Here I am back again after my move from Mantua to Mandalay. I’m not sure I can get back in the swing of daily postings right away because I am still navigating deep and treacherous waters with a new job and new living situation in a country where I speak one phrase of the local language — မင်္ဂလာပါ which means “hello.” After that, all bets are off. But today is the birthday (1858) of Franz Boas, often called the Father of American Anthropology, and I am a professional anthropologist in the Boasian tradition, so I have to honor him today. In the profession he’s sometimes known as Papa Franz, and any American Anthropologist trained in the Boasian tradition can trace a lineage back to him, through doctoral supervisors. My doctoral supervisor was James Peacock, his was Cora Du Bois who took courses with Boas at Columbia as an undergraduate but did her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley under Alfred Kroeber, who was a doctoral student under Boas. Three short generations and I am back to Boas. Boas really revolutionized anthropology in the US, and because I have spent a lifetime teaching and writing in the Boasian tradition I could obviously write volumes on his influence. I’ll try to pare it down to some simple, salient facts.
Franz Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia. Although his grandparents were observant Jews, his parents were educated, well-to-do, and free thinking, not liking dogma of any kind. Because of this background Boas was allowed to think for himself and pursue his own interests. Early in life he displayed a passion for both nature and natural sciences. He wrote:
The background of my early thinking was a German home in which the ideals of the revolution of 1848 were a living force. My father, liberal, but not active in public affairs; my mother, idealistic, with a lively interest in public matters; the founder about 1854 of the kindergarten in my home town, devoted to science. My parents had broken through the shackles of dogma. My father had retained an emotional affection for the ceremonial of his parental home, without allowing it to influence his intellectual freedom.
From kindergarten on, Boas was educated in natural history, a subject he enjoyed. In gymnasium, he was most proud of his research on the geographic distribution of plants. When he started his university studies, Boas first attended Heidelberg University for a term followed by four terms at Bonn University, studying physics, geography, and mathematics at these schools. In 1879, he hoped to transfer to Berlin University to study physics under Hermann von Helmholtz, but ended up transferring to the University of Kiel instead for family reasons. At Kiel, Boas studied under Theobald Fischer and received a doctorate in physics in 1881 for his dissertation entitled “Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water,” which examined the absorption, reflection, and the polarization of light in seawater. Although technically Boas’ doctorate was in physics, his advisor Fischer, a student of Carl Ritter, was primarily a geographer and thus some biographers view Boas as more of a geographer than a physicist at this stage. For his part Boas self-identified as a geographer by this time, prompting his sister, Toni, to write in 1883 “After long years of infidelity, my brother was re-conquered by geography, the first love of his boyhood.”
In his dissertation research, Boas’ methodology included investigating how different intensities of light created different colors when interacting with different types of water, however he encountered difficulty in being able to objectively perceive slight differences in the color of water and as a result became intrigued by this problem of perception and its influence on quantitative measurements. Boas had already been interested in Kantian philosophy since taking a course on aesthetics with Kuno Fischer at Heidelberg. These factors led Boas to consider pursuing research in psychophysics, which explores the relationship between the psychological and the physical, after completing his doctorate, but he had no training in psychology. Boas did publish six articles on psychophysics during his year of military service (1882-1883), but ultimately he decided to focus on geography, primarily so he could receive sponsorship for his planned Baffin Island expedition.
Hence, Boas took up geography as a way to explore his growing interest in the relationship between subjective experience and the objective world. At the time, German geographers were divided over the causes of cultural variation. Many argued that the physical environment was the principal determining factor, but others (notably Friedrich Ratzel) argued that the diffusion of ideas through human migration is more important. In 1883, encouraged by Theobald Fischer, Boas went to Baffin Island to conduct geographic research on the impact of the physical environment on native Inuit migrations. The first of many ethnographic field trips, Boas culled his notes to write his first monograph titled The Central Eskimo, which was published in the 6th Annual Report from the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1888. Boas lived and worked closely with the Inuit peoples on Baffin Island, and he developed an abiding interest in the way people lived.
In the perpetual darkness of the Arctic winter, Boas reported, he and his traveling companion became lost and were forced to keep sledding for twenty-six hours through ice, soft snow, and temperatures that dropped below −46 °C. The following day, Boas penciled in his diary,
I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them. We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.
He went on to do field work with the indigenous cultures and languages of the Pacific Northwest which became the core of his ethnographic studies, even though he never published a proper ethnography of the peoples. His massive collections of Northwest art and artifacts are still housed in a special exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City where he worked as a curator before taking up a professorship at Columbia university in 1899 where he remained for the rest of his career. Boas’ first task at Columbia was to organize a department of anthropology by pulling together experts from different departments who were anthropologists of one stripe or another according to Boas’ ideals. He saw the study of humanity as embracing all manner of scientific disciplines that when collected together gave a rounded, holistic understanding of the human condition.
