What Was Boas’ Vision of Anthropology and How Did It Differ From other Anthropologists of His Day?


            There is no doubt that during the early 20th century, Franz Boas as well as his students dominated American anthropology. Boas adopted a different view of anthropology by refuting the evolutionistic and racialist assumptions underpinning the anthropology of his time. Cole, (1999) considers Franz Boas as the “father of American anthropology” who pioneered modern anthropology. Franz Boaz found his position in American anthropology at a period when anthropology was being flashed out of museums and was gradually being embraced in the academy. When working in museums, Boas refuted the evolution-oriented displays, and envisioned and advocated for anthropology that places emphasis on material culture being analyzed in its cultural context. In this regard, Goldschmidt (1959) points out that the legacy of Boasian anthropology managed to substitute one scientific paradigm, which was dominant at the time (evolutionism), with another scientific paradigm (relativism). Fundamentally, Franz Boas adopted an anti-racist and relativistic approach to anthropology, which contested the claim that human differences could be explained by social scientific orientation (Boas, 1982a). To this end, Boasian anthropology, and national chauvinism and racism were at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Boasians advocating for intercultural tolerance and pluralism.

Boas’ Definition of Anthropology

            There is no doubt that Franz Boaz was one of the brains that founded the modern American anthropology. Boas adopted a holistic approach to understanding anthropology (Stocking, 1974). In Boasian anthropology, cultural relativism is one of the central principles, which stipulates that cultures developed equally and independently. According to the principles of Boasian anthropology, despite the fact that some cultures are technologically savvy than others, all cultures developed to their fullest capacity (Stocking, 1982). This stems from the fact that every culture is influenced by a unique set of laws that are specific to only that particular culture. Fundamentally, Boasian anthropology was in opposition to the then dominant evolutionary perspective in the sense that his approach was somewhat empirical, abstained from the attempts to set up universal laws, and doubtful of overgeneralizations. For instance, Boaz undertook a study on immigrant children and revealed that biological race was unchallengeable, and that human behavior and conduct was determined by nurture, and not nature. Goldschmidt, (1959) asserts that Franz Boas attempted to use anthropology to tackle the social problems of his time. For instance, Boaz was opposed to the discrimination against African Americans, indigenous Americans and immigrants, which were purely based on social orientation that draw upon the concepts of racialism and ethnocentrism. According to Boaz (1974b), the world comprised of discrete cultures and not societies that could be measured in terms of the level of their civilization. As a result, he advocated for the study of different cultures independently. Most American anthropologists adopted Boasian anthropology as a platform for social reform. Boasian anthropology poised that racial inequality was a byproduct of social factors and not biological factors. It is also imperative note that Boasian anthropology relied significantly on history, especially through the concept of historical particularism, to understand the idea of culture (Boas, 1996). Boas distanced himself from the prevalent anthropological schools of thought in the US, especially the evolutionist assumptions. Boas advocated for anthropology that perceived human cultures and differences to be determined by historical tradition and not biological propensity (Boas, 1982).

Boas’ Vision for Anthropology

When Boas commenced his work in anthropology, the most dominant paradigm in political economy, sociology and anthropology was evolutionism. Evolutionism was hegemonic during Boas time. Besides evolutionism, social Darwinism and racial determinism were also gaining popularity as evidenced by the prevalent racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, and anti-foreigner and anti-black agitation (Lesser, 1981). Regardless of the fact that they were immensely embedded in the European and American political and intellectual domains, Boas challenged evolutionism. As Lesser (1981) describes, Boas’ work revolutionized the concept of culture, in its entirety, from what people “drank, ate, their music preferences and religious beliefs” towards a “complete physical and mental reactions as well as activities associated with the people of a particular social group. Moreover, asserts that Boasian anthropology played an instrumental role in dividing the discipline of anthropology into four subfields, which included cultural, archaeological, biological and linguistic anthropology; this classification is still predominant in the anthropology departments of modern day universities (Cole, 1999). By refuting the evolutionistic anthropology of the time, Boas envisioned an anthropological approach wherein culture was perceived to be different between ethnicities and races; as a result, understanding humanity required studying culture (Boas, 1982a). This resulted in the most outstanding contributions of Boas in anthropology, which included salvage ethnography, historical particularism, diffusion and cultural relativism. It is imperative not that these contributions adopt a different view from the evolutionistic paradigm of the time by placing emphasis on culture being different among ethnicities and races; rather than explaining human differences in terms of social scientific orientation. Boas vision for anthropology was that anthropology ought to offer an evaluation of a distinctive unique culture between by elucidating its form as well the dynamic reactions of the culture to the person, and of the person to the culture (Boas, 1982b). Boas emphasized on societal differences and provided empirical evidence to affirm that biology did not influence culture in the sense that the environment could alter biology.

