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Selection One on Franz Boas

In the time before the late, great Franz Boas, evolutionary theorists and diffusionists dominated the field of anthropological thought. It wasn’t until Boas published his first works that the focus of his discipline began to turn and follow a different direction. Boas was a firm believer that the study of anthropology should be more concerned with the small building blocks of history as opposed to just the finished construction. This new and distantly American brand of anthropology that Boas was formulating totally contradicted what other intellectuals in his field had been theorizing for the last century.

As a result Boas struggled to present his ideology, but in doing so, he became the founder of American anthropology with his establishment of the Historical Particularist school. In this paper I will explain the kind of anthropology that Boas advocated that eventually revolutionized anthropology. I will also explain how he proposed we should go about doing this kind of work. In conclusion I will go on to discuss how his work was scientific in the sense that he utilized a combination method based on cultural relativism.

During the twentieth century this idea of a common unilinear volution for all societies was prominent among the anthropological discipline. Evolutionary theorists (such as Spencer, Morgan & Tylor) used parallelism to support their theory. However if we acknowledge “different ultimate and co-existing types of civilization” beyond that of modern Western Europe, then “the hypothesis of one single general line of development cannot be maintained (p. 133). ” On the other hand Boas felt that the diffusionist and migrational theorists were also flawed under three basic concepts.

In order for their ideas to be true, it required; the ontact of societies over vast geographical areas, a large degree of stability of cultural traits between these societies, along with a “correlation between a number of diverse and mutually independent cultural traits which reappear in the same combination in distant parts of the world (p. 133). ” Boas felt that both of these classifications (evolutionary and diffusionary) of static observation of culture were based solely on the assumption that these classification were historically significant.

He didn’t believe they were historically significant because their argument as founded in the end image, not to mention they didn’t even attempt to verify their assumption. They relied on the application of an hypothesis that they couldn’t prove which ultimately set them up for failure. In another words “their argument assumes what it is trying to prove (p. 133). ” Boas thought these ideas were totally in opposition to American Anthropology which looks at dynamic cultural change. He believed this change not only looked at how things are now but also how they once were through archaeology.

Boas thought we should try to put together the small ieces first and then a bigger picture would someday emerge from these constructions (ethnographic fields notes). One of the goals of American Anthropology was to “try to elucidate cultural history by the application of the results of these studies” without immediate concern for parallel development across wide areas or the long-term stability of cultural traits (134). American Anthropology is not just a series of detailed studies that doesn’t pay attention to the bigger picture of the whole history of human civilization.

It just assumes that the overall problem of constructing the ntire history of civilization is more complex and requires more than a mere formula. Boas felt that with the study like that of American Anthropology, primitive societies don’t look as static and it becomes clear that “all cultural forms rather appear in a constant state of flux and are subject to fundamental modifications (p. 135). ” He thought the reason why culture has not been looked at in terms of inner forces is because it is much harder (in terms of method) than looking at dissemination (outward spreading).

To look at these internal forces, he believed each event must e approached as both an effect and cause, creating a cumulative effect ( a cause is also an effect and vice versa; they are one in the same). According to Boas, individual actions are determined to an extent by society, but individual actions also influence society and can change its form. Therefore the method Boas tried to develop was “based on a study of the dynamic changes in a society that may be observed at the present time (p. 136). ” Thus there is no worldwide uniform evolution because each cultural group has a different history.

There are no long, extended eriods of stability because stable periods are always followed by periods of rapid change (p. 136). Boas believed this parallelism was from the psychological or social causation factors that lead to the same result. In another words, there is only a limited number of ways to solve a problem (such as with topics like marriage). Therefore “if we look for laws , the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological and social conditions, not to sequences of cultural achievement (p. 37). ”

Boas saw the study of linguistics as another area in which explained this parallelism. He felt language categories helped people to organize the world into conceptual groups and “impose themselves upon the form of our thoughts (p. 139). ” Language is an example of a cultural element going from complex to simple with time. It provides a psychological aspect of anthropology because linguistic categories are unconscious. As a result, the grouping of language represents the organization of the human mind.

Also another important concept he mentioned was that the work of psychologists (such as Freud) could be used but must be restricted from being one-sided. For xample it must be recognized that the influences of history are not the same as individual psychology. In the mind of Boas, American Anthropology is concerned with the “investigation of mankind from the biological, geographical and psychological points of view” and, more specifically “the diversity of these traits in groups of men found in different geographical areas and in different social classes (p. 267).

