Introduction Cultural Subjects and Objects: The Legacy of Franz Boas and Its Futures in Anthropology, Academe, and Human Rights1

By Greenhouse, Carol J. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Introduction Cultural Subjects and Objects: The Legacy of Franz Boas and Its Futures in Anthropology, Academe, and Human Rights1


Greenhouse, Carol J., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


THIS SESSION commemorates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Franz Boas, the legendary anthropologist famed for his boundless pursuit of "useful knowledge" in cultures near, far, and at home. Boas's useful knowledge took the form of the languages, lifeways, knowledges, and life chances of communities drawn into the horizons of the familiar by migration, war, exploitation, government, trade, and science - including anthropology itself. In his lifetime, anthropology became a discipline greatly expanded in part by dint of his own labors in the field, classroom, and museum, as well as through the institutions he founded (the American Anthropological Association, the American Ethnological Society, the American Folklore Society). His students' careers, and their students' and students' students, extended to all the major centers of anthropological study in the United States. This pedagogical genealogy tends to lend a scriptural register to any historical narrative of the discipline in this country - a chronicle of "begats"and diaspora. But Boas was neither a prophet nor a plannifying patriarch. Though never untroubled by professional and personal constraints, his career followed the arc of his imagination. In this, surely, he was fortunate.

As a young man, Boas left his native Germany for the United States to pursue his passion for anthropology, and to make a life for himself in the field. At the very beginning of his career - still in Germany, not yet an academic - he signed on with a geographic expedition to Baffin Island in 1883-84. He had long dreamed of exploring the far north - since childhood. His letters from Baffin Island to his fiancée, Marie Krackowizer, record his wonder at having traveled so far only to find that in the ice hut, of an evening, hands and mouth bloodied from the shared meal of raw seal liver, he could feel the mutual warmth of unselfconscious fellowship with his Inuit hosts. This wonder - the "marvelous arithmetic of distance" (poet Audre Lorde's phrase in a different context [Lorde 1993]) - was not always so pleasant as it was that evening, but it remained fresh for him throughout his professional life. And he shared it, as a fundamental principle of social science and pedagogical practice. "I believe, if this trip has for me (as a thinking person) a valuable influence," Boas wrote to his fiancée, "it lies in the strengthening of the viewpoint of the relativity of all cultivation and that the evil as well as the value of a person lies in the cultivation of the heart, which I find or do not find here just as much as amongst us, and that all service, therefore, which a man can perform for humanity must serve to promote truth" (Cole 1983:33).

He married Marie in 1887, and the family spent their lives in the United States. Boas taught at Clark University, then worked at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and from there moved to New York to the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University. It was at Columbia that he remained for the next decades, retiring at age seventy-eight - even then, remaining active. According to his New York Times obituary, his retirement seemed to give him yet wider scope for his research, writing, and lecturing (New York Times 1942). He died at his desk, in a manner of speaking, at a luncheon at the Men's Faculty Club at Columbia in honor of a visiting anthropologist.

Throughout his life, Boas sustained a multicentered professionalism. He was interested in everything, it seems; the breadth of his writings is extraordinary. His personal portfolio consisted primarily of his researches on the cultural forms of Native America; but he also lectured and wrote more widely, often addressing audiences in other disciplines or among the general public. Some samples from the New York Times archive alone will illustrate: "Franz Boas vs. Hitler" - "Kinship of Language a Vital Factor in the War" - "Behavior Held Vital to Greater Stature" - "Professor Boas Dissents" - "Mexican Travel Safe, Prof. …

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