Franz Boas

Regna Darnell
Table of contents

Franz Boas (1858–1942) was unquestionably the preeminent figure in twentieth century North American anthropology. He established the four-field structure of the discipline around cultural, physical, linguistic and archaeological studies of the American Indian and trained most of the fledging anthropologists who professionalized anthropology and moved it from government, learned society, and museum into the academy (Darnell 1998). Boas himself contributed to all four subdisciplines. His work on rapid changes in immigrant head form undercut eugenics arguments and diminished the importance of anthropometric measures of race. Race became an arbitrary category, best approached by anthropology as racism. Although he strongly supported Afro-American anti-racism, particularly through his friendship with W. E. B. Dubois (Baker 1998), Boas also had a personal stake in mitigating anti-Semitism. His archaeological work was more perfunctory, and students interested in archaeology and physical anthropology were usually sent to Harvard. In the study of culture, Boas’s theoretical contributions revolved around his critique of evolution, his rejection of rationalist theories of human nature, his historical particularism, his insistence on rigorous ethnographic method, and his emphasis on “the native point of view.” This essay, however, focuses primarily on Boas’s wide-ranging contributions to Amerindian linguistics and their inseparability from his views on culture.

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