Franz Boas Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity

By Hyatt, Marshall | Anthropologica, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Franz Boas Social Activist: The Dynamics of Ethnicity


Hyatt, Marshall, Anthropologica


This short biography of Franz Boas accentuates those of his activities which mig ht broadly be considered political. As such, the focus is wider than implied by its title. T he first half begins with Boas the post - doctoral job - seeker (1882) and ends 25 years later with h im well established at Columbia. Here Hyatt uses a global opposition of scientific prof essionalism versus amateurism to illuminate most of the substantive personal conflicts and objectiv es Boas had during this period. The tone is entirely laudatory, joining with a tradition of Boasian deification dating back to the 1920s. We thus see Boas, "the just," repetitively donning th e righteous mantle of science in disinterested battle against nearly every (amateur, self - interested) significant figure in the ethnological/anthropological community of the day. To be partisan is not conducive to the best history of science, for it evidently prevents Hyatt fr om defining his criteria for professional/amateur status, from fully comparing Boas's specifically anthropolo gical academic training (at most, a few months under Virchow and later Bastian) to that of othe rs or from distinguishing quality of scientific practice from formality of training. Hyatt does not tell us how Boas's unceasing attempts to legitimate his own brand of anthropology consti tuted social activism, nor does he define the implication for social activism of Boas's parti cular sociocultural methods and his contrastingly large - scale generalizations on body form and rac e.

Hyatt thereafter outlines Boas's influential role as a champion of racial e quality for Blacks (chap. 5) and immigrant minorities (chap. 6). Readers will find much of interest including Hyatt's use of Boas's less - well - known correspondence and speeches to chart t he development of arguments that later appeared in The Mind of Primitive Man, his support of th e NAACP and other Black institutions, his course work and lectures on race and culture and h is physical anthropological studies of immigrants. And yet we are given few insights into B oas's motives for these activities save for the largely unsupported assertions that these spru ng from being a scientist, a Jew and a liberal. …

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