would soon be lost, and the downward spiral into violence and bloodshed would quickly follow.

In 1887 he emigrated to the United States. He married, and he later obtained citizenship. He became a vocal opponent of racism and prejudice in all forms, including that against people of color. Boas has been credited as the first scientist to publish that the White and the Negro were fundamentally equal, just as were all people. He actively lent his support to African American organizations. As an anthropologist he sought to use science, including his studies of tribal peoples, to seek out and document the truth about the significance of race. It was, in addition, his hope that people could learn to be tolerant of difference, and to see so-called primitives not as inferior or less developed, but as a source of diversity that had new ideas to offer.

Many of his students rallied to this cause. But not everyone liked what Boas had to say. The fact that he was of Jewish descent, and a German immigrant did not help his popularity. During the powerful anti-German backlash brought on by World War I, Boas spoke out against the banning of German culture and language. He argued that is was irrational to ban the playing of Bach, for example, simply because one hated the Kaiser. Meanwhile an administrator at Columbia University set spies to work, to ferret out instructors with pro-German sentiments. Boas got wind of this and retaliated by writing a full-length statement of his views and handing out copies to all his students.

But while he felt scientists should be allowed a political stance, he was staunchly against any political activity that compromised scientific integrity. He had a letter published in The Nation that criticized scientists who use their fieldwork as a cover for spying, decrying it as unscrupulous and dishonest, and arguing that it could also bring suspicion and harm in the future to others who do fieldwork. He may have been right, but many other anthropologists were outraged that he would make such a remark so publicly, thereby putting other anthropologists presently out in the field (not merely actual spies) in very real and imminent danger. This act of impassioned imprudence harmed his reputation, damaged his clout at Columbia and in the larger anthropological community as well.

Yet he also made a number of friends as well through his later efforts, during World War II, to aid scientists fleeing the repression and violence of the Nazis. His principal role was to help these individuals find a place to go, and to find a suitable position once they had arrived. He was engaged in this very activity at the time of his death. In the midst of a speech about racial issues, at a luncheon for refugee Paul Rivet, Boas collapsed and, still clasped in the arms of colleague Claude LÚvi-Strauss, he died.

Despite his political difficulties, the legacy that Boas left behind is extensive. It includes his own fieldwork among very indigenous groups, such as the Kwakiutl; the impressive theoretical and ethnological work accomplished by his key students; his introduction of the tenets of cultural relativism, historical particularity, scientific methods for field work, and indeed the very notion of culture around which so much of modern anthropology turns. It also includes his work relating to linguistic analysis and structure, his contributions to archaeology, and his introduction of rigorous statistical method to physical anthropology. Then there are his tireless efforts to end bigotry and oppression and to assist those gifted individuals whom such bigotry attempted to destroy. And finally, on top of all of this, Boas inspired multiple generations of anthropologists to study and record the vanishing cultures of so many tribal peoples, especially Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. This work has only gained in significance over time, as westernization and globalization continue to blot out more and more indigenous cultures, obliterating, perhaps forever, a multitude of unique ways of thinking and living -- in short eliminating a vast resource pool of human diversity. And yet for many, Franz Boas will be but dimly remembered, as the man who made a short silent movie about a tribe in Pacific Northwest, a quaint and somewhat comic figure poised among the Kwakiutl.

Father: M. Boas
Mother: Sophie Meyer
Wife: Marie Krackowizer

    University: University of Heidelberg
    University: University of Bonn
    University: PhD Physics and Geography, University of Kiel (1881)
    Professor: Clark University, Worcester, MA (1889-)
    Professor: Columbia University (1899-1942)

    Naturalized US Citizen



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