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?
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
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.