Franz Boas and the Rise of Modern Culture

Originally published in three parts in 2000 at Suite 101 when I was the editor of their Jewish-American History section. That section disappeared in a subsequent re-design of the site. This is a compilation of those pieces, edited to improve the flow as a single essay.

Franz Boas established modern American anthrop...

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Franz Boas (1858-1942) was, arguably, the founder of modern American anthropology. Although there were students of human culture working in America before Boas’ immigration from Germany in the 1890s–notably Lewis Henry Morgan, Franklin Cushing, and Matilda Coxe Stevenson–none had the depth of scholarly sophistication nor the institutional vision that Boas brought to the field and which allowed him to become the primary shaping influence on the development not only of anthropology as a professional vocation but on the way we frame and examine issues of human behaviour even to this day.

Boas was one of a number of highly-assimilated German-Jewish intellectuals who came of age in the increasingly conservative, post-1848, Bismarckian Germany. The son of active liberal Jewish parents, Boas was a promising student of physics and geography during the time that Bismarck was consolidating an alliance of Junker landowners, high-ranking civil bureaucrats, and military officers into a unified German state. Boas saw his future in Germany as increasingly dim, as growing anti-Semitism made it less and less likely for a Jew to receive a teaching position, even in the secondary schools.

With this in mind, Boas began looking to America as a likely place to build his career as early as 1882 (though he did not permanently immigrate until over a decade later). He also saw America as a place where he could develop and refine some of the ideas he had been working with as an academic. While working as a physicist on the colour of water, Boas had discovered that he often had difficulty distinguishing between, say, bluish-white and yellowish-white of certain intensities. Rather than simply accept that the colours were nearly identical, Boas wondered if his inability to distinguish between these colours reflected a learned pattern of perception (or, in this case, non-perception) native to his culture. This observation paralleled concerns he wanted to examine in geography, about the way that people experienced and perceived their physical environments. With these questions in mind, Boas set out for Baffinland in the American Arctic to do research among the Eskimo, research which would initiate a chain of events that would ultimately and profoundly shape the development of anthropology and the concept of culture.

Living among the Eskimo has been described by Boas’ closest students, and indeed by Boas himself in his later years, as a sort of “conversion experience”. His writings at the time, however, portray this period more as a time of deepening and affirming the convictions he had already developed in Germany, both as a scholar and as a Jewish liberal finding himself increasingly marginalized in Bismarck’s Germany. He was especially struck by the integrated society of the Eskimo, the sense of shared destiny that demanded the cooperation and inclusion of all its members–a notable contrast to his own position in a German society marked by divisions of class, occupation, and religion (understood at the time in terms of “race”). On his return to Germany the following year, Boas committed himself to ethnological study (though still within the boundaries of geography), going to work in the Royal Ethnographic Museum in Berlin while awaiting an appointment at the University of Berlin.

Boas’ deepened interest in the ethnographic study of humankind led him back into the field in 1886 and 1888, this time to the Pacific Northwest where he would encounter the people who would come to form the basis of his anthropological career, the Kwakiutl. While there, he was again faced with what had become a familiar problem–the differing perception of physical phenomena, this time speech sounds. Boas seems to have had an incredible gift for languages and music, often collecting and transcribing significant vocabularies and musical cycles over the course of a visit of only a few days. However, he noticed in his own transcriptions significant variations in the sounds he thought he was hearing. For instance, he transcribed the Tlingit word for “fear” alternately as “baec” and “pas”. Previous researchers had ascribed these alternations to a lack of sophistication and specificity on the part of the “unrefined”, “barbaric” Indians. Boas, conditioned by his earlier work on colour, saw them instead as indications of the researchers’ unfamiliarity with the sounds of the language studied. In other words, the same sounds were perceived differently by researchers bound by a cultural and linguistic framework different from that of his or her subjects.

The importance of these findings, published in the 1888 essay “On Alternating Sounds”, cannot be overestimated. With this essay, Boas planted the seed of what would become “cultural relativism”, upsetting both the racial-scientific and cultural evolutionist models of human difference, both of which saw white, Western European Christianity as the universal norm from which all other ways of life were deviations which reflected the inferiority of non-Western and non-Christian peoples. Boas saw these people not as examples of what “we” once were like, nor as examples of retardation or degeneration making them unfit for inclusion in the modern, “civilized” world, but as alternatives to Western lifeways worthy of study and appreciation in their own right. As we will see, the insights developed in Boas’ early career would continue to influence his work as he attacked the pseudo-scientific racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism which underlay the political and social reality of the West in the years leading up to World War II. They would also form the basis for a study of human culture which sought to understand human behaviour on it own terms, rather than in relation to the expectations and moral judgment of the West.


