Franz Boas

Franz Boas was born at Minden, Westphalia, Germany, on July 9, 1858.

After studying at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, he received a Ph.D. in physics with a minor in geography from the University of Kiel in 1881.

He went to Berlin to finish his project and while there, took a job in the Royal Ethnological Museum of Prussia.

There was no independent field of Anthropology at that time, and those who investigated human cultures were largely employed by museums.

Boas was profoundly influenced by Adolf Bastian, an ethnographer who was an early proponent of the belief that people in all human cultures were of essentially the same intellectual capacity.

This idea went against the prevailing European view that cultures could be rated by their level of intellectual and social development.

Academic publications of the time propounded the view that there was a historical progression from primitive to advanced cultures, and that the cultures of Europe had reached the pinnacle of advancement.

His first fieldwork experience was among the Eskimo in Baffinland, Canada, from 1883 to 1884.

From 1885 to 1886, Boas conducted fieldwork under the auspices of several museums on the North Pacific Coast of North America.

During this time he was also involved in an important project to bring the cultures of Native Americans to the general public as part of the Chicago World’s Fair from 1892 to 1893.

Franz Boas was the most important figure in 20th century North American anthropology.

He laid down the four-field structure of the discipline around cultural, physical, linguistic and archaeological disciplines pertaining to the American Indian.

He also trained many professional anthropologists.

Boas made memorable contributions to the changes in immigrant head form undercut eugenics arguments and lessened the significance of anthropometric measures of race.

The archaeological works of Franz Boas were almost cursory.

While studying culture, his theoretical contributions dealt with the critique of evolution. He destroyed the rationalist theories of human nature. His historical particularism, his insistency on stringent ethnographic method, and his stress on “the native point of view” were pivotal to the development of modern anthropology.

In 1903, he authored the essay ‘Decorative Designs of Alaskan Needlecases: A History of Conventional Designs, Based on Materials in a U.S. Museum’, which served as an example of how he used empirical data and research methods to formulate his theories on anthropological studies.

In 1908, he became the editor of ‘Journal of American Folklore’ and became the most influential figure in the establishment of folklore as a discipline of study in the field of anthropology in America.

His 1911 publication ‘The Mind of Primitive Man’ is one of his seminal works which is considered an important work in cultural anthropology and cultural relativism.

This book laid the foundation for further studies on anthropology and is used for academic purposes.

When the Nazi party came to power in his native Germany, he began speaking out against the racist views of the party leaders (and increasingly, of the German and the American public).

He wrote prolifically and lectured widely to try to educate the public on the nature of race and on the dangers of Nazi ideology.

He died in 1942 with the well-founded hope that the totalitarian Nazi regime would be defeated and that a German political structure would be established on a democratic and tolerant footing.