How Boas Differed with the Anthropologists of his Time

            Historicism refers to an anthropological approach that dates back to the mid 19th century and early 20th century, and comprises of two different forms, which include historical particularism and diffusion. Boasian anthropology is often associated with historical particularism, which refers to the notion that every culture has its own unique and specific history that is not determined by universal laws.  Cole (1999) asserts that historical particularism is a central tenet in Boasian anthropology since it offers a framework through which Boasians can use to study culture. According to Cole (1999), Franz Boas developed the concept of historical particularism in bid to refute Lewis Morgan Henry’s notion of an evolutionary path, which utilized universal themes and generalities on explaining similarities between cultures. However, Boas challenged this approach by citing that cultural traits ought to be studies first with respect to their specific cultural contexts instead of using a broad reference to the universal evolutionary paths. According to Boas and his followers, cultures can be neither subjected to similarities nor compared; this is because every culture is subject to a unique and different history, even if it resulted in an indifferent cultural aspect(Boas, 1982c). It can also be noted that the concepts of diffusion and historical particularism are consistent in their views in the sense that similar traits across cultures could be attributed to diffusion, which takes place when different cultures interact with each other. Nevertheless, regardless of the similarities in these traits, they tend to develop distinctive and dissimilar histories following their movement in various societies. Boas adopted a contrasting view to the prevalent notion of diffusion, the independent invention. Diffusion can be defined as the spread of a cultural idea between different cultures whereas independent invention refers to an instance where a given culture develops a new idea independently without any form of influence from other cultures(Boas, 1982d). For instance, the concept of agriculture emerged from two different continents (Asia and Americas) simultaneously, and since there trans-oceanic communication was missing at the time, it can be argued that the development of agriculture in both continents can be attributed to independent invention. Nevertheless, other cultural aspects such as rituals and customs can be spread easily to neighboring tribes via the process of diffusion (Boas, 1982b). In this regard, cultural diffusion can take place when people from different tribes come together, when one culture binds another leading to the two cultures conforming to their cultural traditions and beliefs. For instance, when ancient Rome enslaved Gauls, the Gauls embraced Roman traditions and believed in Roman gods to an extent that they almost forgot their horse-god. In this Regard, Boas was of the view that it was “necessary” to provide the “proof of historical relation” prior to accepting diffusion over independent invention (Boas, 1982a).

According to Boas, whereas socio-cultural evolution explained the concept of culture change, it was not able to provide an explanation of the specific processes of and influences on cultural development and change (Boas, 1982a). In order to fill this gap, Boas cited the need for a historical approach to anthropology in order to investigate cultural development and change, not only in terms of what happened and where did it happen, but also in terms of why and how did it happen. There is no doubt that the historicist anthropology adopted by Boas is different from the evolutionist anthropology. Boas was of the view that the universal theories associated with socio-political evolution could not be proved. According to Boas, the idea that one singe culture was existent, which all human societies were evolving towards, was flawed. Boas believed that several cultures developed separately, with each culture drawing upon its unique set of conditions such as specific cultural borrowing, resources, environment, climate and geography. Basing on this view, Boas believed that the reconstruction of the history of individual cultures needs an in-depth study aimed at comparing the groups of cultural traits found in particular geographic areas (Boas, 1982c). This can facilitate the plotting of these cultural traits for a given geographic area, which may help in determining any instances of cultural borrowing. Boas maintained that cultural borrowing allows individual histories of cultures to be reconstructed since it informs the investigator which cultural aspects were developed independently and those that were borrowed. In this regard, cultures are unique, varied, and comprised of several individual traits rather than being universal. According to Boas, cultures are characterized as bundles of traits, wherein every culture is characterized by a complex past with each having a distinctive history (Stocking, 1982). Boas did not agree with the notion of evolutionary stages owing to the fact that developments such as metallurgy, pottery or other similar inventions were either present or absent in a given area because of a geographical location rather than because of cultural causes (Boas, 1974a). There is no doubt that Boas played an instrumental role in the downfall of the socio-cultural evolutionism.

Another way through which Boas differed with the anthropologists of his time was through the concept of cultural relativism. The notion that an individual’s beliefs or activities ought to be understood in the light of the values and terms associated with their own culture, and not the culture of someone else. Anthropologists of the early 20th century explained human differences in terms of ethnocentrism and racialism, which entailed interpreting other cultures using its own values (Lesser, 1981). However, Boas adopted a different approach in explaining these human differences, and his approach played an instrumental role in substituting the predominant ethnocentrism and racialism with the concept of cultural relativism (Patterson, 2003). According to cultural relativism, the four basic tenets include: biology does not determine the cultural components of human behavior, instead, they are acquired primarily through learning; cultural conditioning of human behavior is mainly facilitated by habituation; all cultures developed equally in accordance with their individual values and priorities and that no culture is less primitive, more advanced, or better than any other culture; and that it is not possible to classify or interpret cultural traits basing on the universal categories. According to Lesser (1981), cultural relativism played an instrumental role in highlighting the problems associated with ethnocentrism, which refers to the belief that one culture is better when compared to another culture. Ethnocentrism makes people to embark on premature judgments with respect to a given culture as well the individuals of that culture. Lesser (1981) elucidates that cultural relativism resulted in the development of ethnology, which involves comparing different cultures on the basis of ethnographic data, culture and society.


            This paper has discussed Boas’ definition and vision for anthropology as well as how he differed from the anthropologists of his time. The legacy of Boasian anthropology managed to substitute one scientific paradigm, which was dominant at the time (evolutionism), with another scientific paradigm (relativism). Boasian anthropology investigated culture basing on their unique traits and histories and not the universal evolutionistic assumptions. Boas vision for anthropology was that anthropology ought to offer an evaluation of a distinctive unique culture between by elucidating its form as well the dynamic reactions of the culture to the person, and of the person to the culture. Boas emphasized on societal differences and provided empirical evidence to affirm that biology did not influence culture in the sense that the environment could alter biology. Boas differed with the anthropologists of his time by challenging the evolutionist paradigm and advocating for historical particularism and cultural relativism, which perceived human differences to stem from historical factors and not biological determinants.


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