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Why I Love Franz Boas (And You Should, Too!)


One of the great heroes of the skeptical/atheist/humanist communities is Charles Darwin, who is often cited as one of the most influential scientists in history. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection forms the foundation of the discipline of biology, but his theory has also impacted most academic disciplines in some form or fashion.

In anthropology, one of the ways Darwin’s theory was used was to create a theory of unilineal social evolution, which is no longer recognized as valid today (and, as far as I know, something Darwin himself did not buy into as he was only interested in biological evolution). In fact, this “social Darwinism” was used to further many racist and ethnocentric ideologies of the late 19th century.

One person who worked against this understanding of human social evolution was Franz Boas. In this article, I’m going to tell you a little bit about who Franz Boas was and why I think he should be a well known figure in skeptical and humanist circles.

A young Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1858-1942) was a German-born Jewish man. He received his PhD in physics from the University of Kiel in 1881. His interest in human culture and geography led him to conduct fieldwork among the Inuit of Baffin Island. This fieldwork was pivotal to Boas’s evolving understanding of human culture. After earning his PD in geography, Boas struggled to find academic work in Germany. In early 1887, he began working as assistant editor at the journal Science and decided to permanently emigrate from Germany to the United States due to the increasingly hostile environment in Germany towards Jewish people.

After a stint at the American Museum of Natural History, Boas joined the faculty at Columbia University. When he arrived, anthropologists were spread all across the campus, so Boas worked with the university to form a Department of Anthropology where all of the anthropology professors could be housed. This department would go on to become the first to offer a PhD in anthropology in the United States. At Columbia, Boas mentored many of the most famous American Anthropologists who then spread out across the country, and this lineage is why Boas is now considered the “Father of American Anthropology.”

Now that I’ve given a little bit of biographical background information, let me tell you why I am enamored with “Papa Boas.”

First, Boas encouraged what is known as the four-field approach in anthropology. The idea behind four-field training is that the anthropologist wants a holistic (meaning “whole” or big picture, not as in holistic medicine quackery—see the main definition at that link) understanding of what it means to be human. To do this, American anthropologists are trained in the four subfields of biological (physical) anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology. In England, archaeology is usually considered separate from anthropology, and the English generally refer to their brand of anthropology as social anthropology instead of cultural anthropology.

One of the things I love most about Boas’s work is his introduction of historical particularism and cultural relativism into anthropological inquiry. Historical particularism is the idea that societies have particular or unique histories that inform how their cultures evolve. This concept is in direct opposition to the prevailing unilineal evolutionist paradigm of that time, which stated that all societies evolve teleologically through the same stages (as explicitly laid out by E.B. Tylor’s progressive stages from “primitive” to “civilized”).

I know “relativism” is often a dirty word among many skeptics, but I find that this is generally based on a conflation of any kind of “relativism” with “moral relativism.” Cultural relativism as introduced by Boas is simply a method of anthropological inquiry that says that the best way to understand why a culture is the way it is (or why people within a society do things in a certain way) is to gain an emic (or insider’s) understanding. Cultural relativism as a method is the rejection of ethnocentrism when trying to learn about other societies. Cultural relativism should not be conflated with moral relativism, which is the idea that there are no objective or absolute moral or ethical standards such that morals should never be judged as objectively good or bad. Cultural relativism is a method that seeks to suspend value judgments in order to understand a particular phenomenon. Anthropologists also draw on an eitc (outsider’s) understanding, not during the process of data collection but during data analysis and writing the ethnography.

Moral relativism has very little to do with Boasian cultural relativism. Boas himself held very strong views about the morality of racism and human rights. For Boas (and for American anthropologists today), an attempt to approach other cultural systems with dispassionate objectivity (i.e., cultural relativism) did not entail moral disengagement from the world (i.e., moral relativism). In this way, Boasian cultural relativism is an attempt to apply scientific objectivity to the study of human culture.

