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Franz Boas was the pre-eminent early-twentieth-century American anthropologist who oriented anthropology toward the view that knowledge about race is a product of culture rather than biology. Known as “the father of American anthropology,” Boas trained a whole generation of influential anthropologists who spread this view both academically and publicly. As a result, his impact was widespread.


Boas was born in German Westphalia and attended the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, where in 1879 he earned a doctorate in physics and geography. The subject of his doctoral dissertation was the human perception of the color of water, launching his lifelong interest in the relationship between human science and natural science. Boas, a Jew, had another formative experience in Kiel, for it was there that he first encountered anti-Semitism, sustaining facial injuries in a scuffle with anti-Semitic students. Later, Boas made anthropology into a science that combated racism and other forms of cultural intolerance.

Boas continued his studies at the University of Berlin, where he came under the influence of the historical geographer Adolf Bastian (1826–1905) and the biological anthropologist Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902). From Bastian he learned about the “psychic unity of mankind,” the precept that all human populations have the same mental capacity, with their differing cultural achievements caused by local history and geography. From Virchow, a rigorous empiricist, he learned to anchor biological generalizations with facts while mastering techniques for measuring differences in human body form.

In 1883, Boas undertook a year-long expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to study the Eskimo perception of sea water. The historian of anthropology George W. Stocking Jr. has shown how this experience converted Boas from physics and geography to anthropology, and particularly to ethnography, or anthropological fieldwork. Boas returned to Germany briefly to work for Adolf Bastian at the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnology). He then returned to Canada on the first of many trips to the Pacific Northwest to study the Bella Coola and the Kwakiutl Indians of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Upon completing the first phase of this fieldwork, he decided to settle in the United States.

After working briefly in New York City, Boas joined the faculty of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924), the president of Clark, envisioned the university as a major center for graduate research, but his vision failed to take hold, and in 1892 Boas joined other faculty members in relocating elsewhere. Along with several of these individuals, Boas relocated to Chicago, where he ended up helping the anthropologist Frederic Ward Putnam (1839–1915) prepare exhibits for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. After the Exposition, Boas supervised the transfer of the exhibits to the new Field Columbian Museum, where he expected to become head of the anthropology division. A clash of personalities, however, led to his resignation. He then returned to New York, where in 1895 he became curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. He also continued his fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest, spearheading an ambitious project of the museum’s president, Morris K. Jesup (1830–1908), called the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. At the same time, he began nurturing a relationship between the museum and Columbia University, but administrative conflict thwarted his efforts, and in 1905 he resigned and moved to Columbia full-time. Columbia became his base of operations for almost four decades, during which time it was the major center for academic anthropology in the United States.


When Boas moved to Columbia, American anthropology was operating within a nineteenth-century theoretical legacy that, in retrospect, appears conspicuously racist. In cultural anthropology, the reigning paradigm was cultural evolutionism, a scheme that ranked human populations along a continuum from primitive to civilized and regarded less-than-civilized populations as stunted. In the United States, the foremost cultural evolutionist was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), whose tripartite (or three-part) scheme of savagery/barbarism/civilization implied that the civilized state was superior. Using this scheme to reconstruct prehistory, with archaeological evidence being so limited, anthropologists relied on ethnographic descriptions of living primitive populations to represent past primitive populations. Boas objected strenuously to this logic, known as the comparative method, and in 1896 he published an influential critique of it, showing it to be excessively speculative and blind to the effects of cultural borrowing (or diffusion) rather than parallel evolution in explaining cultural similarities. Every culture with the bow and arrow, for example, need not have evolved it in parallel. One culture might have borrowed it from another culture. These efforts helped overturn the concept that contemporary primitive people were essentially living in the Stone Age. The counter argument was that primitive people, while still primitive, had nonetheless changed over time.

In biological anthropology, the nineteenth-century legacy appears even more racist. At midcentury, biological anthropologists were arguing about the origin of races. The two major camps were monogenists and polygenists. Monogenists argued that human races shared an ancient common origin and then diversified, but that they remained a single biological species. Polygenists countered by arguing that human races had recent separate origins, remained unchanged, and constituted separate biological species. The polygenists were ascendant at this time, especially in the United States, where the anthropologist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) and his followers measured skulls of different races, concluding that the skulls and (in life) the enclosed brains of different races varied in size, and that therefore the races varied in mental capacity. In the period leading up to the American Civil War, Morton’s views found favor among supporters of the institution of racial slavery. After the War, however, hard-nosed polygenism abated because of Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of biological evolution, published in Origin of Species (1859), which showed that all biological populations are interrelated and changing. Still, many anthropologists failed to accept or fully understand Darwin’s theory, and hereditarian views about race persisted. In 1896, the year Boas critiqued the comparative method, the anthropologist Daniel G. Brinton (1837–1899), in his presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, pronounced, “The black, the brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white, especially in their splanchnic [visceral] organs, that even with equal cerebral capacity, they could never rival its results by equal efforts” (Harris 1968, p. 256).

