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Franz Boas and the Rise of Modern Culture (Part I)

Author: Dustin M. Wax
Published on: February 1, 2000

Franz Boas (1858-1942) was, arguably, the founder of modern American anthropology. Although there were students of human culture working in America before Boas’ immigration from Germany in the 1890s--notably Lewis Henry Morgan, Franklin Cushing, and Matilda Coxe Stevenson--none had the depth of scholarly sophistication nor the institutional vision that Boas brought to the field and which allowed him to become the primary shaping influence on the development not only of anthropology as a professional vocation but on the way we frame and examine issues of human behaviour even to this day.

Boas was one of a number of highly-assimilated German-Jewish intellectuals who came of age in the increasingly conservative, post-1848, Bismarckian Germany. The son of active liberal Jewish parents, Boas was a promising student of physics and geography during the time that Bismarck was consolidating an alliance of Junker landowners, high-ranking civil bureaucrats, and military officers into a unified German state. Boas saw his future in Germany as increasingly dim, as growing anti-Semitism made it less and less likely for a Jew to receive a teaching position, even in the secondary schools.

With this in mind, Boas began looking to America as a likely place to build his career as early as 1882 (though he did not permanently immigrate until over a decade later). He also saw America as a place where he could develop and refine some of the ideas he had been working with as an academic. While working as a physicist on the colour of water, Boas had discovered that he often had difficulty distinguishing between, say, bluish-white and yellowish-white of certain intensities. Rather than simply accept that the colours were nearly identical, Boas wondered if his inability to distinguish between these colours reflected a learned pattern of perception (or, in this case, non-perception) native to his culture. This observation paralleled concerns he wanted to examine in geography, about the way that people experienced and perceived their physical environments. With these questions in mind, Boas set out for Baffinland in the American Arctic to do research among the Eskimo, research which would initiate a chain of events that would ultimately and profoundly shape the development of anthropology and the concept of culture.

Living among the Eskimo has been described by Boas’ closest students, and indeed by Boas himself in his later years, as a sort of “conversion experience”. His writings at the time, however, portray this period more as a time of deepening and affirming the convictions he had already developed in Germany, both as a scholar and as a Jewish liberal finding himself increasingly marginalized in Bismarck’s Germany. He was especially struck by the integrated society of the Eskimo, the sense of shared destiny that demanded the cooperation and inclusion of all its members--a notable contrast to his own position in a German society marked by divisions of class, occupation, and religion (understood at the time in terms of “race”). On his return to Germany the following year, Boas committed himself to ethnological study (though still within the boundaries of geography), going to work in the Royal Ethnographic Museum in Berlin while awaiting an appointment at the University of Berlin.

Boas’ deepened interest in the ethnographic study of humankind led him back into the field in 1886 and 1888, this time to the Pacific Northwest where he would encounter the people who would come to form the basis of his anthropological career, the Kwakiutl. While there, he was again faced with what had become a familiar problem--the differing perception of physical phenomena, this time speech sounds. Boas seems to have had an incredible gift for languages and music, often collecting and transcribing significant vocabularies and musical cycles over the course of a visit of only a few days. However, he noticed in his own transcriptions significant variations in the sounds he thought he was hearing. For instance, he transcribed the Tlingit word for “fear” alternately as “baec” and “pas”. Previous researchers had ascribed these alternations to a lack of sophistication and specificity on the part of the “unrefined”, “barbaric” Indians. Boas, conditioned by his earlier work on colour, saw them instead as indications of the researchers’ unfamiliarity with the sounds of the language studied. In other words, the same sounds were perceived differently by researchers bound by a cultural and linguistic framework different from that of his or her subjects.

The importance of these findings, published in the 1888 essay “On Alternating Sounds”, cannot be overestimated. With this essay, Boas planted the seed of what would become “cultural relativism”, upsetting both the racial-scientific and cultural evolutionist models of human difference, both of which saw white, Western European Christianity as the universal norm from which all other ways of life were deviations which reflected the inferiority of non-Western and non-Christian peoples. Boas saw these people not as examples of what “we” once were like, nor as examples of retardation or degeneration making them unfit for inclusion in the modern, “civilized” world, but as alternatives to Western lifeways worthy of study and appreciation in their own right. As we will see, the insights developed in Boas’ early career would continue to influence his work as he attacked the pseudo-scientific racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism which underlay the political and social reality of the West in the years leading up to World War II. They would also form the basis for a study of human culture which sought to understand human behaviour on it own terms, rather than in relation to the expectations and moral judgment of the West.