Franz Boas was born in Germany, where he earned a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Kiel. Even though his background was in the natural sciences, Boas developed a deep interest in the history of culture, which prompted him to take part in a scientific expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic. This journey eventually solidified his reputation as an influential anthropologist in the United States. A generation of Boas's students included Alfred Luis Kroeber (1876–1960), Edward Sapir (1884–1939), and Ruth Fulton Benedict (1887–1948). Boas and his students used the anthropological method to explore the intellectual challenges of the day, most notably racial differences in terms of differing cultural traditions—which was an opposing view to the march of evolutionary progress—as well as patterns of culture, which called into the question the idea of the superiority of civilization over primitivism. These ideas valued “the people” over “the elite.”
After his trip to Baffin Island, Boas became fascinated by Inuit culture and dedicated his life to the study of anthropology. He was engaged at the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin (Museum für Völkerkunde) and at the University of Berlin. Boas was at first an outsider, however, within the evolutionarily oriented discipline of American anthropology, because of his broad view on the complexity of culture. Boas eventually played a crucial role in developing the frameworks used in modern American anthropology and has received both credit and criticism as a result.
Boas moved anthropology beyond the comparative method of evolutionism and racial typology. His famous work, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), underscored the need for a better understanding of racial differences in terms of differing cultural traditions. Boas proved that thought, choice, and action, whether primitive or civilized, were largely determined by the body of custom and traditional material that arose through the enculturative process. For this reason, primitive men had all the characteristic human mental powers. In other words, Boas rejected traditional racial assumptions, widely held in American society, about racial achievement. He posited that no racial group was inherently inferior or superior. Boas's views on race and culture went beyond mere academic debate because the discourse of civilization enforced color-line politics in American society by asserting control over different, supposedly inferior, races. Boas's book was referred as the “Magna Charta of self-respect for lower races” (Baker 42 ).
According to Boas, scientific approaches completely disproved notions of race and culture that were based on ideological investments in the superiority of one's own race. Thus, Boas conceived the relativity of standards of valuation to validate a new method of inquiry whereby physical, environmental, and historical factors could be utilized to investigate human behavior. Boas negated traditional generalizations on primitive mentality on the basis of his own experiences in field work, thereby facilitating the role of research in anthropology. Boas perceived his work as presenting a more plausible view of primitive cultures because they involved the rejection of ethnocentric standards of culture.
Currently, Franz Boas's ideas are still inspiring public discourse. Anthropologist Lee D. Baker notices that “as we move into 21st century, Franz Boas remains the scholar hard-core nativists and white supremacists love to hate” (46). According to Baker, there is a striking parallel between attacks on Boas in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries because Boas's legacy remains “a threatening body of work for those vested in white supremacy” (Baker 46 ). Due to Boas's influence, social scientists have begun to perceive race as a cultural construct. What made Boas's theories revolutionary is that currently one sees differences among cultures as a result of historical events and circumstances and not from physically determined factors. Boas died in New York City, New York, on December 21, 1942.
See also: “The Elites” ; Gilded Age ; “The People” ; Social Darwinism
Baker, Lee D. “Franz Boas Out of the Ivory Tower.” Anthropological Theory 4 (1): 29–51.
Barkan, Elazar. “Mobilizing Scientists against Nazi Racism, 1933–1939.” In George W. Stocking, ed. Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pp. 180–205.
Boas, Franz. Anthropology and Modern Life. 1928. Reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1962.
Boas, Franz. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Macmillan Co., 1911.
Boas, Franz. Race and Democratic Society. New York: J. J. Austin, 1945.
Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture. New York: Macmillan Co., 1940.
Darnell, Regna. “Re-envisioning Boas and Boasian Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 102 (4): 896–900.
Stocking, George W. “Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective.” American Anthropologist 68 (4): 867–82.