Franz Boas

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Franz Boas (born July 9, 1858 at Minden, Westphalia, in Germany; died December 21, 1942, New York City, United States of America) was a German-American cultural anthropologist. He was born into a secular Jewish family.

Franz Boas is said to have established ethnology as a serious social science in the United States, especially during his time at New York's Columbia University[1]. Among the anthropologists trained by Boas were Alfred Louis Kroeber. Robert H. Lowie, Paul Radin, Alexander A. Goldenweiser, Edward Sapir, Melville Jean Herskovits, Ruth Bendict and Margaret Mead. The Boas school strongly opposed evolutionism, the leading theory of the day and favored diffusionism[2].

Franz Boas studied mathematics, physics, geography and other natural sciences at Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel universities. In 1881 he earned his doctorate in physics with a study of the colour of water. He served as a soldier and then, in 1883, he undertook an expedition to Baffin Island to do research for his Habilitationsschrift. Beside his scientific work he got interested in the Inuit (or Eskimo) there. In 1886/87 and later, until 1896, he conducted fieldwork with various Northwestcoast societies, most famously the Kwakwaka'wakw (or Kwakiutl).

In Anthropology Boas followed[3] Adolf Bastian from Berlin and from 1884 Boas worked as an assistant (wissenschaftlicher Hilfsarbeiter) at the Royal Anthropological Museum (the Königlichen Museum für Völkerkunde) there. In 1886 he received the right to teach at University, with a thesis based on his Baffin Island research. For a short time he was a Privatdozent at Berlin's Friedrich-Wilhelms University. In 1886/87 he went on his first expedition to British Columbia. Boas emigrated to the United States of America in 1887. His future wife was an American and he also thought about his career.

He was engaged in establishing the American Folk-Lore Society in 1888. Boas taught anthropology (Physical Anthropology) at the recently founded Clark University, at Worchester (from 1892 to 1896) and at Columbia University, from 1896 as lecturer in physical anthropology and since 1899 as its first professor of anthropology. In the next decades Boas and his pupils would teach most leading American anthropologists. Boas was emeritated in 1937.

Boas worked for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. He was curator at Chicago's Field Museum and from 1896 to 1905 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he organized and published various expeditions to Siberia, Alaska and Canada, the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902). In 1898 he launched the new series of the American Anthropologist and the American Anthropological Association was established in 1900 (reanimating Gallantin's old American Ethnological Society).

Outside the profession Franz Boas was known because of his stance against racism. Boas also organized financial support for German science after the lost World War I.


  1. There had been well known Americans interested in anthropology and the Native Americans, like Albert Gallatin and Lewis H. Morgan. The Bureau of American Ethnology had been established in 1879.
  2. It is said that Boas in his youth was most impressed with Edward Burnett Tylor's concept of culture. Tylor of course was an evolutionist. The ethnologist Justin Stagl (1974) saw some similarities between E. B. Tylor's and Ruth Benedict's or Margaret Mead's holistic concepts (p. 37). To Boas cultural anthropology was only one part of anthropology; which analyses types of bodily build, of linguistic expression, and of other cultural features that set of one human society from others (Boas 1943, p. 311). And, as Stagl stresses, the debate about race, a concept central to physical anthropology, dominates Boas's books The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) and Anthropology and Modern Life (1932). Justin Stagl (1974): Kulturanthropologie und Gesellschaft. List, München (in German).
  3. But other scientists and anthropologists (in the European sense of the concept) were also important. Rudolf Virchow influenced his scientific and probably his democratic ethos, for example. The famous geographers Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Ritter influenced him through his teacher Theobald Fischer.