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Boasian Anthropology: Historical Particularism and Cultural Relativism

Page history last edited by Parker Robbins 11 years ago

Table of Contents

 


 

 


 

Main Points

     The American anthropologist, Franz Boas, founded Boasian Anthropology: he introduced the idea that culture was what differed between races and ethnicities and, therefore, was what must be studied to understand humanity. Boasian anthropology changed the idea of culture, as a whole, from what a person, "ate, drank, religious views and their music tastes," to the complete “mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize the individuals of a social group."  [1]Boasian anthropology is known to divide the anthropology discipline to include the four subfields of linguistic, biological, archaeological, and cultural anthropology, a view that is still popular in anthropology departments of many universities today. [2]The most notable and attributed ideas of Boasian anthropology though are cultural relativism, diffusion, historical particularism, and salvage ethnography.

 

 

 

Cultural Relativism

      The idea that a person’s activities or beliefs should be understood in the terms and values of their own culture, not someone else’s. 2  Cultural Relativism brought attention to the problem of Ethnocentrism; which is the belief that one’s own culture is more valuable or better than another. 3 Ethnocentrism leads us to make premature judgements about a culture and the people that are a part of that culture. Cultural relativism also led to the formation of ethnology. Ethnology is a comparison of cultures using ethnographic data, society, and culture.[3] Ethnology is usually done when anthropologists go into, "the field"- meaning they travel to a country and live with the people there to get the best possible taste and experience of their culture. This data resulting from ethnography helps us understand other cultures and how they are similar and different to other cultures. [4] 

 

Diffusion vs. Independent Invention

     Diffusion is the spread of an idea from culture to culture and independent invention is where the culture forms a new idea on it’s own without any influence from another culture. [5] Agriculture developed in different continents (the Americas and Asia) at the same time and because there was no trans-oceanic communication during its formation, we can say that it was independent invention. [6] However, things such as customs or rituals could be transmitted through neighboring tribes through diffusion. Cultural diffusion can occur when tribes or different peoples meet or it can occur when one culture enslaves another, which usually results in them having to conform to their cultural beliefs and traditions. [7] For example, when the Gauls were enslaved by ancient rome they adopted the belief in Roman gods and traditions; almost completely forgetting their horse-god, Epona. [8] Boas deemed it “necessary” to demand “proof of historical relation” before accepting the theory of diffusion over the theory of independent invention. [9]

 

Historical Particularism

      The term historical particularism refers to the idea that each culture has its own particular and unique history that is not governed by universal laws.[10] This idea is a big component of Boasian anthropology because it is where Boasians put their focus on when studying cultures. Historical particularism was developed in contrast to Boas’ rejection of Lewis Henry Morgan’s idea of an evolutionary path and the use of the comparative method. [11] The evolutionary path used generalities and universal themes to explain cultural similarities, but Boas “contended that cultural traits first must be explained in terms of specific cultural contexts rather than by broad reference to general evolutionary trends” [12]. Boas and his followers would argue that cultures cannot be compared or be subjected to generalities because each culture experienced a different and unique history, even if it led to a similar cultural aspect.[13] Historical particularism and the concept of diffusion mentioned above actually go quite hand in hand. Traits that are similar between cultures may have diffused through interaction between various cultures. However, while these traits are similar, they will develop different and unique histories from their movement through various societies. [14]

 

Salvage Ethnography

      Due to Boasians’ interest with the historical context of a culture, salvage ethnography becomes a significant component of the Boasian approach to anthropology. Salvage ethnography holds the belief that all cultures matter and it is important to gather as much information as possible on cultures that may become extinct due to assimilation or acculturation.[15] This method of Boasian anthropology was most distinct when Boas himself was ardently gathering and recording information on Native American cultures that were threatened to be “lost through assimilation to expanding Euro-American cultures.” [16]

Salvage ethnography places a lot of importance on documenting a culture, so that even when the culture's rituals, beliefs, and customs are no longer being practiced it will still be preserved through time. 


 

Key Figures

 

[17]

 

Introduction

     Franz Boas was born on July 9, 1858, in Minden, Westphalia, Germany. Before becoming interested in the field of anthropology, Boas studied geography, mathematics, and physics at the Universities of Heidelberg, Kiel, and Bonn (Dolentz). Boas later drifted away from these studies when he became interested in anthropology. He then began his work with the Kwakiutl Indians from Northern Vancouver and British Columbia, Canada (Dolentz). By studying this indigenous group, Boas introduced the theory of cultural relativism, which is the idea that all people have equally developed cultures. This theory also holds the belief that the differences between peoples were the result of historical, social, and geographic conditions (Dolentz).

 

     Franz Boas is considered to be the founder of American and modern anthropology.  He included the expansion of sociocultural anthropology, linguistics, physical anthropology and archaeology into his works.  He was a strong believer in fieldwork over office work[18].  Boas brought in the idea that cultural traits must be explained in specific cultural contexts instead of a broad reference to evolutionary trends.  He said “The art and characteristic style of a people can be understood only by studying its productions as a whole”.[19]  Boas’ basic approach to work was that culture was to be understood from detailed studies of specific cultures.  Throughout his work, Boas influenced many students.  Some of his most memorable students include; Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, and Margaret Mead. 