Boas recognized that the scientific fallacy of pronouncements such as Brinton’s lay in the confusion of race, language, and culture. He had spent the equivalent of a number of years living among Pacific Coast Indians, learning their language and culture, and while working for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition he had begun a comprehensive study of the racial, or physical, characteristics of aboriginal North Americans. He knew from these experiences that correlation does not necessarily imply cause; that is, just because a population with particular racial characteristics speaks a particular language and practices a particular culture, the language and culture are not necessarily caused by the racial characteristics. In fact, race, language, and culture are independent, each capable of changing without changing the others. Proof of this assertion was Boas himself, who remained racially white while learning how to speak the Kwakiutl language and participate in Kwakiutl culture. To right the scientific wrong of racial determinism, Boas wrote The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), a watershed book that helped pave the way for the modern understanding of race as a cultural construct. A similar understanding characterized his later book, Race, Language, and Culture (1940).

Boas’s early years at Columbia coincided with great public debate in the United States about the alleged deleterious (or subtle harmful) effects of an influx of eastern and southern European immigrants. Between 1908 and 1910, he conducted a massive study for the United States Immigration Commission, in which he measured the heads of more than 17,000 European immigrants and their American-born children. For decades, going back to the heyday of polygenism, anthropologists had treated the ratio of head length and breath, called the cephalic index, as a fixed mark of racial ancestry. Boas’s statistical study, published in 1911 as Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants , proved otherwise. In just one generation, the cephalic index of immigrants had changed in response to the American environment, presumably to better diet and health. Since then, however, some anthropologists have statistically reevaluated Boas’s study and questioned the magnitude of its reported change. Nevertheless, the study remains a landmark demonstration of how racial characteristics can change rapidly in response to the environment.


Boas’s influence on American anthropology has been far-reaching. He was a founding member and president of the American Anthropological Association, as well as president of the New York Academy of Science, the American Folklore Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He supervised the journal American Anthropologist , wrote several books, and published more than seven hundred scholarly articles. He exerted his greatest influence, however, through the students he trained at Columbia University.

At Columbia, Boas was a powerful professor who attracted students with his message that, in the words of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, “anthropology mattered.” It mattered because it demonstrated the twin principles of cultural determinism and cultural relativism. Cultural determinism taught that nurture, not nature, was responsible for the overwhelming array of ethnographically observed cultural similarities and differences. Cultural relativism, meanwhile, taught that one culture should not be judged by the standards of another culture. Together, these two principles showed that racism and ethnocentrism were wrong.

Between 1901 and 1928, twenty students earned their doctoral degrees under Boas. Among them were Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), Alexander Goldenweiser (1880–1940), Melville Herskovits (1895–1963), Alfred Kroeber (1876–1960), Robert Lowie (1883–1957), Margaret Mead (1901–1978), Paul Radin (1883–1959), and Edward Sapir (1884–1939). Kroeber and Lowie helped establish anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley; Sapir, at the University of Chicago; and Herskovits, at Northwestern University. As a result, the Boasian view became academically entrenched in the American Midwest, and on its East and West Coasts.

Boasian anthropologists explored and promoted the importance of culture in a variety of ways. Goldenweiser, Herskovits, Lowie, and Radin wrote insightful ethnographies with African-American and Native American settings. Radin pioneered the life history approach with Crashing Thunder: The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1926), and Herskovits wrote the first biography of Boas, Franz Boas: The Science of Man in the Making (1953). On a more theoretical level, Sapir, in collaboration with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941), demonstrated the power of language to shape categories of thought, including, in principle, thoughts about race. Kroeber and Benedict developed the idea of cultural configuration, or ethos, which they used to characterize cultures and urge respect for behavior that might otherwise appear inexplicable or odd. In Patterns of Culture (1934), an all-time anthropology best-seller, Benedict vividly portrayed three cultures with different standards of normalcy and deviance.

Boas also influenced his most famous student, Margaret Mead. At the time, he thought that much of psychology, especially the psychology of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), overemphasized biology as a contributor to personality development. In particular, he objected to Freud’s assertion that adolescence is necessarily a period of psychological turmoil. Boas urged Mead to conduct her doctoral dissertation research in American Samoa, where she might find that adolescence unfolded differently than it did in the United States. After spending time in Samoa, Mead found just that. In the book based on her research, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she argued that a sexually permissive upbringing allowed Samoan girls to experience adolescence smoothly. Mead followed up this book with others in which she described cultural variation in the behavior of women and men. She went on to become widely known in the United States as an advocate of cultural understanding and tolerance. In 1983, however, the anthropologist Derek Freeman (1916–2001) published a critical account of Mead’s Samoan fieldwork in his book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth . He argued that Mead was overly zealous in trying to prove Boas’s claim for the power of culture over biology. Freeman’s account touched off a major debate within anthropology about whether Boas’s cultural determinism was ideological as well as scientific.

During World War II, some of Boas’s students worked actively in Washington, D.C. to help the United States defeat Germany and the racist ideology of Nazism. On December 21, 1942, Boas was having lunch at Columbia University with the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) when suddenly he slumped over and died. Lévi-Strauss observed later that he had witnessed the death of an intellectual giant and the end of an anthropological era.

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