Franz Boas (1858-1942) – Progenitor of American Anthropology
Franz Boas was a German-Jewish physicist and geographer who, through his studies of Inuit on Baffin Island and of the Kwakiutl in British Columbia under the auspices of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, came to devote himself to the study of anthropology by challenging the predominant fixed stage evolutionism in vogue in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was Boas who defined anew the science of anthropology in which its four elements, archaeology, linguistics, cultural and physical anthropology contributed their linked, but relatively autonomous,findings to the study of human groups. Although a supporter of Darwinian evolution, Boas rejected grand schemes of teleological development represented by the stage theory of the positivists of his and earlier generations. He favoured a strictly empirical approach to his subject matter emphasizing local context for understanding the specifics of the cultural groups he was studying. He also understood that the anthropologist was as human as those whom he or she was researching and he greatly valued those anthropologists who came from the indigenous communities which they were exploringwith the tools of anthropology and allied sciences. Unlike physics, Boasiananthropology grasped that cultures are not only limited to the materials which, in part, constitute them, but essentially involve the meanings, the symbolic, linguistic, the value-laden aspects of human social life. Like his German colleague and contemporary, Max Weber in the field of sociology, and the neo-Kantian thinkers Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, Boas understood that there was a strong component of Verstehen at the heart of the anthropological project. Boas also believed that anthropology was a historical discipline, that cultures had their own histories, a theme that harkened back to the ideas of Wilhelm Dilthey.Although not an ethical relativist, Boas championed anthropology as culturally relative, a necessary position to understanding the specificity of distinct cultures.
Boas turned the study of anthropology against the racism and racialism prominent in his day showing, among other things, that variations within so-called racial categories were greater than those between different races. Like his French contemporary, Emile Durkheim, Boas rejected the notion of race as scientific or explanatory of human behavior. His path-breaking study of immigrants and their offspring in America argued that racial markers such as cranial size changed significantly in subsequent generations in the new land. He spoke out energetically against Hitlerism and Nazi so-called racial science and his works in anthropology along with those of Freud in psychoanalysis and Einstein in physics, were consigned to the flames. His study of linguistics also helped demonstrate the limitations of the Euro-American anthropologists in “hearing” the language shifts which native speakers had no trouble in following. Some of the greatest anthropologists were students of Boas or students of Boas’ students. These include: Ruth Benedict, Alexander Goldenweiser, Melvin Herskovits, Alfred Kroeber (who was also a psychoanalyst), Alexander Lesser, Robert Lowie, Margaret Mead, Paul Radin, Edward Sapir, Gene Weltfish and many others.