 

Contributions, Achievements, Life Story

     Franz Boas received his doctorate at the age of twenty-three, in 1881, at Kiel University.  He then spent a year in the German military.[20]  After the military, Boas studied language and culture with the Native Americans, mostly Kwakiutl.  His first expedition was a German expedition to the Arctic to study the Inuit in 1883.  Soon after that, he went to spend a year on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, leading him to realize he wants to study what determines the behavior of human beings.[21]

     In 1887 Boas moved to New York, where he became the assistant editor of Science.  That year he also got married and became a United States Citizen.  In 1888 he worked for the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in the Northwest Coast.  In 1889 he became a teacher at Clark University.  Then in 1892 he joined the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  In 1895 Boas was appointed to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) where he obtained his first permanent position and was no longer worried about financials.  In 1896 he was hired as a teacher in physical anthropology at Columbia College.  By 1899 he was promoted from teacher to professor at Columbia College.  In 1900 Boas was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.  He then helped to establish the American Anthropological Association.[22]  He Founded the International Journal of American Linguistics short after[23].  He also helped establish an archaeological field school in Mexico.[24]

     Boas wrote six books and over 700 articles in his lifetime.  A couple of his most notable books are Race, Language, and Culture, and Race and Progress.  He made major contributions to the study of language.  In 1911 Boas demonstrated that traits thought to be fixed were really modified by the environment, through a study on the cranial form.[25]  Many of his studies had to do with race.  He came to the conclusion that “biological differences between races are small”.  He helped to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.[26]  “Boas argued that because of intermarriage and mating, there were no biologically pure races and that, the mixture of races had no harmful consequences.  Variations between individuals within races were greater than differences between races”. [27]

     Boas’ view on Anthropology is that anthropology should “provide an analysis of a unique culture describing its form, the dynamic reactions of the individual to the culture and of the culture to the individual”.[28]  This view clearly influenced Mead and Benedict as students.  Boas argued that customs and believes are not the objective of research.  He sought to learn why they exist, how they exist, and the history behind them.  His research was more focused on differences between societies, instead of similarities.  His research showed that biology did not determine culture, biology could be changed by the environment.

 

 

 

 


 

Key Texts

 

Race Language and Culture

 

Overview

     The main text for Boasian anthropology is Race, Language, and Culture written by Franz Boas. This book was published in 1940, and talks primarily about finding similarities in cultures throughout the world. Race, Language, and Culture is not a typical book, but is rather a collection of Boas’s papers from research. In the book Boas reveals several of the key principles that govern the laws of Boasian anthropology. Culture relativism is the idea that all people have developed equally. Boas suggests that despite some cultures being more technologically or militaristically savvy, each culture has developed to its fullest capability. This is because according to Boas each culture is regulated by a different set of laws that is particular to that individual culture. Boas’s concept of diffusion, the idea that societies borrow cultural trends from other societies that they have observed, is also prevalent within his writing.  The book also illustrates another one of Boas’s original ideas, salvage ethnography. The idea that absolutely everything should be observe when trying to learn about a culture. Small things can end up showing a lot about a culture, and all things a culture has to offer should be taken into account in order to form a clear picture of the culture.  Franz Boas’s Race, Language, and Culture contains very substantial amounts of Boas’s research, and is the prominent source used in Boasian anthropology.

 

The Aims of Anthropological Research 

     In this section of Race, Language, and Culture Franz Boas discusses the purposes of anthropological research.  “We may perhaps best define our objective as the attempt to understand the steps by which man has come to be what he is biologically, psychologically, and culturally.”[29] Boas insists that all three factors must be taken into account in order to form a clear picture of a civilization. Boas claims, anthropologists must act as paleontologists do in order to discover remains of humans to understand our history. [30]This of course fits into the biological aspect of Boas’s definition. Boas suggests that we not only must find ancient artifacts and skeletons, but also must observe life in cultures today because this demonstrates how cultures have changed overtime. Contrary to popular stereotypes and beliefs, Boas claims that no one phenotype has a genetic advantage over another. He supports this claim by showing that a genetic line may have specific adaptations, but the entire population as a whole has a huge variety of physiological attributes. [31]Each and every population has some members that are physiological different than its other members. Experimental psychological studies, according to Boas can only be conducted on living races. However, Boas states that inferences can be made about past cultures by collecting historical data. Regardless, psychological information will be limited without a living culture to observe. [32] Boas closes this section by asserting that many of our behavioral lines are not innately human impulses, but are rather learned through culture.[33]


 

The Aims of Ethnology

    Boas continues with a discussion of the field of anthropology called Ethnology. Boas defines this field as the study of human history (especially early human history) through the means of such subjects as language, the study of culture, and the study of bodily form.[34] Using these techniques Boas claims the purpose of Ethnology is "critical analysis of the characteristics of each people."[35]  Calling upon numerous examples of observation, both his own and his contemporaries', Boas argues the importance of ethnology when looking at a group of people. For example, he brings up the discovery of the Carib language in Brazil to show the importance of language and the effect that this discovery had on how anthropologists looked at that people. He goes on to talk about how ethnology is tied in to the history of culture and of their inseparability.[36] In arguing this, he states, "In order to understand and organism it is not sufficient to study it as a stable form, but it must be compared with all its ascendants and descendants."[37] In summation, this section of Boas' book emphasizes the importance of looking at a group of people from multiple perspectives and on the scale of time as opposed to looking at them from a perspective of limited understanding at one point in time.