An example of Boas’s methodological cultural relativism can be found in his 1889 article “On Alternating Sounds” (open access link, click on “Get PDF” link on the right to view the full article). In this article, Boas addresses the problems that linguists had when recording languages with radically different phonetic systems than their own native language. Linguists at the time (particularly Daniel Garrison Brinton, to whom the article was responding) argued that Native American languages had certain sounds that regularly alternated and that these alternating sounds were not a function of individual accents or mispronunciations. Drawing on the prevailing social evolutionary theories of the time, Brinton suggested that the extensive inconsistency of sounds within these languages signaled linguistic inferiority and thus evidenced Native Americans’ lower position on the social evolution ladder.

Boas posing for US National Museum exhibition photograph

Boas recognized what Brinton was talking about as he, too, encountered this phenomenon while conducting fieldwork among the Inuit on Baffin Island as well as the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest. But the more Boas considered this problem, the more uneasy he was with such conclusions. So Boas applied his cultural relativist approach. He shifted attention away from the Indian languages to the linguists themselves and concluded that the issue was not with the language but with the ways that linguists apperceived (perceive a new experience in relation to past experiences) the sounds of the languages they were studying. In other words, there were no alternating sounds. The linguists were mishearing.

As evidence, Boas applied this thinking to his own studies of Inuit languages. He provided a list of a variety of spellings for given words, noting how researchers had interpreted differences based on their own native languages (for example, native English-speaking linguists will apperceive the pronunciations differently than native German-speaking linguists, thus they will spell the words in uniquely English or German ways). Further, Boas also found that Native American speakers also misheard the sounds produced by the linguists’ native languages, demonstrating that the apperception went both ways. These findings about sound perception are analogous to the way language affects color perception. It’s not that language makes people color-blind or “sound-blind” (i.e., physically incapable of perceiving colors or sounds), it just instills an apperception that makes it difficult to perceive colors/sounds in the same way as people from other cultures with radically different languages.

This article had a major impact on linguistics, causing a fundamental shift in how linguists study new languages and bringing about the differentiation between phonemics (or phonology) and phonetics.

Finally, Boas was well known for being an activist. He felt that the first obligation of a scientist is to truth and that scientists have a responsibility to speak out on social and political problems. Boas is considered a bellwether of the shifting views of race and racism in the United States in the early 20th century. Boas passionately fought against the reigning understandings of people of color as “primitives” that were biologically and culturally inferior to whites. Boas also trained some of the most well known and influential early anthropologists, including Zora Neale Hurston (a woman of color who was a folklorist and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God), Margaret Mead (who wrote Coming of Age in Samoa and gave George W. Bush a B+ in anthropology at Yale), and Ruth Benedict (who advocated a passionate humanism and continued Boas’s fight against racism in her work Patterns of Culture).

Franz Boas’s commitment to scientifically informed social justice and his dedication to bringing empiricism into cultural anthropology are just some of the reasons that I love Papa Boas. His methodological skepticism towards ethnocentrism, his passionate criticisms of pseudoscientific racist ideologies, and this silly photo below (background story here) are just a few of the reasons that you should love him, too.


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  1. Ahh, it’s good to see Boaz discussed somewhere other than a class on the history of anthropology.

    When I was teaching anthropology, I used to start with Boaz, as I found that his views (and the way that those views evolved) allowed an easy entry point for students attempting to understand other cultures.

  2. The only correction I have is that the bit on cultural relativism should be bolded, all caps, highlighted, and in a larger font. Other than this oversight, amen. It’s good to see something where Boas is something other than scientism’s whipping boy.

  3. Boas is really one of those figures who revolutionized not only their own field, but any field that involves the study of humans. I remember very clearly when I was doing my B.A. in anthropology (this would have been four or five years ago) one my professors explaining to us that essentially, my generation was really only three or four generations beyond Boas – that is, my professors were taught by professors who were taught by students of Boas. Anthropology, sociology, history, and so on are [i]just now[/i] getting to the point where Boas didn’t have a [i]direct[/i] influence on the new generation of scholars. That’s pretty crazy.

