Franz Boas was a German – American anthropologist and a leading innovator and creator of modern anthropology. He has been called the Father of American Anthropology. Like many other leaders in their respective fields, he accomplished other disciplines. He finished his PhD in physics in 1881 at the University of Kiel and studied post – doctoral geography. He became famous by revolutionizing the application of the Scientific method to the study of human societies and cultures.
These fields were previously based on the preparation of outstanding theories around anecdotal knowledge. Franz Boas was born on July 9, 1858 in Minden, Westphalia, Germany. His ancestors were Jews. His parents, like any other Jews in Germany, adopted Enlightenment values, including their incorporation into modern German society. Franz Boas was responsive when it comes to his religion. He frankly contradicted anti – Semitism and refused his conversion to Christianity. The anthropologist did not identify himself as a Jew.
He treated himself as an ethnic German that preserved and promoted German cultures and values in the United States. Since childhood, from his early schooling in Froebel kindergarten in Minden to his education at Gymnasium, his interest remained solely on natural history. At Gymnasium, he is very proud of his studies and researches concerning plant geographic distributions. This all changed when he attended University, first at Heidelberg, then Bonn. This time, he focused on Physics and Mathematics.
This time, he also attended some courses in geography, taught by a great geographer Theobald Fischer. He planned on studying Physics at Berlin, but later on chose to study at Kiel, so that he could be closer to his family. At Kiel, he pursued Physics under Gustav Karsten. Boas aspired to conduct research about Gauss’s law of normal distribution of errors, but his adviser insisted that he research the optical properties of water instead. This research became the foundation of his doctoral dissertation.
Boas accepted his doctorate in Physics from the University of Kiel in 1881. He was not glad with his doctoral dissertation, but captivated by the problems of perception that afflicted his research. He developed an interest in Kantian ideas (from Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher) when he studied a course on aesthetics under Kuno Fischer at Heidelberg, and under Beno Erdmann at Bonn. They are leading Kantian philosophers. His interests in Kantian ideas led him to psychophysics. This science deals with the psychological and epistemological problems found in physics.
He again planned on studying in Berlin to learn psychophysics under Hermann von Helmholtz, a leading physicist. But Psychophysics was of uncertain status, and Boas did not undergo training in psychology. Theobald Fischer unexpectedly moved to Kiel, and Franz Boas studied geography as a mean to explore is rapidly inclining interest in the relationship between subjective experience and the objective world. During his time, German geographers were not united over the causes of variations in cultures.
Many geographers argued that the physical environment was the principal factor, but others including Friedrich Ratzel insisted that the dispersion of ideas through human migration is more important. In 1883-1884 he made a scientific exploration of the Baffin Island region of the Arctic to conduct a geographic study on the influence of the physical environment on native Inuit migrations. In this trip, he wrote his first monograph titled “The Central Eskimo” (1888). He lived here and closely worked with the Inuit peoples on Baffin Island.
Here, he developed and improved an abiding interest in the way they lived. Franz Boas’ interest in indigenous societies grew as he got a job at the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin as a curator. Here, he was introduced to the members of the Nuxalk Nation of British Columbia, which initiated a lifelong relationship with the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. During the late 1800s, anthropology in the United States was controlled by the Bureau of American Ethnology, where John Wesley Powell was the director.
He was a geologist who favored Lewis Henry Morgan’s theory of cultural evolution. The Bureau was contained at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and its curator for ethnology, Otis T. Mason, also believed Powell’s theory of cultural evolution. During Boas’ work in the museum’s collection and exhibitions, he formulated his basic method about culture, which led him to break and disregard museum work and search for academic disciplines. During this time, Boas made five more trips to the Pacific.
His ongoing field study and investigation led him to think that culture, as a local context of human action, competes with the dominant theory of that period, cultural evolution. Boas initially destroyed his interest in evolutionary theory over kinship issue. Lewis Henry Morgan had stated that all human societies and groups move from an initial form of matrilineal to patrilineal form of organization. Boas organized and took part in the Jesup North Pacific expedition of 1902, which suggested the possibility of a strong relationship between northern Asian and northwestern Native American cultures.
He was president of the American Anthropological Association in 1907 and 1908 and of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1910. Boas’s anthropological studies have become classics in the field. He pioneered in the use of a scientific approach to anthropology. He also demonstrated the necessity of studying a culture in all its aspects, including its religion, art, history, and language, as well as the physical characteristics of the people. One of his most important conclusions was that no truly pure race exists, and that no race is innately superior to any other.
He wrote The Growth of Children (1896), The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), and Race, Language, and Culture (1940). In the 1920s and 1930s anthropology assumed its present form as a four-field academic profession in the United States under the influence of German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas wanted anthropology to be a well-respected science. He was interested in all areas of anthropological research and had done highly regarded fieldwork in all areas except archaeology.
As a professor at Columbia University in New York City from 1899 until his retirement in 1937, he helped define the discipline and trained many of the most prominent American anthropologists of the 20th century. Many of his students—including Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead—went on to establish anthropology departments at universities throughout the country. Boas stressed the importance of anthropologists conducting original fieldwork to get firsthand experiences with the cultures they wished to describe. He also opposed racist and ethnocentric evolutionary theories.
Based on his own studies, including his measurement of the heads of people from many cultures, Boas argued that genetic differences among human populations could not explain cultural variation. Boas urged anthropologists to do detailed research on particular cultures and their histories, rather than attempt to construct grand evolutionary stages for all of humankind in the tradition of Morgan and Tylor. Boas’s theoretical approach became known as historical particularism, and it forms the basis for the fundamental anthropological concept of cultural relativism.
Boas died in December 21, 1942 in New York. He had 4 wives in his lifetime and begot 3 children. Works Cited Lewis, Herbert 2001a “The Passion of Franz Boas” in American Anthropologist 103(2): 447-467. Lewis, Herbert 2001b “Boas, Darwin, Science and Anthropology” in Current Anthropology 42(3): 381-406. Boas, Norman F. 2004 “Franz Boas 1858-1942: An Illustrated Biography” Bunzl, Matti 2004 “Boas, Foucault, and the ‘Native Anthropologist,'” in American Anthropologist 106(3): 435-442 Frank, Gelya 1997 “Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology” in American Anthropologist 99(4), pp. 731-745.
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