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«Boas During the first third of the 20th century, American anthropology was dominated by the work and ideas of Franz Boas and his students. Trained in ...»

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During the first third of the 20th century, American anthropology was

dominated by the work and ideas of Franz Boas and his students. Trained

in Germany as a physicist, Boas developed an interest in the relationship

between human perception and the natural world, an interest that led him

to geography and finally to ethnology. After geographical and ethnological

research in Baffinland and British Columbia, Boas immigrated to America.

An outsider to professional ethnography, Boas mounted a devastating critique of the discipline’s racialistic and evolutionary assumptions culminating in 1911 with major publications in physical anthropology— which challenged racial classification and its attendant beliefs about intelligence—linguistics and ethnology. Boas’ scholarship was shaped by 19th century German historicism and materialism, romanticism and liberalism; the trust of his anthropological critique led towards 20th century cultural relativism.

Boas established himself in American anthropology at a time when the discipline was moving out of museums and into the academy. Boas, working in museums, rejected the evolution oriented displays and advocated that material culture be set in its cultural context. Boas trained most of the important anthropologists of the next two generations, many of whom found positions in newly organized anthropology departments in American universities. Hence the dominance of Boasian anthropology in the United States: not only did Boas and his students replace one scientific paradigm (evolutionism) with another (relativism), they were able to control the emergent institutional power base of anthropology. After the 1930’s, the Boasian approach was contested by other schools of socialscience thought: the functionalism of British Social Anthropology and Frech sociology, European structuralism and Weberian sociology reinterpreted by Talcott Parsons. Thus by the second half of the 20th century, most American anthropologists probably did not think of themselves as Boasians. Still, as George Stocking has written, “much of 20th century American anthropology may be viewed as the working out in time of various implications in Boas’s own position.” Most Boasians—including Boas himself, Alfred Louis Kroeber, Edward Sapir, Robert Lowie, Melville Hershovits, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Jules Henry—were cultural critics who brought anthropology to bear on the political and social controversies of their time. Boasian anthropology was determined above all to propagate a relativistic and anti-racist “social scientific orientation to human differences.” Boasians repeatedly spoke out against racism and national chauvinism, and in favor of pluralism and intercultural tolerance—in the early 1920s when American xenophobia reached hysteric proportions, during the depression of the 1930s and during World War II. Not content merely wage war on racist socialscience in various professional arenas, Boasian anthropologists addressed a broader audience in such periodicals as The New Republic and The Nation and in books aimed simultaneously at scholars, students and the educated public. They wrote about race, culture, nationhood, language, education and world civilization. They also contributed to an emerging modernist discourse on the arts. In sum Boasian anthropology took seriously the duty of the scholar and scientist to make specialized knowledge accessible to citizens of a modern society Much of Boas’s lifework was an attack on 19th century social evolutionism. Boas argued that the classificatory schemes of evolutionary theory—dividing the world into “savage,” “barbarian,” and “civilized” people—were “artificial”, their pretension to universal scientific validity marred by their grounding in Western values. Only detailed cultural histories of all the world’s peoples, as opposed to the speculative histories of the evolutionist, would allow scholars to sort out local detail from universally true statements about human culture.

An underlying tension in Boasian anthropology opposes scientific rationality to the recognition of a world of differing cultures, hense of differing ways of thought, even differing rationalities. As Boas worked out the implications of his position, he came to the profound awareness of the power of cultures in human affairs. That developing awareness was rooted in part in German romanticism stemming from Herder. As Boas put it in a letter to the New York Times in which he decried anti-German sentiments expressed by Americans during WWI: “In my youth I had been taught in school and at home not only to love the good of my country but also to seek to understand and respect the individualities of other nations.” Yet, as Stocking has pointed out, “Boas never abandoned entirely a 19th century liberal belief in a singular human progress in “civilization” that was based ultimately on the cumulation of rational knowledge”. Science, then, led to an appreciation of—indeed, a theory about—cultural diversity and alternative cultural logics. At least for Boas, science thereby did not renounce its claim to privileged status among mostly critical modes of human knowledge—even though the scientific study of other cultures made possible a newly critical awareness of the biases inherent in even the scientist’s perspective Basic Premise Historicism is an approach to the study of anthropology and culture dating back to the mid 19th and early 20th century and encompassing two distinct forms of historicism, diffusion and historical particularism. Historical particularism is an approach most often associated with Franz Boas and his students. While socio-cultural evolution offered an explanation of culture change—what happened and where, it was unable to describe the particular influences on and processes of cultural change and development.

To accomplish this end, an historical approach was needed for the study of cultural change and the development not only of what happened and where but also why and how.

Boas is the name most often associated with the historicist approach to anthropology. He did not feel that the grand theories of socio-political evolution or diffusion were provable. To him the notion of there being one single human culture (emphasized by the term Culture with a capital C) that all societies were evolving towards were flawed especially those that had a western model of civilization as that towards which all societies are evolving.

