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Born in Germany in 1858, Franz Boas was the dominant figure in American anthropology from the late 1890s through the 1920s. His major ethnographic research among the Inuit and Native Americans of the Northwest Coast was complemented by his work in language and linguistics and biological anthropology, his influence as teacher, and his professional and social activism (Kroeber et al. 1943; Goldschmidt 1959; Stocking 1974; Hyatt 1990). Boas’s theoretical contributions are underappreciated in contemporary anthropology, in part because so much of his legacy is taken for granted. Still, American and world anthropology remain firmly attached to frameworks that Boas established, and many of the ideas he wrestled with continue to haunt the discipline (Wolf 1994), if often in non-Boasian incarnations.
Boas as Ethnographer
During 1883—4 Boas undertook his first field-work, a study of the Inuit of Baffin Island. His objective was to compare the physical environment, which he mapped and measured objectively, with the knowledge of it held by its inhabitants. Boas discovered that something — culture — intervened, and that Inuit activities and knowledge were more than a product of environmental conditions. Although he travelled some 3,000 miles during his fieldwork year, Boas approached participant observation as he hunted with his hosts, acquired a deepening knowledge of their language and interpersonal etiquette, interviewed informants and observed performances of folk-tale telling (Sanjek 1990: 193—5). His ethnography The Central Eskimo (1888) was published by the Bureau of American Ethnology, then the principal organization for anthropological research in the United States. In addition, Boas published popular accounts of his fieldwork in German and English (see Stocking 1974: 44—55).
In Berlin during 1885 Boas was captivated by the museum collections of Northwest Coast art he was assigned to catalogue; he also interviewed some Bella Coola Indians then in Europe with an American Wild West troupe. In 1886 he made his first three-month fieldtrip to Vancouver Island. Typical of much of his subsequent survey work, he travelled from settlement to settlement to transcribe texts in Indian languages (with interlinear English translation by the informant or an interpreter), collect art and crafts, take anthropometric measurements of living Indian subjects, and acquire Indian skeletal remains (Sanjek 1990: 195-203).
In all, Boas made twelve fieldtrips to this Alaska-Canada-Washington-Oregon coastal culture area, amounting to a total of twenty-nine months. Most of this work occurred between 1886 and 1900, during summers (when many Indians were working in White-owned salmon canneries). Of his handful of local collaborators, the most important was George Hunt, a man of Scottish and Tlingit parentage who was raised in a Kwakiutl village and was fluent in Kwakwala. Boas met Hunt in 1888 and trained him to record Indian language texts according to Boas’s transcription methods when both men were employed at the 1893-4 Chicago World’s Fair. Several of the volumes of texts Boas produced were coauthored with Hunt, and their work together continued in person and by correspondence to 1931.
Two dozen books and monographs and many articles resulted from Boas’s Northwest Coast work. Half of these 10,000 pages concern the Kwakiutl, and half other groups. Overall, 60 per cent of this corpus consists of texts, most of them in both the Indian language and English translation. But in view of the preceding 100 years of White contact, and the trade, disease, warfare and economic transformation that followed, the texts record primarily cultural reminiscences, and were not transcribed during ritual performances or around ongoing cultural practices. They salvage a culture that flourished around 1850.
Boas had two principal goals in his Northwest Coast work, both of which he regarded as accomplished by 1900. The first was to determine variations and relationships in the languages, physical characteristics and social customs of the Indian groups; the second was a presentation of the culture ‘as it appears to the Indian himself’, for which the Kwakiutl were his focal group. In mapping out linguistic, physical and cultural divisions, Boas discovered that physical types cross-cut language groups, and cultural similarities and differences were distributed without regard to linguistic or biological affinities. Moreover, the cultural traits he studied — folk tales, myths, ceremonies, art styles, crafts, kinship patterns — flowed and ebbed between groups. Overall they demarcated a Northwest Coast culture area of general similarities, but they also revealed past histories of cultural exchange and interpenetration for each of the culture area’s tribal groups.