  4. It’s also worth noting that while a modified linear model of evolution was eventually re-absorbed by American archaeology (thanks to Binford, Flannery, etc.) Boaz’s influence on the academics developing the archaeology of the 1960s through 1980s ensured that it described trends in human cultural development (especially in the realms of technology and political organization), rather than inevitable pathways.

  5. “It’s not that language makes people color-blind or ‘sound-blind’ (i.e., physically incapable of perceiving colors or sounds), it just instills an apperception that makes it difficult to perceive colors/sounds in the same way as people from other cultures with radically different languages.”

    That doesn’t keep people from radically misapplying Sapir-Whorf to these kinds of situations, unfortunately.

    Thanks for this. As a cultural historian I find these methods incredibly useful in my own work, especially as increasing temporal distance makes even Western cultures progressively more foreign to modern interpreters.

  6. Wow, brilliant stuff! Thanks, Will – can you do more of these? More people should know about this sort of thing.

    Obviously applicable to other things than colour and sounds, but when does that become “radically misapplying”? I’m not sure that I fully understand @delictuscoeli’s comment.

    • I *think* (and I certainly could be wrong) that what delictuscoeli is referring to is the interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that there is a “weak Sapir-Whorf” versus a “strong Sapir-Whorf.”

      Basically, the “weak Whorf” is the view that language is like a room that one can move in and out of and can go into other rooms and see the world in different ways while the “strong Whorf” says that is like language is a prison that one cannot escape from–linguistic determinism. As far as I know, neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Lee Whorf held this position, and it is something that was interpreted from their work later.

      I’m not a super linguist or anything though, so this is just based on my minimal training in linguistic anthropology. Perhaps other people trained in linguistics or with more background on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis could shed some light. ;)

      • Yes this is what I meant. Studies that come out saying “OMG Tribe X can’t see blue!” because they don’t find blue a useful colour to distinguish linguistically (since nothing in their environment is blue).

        The study, then, will do something to play on memory (e.g. “what colour was the card you saw last week”), and the person, having remembered the colour linguistically using a word that applies to a broader spectrum, might pick the wrong shade (something we’d call green, for example). Of course an alternate study where the same person/tribe are asked to match cards of the same colour/shade would show they can see them perfectly well, they just don’t have much use for a distinction between ochre and goldenrod.

        There is some controversy about this with regard to numbers as well:

        • Thank you both for the replies and those links, which I have read through. Much food for thought! e.g.:-

          1 Why didn’t they teach us some of this in high school? It would have been of more value than trying to hammer an ENTIRE DEFUNCT LANGUAGE (Latin) into our heads!

          2 Linguistic Determinism – seems like somebody tried to make a lot of shit up.

          3 Many of the controversies may have been settled earlier if the “researchers” had sought some feedback from their “experimental subjects” before publication of their final paper.

          4 I wonder what an Inuit, Hopi or Australian Aboriginal elder would have to say about this?

          5 I guess that with globalisation and the internet there may be a very limited time left to perform further investigations before many languages become extinct.

          • 3 Many of the controversies may have been settled earlier if the “researchers” had sought some feedback from their “experimental subjects” before publication of their final paper.

            4 I wonder what an Inuit, Hopi or Australian Aboriginal elder would have to say about this?

            I think 3 encompasses 4 quite nicely. And you don’t have to go very far to find people for 4, anywhere that has more than one language available will work. A concept diff and compare will give you examples of things that language A can express easily but language B can’t. Then just ask people who speak B but not A to think about the missing concepts. For example, English monolinguists often have trouble remembering the gender of objects (except toilets). Vagina is masculine in French, for example (but unfortunately for comediennes so is penis).

            On the flip side, Margaret Mead is actually a good example of the pitfalls of seeking the input of your subjects. You need to be aware of their motivations and incentives, {sarcasm}almost as if they were actually people.{/sarcasm} That’s why I love modern anthropological studies of first world people.

    • My favorite anthro prof always characterized Boas as, “the first old white guy to put down his pipe and get out of his arm chair” to go study cultures.

      Will, you should write more of these! One of my undergrad majors was anthropology and I don’t get to read about it nearly enough any more.

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