Franz Boas

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Franz Boas
BirthplaceMinden, Westphalia, Germany
EducationPh.D. in physics, University of Kiel (1881)

Boas, Franz

Boas, Franz (bōˈăz, –ăs), 1858–1942, German-American anthropologist, b. Minden, Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Kiel, 1881. He joined an expedition to Baffin Island in 1883 and initiated his fieldwork with observations of the Central Eskimos. In 1886, Boas began his investigations of the indigenous peoples of British Columbia. He secured his first academic position in the United States at Clark 1889, and was associated with the American Museum of Natural History from 1895 to 1905. Boas began to lecture at Columbia in 1896, and in 1899 became its first professor of anthropology, a position he held for 37 years and in which he trained and inspired nearly two generations of anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara DeLoria.

Boas greatly influenced American anthropology, particularly in his development of the theoretical framework known as cultural relativism, which argued against the evolutionary scale leading from savagery to culture, laid out by his 19th-century predecessors. He believed that cultures (plural) are too complex to be evaluated according to the broad theorizing characteristic of evolutionary “laws” of developing culture (singular). Instead, Boas sought to understand the development of societies through their particular histories, and wrote that despite their many differences, humanity is one indivisible thing. He established the “four-field approach” through his concern with human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture, each of which has become a subfield in the wider discipline of anthropology in the United States.

Boas reexamined the premises of physical anthropology and was a pioneer in the application of statistical methods to biometric study. He was an early critic of the use of race as an explanation for difference in the natural and social sciences, calling race a “dangerous fiction” and emphasizing instead the importance of environment in the evaluation of individual capabilities, and made important contributions to stratigraphic archaeology in Mexico. As a student of Native American languages, Boas emphasized the importance of linguistic analysis from internal linguistic structure, and pointed out that language was a fundamental aspect of culture. His insistence on rigorous methodology served to establish the scientific value of his contributions, and his methods and conclusions are still widely influential. He was a prolific writer whose works include The Mind of Primitive Man (1911, rev. ed. 1983); Anthropology and Modern Life (1928, repr. 1984); and Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966).


See G. W. Stocking, Jr., ed., Franz Boas Reader: Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911 (1982); biography by M. J. Herskovits (1953, repr. 1973); C. King's study of Boas and his circle, Gods of the Upper Air (2019).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Boas, Franz


Born July 9, 1858, in Minden, Westphalia; died Dec. 21, 1942, in New York. American linguist, and social and physical anthropologist; a specialist in the languages and culture of American Indians, principally of the northwest coast, and of the Eskimos.

Boas took part in Arctic expeditions in 1883–84. He moved to the USA in 1886 and began teaching at Columbia University in 1896. He was a founder and president (1928) of the American Linguistics Society. As one of the founders of American descriptive linguistics and of a very significant school in American ethnography (social anthropology), Boas developed a procedure for formal descriptions of native American languages.

Boas’ work on the physical anthropology and archaeology of North America is of great importance. While criticizing various trends in the bourgeois ethnography of his time, Boas often took stands reflecting a spontaneous materialist outlook in his analysis of concrete social phenomena. He unmasked and denounced racist teachings. Boas was known as an antifascist and was an active participant in various organizations of the US liberal intelligentsia that fought for democratic reforms.


Handbook of American Indian Languages, vols. 1–2. Washington, D.C., 1911–22.
Anthropology and Modern Life. London, 1929.
Race, Language, and Culture, 2nd ed. New York, 1948.
Race and Democratic Society. New York, 1946.
In Russian translation:
“Vvedenie k ’Rukovodstvu po iazykam amerikanskikh indeitsev.’” In V. A. Zvegintsev, Istoriia iazykoznaniia XIX i XX vekov v ocherkakh i izvlecheniiakh, 2nd ed., part 2. Moscow, 1965. 2nd ed., part 2. Moscow, 1965.
Um pervobytnogo cheloveka. Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.


Osnovnye napravleniia strukturalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Averkieva, Iu. P. “F. Boas (1858–1942).” Kratkie soobshcheniia In-ta etnografii AN SSSR, vol. 1, 1946.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Boas, Franz

(1858–1942) cultural anthropologist; born in Minden, Germany. A merchant's son, raised in a liberal environment, he became interested in natural history as a boy and studied geography at the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel. On his first field trip, to the Canadian Arctic (1883–84), he studied Eskimo tribes; from then on his intellectual interests turned to ethnology and anthropology. He emigrated to the United States in 1886, studied the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and worked in Massachusetts and Illinois before obtaining a post as a lecturer at Columbia University in New York City. Promoted to full professor in 1899, he trained several generations of anthropologists. As a scholar, his emphasis was to draw on ethnology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics, and to collect data about cultures, especially those passing from the scene. He and his students established new and more complex concepts of culture and race, as outlined in his collection of papers, Race, Language and Culture (1940). With the rise of Hitler in Germany he began to speak out against racism and intolerance, and he wrote and lectured widely in opposition to the Nazis. His other works include The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) and Anthropology and Modern Life (1928).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
References in periodicals archive ?
138-79; Benoit Massin, 'From Virchow to Fischer: Physical anthropology and "modern race theories" in Wilhelmine Germany', in Volksgeist as method and ethic: Essays on Boasian ethnography and the German anthropological tradition, ed.
(2) Nonetheless, due to the disciplinary distance between early modern studies and the broader fields of race studies, early modernists may be unaware of the Boasian theory and Hurston's role in its development.
Making the category of race totally outdated, Benedict and Weltfish, both Professors of Anthropology at Columbia University, universalized a Boasian historical anthropology, at that time named "culture and personality".
Adhering to the tenets of (Franz) Boasian anthropology, most ethnologists resist the idea that discrete cultures can (or should) be compared and evaluated according to supposedly universal criteria, but rather work vigorously to understand such cultures on their own terms.
Babbitt's programme has thereby a "Boasian" component in an anthropological sense, a fact that is evident in the statement Babbitt (1908: 173) makes with reference to "the distortion of the objective reality of life by its passage through the personal medium"; this is a phenomenon to be found more frequently in modern literature than in ancient literature.
In the interest of friendly inter-disciplinary rivalry, though, one might point out that many Boasian anthropologists were interested in showing the integrity and value of Native life in a period in which the assumption was that they were lesser beings.
This was the domain of Alfred Kroeber, a historic figure in the history of a discipline forming in the Boasian tradition.
The 'cultural' or 'mentalist' side of anthropology that subsequently Geertz, Schneider, and Sahlins developed, each of them in a particular direction, however, has its roots in the Boasian traditions.
An "intellectual response to a political situation," as anthropologists like Jemima Pierre and others have explained, the "deployment of culture ironically reconciled the Boasian agenda with the taxonomic schemes of earlier times" (201).
"Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology." American Anthropologist 99, no.
At that time, the war had erupted in Jack's Hill and I had started thinking about how we can write about these issues without constantly reverting to the sort of culturalist understanding of behaviour and practice that are so common, and I was also interested in the extent to which this framing of events and their aftermaths is the legacy of a Boasian anthropological approach in the U.S.