The paradox was that the trait distributions Boas mapped out, and which supported hypotheses about historical interaction, were independent of the trait integration that was notable among individual groups. Each tribe’s mix of separable but intersecting cultural vectors (of folk-tale types, art motifs, etc.) formed a psychological unity ‘to the Indian himself. It was ‘the genius of the people’, as Boas put it, that remolded, shaped and integrated diverse cultural elements into a meaningful whole. For some this might go farther than for others; the Bella Coola, for example, he judged as having ‘remodelled and assimilated’ borrowed religious elements into the most ‘well-defined’ and ‘coordinated’ belief system of all the Northwest Coast groups (Stocking 1974: 148—55).
Work on this elusive patterning and integration among the Kwakiutl occupied Boas for much of his career. His first 428-page publication, The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (1897), included his general description of the tribe, many texts, and nearly 200 pages on the Winter Ceremonial (including field notes from his one sustained period of participant observation during the autumn of 1894). Eight more volumes, mainly unanalyzed texts, appeared between 1905 and 1935. (Boas’s texts have provided rich material for the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, on whom Boas was an important early influence.) Finally, also in 1935, his capstone study Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology was published.
This topic is organized with a topical outline similar to many conventional ethnographies. Its ‘data’ however consist solely of things, activities, and beliefs mentioned in Kwakiutl myths. ‘In this way a picture of their way of thinking and feeling will appear that renders their ideas as free from the bias of the European observer as is possible’ (Boas 1935: v). Here at last the Kwa-kiutl natural, supernatural and human world was portrayed by Boas ‘as it appears to the Indian himself. This topic was neglected in its day, however, as the newer style of ethnography of Bronislaw Malinowski and his students, and of Boas’s own student Margaret Mead, had displaced interest in text-based studies. Had Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology been published when Boas’s influence was at its apogee two decades earlier, perhaps this pot at the end of the Boasian rainbow would have received wider professional scrutiny. Since 1935 it has been rarely noted and clearly little-read; two major critics of Boas, Leslie White and Marvin Harris, do not even cite it.
Boas as Theorist
The lesson that Boas learned on the Northwest Coast — that race (biological traits), language and culture were not linked to each other — is unobjectionable today, but was hardly so in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century heydays of nationalism, racism and White nati-vism in Europe and the United States. In scientific and popular writings (Boas 1940 and 1945; Stocking 1974) he affirmed his position not only for Native America but for Europe, where Boas argued that maps of language distributions, physical characteristics and cultural groups also cut up the geographical terrain in three different ways. He insisted that each of these aspects of human existence must be studied with different methods — measurements and statistics for biological traits, texts and grammatical analysis for language, and distributional and holistic studies for cultural phenomona. Along with stratigraphic archaeological methods to study the cultural past (to which Boas devoted concentrated attention at the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology in Mexico during 1910—12), this defined the ‘four field’ anthropology Boas taught his Columbia students and which they in turn spread to the departments they and their students founded.
With his understanding of the duality of culture — trait distribution revealing diffusion and interaction, trait integration indexing patterning and holism — Boas opposed the dominant evolutionist paradigm of Victorian anthropology. He insisted that positioning individual cultures on the savagery—barbarism—civilization ladder not only discounted their particularity and integrity, but sidestepped the important task of reconstructing unwritten histories for non-Western peoples. Boas launched his attack on anthropological orthodoxy in 1887 by criticizing the organization of the US national museum collections (one room for pottery to illustrate its evolution, others for musical instruments, weaponry, etc.), a gutsy act for a 29-year-old immigrant who as yet had no anthropological employment and few publications (Stocking 1974: 61-7).
Boas reshaped the parameters of anthropological thinking with his concept of ‘culture areas’: the provinces of general cultural similarity dividing up a continent. In 1910 (Stocking 1974: 257-67) he listed seven areas for North America (Eskimo, North Pacific Coast, Western Plateau-MacKenzie basin, Californian, Great Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Southwest), each of which would eventually have its own coterie of Boasian scholars; his student Melville Herskovits produced a culture area scheme for Africa in 1924. The culture area framework for both museum work and ethnological studies remained dominant until attacked by Julian Steward and other neoevolutionists in the 1950s.