In the early 1880s, Franz Boas took up what would become permanent residence in the United States, working as a docent at Clark University in Massachusetts before accepting a job at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. As part of the Expo’s goal of putting American culture and technology on display, a large collection of contemporary native handicrafts, archaeological artifacts, and even native peoples (the so-called “ethnographic zoo”) were displayed, including representations of Boas’ subject tribes, the Kwakiutl and Eskimo of the Pacific Northwest. As the Expo wound to a close, the question of what to do with all the materials amassed began to be raised. Boas was instrumental in solving this problem, helping to lobby for the creation of a natural history museum in Chicago. After department store magnate Marshall Field contributed a million dollars to the project, Chicago’s Field Museum was born, and Boas took up the helm as interim curator, a position he assumed would become permanent. Behind-the-scenes political machinations prevented this, and Boas left the Field Museum in fury when the permanent curatorship was offered to another man.

In 1895, Boas came to settle in New York, where he had been offered a position at the American Museum of Natural History. A year later, he began teaching at Columbia University, where he would become, over several decades, the preeminent figure in the newly professionalizing field of anthropology. In his dual position as curator and professor, Boas imagined the creation of a unified and institutionalized anthropological discipline. Though his program encountered numerous resistances along the way, his view of the discipline eventually dominated anthropologists’ conception of themselves and the people they study.

Central to Boas’ perception of the discipline was the integration of ethnology, human biology, and linguistics. With the later addition of archaeology, this conception would become known as “four-field anthropology”. Boas’ reconception of anthropology stemmed from his recognition of culture, race, and language as fundamental, but independent, determinants of human behavior. Bias’ view flew in the face of the racial science predominant in his day, which held race, understood primarily according to notions of superiority and inferiority, as the determinant of culture and language. The racial view was grounded in a post-Darwinian evolutionary understanding that arrayed races along a progression from “savage”, more animalistic and less developed or evolved, to “civilized” white Northern Europeans (the Nordic/Aryan myth), considered the most evolved and furthest removed from their animal ancestors, a view which legitimized their political, economic, and social domination around the world.

Among his many others, Boas’ most significant contribution to the separation of race from notions of supremacy and inferiority was his 1908-10 studies of immigrant racial changes, funded by a congressional committee dedicated to immigration restriction. At the turn-of-the-century, racial typology was not limited to the more familiar “red, white, black, yellow” model we think of today. Instead, scientists had many different ways of dividing human populations into as many as 50 different races. Europe, for instance, was seen as home to the superior Nordic or Aryan race, plus inferior Alpine, Gaelic, Mediterranean, and Semitic races (among others, depending on the classification system). American nativists, frightened by the massive influx of Italians, Jews, and others after the 1880s, turned to anthropology to support their call for limiting the immigration of “inferior” races, arguing that they would be a drain on the nation’s resources and would be unable to assimilate.

Boas’ study not only found little data to support immigration restriction, but ultimately challenged the notion of race itself. Beginning with a series of measurements taken from Russian Jews at New York’s City College and two high schools, Boas discovered that immigrant populations, within the space of a single generation, could undergo massive changes in physical type. The most striking of these changes involved the “cephalic index”, a ratio expressing the relation of skull length to its width. Scientists had long relied on the cephalic index as a primary indicator of racial type, believing it to be among the most stable physical features. Entire careers had been spent recording cephalic indices among various populations and archaeological findings. Boas’ study showed radical changes in cephalic indices, changes that were verified when he expanded his study to include other immigrant groups in New York.

The widespread variations in physical type, even in so seemingly permanent of feature as the cephalic index, could only be explained by changes in the immigrants’ environment — climate, diet, breeding pools, and so on — factors that Boas, with his geography background and liberal outlook, was especially able to appreciate. Although Boas was not quite ready to dispense with the notion of race altogether — it would be the next generations of anthropologists, mostly trained by Boas, who would discard race altogether as an explanation for human behavior — Boas did assert, based on his findings, that environmental factors far outweighed biological factors in the determination of human differences. As we will see, this view was not easily accepted by Boas’ peers, many of whom saw Boas’ research as an apology for Jewish difference. Ultimately, though, Boas’ downplaying of racial factors contributed greatly to his, and his students’, emphasis on culture as the defining human attribute and the key to human diversity.