Many of Boas’ doctoral students went on to found anthropology departments and research programs inspired by his ideas, and, as such, Boas profoundly influenced the development of American anthropology. Among his most well-known students were Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Melville Herskovits, Ruth Bunzel, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Boas was one of the most prominent opponents of the then popular ideologies of scientific racism, the idea that race is a biological concept and that human behavior is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics. In a series of groundbreaking studies of skeletal anatomy he showed that cranial shape and size were highly malleable depending on environmental factors such as health and nutrition, in contrast to the claims by racial anthropologists of the day that held head shape to be a stable racial trait. Boas also worked to demonstrate that differences in human behavior are not primarily determined by innate biological dispositions, but are largely the result of cultural differences acquired through social learning. In this way, Boas introduced culture as the primary concept for describing differences in behavior between human groups, and as the central analytical concept of American anthropology. The concept of culture remains his enduring legacy, even though, like so many pivotal ideas of the early 20th century, it has yet to penetrate to the popular level. It has been demonstrated repeatedly and convincingly time and again that the popular conception of race has ZERO basis in biology – I mean zero. But the idea that biological races exist will not go away. My simple definition of a racist: “Anyone who believes that biological races exist.” Period. People are people, and what unites and defines them are cultural behaviors not biological traits. Hence, nowadays anthropologists in the Boasian mode (including myself) speak of “ethnicity” and not “race.”
One of Boas’ main contributions to anthropological thought was his rejection of the then-popular evolutionary approaches to the study of culture, which saw all societies progressing through a set of hierarchic technological and cultural stages, with Western European culture at the summit. You probably know some version of this such as, stone age, bronze age, iron age. Lewis Henry Morgan in the US and E. B. Tylor in Britain had published widely accepted theories of general cultural evolution that pegged all world cultures on a fixed scale from most primitive to most modern. Boas argued that culture developed historically through the interactions of groups of people and the diffusion of ideas, and that consequently there was no process towards continuously “higher” cultural forms. This insight led Boas to reject the stage-based organization of ethnological museums, instead preferring to order items on display based on the affinity and proximity of the cultural groups in question.
Boas also introduced the ideology of cultural relativism which holds that cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or lower, or better or more correct, but that all humans see the world through the lens of their own culture, and judge it according to their own culturally acquired norms. For Boas the object of anthropology was to understand the way in which culture conditioned people to understand and interact with the world in different ways, and to do this it was necessary to gain an understanding of the language and cultural practices of the people studied. By uniting the disciplines of archaeology, the study of material culture and history, and physical anthropology, the study of variation in human anatomy, with ethnology, the study of cultural variation of customs, and descriptive linguistics, the study of unwritten indigenous languages, Boas created the four-field subdivision of anthropology which became prominent in American anthropology throughout the 20th century.
The four-field approach still exists in theory, but not in practice. When I was a doctoral student in the early 1970s I was expected to be minimally competent in all four fields and for my M.A. I had to take coursework in all four. Furthermore, I taught Introduction to General Anthropology, the basic anthropology course for undergraduates, which was evenly divided between the four fields. But even then the four fields were an atavism, and no one was seriously expected to do research in all four. For a time, in fact, doctoral candidates became highly specialized in their sub-disciplines to their detriment. At my graduate university the archeologists and the cultural anthropologists occupied completely separate parts of the building and rarely spoke to one another. The pendulum has been swinging back the other way for some years now as specialists in the different disciplines see the merits for their long-term goals of embracing a more holistic outlook. Archeologists, for example, who were once content to dig up and classify projectile points and broken bits of pots postulating sequences and time lines, now see the benefit of studying cultural anthropology to give these artifacts a broader context which allows them to theorize more widely about the cultural patterns to which the artifacts testify. I don’t do any physical anthropology, but my own research and writing embraces archeology, linguistic, and cultural anthropology fairly evenly, and I see the holistic approach to culture and history as essential in understanding behavior.
Boas’ fieldwork with the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest was eye opening in that it showed that people without domesticated plants and animals (commonly called foragers) need not necessarily live in small egalitarian bands as is the norm among the majority of foragers. The Kwakiutl gathered, hunted, and fished in an environment that was abundant with natural resources, and, in consequence developed an extremely complex, hierarchical system of social organization that revolved around feasts known as potlatches whose rules of protocol and etiquette (Who sits where; what portion of an animal each receives based on social rank; the method of cooking food for different ranks; and so forth) were so complicated that key informants themselves had to spend days discussing them among themselves to make sure they had them correct before reporting them to Boas. Here’s a very small sample of his notes:
The hair seal teaches the common people [bEgwil] their place; for chiefs receive the chest, and all the chiefs in rank receive the limbs. They only give pieces of the body of the seal to common people [bEgwil] of the tribes and they give the tail of the seal to people lowest in rank [bEkwaxa]. Therefore trouble often follows a seal-feast and a feast of short and long cinquefoil roots; for when a man who gives a seal feast with many seals hates another man, he gives him a piece of blubber from the body, although he may be of noble descent; and they do the same with the short cinquefoil roots.
Salmon was caught by the Kwakiutl in abundance in local rivers and was commonly roasted over an open fire on a cedar plank. This has become a popular method for chefs in Washington state and British Columbia. The cedar imparts a delicate flavor to the fish which, unfortunately, too many cooks these days overwhelm with marinades and such. There is no need for complexity here.
Soak a thick untreated cedar plank in water overnight. Prepare a hot bed of coals (or use your grill if you have to). Place the cedar plank over the coals, and when it begins to smoke place thick salmon fillets on it. Let them cook through without turning or disturbing in any way. You can test for doneness by trying gently to pry open the fillet. Serve the salmon on the plank. It will continue cooking at the table.