The German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) established the modern structure of anthropology and applied anthropological findings to problems in education, race relations, nationalism and internationalism, war and peace, and the struggle for democracy and intellectual freedom.
Anthropology in America was essentially preprofessional when Franz Boas began its study. The science was not established at any university; amateurs and semiprofessionals were active in it. Its subject matter comprised a miscellany of information about the evolution of man and his works; its theory was an accumulation of 19th-century speculations about race, geographical determinism, and unilinear (orthogenetic) cultural evolution.
Boas restructured anthropology in fundamental contributions on race (physical type) and human biology (growth); on linguistics (Native American languages); on cultures, in inductive field studies (Eskimo and Northwest Coast) and comparative studies; and on the aims, methods, and theory of the field. By 1911, when he published The Mind of Primitive Man, he provided anthropology with the framework used thereafter by most anthropologists and many other social scientists. The cultural anthropological principle that learning and habit (socialization rather than instinct and/or heredity) are the basis of human institutional behavior and its diversity in societies became fundamental in social sciences and social philosophy.
Boas was born in Minden, Germany, on July 9, 1858. He grew up in a home "where the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force" and where he "was spared," by parents who had given up their formal Jewish faith, "the struggle against religious dogma that besets the lives of so many young people."
Boas attended the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, completing his doctorate at Kiel in 1881. His principal dissertation was in physics; it involved him, however, in problems of psychophysics (forerunner of experimental psychology)—questions of human perception which became key problems of his later anthropological work.
Boas came to anthropology circuitously. He started his career as a geographer, and his first research—an expedition to Baffin Land (1883-1884)—was geographical. But with the ethnology he did on that expedition (published as The Central Eskimo, 1888) and the following museum year in Berlin with Adolph Bastian, an anthropogeographer-ethnographer, Boas made his choice. He studied anthropometry with Rudolf Virchow and started research on the Northwest Coast, in British Columbia, in 1885 as an anthropologist.
In 1887 Boas resigned his position as dozent in geography at the University of Berlin—which would have required by law a declaration of religious affiliation, unacceptable to him—married, and settled in New York. His first American position was assistant editor of Science (1887). On the Clark University faculty (1888-1892) he trained the first American to receive a doctorate in anthropology. He was chief assistant for anthropology of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-1893), organized its extensive ethnographical collections, and became the first curator for anthropology of the natural-history museum founded in Chicago (1894) to house the collection. For years he continued North Pacific Coast research, principally under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, thus beginning the focus on the Kwakiutl people which lasted for more than 40 years.
In 1895 Boas became assistant curator of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and was its curator from 1901 to 1905. There he initiated the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, a major research program on man in the Americas. In 1896 he joined Columbia University as lecturer in physical anthropology and in 1899 became professor of anthropology, a post he held until retiring in 1936.
At Columbia, Boas became the most influential anthropologist of his time. He trained a generation of American anthropologists and founded or promoted major anthropological societies and journals, including the American Anthropological Association and its Anthropologist, the American Folk Lore Society and its Journal, the International Journal of American Linguistics, and the American Ethnological Society and its Publications. He carried out and promoted research on Afro-Americans, on race relations in Latin America, and on the Far East. As early as 1903, recognizing two great world areas of civilization, West and East, he attempted unsuccessfully to establish a United States Oriental institute. His publications include more than 30 books.
The Mind of Primitive Man, a collection of Boas's 1894-1911 studies, established general principles of modern anthropology. Race, language, and culture have essentially independent historical careers and are not "interchangeable" terms in the classification of man. The "race" concept, far from being objective natural description, involves subjective typological characterization and has to be reduced by statistical analysis to the study of populations and their composition in family lines. Neither race or physical type (inborn human traits) nor geographical conditions (external factors) explain or determine the diversities of human cultures. The complexities of actual cultural histories and the universal fact of cultural borrowing or diffusion made untenable theories from the 19th century that human cultures evolved in a unilinear, orthogenetic progression, with diversities explained as differences in stage of development.
These critiques established the autonomy of "cultures"—that cultural or behavioral communities and their institutions are the outcome of complex histories. Human behavior and the human mind, primitive or modern, are an expression of the cultural or behavioral contexts in which socialization occurs, the character of the traditional contextual material, and the extent to which tradition is open to question and change.
Field research among living cultures is inherent in Boas's conception of modern cultural anthropology, and he set standards by precept and example. The native's viewpoint, rather than the observer's, is essential. To secure it, the ethnologist should strive for close association with the native community, and he should record information in the native language when possible, train natives as informants, investigators, and recorders of their own culture, and learn to speak the native language. Boas practiced what he preached. He studied the Eskimo language before his Baffin Land expedition and became fluent in Kwakiutl on the Northwest Coast.
Boas led physical anthropology away from mere taxonomic classification into human biology. His Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (1911), proving that head form (cephalic index) is not a fixed hereditary trait but is affected by environmental change, ended its routine use in race classification and challenged other genetic assumptions of traditional taxonomy. The implied relation between environmental and cultural conditions and human biological development led Boas to pioneer in studies of human growth. In them he initiated longitudinal studies and established the fundamental concepts of tempo of growth and of physiological age. Race, Language, and Culture (1940) is a major collection of his papers.
Boas broke sharply with traditional philology in his Handbook of American Indian Languages (4 vols., 1911-1941). He used an inductive approach to derive the "inner form" of each language. His studies revealed a wider range of linguistic phenomena than had been thought to exist and opened new areas of study of the relations of language and thought. His work is the foundation of anthropological linguistics and its recent developments, both in structural linguistics and in the cross-cultural study of human cognition.
The Scientist as Citizen
As scientist and anthropologist, Boas accepted a moral obligation to spread scientific knowledge as widely as possible. He applied anthropology to public problems in Anthropology and Modern Life (1928) and Race and Democratic Society (1945) and in magazine articles. He exposed the fallacies of race prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism before and during the Nazi period and anti-Negroism at all times and places. He held that cultural anthropology impugns chauvinistic nationalism and affirms internationalism. He stood for academic freedom all his life. He fought Nazism by mobilizing more than 10,000 American scientists in the Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom (1938-1939).
Boas died on Dec. 21, 1942. He changed the understanding of human nature and human behavior by eliminating the predeterminism of instinct and heredity and making human institutions cultural, subject to human control for human ends.
Further Reading on Franz Boas
A basic work on Boas is Melville J. Herskovits, Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making (1953). Briefer discussions are in Helene Codere's introduction to Boas's Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966) and in Ruth L. Bunzel's introduction to his Anthropology and Modern Life (1962). For background information see Robert H. Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory (1937); Margaret Mead and Ruth L. Bunzel, eds., The Golden Age of American Anthropology (1960); Abram Kardiner and Edward Preble, They Studied Man (1961); and George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Hyatt, Marshall, Franz Boas, social activist: the dynamics of ethnicity, New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Williams, Vernon J., Rethinking race: Franz Boaz and his contemporaries, Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.