In the first two decades of the 20th century, Franz Boas came to occupy a position of incredible influence within anthropology and in American society as a whole. At a time when American racism and anti-Semitism were mounting, Boas and his students were key critics of racial explanations for human difference, a struggle which was played out not only in society at large but within the field of anthropology and particularly in Boas’ career. Boas had made a lot of enemies in the course of consolidating his professional and theoretical position, and especially during and immediately after World War I, Boas would be besieged by those whose theories and methodology he had attacked, culminating in his removal from his position in the governing council of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and his resignation from the National Research Council in 1919. Not only were Boas’ professional beliefs challenged, but also his status as a loyal American citizen was called into question on the basis of his German origin, his Jewishness, and his radical political affiliations.

Boas was among a vocal minority of American intellectuals, Jewish and otherwise, who had opposed American involvement in World War I, even after America had entered the war. In Boas’ case, this was partially due to his German heritage and his disgust with the wave of anti-German sentiment that was encouraged by the war effort. But Boas’ stand was reflected in a more general anti-War stand taken by intellectuals such as Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Randolph Bourne, as well as by radicals such as Emma Goldman. Boas’ involvement in this opposition was complex. As a member of the National Research Council (NRC), he was involved in various research programs oriented towards the war effort.

Emblematic of this involvement was his response to a study of intelligence among American military recruits, which the NRC had sponsored. For the first time, psychologists were able to administer their IQ tests to a huge number of subjects (1.7 million) and their results, predictably enough, showed significant differences in intelligence between different race and immigrant groups, with “white” recruits having far higher average IQ scores than either blacks or immigrants. Naturally enough, most Americans took these results as a confirmation of their belief in whites’ innate superiority. Boas countered this assertion with a sophisticated reanalysis of the data, showing that the range of IQ scores between groups overlapped to a great degree, so that in fact there were many African- and other immigrant-Americans with scores above the average white score, and that within any given group there were variations by region, so that Southern whites had a lower average IQ than Northern blacks. Obviously the tests were either biased towards Northern urban cultural norms, or intelligence was not the stable inherent property of races but was in fact a culturally determined, and thus highly malleable, human trait, or both. Boas’ conclusions were confirmed in 1923, when one of his students, Otto Klineberg, completed a study that showed that the IQ scores of blacks in Northern cities varied directly with their length of residence.

Of course, few in this period of nativism, anti-Semitism, and racism were prepared to accept the findings of Boas and his students. In the same year as Klineberg’s study, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization held hearings that would lead to the racist 1924 immigration reform, effectively shutting the “open door” that had encouraged the immigration of so many Jews and others by limiting the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans to pre-1880 levels. During the hearings, Lathrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White Supremacy, dismissed Boas’ work as “the desperate attempt of a Jew to pass himself off as ‘white’.” With Boas’ publication in 1919 of “Scientists as Spies”, an open letter printed in The Nation, which condemned the involvement of four unnamed anthropologists for using their anthropological research to cover their spying activities, the animosities against Boas’ work and his beliefs crystallized, leading a group composed primarily of physical anthropologists and archaeologists–fields which had developed largely outside Boas’ influence as he focused more and more on cultural explanations–to call for Boas’ ouster from the AAA, ostensibly on grounds of professional ethics, but more clearly due to his perceived lack of patriotism and questionable political affiliations. Boas’ supporters against this motion were drawn primarily from among his students, most of whom were devoted to cultural anthropology, and many of which were Jewish. Ultimately, Boas and his supporters were outvoted, and Boas was officially censured, removed from his office within the Association (though not, in the end, denied membership altogether), and eventually forced to resign (temporarily) from the NRC.

This defeat was, however, a temporary setback at best. Despite his opponents’ wishes, Boas was still chair of the largest anthropology department in the country, with ex-students holding key positions in anthropology departments throughout the country. With students including Alfred Kroeber, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ashley Montagu, among dozens of others, Boas’ influence would continue to be felt through the generations to come, down to the present, both within the discipline and–through the publication of popular anthropological works like Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and Montagu’s Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth–in popular American belief. With the end of World War II and the revelation of the atrocities of the Holocaust, racial science finally lost its stranglehold on American politics and science. By 1951, Ashley Montagu would draft the official UN Statement on Race, announcing that “race” has no scientific basis as an explanation for human differences and calling for an end to racial thinking in scientific and political thought. In its place, Boas’ conception of culture–relativistic, flexible, and not reducible to biology–became the foundation of social science, the implications of which–if the recent resurgence of biological explanations in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are any indication–we are still struggling to understand.

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