About Franz Boas
Born in Minden, Germany, on July 8, 1858, the anthropologist Franz Boas was the
son of the merchant Meier Boas and his wife, Sophie Meyer. Raised in the radical
and tradition of German Judaism, Franz's youth was steeped in politically liberal
beliefs and a largely secular outlook that he carried with him from university
through his emigration to the United States.
At the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn, Boas studied physics and geography
before completing a doctorate in physical geography at Kiel in 1881. Intending on
testing then-current theories of environmental determinism, he signed on to an
anthropological expedition to Baffin Island in 1883-1884, expecting that he would
document the close adaptive fit of Central Eskimo cultures to their extreme
climate. His experiences in the arctic, however, led him to the contrary conclusion:
that social traditions, not environmental, exerted a dominant influence over human
societies, and from this point onward, he was led to pursue the cultural over than
physical dimensions of humanity.
Although he returned to Berlin after the expedition, Boas emigrated to the United
States in 1885 to assume an editorial position with the journal Science, hoping to
use it as a stepping-stone to an academic appointment. In 1886, he embarked upon
a second major field excursion into what would become his most famous
ethnographic project, working among the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) Indians of
the Northwest Coast, after which he secured his first academic position in 1889, at
Clark University in Worcester, Mass. After three years at Clark and a failed
appointment at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1892 (during which he played a
part in organizing the anthropological exhibits for the Columbian World's Fair),
Boas moved to New York City.
The restless activity of Boas's early years slowed in New York. Hired by the
American Museum of Natural History (1895-1905), which became the recipient of
the amazingly rich anthropological collections he accumulated on the Northwest
Coast, Boas began to teach classes at Columbia University in 1896, where three
years later he was appointed Professor of Anthropology. For the next 37 years,
Boas ruled the anthropological roost at Columbia, accruing unprecedented power
in his discipline, wielding grants, recommendations, and appointments with
remarkable dexterity, and collecting about him a remarkable group of younger
scholars as students and colleagues.
Distancing himself from some of the main currents of contemporary
anthropological thought in the United States, and particularly from the evolutionist
assumptions that riddled the discipline, Boas championed an anthropology that
viewed human cultures as shaped more by historical "tradition" than biological
propensity. Claiming to resist any overarching, synthetic theories of human
relations, and particularly evolutionary theories of sociocultural development, Boas
laid the theoretical groundwork for what became modern cultural relativism. In the
process, he helped to clarify the demarcation between the concepts of culture and
race and its expression in the divergence of the four fields in anthropology --
linguistics, ethnography, physical anthropology, and archaeology.
Boas's relatively few forays into physical anthropology included a pioneering
anthropometric study in 1910-1911, demonstrating that the alleged mental and
physical inferiority of immigrants disappeared statistically by the second
generation. Opposed to immigration quotas and disdainful of the claims to science
used to justify them, Boas was a consistent, strident opponent of racial determinism
in intellect or behaviour. A committed, politically active Socialist, he was
frequently an outspoken critic of American policy. During the First World War, he
spoke out against the treatment of German Americans and "enemy aliens" -- to the
point of putting himself at risk -- and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany proved
an even greater crusade. Despite his age, Boas took an active role in the anti-fascist
struggle in the United States and was involved with numerous committees to assist
refugee scholars. He was equally ardent in his efforts to criticize racial and ethnic
bigotry in the United States.
As a mentor, Boas had a reputation of being directive, at times overbearing, and at
the same time of doing too little to prepare his students for the rigours of fieldwork.
The extraordinary number of students coming out of Columbia under his care,
however, has arguably done as much to extend the Boasian approach than Boas's
own writing. Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, Alfred Kroeber,
Frank Speck, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Deloria, Melville
Herskovits, Leslie Spier, Paul Radin, and Ashley Montagu are all students of Boas.
Many continued in the same intellectual stream, some diverged, yet all bore traces
of Boas's influence. He left a mark as well on the institutions of the discipline, as
one of the founders of the American Anthropological Association and of
the International Journal of American Linguistics.