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[Elizabeth Hutchinson] Franz Boas

This text was produced by Elizabeth Hutchinson while the person was a student at Macalester. It was distributed for in-class review. Any use of this text necessitates you to contact the person directly for copyright purposes.

From: “Elizabeth Hutchinson”
Sent: Thursday, September 30, 2004 11:16 PM
Subject: boas crib sheet

Franz Boas

Had background in physical sciences, and felt that theoretical claims could only be supported with a large collection of data. Thus, he put strong emphasis on collection and documentation of cultural objects, information, and therefore felt ethnographic fieldwork experiences were essential. Boas argued that only through living with a people and learning their language could one develop an accurate understanding of their culture.

Boas rejected the comparative method of unilineal evolutionists (such as Tylor) for 4 reasons:

1. It is impossible to account for the variation in human culture by claiming that similar cultural traits were the result of parallel development driven by universal evolutionary law.

2. The discovery of similar traits in different societies is not important like the comparative school of thought believes. It is not necessarily evidence of psychic unity or large-scale diffusion.

3. Similar human traits developed for very different reasons in different cultures.

4. The idea that cultural differences are small and unimportant is wrong. It is the cultural differences which are important to ethnography.

Boas replaced the comparative method with an inductive (historical) method. He felt that the historical method was a “uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture.” In this method, cultural variation and custom in societies is influenced, shaped, and caused by: (1) the environmental factors (2) psychological conditions (3) history (the most important). Then, after looking at the history of particular culture and the effects of the environment and psychological conditions, general laws could be found through comparing histories of other cultures. Discovering the processes which in particular groups leads to the development of certain customs is the important function of the historical method.

Boas explained that it was possible for the same characteristics to be produced through different processes and demonstrated that different cultures have similar traits for reasons such as diffusion and trade. These similar cultural traits, independent of a universal evolutionary process, can be the result of similar environments or historical accident.

Boas pioneered the concept of cultural relativism. Cultural evolutionists made arguments that societies followed parallel paths of development (savagery to civilization) but Boas rejected parallel evolution, and argued that societies were the result of their own unique histories and environmental conditions and must be understood in that context.

Over the course of his life, Boas’s position of the effects of the individual on society changed; early on he believed that individuals were of little importance, but later he gave them much more importance. (…the important problem of the relation of the individual to society, a problem that has to be considered whenever we study the dynamic conditions of change (pg. 136, MGW). Boas felt an individuals activities are determined, to a large extent, by his social environment, but the individuals activities have an influence on his/her society.


How would Boas argue that society is created? If it’s not psychic unity and not diffusion, what is it?

Also considering his argument that all cultures are equal, how would he respond to Nazi culture? While cultures may all be important to study, are there cases when we should find problem with or look down on cultures?

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