Franz Boas, Father of American Anthropology

Franz Boaz
Portrait of Franz Boas (1858-1942), American anthropologist, photographed in 1906. Bettmann / Getty Images

German-American anthropologist Franz Boas was one of the most influential social scientists of the early twentieth century, noted for his commitment to cultural relativism and as a staunch opponent of racist ideologies.

Boas was arguably the most innovative, active, and prodigiously productive of the first generation of anthropologists in the U.S. He is best known for his curatorial work at the American Museum of National History in New York and for his nearly four-decade career teaching anthropology at Columbia University, where he built the first anthropology program in the country and trained the first generation of anthropologists in the U.S. His graduate students went on to establish many of the first and most highly regarded anthropology programs in the country.

Fast Facts: Franz Boas

  • Born: July 9, 1858 in Minden, Germany
  • Died: December 22, 1942 in New York City, New York
  • Known For: Considered the "Father of American Anthropology"
  • Education: University of Heidelberg, University of Bonn, University of Kiel
  • Parents: Meier Boas and Sophie Meyer
  • Spouse: Marie Krackowizer Boas (m. 1861-1929)
  • Notable Publications: The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911), Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), Race, Language, and Culture (1940)
  • Interesting Facts: Boas was an outspoken opponent of racism, and used anthropology to refute the scientific racism that was popular during his time. His theory of cultural relativism held that all cultures were equal, but simply had to be understood in their own contexts and by their own terms.

Early Life

Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, in the German province of Westphalia. His family was Jewish but identified with liberal ideologies and encouraged independent thinking. From a young age, Boas was taught to value books and became interested in the natural sciences and culture. He followed his interests in his college and graduate studies, focusing primarily on the natural sciences and geography while attending the University of Heidelberg, the University of Bonn, and the University of Kiel, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in physics.

Research

In 1883, after a year of service in the military, Boas began field research in Inuit communities in Baffin Island, off the northern coast of Canada. This was the beginning of his shift toward studying people and culture, rather than the external or natural worlds, and would alter the course of his career.

Spirit Of The Earthquake
Spirit of the Earthquake, Nootka Mask, Pacific Norwest Coast American Indian. Possibly American Museum of Natural History. Acquisition Year: 1901. Heritage Images / Getty Images

In 1886, he began the first of many fieldwork trips to the Pacific Northwest. Contrary to dominant views during that era, Boas came to believe—in part through his fieldwork—that all societies were fundamentally equal. He disputed the claim that fundamental differences existed between societies that were deemed civilized versus "savage" or "primitive," according to the language of the time. For Boas, all human groups were fundamentally equal. They simply needed to be understood within their own cultural contexts.

Boas worked closely with the cultural exhibits of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago World's Fair, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas. It was a huge undertaking and many of the materials gathered by his research teams went on to form the basis of the collection for the Chicago Field Museum, where Boas worked briefly following the Columbian Exposition.

Eskimos At The World's Columbian Exposition
Eskimos At The World's Columbian Exposition, which Franz Boas helped create. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Following his time in Chicago, Boas moved to New York, where he became assistant curator and later curator at the American Museum of Natural History. While there, Boas championed the practice of presenting cultural artifacts in their context, rather than attempting to arrange them according to imagined evolutionary progress. Boas was an early proponent of using dioramas, or replicas of scenes from daily life, in museum settings. He was a leading figure in the research, development, and launch of the Museum's Northwest Coast Hall in 1890, which was one of the first museum exhibits on the life and culture of the indigenous people of North America. Boas continued to work at the Museum until 1905, when he turned his professional energies toward academia.

American Museum Of Natural History
Franz Boas was curator of the American Museum Of Natural History from 1896 to 1905. The New York Historical Society / Getty Images

Work in Anthropology

Boas became the first professor of anthropology at Columbia University in 1899, following three years as a lecturer in the field. He was instrumental in establishing the university's anthropology department, which became the first Ph.D. program in the discipline in the U.S.

Boas is often referred to as the "Father of American Anthropology" because, in his role at Columbia, he trained the first generation of U.S. scholars in the field. Famous anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were both his students, as was the writer Zora Neale Hurston. In addition, several of his graduate students went on to establish some of the first anthropology departments in universities across the country, including programs at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and beyond. The emergence of anthropology as an academic discipline in the U.S. connects closely to Boas' work and, in particular, his lasting legacy through his former students.

Boas was also a key figure in the founding and development of the American Anthropological Association, which remains the primary professional organization for anthropologists in the U.S.

Pacific Northwest Coast Indians
Chief's Blanket with Bear Design, Totemism,Tlingit Tribe, Pacific Northwest Coast Indians. Totemism is a system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or plant. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Main Theories and Ideas

Boas is well known for his theory of cultural relativism, which held that all cultures were essentially equal but simply had to be understood in their own terms. Comparing two cultures was tantamount to comparing apples and oranges; they were fundamentally different and had to be approached as such. This marked a decisive break with the evolutionary thinking of the period, which attempted to organize cultures and cultural artifacts by an imagined level of progress. For Boas, no culture was more or less developed or advanced than any other. They were simply different.

Along similar lines, Boas denounced the belief that different racial or ethnic groups were more advanced than others. He opposed scientific racism, a dominant school of thought at that time. Scientific racism held that race was a biological, rather than cultural, concept and that racial differences could thus be attributed to underlying biology. While such ideas have since been refuted, they were very popular in the early twentieth century.

In terms of anthropology as a discipline, Boas supported what came to be known as the four-field approach. Anthropology, for him, constituted the holistic study of culture and experience, bringing together cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and physical anthropology.

Franz Boas died of a stroke in 1942 at the Columbia University campus. A collection of his essays, articles, and lectures, which he had personally selected, was published posthumously under the title "Race and Democratic Society." The book took aim at race discrimination, which Boas considered the "most intolerable of all" forms.

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