 

The Study of Geography

The next subject Boas discusses is that of geography. He first talks about how relatively new of a discipline geography is, citing how European ships would not leave the well-known shipping routes because they were afraid of the unknown.[38] He goes on to talk about how integral geography is to understanding a society because the land and climate it lives in and around plays a major role in the development of said society. Based on this, he theorizes that historians and naturalists can meet on a common ground in this field. Boas then ends this section discussing cosmography which he defines as having, "its source in the personal feeling of man towards the world, towards the phenomena surrounding him."[39] To that effect, Boas continually emphasizes the importance of geography in analyzing a people.

     

 


 

Critiques

 

     Franz Boas' biggest critique was that although he defined the role of culture in the development of societies, he did not have a good source of viable evidence to support the importance of culture and the properties of that culture.[40] Although his critics agreed that his discovery of the significance of culture was an important addition to the field, they were not convinced that he used enough evidence to justify that conclusion.[41]

 

Critiques of Salvage Ethnography

     Salvage ethnography refers to Boas’ attempt to document the traditions of people nearing the extinction of their cultures. Boas was very concerned with the preservation of the cultures of past peoples that

[42]some critics of his Anthropological work were uneasy about the methods he took.[43]They worried that with Boas’ search for evidence of past cultures, the present day culture would not receive the needed attention. They feared the current cultural practices would be ignored and would change before it would have been able to be recorded because of the extra focus on the ancient culture of an area.

 

 

Nature Vs. Nurture

     A large critique of the Boasian Anthropology is that in the nurture vs. nature debate Boas leaned a lot more on the nurture side often times disregarding the biological aspect that takes place within people in societies. He believed that culture and behaviors that are taught and learned within a society which shapes people much more than their biology. He is critiqued for dismissing the genetic makeup in his experiments looking only at how social environment affects a group of individuals.[44]

 

Cultural Determinism

     An ethnographer named Derek Freemen was strongly against the Boasian Theory and tried to prove Boas wrong by attacking Margaret Mead's book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) after she died. Freemen wrote Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropology Myth (1986) as well as The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research (1999) which both discussed how Mead was misled in her research mainly because she wanted to please Boas. He claims she had bias research and that she did not know enough about the Samoan culture to say that they were a peaceful and nonviolent society.[45] Freeman, while directly attacking Mead is also attacking Boas for placing too much pressure on his students to produce the results that he wanted to help in proving cultural relativism as the much stronger argument over biology. Boas was trying to prove that biology did not matter as much as environment, in large part to put a stop to racism, trying to prove race as a social construct rather than a biological one.  Since his opinions and goals were so fixed, he was often critiqued on putting his goals first making some of his experiments biased and not as scientifically subjective as they should have been.

 

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, Culture." Pg. 225.
  2. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011, p. 62.
  3. Conrad, Kottak. "Cultural Anthropology:Appreciating Cultural Diversity." McGraw Hill. 2010.
  4. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan. ANTH 2100 Cultural Anthropology, August 2010.
  5. Conrad, Kottak. "Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity." McGraw Hill. 2010. Pg. 64
  6. Franz, Boas. " Race, Language, Culture." Pg. 225
  7. www.answers.com, accessed 13 September 2010
  8. Lecture, Professor Linda Anderson. AP World History. 2008.
  9. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, Culture." Pg. 254.
  10. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 8 September 2010.
  11. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011, p. 64.
  12. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press. p. 34.
  13. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011, p. 64.
  14. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011, p. 64.
  15. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 8 September 2010.
  16. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 95
  17. http://www.google.com/images, accessed 18 September 2010
  18. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 1105 Exploring a non-Western Culture: Tibet, 10 March 2010
  19. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  20. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  21. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  22. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  23. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  24. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  25. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  26. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  27. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  28. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  29. 16.Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, and Culture." pg. 244
  30. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, and Culture." pg 245
  31. 18. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, and Culture." pg. 248
  32. 18. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, and Culture." pg. 248
  33. 19. Franz, Boas. "Race, Language, and Culture." pg. 259
  34. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture"
  35. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture"
  36. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture."
  37. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture"
  38. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture"
  39. Boas, Franz. "Race, Language, and Culture"
  40. "Franz Boas Criticism." Enotes- Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, And More. 2010. Web. 12 September 2010. .
  41. "Franz Boas Criticism." Enotes- Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, and more. 2010. Web. September 12 2010..
  42. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers Of Cultural Anthropology, 8 September 2010.
  43. Calhoun, Craig J. Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: Oxford, UP, 2002. Print.
  44. 1. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers Of Cultural Anthropology, 8 September 2010. ▲
  45. Erickson, Paul A. and Murphy, Liam D "A History of Anthropological Theory 3rd edition" 2008 Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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