Franz Boas  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Franz Boas (July 9, 1858December 21, 1942) was a German-born American anthropologist and is often called the "Father of American Anthropology". Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography. He is famed for applying the scientific method to the study of human cultures and societies, a field which was previously based on the formulation of grand theories around anecdotal knowledge.

He is the author of Anthropology and Modern Life, The Mind of Primitive Man and Primitive Art

Students and influence

Franz Boas died of a stroke at the Columbia University Faculty Club on December 21, 1942 in the arms of Claude Lévi-Strauss. By that time he had become one of the most influential and respected scientists of his generation.

Between 1901 and 1911, Columbia University produced seven PhDs in anthropology. Although by today's standards this is a very small number, at the time it was sufficient to establish Boas' Anthropology Department at Columbia as the preeminent anthropology program in the country. Moreover, many of Boas' students went on to establish anthropology programs at other major universities.


Boas' first doctoral student at Columbia was Alfred L. Kroeber (1901), who, along with fellow Boas student Robert Lowie (1908), started the anthropology program at the University of California, Berkeley. He also trained William Jones (1904), one of the first Native American Indian anthropologists (the Fox nation) who was killed while conducting research in the Philippines in 1909, and Albert B. Lewis (1907). Boas also trained a number of other students who were influential in the development of academic anthropology: Frank Speck (1908) who trained with Boas but received his PhD. from the University of Pennsylvania and immediately proceeded to found the anthropology department there; Edward Sapir (1909) and Fay-Cooper Cole (1914) who developed the anthropology program at the University of Chicago; Alexander Goldenweiser (1910), who, with Elsie Clews Parsons (who received her doctorate in sociology from Columbia in 1899, but then studied ethnology with Boas), started the anthropology program at the New School for Social Research; Leslie Spier (1920) who started the anthropology program at the University of Washington together with his wife Erna Gunther, also one of Boas´ students, and Melville Herskovits (1923) who started the anthropology program at Northwestern University. He also trained John R. Swanton (who studied with Boas at Columbia for two years before receiving his doctorate from Harvard in 1900), Paul Radin (1911), Ruth Benedict (1923), Gladys Reichard (1925) who had begun teaching at Barnard College in 1921 and was later promoted to the rank of professor, Ruth Bunzel (1929), Alexander Lesser (1929), Margaret Mead (1929), and Gene Weltfish (who defended her dissertation in 1929, although she did not officially graduate until 1950 when Columbia reduced the expenses required to graduate), E. Adamson Hoebel (1934), Jules Henry (1935), Ashley Montagu (1938).

His students at Columbia also included Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, who earned his M.A. after studying with Boas from 1909–1911, and became the founding director of Mexico's Bureau of Anthropology in 1917; Clark Wissler, who received his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1901, but proceeded to study anthropology with Boas before turning to research Native Americans; Esther Schiff, later Goldfrank, worked with Boas in the summers of 1920 to 1922 to conduct research among the Cochiti and Laguna Pueblo Indians in New Mexico ; Gilberto Freyre, who shaped the concept of "racial democracy" in Brazil; Viola Garfield, who carried forth Boas' Tsimshian work; Frederica de Laguna, who worked on the Inuit and the Tlingit; and anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who graduated from Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia, in 1928.

He was also an influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom he met during the latter's stay in New York in the 1940s (and in whose arms Boas expired in 1942).

Several of Boas' students went on to serve as editors of the American Anthropological Association's flagship journal, American Anthropologist: John R. Swanton (1911, 1921–1923), Robert Lowie (1924–1933), Leslie Spier (1934–1938), and Melville Herskovits (1950–1952). Edward Sapir's student John Alden Mason was editor from 1945–1949, and Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie's student, Walter Goldschmidt, was editor from 1956-1959.

Most of Boas' students shared his concern for careful, historical reconstruction, and his antipathy towards speculative, evolutionary models. Moreover, Boas encouraged his students, by example, to criticize themselves as much as others. For example, Boas originally defended the cephalic index (systematic variations in head form) as a method for describing hereditary traits, but came to reject his earlier research after further study; he similarly came to criticize his own early work in Kwakiutl (Pacific Northwest) language and mythology.

Encouraged by this drive to self-criticism, as well as the Boasian commitment to learn from one's informants and to let the findings of one's research shape one's agenda, Boas' students quickly diverged from his own research agenda. Several of his students soon attempted to develop theories of the grand sort that Boas typically rejected. Kroeber called his colleagues' attention to Sigmund Freud and the potential of a union between cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis. Ruth Benedict developed theories of "culture and personality" and "national cultures", and Kroeber's student, Julian Steward developed theories of "cultural ecology" and "multilineal evolution".

Nevertheless, Boas has had an enduring influence on anthropology. Virtually all anthropologists today accept Boas' commitment to empiricism and his methodological cultural relativism. Moreover, virtually all cultural anthropologists today share Boas' commitment to field research involving extended residence, learning the local language, and developing social relationships with informants. Finally, anthropologists continue to honor his critique of racial ideologies. In his 1963 book, Race: The History of an Idea in America, Thomas Gossett wrote that "It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history."

Writings by Boas

  • Boas n.d. "The relation of Darwin to anthropology", notes for a lecture; Boas papers (B/B61.5) American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. Published on line with Herbert Lewis 2001b.
  • Boas, Franz (1911). The Mind of Primitive Man. ISBN 0-313-24004-3 (Online version of the 1938 revised edition at the Internet Archive)
  • Boas, Franz. (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 1). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
  • Boas, Franz (1912). "Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants". American Anthropologist, Vol. 14, No. 3, July–Sept, 1912. Boas
  • Boas, Franz (1912). "The History of the American Race". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. XXI, pp. 177–183.
  • Boas, Franz (1914). "Mythology and folk-tales of the North American Indians". Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 27, No. 106, Oct.-Dec. pp. 374–410.
  • Boas, Franz (1922). "Report on an Anthropometric Investigation of the Population of the United States". Journal of the American Statistical Association, June 1922.
  • Boas, Franz (1906). The Measurement of Differences Between Variable Quantities. New York: The Science Press. (Online version at the Internet Archive)
  • Boas, Franz (1927). "The Eruption of Deciduous Teeth Among Hebrew Infants". The Journal of Dental Research, Vol. vii, No. 3, September, 1927.
  • Boas, Franz (1927). Primitive Art. ISBN 0-486-20025-6
  • Boas, Franz (1935). "The Tempo of Growth of Fraternities". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 21, No. 7, pp. 413–418, July, 1935.
  • Boas, Franz (1940). Race, Language, and Culture ISBN 0-226-06241-4
  • Boas, Franz (1945). Race and Democratic Society, New York, Augustin.
  • Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. 1974 A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911 ISBN 0-226-06243-0
  • Boas, Franz (1928). Anthropology and Modern Life (2004 ed.) ISBN 0-7658-0535-9
  • Boas, Franz, edited by Helen Codere (1966), Kwakiutl Ethnography, Chicago, Chicago University Press.
  • Boas, Franz (2006). Indian Myths & Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America: A Translation of Franz Boas' 1895 Edition of Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste-Amerikas. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks. ISBN 0-88922-553-2




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