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 ?
Enquanto se interessava por essa perspectiva, ele se distanciava de um de seus maiores criticos: Franz Boas. No ano de 1960, por exemplo, White reclamava que "a filosofia antievolucionista do grupo de Boas ainda esta sendo ensinada em varios departamentos de Antropologia nos Estados Unidos" (4) (SAHLINS; SERVICE 1988, p.
All knew each other and exposed their students to fellow members of the "cabal." Having studied under Franz Boas DuBois was readily accepted into the inner-circle.
"The Ethnographic Object and the Object of Ethnography in the Early Career of Franz Boas".
It begins with an earlier, foundational moment in the history of cultural performance, the Jamaican Christmas revolt of 1831, and uses this event to introduce and highlight a broader historical and political turn in the study of culture in the work of twentieth-century ethnographers Franz Boas and Zora Neale Hurston.
A autora revisita o que chama de herois culturais, como Franz Boas, Bronislav Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Margaret Mead, e dedica um subcapitulo a etnografia antropologica e sociologica dos Estados Unidos, com referencias a Universidade de Chicago, situando autores, como Robert E.
Franz Boas, a primary anthropologist of the Kwakwaka'wakw, makes it clear that the coastal tribes do not have an ex nihilo origin myth such as the Western tradition presumes:
Both Meyer and Finsch were players in the era's "race question" debates about the comparative humanity of the world's peoples; both developed their ideas in European metropolitan centers and then met the actual people during field research; their encounters with real human beings and societies altered their ideas in major ways (Howes considers them precursors of Franz Boas).
Index to the Franz Boas collection of materials for American Linguistics.