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Franz Boas Essay Research Paper Father Franz

Franz Boas Essay, Research Paper

Father Franz Boas–Father of American Anthropology

Franz Boas is often referred to as the father of

American anthropology because of the great influence he had

in the lives and the careers of the next great generation of

anthropologists in America. He came at a time when

anthropology was not considered a true science or even a

meaningful discipline and brought an air of respectability

to the profession, giving those who followed a passion and

an example of how to approach anthropology. Boas directed

the field studies and trained such prominent anthropologists

as Alfred Louis Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Margaret Mead, as

well as others. Although he did not leave as his legacy any

specific line of thought, he left a pattern that was

followed by numerous scientists in the next generation.

Franz Boas studied physics and geography in Germany and

left to pursue his hypothesis on was born and raised in

Germany and studied physics and geography. After receiving

his doctorate in geography he left Germany and went to

Baffin Island to test his hypothesis on Arctic geography.

While he was there he became fascinated with the Eskimos and

how they lived. From then on he was no longer a geographer

but an Anthropologist.

Boas was Jewish and was criticized all his life about

being Jewish. His work showed his resentment of

Anti-Semitism, reflecting the belief that all men are

created equal. At the time anthropology was based on the

beliefs of men like Tylor and Spencer who believed in

evolutionary theories that stated that some people are more

evolved than others. They believed in categorizing

different cultures depending on how evolved they were.

These men also did not do any field work, they received

their information from missionaries, government officials,

and other people who traveled the world. They categorized

cultures by putting them into a line starting with

barbarians and ending with white people. Anthropologists

then ranked them depending on how civilized they thought

they were. They also felt that people at the high end of

the line(whites) had one time been where these other

cultures are and feel this sort of a ?psychic unity?

towards them.

Boas was the first anthropologist to do field work. He

believed it was essential to live with certain cultures to

get the real feel of what they were like. He believed that

empirical observation is the only way to create an

understanding. He did not want data from someone else

because it was of no use to him if he did not record it.

Boas? rejection of data that was not collected in the field

is well-documented and presents a nature that was very

specific in its analysis of the subject. His determination

to go out into the field and collect the data for the

project ushered in a new respectability to the field in that

he was not merely regurgitating data that had been collected

for another study but rather he was analyzing a specific set

of information that was pertinent to the study at hand. He

introduced the concept of empirical observation. This

initial use of fieldwork set Boas ahead of the rest of the

anthropologists. He was not content to take old data and

make it suit his theories. Rather, he embraced the

scientific method and collected data and then reworked his

thesis to fit the information dictated by the data set


Boas lived what he preached, and this can be seen in

his numerous trips to live among the natives of the land. He

put in stints in the Arctic, with the Kwakitul of the

Pacific Northwest.

Boas also felt that learning a language was a

significant part of understanding a culture, something that

was a new concept. Along these lines, Boas recognized the

importance of reaching into the past to create and preserve

the present, again setting himself ahead of the rest of his


The idea of cultural whole is that every culture was a

complete system. He felt that anthropologists should not

rank cultures. Instead, Boas stated that societies could not

be compared, a concept known as cultural relativism.

Cultures were the evolution of societies over a period of

time, and there was not right or wrong in a culture nor was

their an inferior or a superior culture. Cultures were

separate entities that existed solely in their own plane of

existence. Boas also felt that each culture had its own

unique history, and that the anthropologist had a

responsibility to study that one in turn. The anthropologist

could no effectively analyze a culture without effectively

understanding it from all aspects and from all sides.

To be sure, Boas went against the major trends of

thought among anthropologists of the day. His rejection of

the unilateral theory that has been proposed by Tylor was

almost blasphemous among the intelligentsia of the

anthropologists, but the strength that he had in his beliefs

was enough to carry him through the complaints. Furthermore,

Boas was able to bring others to a similar belief.

One thing that Boas was careful to avoid in making any

statements was generalities. He wanted to avoid the use of

inductive reasoning because he did not think it was ever

possible to know everything about a society. Inductive

reasoning was, however, better than its counterpart,

deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning allowed someone who

new a couple particulars to make a finer point or even

worse, some generalizations that would not necessarily be

found following that line of thinking.

Along these lines, Boas felt strongly against the idea

that race had an influence on human behavior. He did not

think that simply because a person has certain racial genes

in his or her body they will behave a certain way.

Boas made a point on focusing on linguistics as well,

and his work in this field was quite remarkable. A large

part of this theory was the empirical knowledge gained not

from reading books but rather from getting information from

a series of field subjects.

One of Boas? strongest points is to get his audience to

rethink their position on what they knew already. Boas knew

that the popularity of the single-line evolutionary process

was high, but he recognized it as not being a fair

representation of the way cultures developed.

Boas also deserves credit for attacking the poor

methodology of the studies that were being done around him.

He felt that scientists at the time were simply being lazy

if they did not get involved in the study from a grassroots

beginning. He wanted anthropologists to make decisions based

on a series of information that came directly from the scene

of action, not from information that had been handed down or

handed across numbers of lines.

Perhaps a criticism of Boas could be that his methods

seemed to be stagnant at times, and they did not attempt to

encompass a wider range of time, which often was helpful to

scientists who were trying to get the larger picture. Boas

was interested in studying a very small and specific window

of time, which came from the data that he collected while

performing the field work he deemed necessary to analyze a


There is no question that anthropology as a discipline

and as a science took on a new life after the arrival of

Frank Boas. Not only did anthropology gain respect in the

scientific and the ?civilian? world, but also it gained

respect in the anthropological field as well. The work that

Boas performed, both in studies and in organization skills,

were testaments to a man who has given so much to the

discipline. He was able to profoundly influence a number of

thinkers and scientists in his own field the validity of his

methods of work and get them to institute them across the

board for use by all anthropologists.

Boas was able to do this not only for himself, but more

importantly, for the generations of American anthropologists

after him. The influence that he had on Mead, Radin, et. al.

is quite remarkable and needs to be noted. Boas? role and

honor as the head of American anthropology is well

documented and most deserved.