Boas as Professional
Between 1887 and 1895 Boas held a number of editorial, research and educational positions, but had neither a secure income nor an institutional base. In 1895 he received an appointment at the American Museum of Natural History (which he resigned in 1905) and in 1896 a teaching job at Columbia University (with promotion to professor in 1899). From this joint base he trained his first cohort of PhD students. They worked primarily within Boas’s distribution-integration framework, producing general and specific tribal studies in the culture areas of North America. Among the most noteworthy (and their specializations) were Alfred L. Kroeber (Arapaho, California), Edward Sapir (North America generally), Clark Wissler (Plains, Blackfoot), Robert H. Lowie (Plains, Crow), Paul Radin (Winnebago) and Leslie Spier (Havasupai, Plateau-Basin).
Between the end of World War I and his retirement in 1936, Boas trained his second cohort of students. Their interests focused on issues of cultural patterning, and many were women (including Mead), several of whom worked in the Southwest – Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard, Esther Goldfrank, Ruth Bunzel, and the financial sponsor of much of this research, Elsie Clews Parsons.
Boas was an active member and founder of anthropological societies, and played a key role in reshaping the American Anthropological Association to reflect a more ‘professional’ stance. As editor of four monograph series between 1900 and 1942 (the year of his death), he provided outlets for the work of his students and colleagues, producing seventy-six titles, including fifteen of his own.
Boas as Activist
A victim of anti-Semitic affronts while a student in Germany, Boas abhorred any linkage of group ancestry with feelings of superiority; he actively opposed such popular views on the basis of his understanding of the race—language— culture non-equation. In a commencement address to African-American students at Atlanta University in 1906, Boas stressed the social, not biological, causes of Black subordination in the United States, and urged appreciation of the iron-age civilizations existing in Africa before European contact ‘cut short’ their cultural advance. In 1911 he announced that his studies of round-headed and long-headed European immigrants had shown the effect of the American environment on their offspring — this supposedly fixed biological trait in each case had begun to alter towards an intermediate head-form. More generally, he urged opposition to immigration restriction on the basis of any eugenic devaluing of these ‘Alpine’ and ‘Mediterranean’ populations.
Boas also fought the politicization of scholarly work, and tangled with both Columbia University colleagues and Washington establishment anthropologists over his opposition to World War I and his exposure of ‘scientists as spies’ when he learned that anthropologists were clandestinely gathering information for the US government in Mexico in 1919. In the 1930s, Boas mobilized academics to publicly denounce Nazi racist ‘science’; he became an activist during his seventies and early eighties in this cause, speaking and writing in popular venues against the reversal in his homeland of all that his anthropological career stood for (Boas 1945; Hyatt 1990; Stocking 1974: 307-40).
- Boas, F. (1888 ) The Central Eskimo, Lincoln, NE: Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press.
- Boas, F. (1897) The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, Washington, DC: National Museum.
- Boas, F. (1935) Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology, New York: American Folk-Lore Society.
- Boas, F. (1940) Race, Language and Culture, New York: Free Press.
- Boas, F. (1945) Race and Democratic Society, New York: Augustin.
- Bunzl, M. (2004) ‘Boas, Foucault, and the Native Anthropologist: Notes Toward a Neo-Boasian Anthropology’, American Anthropologist 106(3): 435–42.
- Goldschmidt, W. (ed.) (1959) The Anthropology of Franz Boas, San Francisco: Chandler.
- Hyatt, M. (1990) Franz. Boas, Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Kroeber, A.L., R. Benedict, M.B. Emeneau, M. J. Herskovits, G.A. Reichard and J.A. Mason (1943) Franz Boas, 1858–1942, Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.
- Sanjek, R. (ed.) (1990) Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Stocking, G.W. Jr (ed.) (1974) The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911: A Franz Boas Reader, New York: Basic Books.
- Verdon, M. (2007) ‘Franz Boas: Cultural History for the Present, or Obsolete Natural History?’ Journal of the Royal Anthroplogical Institute 13: 433–51.
- Wolf, E. (1994) ‘Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People’, Current Anthropology 35: 1–12.
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