Boas, Franz

Boas, Franz bō´ăz, –ăs [key], 1858–1942, German-American anthropologist, b. Minden, Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Kiel, 1881. He joined an expedition to Baffin Island in 1883 and initiated his fieldwork with observations of the Central Eskimos. In 1886, Boas began his investigations of the indigenous peoples of British Columbia. He secured his first academic position in the United States at Clark Univ.in 1889, and was associated with the American Museum of Natural History from 1895 to 1905. Boas began to lecture at Columbia in 1896, and in 1899 became its first professor of anthropology, a position he held for 37 years and in which he trained and inspired nearly two generations of anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara DeLoria.

Boas greatly influenced American anthropology, particularly in his development of the theoretical framework known as cultural relativism, which argued against the evolutionary scale leading from savagery to culture, laid out by his 19th-century predecessors. He believed that cultures (plural) are too complex to be evaluated according to the broad theorizing characteristic of evolutionary laws of developing culture (singular). Instead, Boas sought to understand the development of societies through their particular histories, and wrote that despite their many differences, humanity is one indivisible thing. He established the four-field approach through his concern with human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture, each of which has become a subfield in the wider discipline of anthropology in the United States.

Boas reexamined the premises of physical anthropology and was a pioneer in the application of statistical methods to biometric study. He was an early critic of the use of race as an explanation for difference in the natural and social sciences, calling race a dangerous fiction and emphasizing instead the importance of environment in the evaluation of individual capabilities, and made important contributions to stratigraphic archaeology in Mexico. As a student of Native American languages, Boas emphasized the importance of linguistic analysis from internal linguistic structure, and pointed out that language was a fundamental aspect of culture. His insistence on rigorous methodology served to establish the scientific value of his contributions, and his methods and conclusions are still widely influential. He was a prolific writer whose works include The Mind of Primitive Man (1911, rev. ed. 1983); Anthropology and Modern Life (1928, repr. 1984); and Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966).

See G. W. Stocking, Jr., ed., Franz Boas Reader: Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911 (1982); biography by M. J. Herskovits (1953, repr. 1973); C. King's study of Boas and his circle, Gods of the Upper Air (2019).

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