His belief was that many cultures(here for the first time the term cultures with small c meaning a diversity of cultures is used for the first time) developed independently, each based on its own particular set of circumstances such as geography, climate, environment, resources and particular cultural borrowing. Based on this belief, reconstructing the history of individual cultures requires an in depth investigation that compares groups of cultural traits in specific geographical areas. Then the distribution of these cultural traits is plotted. Once the distribution of many sets of cultural traits is plotted for a general geographic area, patterns of cultural borrowing may be determined. This allows the reconstruction of individual histories of specific cultures by informing the investigator which cultural elements are borrowed and which was developed individually.

Cultures then are diverse and unique and comprised of countless individual traits. For Boas, cultures were bundles of traits. Boas argued that each cultural trait has a complex past, and therefore he total cultural assemblage of a people “has its own unique history”. He rejected the notion of more or less uniform evolutionary stages since the presence or absence of pottery, metallurgy, or the like in a given area “seems due more to geographical location than to general cultural causes.” Boas successfully brought about the demise of socio-cultural evolutionism primarily first by showing that there data was speculative and un-provable and second showing that returning to points of origin was impossible and third shifting the focus from “C”ulture to diverse, unique and integrated cultures.

Refutes Evolutionist

In a paper published in 1887 on “The Study of Geography”, Boas distinguished between two fundamentally different scientific pursuits. The first seeks to discover general laws of the universe and it considers a particular phenomenon of interest only for what it reveals about some natural law. The second approach consists of “the study of phenomena for their own sake”. This approach seeks to understand phenomena as they appear to the human observer; interest is directed toward a thorough understanding of the phenomena themselves rather than toward the laws which they express. Boas argued that the two forms of science are compatible and equally valid.

This division of scientific interest is reflected in Boas’ early work in anthropology. He was quite explicit that the first form of science occupies an important place in the discipline. He wrote that, “certain laws exist which govern the growth of human culture and it is our endeavor to discover these laws.” Boas was critical of the earlier comparative method employed by the evolutionist however, and argued that a fresh approach was needed. The earlier method was to construct classificatory schemes with which to organize the ethnographic data; these schemes were based on the principle that the simpler and more “irrational” customs are earlier. In other words, the evolutionist assumed that their system of classification represented history. Boas rejected this assumption and he argued that the laws of evolution can be derived only from an analysis of actual histories of delimited regions.

It was characteristic of the period in which Boas wrote to regard human institutions as expressions of mental life. Both the positivists and idealists, in spite of their differences agreed on this point. Consequently, it is not surprising that Boas believed that evolutionary law were to be found in the “psychical laws of the human mind” Like Tylor Boas though that culture could be reduced to individual mental processes.

The second form of science, that which is concerned not with the search for universal laws but with an understanding of phenomena for their own sake, played an even more important role in Boas’ early anthropology. He held that the primary means for achieving this kind of understanding is the historical approach: it is possible to attain “an intelligent understanding of culture by discovering how it came to be what it is. In his early work, Boas returned again and again to the detailed historical accounts of particular regions, especially in his many articles on folklore.

The historical approach—tracing diffusion—was not the only one which he used in order to achieve this form of understanding, however, for he also employed the principle of subjective interpretation. He attended a conference in Berlin where he had the opportunity to interview some Northwest Coast Indians, who had been brought to Berlin, “and opportunity was thus given to cast a brief glance behind the veil that covered the life of those people.” He commented that “the attraction became irascible” and with the financial aid of some friends he set off for research in British Columbia. What attracted him so strongly was not history but the desire to get “behind the veil” that stood between him and the thought of the Indians. Boas interest in the subjective side of culture constituted a major theme in his work, and the motivation behind this interest seems to have been the desire for understanding simply for understanding sake.

I have said that Boas saw two ways to pursue the second form of science in anthropology or to arrive at an “intelligent understanding of culture. One was study culture history(by which he meant diffusion) the other was to achieve subjective understanding. It appears that Boas did not regard these as clearly distinguishable approaches for he believed that when people offer an interpretation of their customs they provide an explanation of their historical development as well. By inquiring into a people’s ideas then, the investigator can understand the past and vice versa. His discussion of ceremonial masks is illustrative. In some societies, he writes, masks “are used for deceiving spirits,” whereas in others, “the wearer personifies a deceased whose memory is to be recalled.” These statements express the people’s cultural explanation for the use of masks.

However, Boas thought that these brief characterizations also provided a historical account of the respective customs, for he wrote that “These few data suffice to show that the same ethnical phenomena may develop from different sources”. Boas was led to explore the subjective side of culture, the domain of cultural ideas; and in studying cultural ideas he thought he was also studying history. However, Boas soon gave up the notion that the study of ideas is a safe approach to the study of history.

Factors Leading to Boas’ Culture Concept

First factor was Boas’ desire to work out the detailed history of delimited regions or what Alfred Kroeber was to call culture areas. The principal methodological technique he used for this was the study of the dissemination or diffusion of traits. For example, by an investigation of myths he concluded that, at least with respect to mythology, the Navaho were more strongly influenced from the northwest of North American than the northeast or the Mississippi Area. In brief, myths are products of such complex histories that the search for origins is futile. The speculation of men like Tylor—who held, for example, that “nature myths” originate in the savage’s desire to understand the universe—cannot be proven.

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