Franz Boas was an influential social philosopher and anthropologist. He is remembered today largely because of his application of the scientific method to the study of human society and his resulting rejection of the notion of racial hierarchy.
Boas was born in Germany in 1858. He completed a Ph.D. in physics but later became interested in studying human geography. In 1887, Boas immigrated to New York City. A year later, he accepted his first teaching position, and in 1896 he was hired by Columbia University, where he taught anthropology for more than forty years. He died in 1942. Boas was an impolitic, unyielding academician dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and truth (at least as he defined it). Because he was an unconventional thinker who was frank in his assessment of others' work, the early part of Boas's academic career was marred by friction, frequent job changes, and occasional periods of unemployment.
Boas was a highly productive writer and researcher. During the most productive eighteen years of his career, he published more than sixty journal articles, a monograph, and two academic papers. Boas wrote and published both popular and scientific articles, but the bulk of his published work consists of ethnographic data that he gathered and recorded during his anthropological fieldwork in tribal communities. These data include myths, songs, linguistic information, descriptions of rituals, and physical measurements, such as head size and height.
Although Boas was in many ways ahead of his peers, he was still a product of the Victorian era (1837–1901) in which he grew up. For example, early in his career, Boas participated in now discredited research, such as attempting to gauge a people's intelligence based on their average head size. A common criticism of Boas's work is that he emphasized the gathering and recording of ethnographic data over its analysis. To a certain extent, this emphasis can be explained as an attempt to catalogue and preserve for future generations what Boas and his contemporaries perceived to be vanishing cultures. Another explanation might be an unwillingness and/or inability to see Native perspectives.
In addition to his work as a scholar and educator, for many years Boas curated museum exhibits. When Boas began his museum work, artifacts were customarily arranged in groups of similar items—for example, weapons, pottery, tools. Typically, the artifacts also were organized to create an appearance of evolutionary development. Thus, a stone arrowhead from North America would be placed beside a Viking age iron spear point, which would lie next to a steel Bowie knife, and so forth. Boas revolutionized this type of museum exhibit by rearranging the displays, grouping objects from a single tribe and placing the artifacts of neighboring tribes in close proximity. This new exhibit style eventually transformed museum displays around the world.
At the time that anthropology was gaining strength as an academic discipline, social theory had not yet separated the concepts of culture, race, and nationality. The prevalent view was that people from each region of the world had a certain "temperament," or personality, that was the result of factors such as climate, diet, religion, language, and physical traits. According to this view, nations, or races, could be grouped into a hierarchy, or pyramid, with one's own group at the top and other races at the bottom. Among Europeans and European-Americans, a common belief was that Caucasians surpassed all other human groups in intelligence, physique, and social development. This belief was used to justify such racially motivated policies as slavery, the removal of Native Americans from their lands, and the European fascist movements that led to World War II. While some of the most prominent early American anthropologists used anthropology to perpetuate the racially deterministic beliefs of the day, Boas did just the opposite.
Boas applied the scientific method he had learned in his study of physics to the study of human society. This led him to reject the theory of racial hierarchy and instead to theorize that differences among societies did not indicate that one group was superior or inferior to another, but rather that each group was uniquely well adapted to fulfill its members' needs and ensure their collective survival. Boas's scholarship and ideas were widely disseminated and came eventually to affect the views of the larger society, ultimately helping to break the monolithic Victorian worldview into the separate concepts of race, culture, and language that characterize how we view the world today.
Amy L. Propps
Boas, Franz. 1963. The Mind of Primitive Man. Toronto, ON: Collier-Macmillan Canada.; Hyatt, Marshall. 1990. Franz Boas: Social Activist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.