Anthropology should examine the causes for these differences and the overall sequence of events that brought about this diversity. Boas felt anthropology integrated anatomy, physiology, long with psychology and that its methods cannot be separated from biology and psychology. He proposed that anthropology was interesting to us because “everything that concerns our own species is of special interest to us (p. 268). ” Therefore the topics of anthropological investigation serve to unite all humans, but also the individual with a group in society to which he belongs.

Franz Boas felt that there were two fundamental questions in the study of anthropology; “Why are the tribes and nations of the world different and how have the present differences developed (p. 269)? ” In his ind anthropology was a science not a history. He thought of his discipline as science because it “endeavors to reconstruct the early history of mankind, and that tries, whenever possible to express in the forms of laws, ever-recurring modes of historical happenings (p. 269). ” On the other hand history is mostly concerned with the civilization of its investigator and it doesn’t value people across the globe equally (like anthropology).

Therefore anthropology is more like a natural science because of its attempt to objectively consider historical happenings as a series of events. According to Boas, “in time, anthropology will become more and more a method that may be applied by a great number of sciences, rather than a science by itself (p. 270). ” Boas saw biological anthropology as concerned with the classification of races and man’s relation to other animals. The metric methods of biological anthropology have carried over into other biological sciences and other areas of anthropology.

It’s basic ideas center around the application of biological evolutionary theory to mental phenomena. Therefore from this subfield we know that people are separated from wild nimals and that races present today have not been subjected to a great deal of artificial selection. It is Boas’s belief that there are two basic races, Negro and Mongoloid, which were established “at an early geographical period (p. 272). ” He thought the varieties of man present today have remained relatively stable within their ranges of variation.

As a result Boas concluded that there is no “pure type” because “the transitions between types are so gradual, and in so many different directions, that the establishment of any one of the series as a primary time would be quite arbitrary (p. 73). ” He based his reasoning on the fact that there is no progressive development of the human body (including the central nervous system). This allowed him to reason that the differences of mental ability in different races did not prove the white race was superior.

You can imagine how this new ideology set in with racist and eugenist theorists of his time, but he supported his ideas through anthropology. He argued that evidence for this one-track evolutionary model of civilization (growing from simple to complex) did not support a “fundamental unity of the mind of all races (p. 276). Boas felt this model didn’t seem applicable to any specific cases because it didn’t align with what had been plotted by historical reconstruction. Also this argument was flawed because the idea that cultural elements were transmitted much further and faster than previously thought.

Therefore he stated “the culture of any tribe…. can be fully explained only when we take into consideration it’s inner growth as well as its relation to the culture of it’s near and distant neighbors and the effect that they might have exerted (p. 278). ” In conclusion Boas reasoned that anthropology can “teach ertain facts that are of importance in our common everyday life,” allowing “us to free ourselves from the prejudices of our civilization (p. 280). ” He thought it demonstrates that the differences in other cultures are not in value, but in kind.

Also that anthropology provides a “better understanding of our own activities,” including the lesson that “man the world over believes that he follows the dictates of reason, no matter how unreasonably he may act (p. 280). ” Overall Franz Boas believed in cultural relativism and used this concept as support to criticize unilinear evolutionists. He thought hat all cultures are complex as well as of equal value, work, and meaning which attacked racism (challenging basic prejudices and misconceptions) at it’s core.

Therefore he felt all cultures/societies should be valued and studied in their own historical terms. He advocated everything, including cultural, social and historical phenomena in terms of cause and effect. However he believed they were one in the same, a cause is also simultaneously an effect and vice versa. The reason humans tend to think of these differently he proposed, is because of our reliance on dialectical thinking when examining things. In formulating these ideas, Boas became the founder of American Anthropology.

Boas then went on to name his new discipline as Historical Particularism which saw the uniqueness of each cultures history as complex. He believed everything (from diffusion, trade, population as well as social/political/psychological and physical environments) needed to be considered or taken into account when studying a particular cultures history. Now it wasn’t that Boas thought theory was useless (bogus) but only that it needed to be postponed until we could provide adequate evidence for its existence (through ethnographic studies).

Instead of first creating (using) theories and then trying to prove them with evidence on a biased/unscientific methodology of thinking in the field. An ethnographer should do intensive fieldwork, examine his research and then, and only then, can theories be formulated. Boas felt very strongly in this notion that theory emerges from fieldwork as opposed to the usage of theory to emerge yourself in fieldwork. This is the fundamental reason why Boas didn’t present a theory for Historical Particularism but instead laid out intensive (sometimes shocking) tasks for fieldwork by the ethnographer.

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