Franz Boas

Franz Boas (bō´ăz, –ăs), 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 Native Americans of British Columbia. He secured at Clark Univ. his first position in the United States 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. 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. He established the "four-field approach" through his concern with human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture, each of which has become a sub-field 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. Boas was an early critic of the use of race as an explanation for difference in the natural and social sciences, 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. Boas taught and inspired a generation of anthropologists, notably Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who pioneered the "culture and personality" school of anthropology. A prolific writer, Boas's works include The Mind of Primitive Man (1911, rev. ed. 1983); Anthropology and Modern Life (1928, repr. 1984); Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966).

See G. W. Stocking, Jr.'s Franz Boas Reader: Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911 (1982); biography by M. J. Herskovits (1953, repr. 1973).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Anthropology of Franz Boas: Essays on the Centennial of His Birth
Walter Goldschmidt.
American Anthropological Association, 1959
Race and Democratic Society
Franz Boas.
J.J. Augustin, 1945
Race, Language and Culture
Franz Boas.
Macmillan, 1940
FREE! Kutenai Tales
Franz Boas; Alexander Francis Chamberlain.
Govt. Print. Off., 1918
They Studied Man
Abram Kardiner; Edward Preble.
World Publishing, 1961
Librarian’s tip: "Franz Boas: Icy Enthusiasm" begins on p. 134
The Golden Age of American Anthropology
Margaret Mead; Ruth L. Bunzel.
George Braziller, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Includes five essays by Franz Boas
The Study of Culture
L. L. Langness.
Chandler & Sharp, 1987 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Franz Boas" begins on p. 53
Race: The History of An Idea in America
Thomas F. Gossett.
Southern Methodist University Press, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Franz Boas begins on p. 418
Mirrored Images: American Anthropology and American Culture, 1960-1980
Susan R. Trencher.
Bergin & Garvey, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Boas Redux"
Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology
Richard R. Wilk.
Westview Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Franz Boas begins on p. 115
Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology
Robert H. Winthrop.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of Franz Boas in multiple chapters
A Social History of Anthropology in the United States
Thomas C. Patterson.
Berg, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Franz Boas begins on p. 45
The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research
Derek Freeman.
Westview Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Franz Boas: The 'Incorrigible Idealist'" and Chap. 2 "At Barnard: Studying with Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict"
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