Franz Boas – The Father Of Anthropology

In this post, I am sharing a bit about Franz Boas, for an end of the semester Anthropology project I am working on. Franz Boas was not only a scientist, historian, and wonderful human being, he deserves so much respect for all his work and accomplishments throughout his life. Boas used Anthropology to explore culture, race, and the world in order to shatter racism and the ideas that anyone’s race or culture is superior to another.

“Cultural relativism is the ability to understand a culture on its own terms and not to make judgments using the standards of one’s own culture. The goal of this is promote understanding of cultural practices that are not typically part of one’s own culture. Using the perspective of cultural relativism leads to the view that no one culture is superior than another culture when compared to systems of morality, law, politics, etc.” These ideals are what were at the center of what Franz Boas, “the father of anthropology”, believed in. He fought very hard to make anthropology what it is today; however, he didn’t just make Anthropology popular here in the U.S, he also used it to shatter racism. His studies focused a lot on how anthropology can be used to disprove the ideas that one race is superior to another, and how all cultures have their own uniqueness. Franz Boas used this to prove that everyone truly is equal. No race, religion, or culture is better over another. This was groundbreaking in how anthropology was used to fit into the western ideals of humanism. How working together can achieve a lot for the greater good.

Franz Boas was an anthropologist who was originally from Germany. He was born in the summer of 1858 on July 9th. Boas parents had a massive impact on his thinking because they believed in enlightenment philosophies and had no space for blindly following a belief system. They were well educated and wealthy people who believed in liberalism and questioning everything around you. They were Boas biggest supporters when it came to his ideals about Cultural relativism. Boas once 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 hometown, 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.”

The early life of Boas was grounded in supportive parents who helped their son find his interest in science and philosophy. After studying at both Heidelberg University, Bonn University, and Kiel University, he would eventually find his way to Baffin island, where he worked with a geological team studying native Intuit migration. It was from these experiences he wrote his first paper titled The Central Eskimo, and would be published in the 1888 6th Annual Report from the Bureau of American Ethnology. In Boas diary, he gave accounts of how their culture really shaped his view. “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 …”

The words Boas wrote in his diary really strike me as highly intelligent and I cannot help but be reminded of many examples of this occurring in history. Spanish Conquest is the biggest example that comes to my mind. They were viewed as savages, yet had wealth, massive cities, religion, laws, and a strong vibrant culture. They weren’t savages, it was the Spanish conquerors who were in fact the savages who destroyed the natives way of life. I could endlessly go on with examples of this; however, I just want to express that the mind of Franz Boas was insightful and he worked hard to break down ignorance using sciences as his weapon to do so and back up his knowledge.

He had originally been focused on studying culture but this led him into the world of Anthropology, where he was a professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. While he was at Columbia, he founded and played a key part in the structure of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). According to Charles King, writer and historian for Columbian Magazine, during this time, Boas was able to shine. “The move to full-time work at the university gave Boas the opportunity to build his own team of researchers. “Neither Berlin with its five anthropological professorships, nor Paris with its anthropological school, nor Holland with its colonial school, could give a proper training to the observers whom we need,” he wrote to a colleague in 1901. He reorganized the department’s coursework to include training in linguistics and ethnology, not just the traditional anthropometry. “With archaeology represented,” he told the university’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, “we should be able to train anthropologists in all directions.”

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