March 25, 2007

Franz Boas

Filed under: Franz Boas, Inquiry, race — ubikcan @ 12:56 pm

Franz Boas is known as a leading anthropologist, one of the most important people in the origins of the discipline, and an influential thinker on race. Boas spoke out against the racist interpretation of anthropological data at a time when eugenics was mainstream science.

His studies actually began with physics and geography. His PhD was in physics (1881). He spent time in the Arctic (Baffin Land), where he met and came to be intrigued with the Eskimos (Inuit).

Koelsch has argued recently that Boas’ interest in geography was deeper than has been appreciated, that he tried to get a job in the USA as a geographer and that his “conversion” to anthropology after his Arctic experiences (for example as recounted in Herskovits, 1953) is a “myth.”

(Koelsch is actually quite funny about this: he scathingly describes the attempts to diminish Boas’ interest in geography as a stage between physics and anthropology as a kind of adolescent “aberration,” indeed “a kind of intellectual acne”. As for the “conversion” Boas himself denied it.)

Later, after reading Kant, he became interested in “psychophysics” (according to wikipedia) that is, psychological and epistemological problems in physics.

The American Inquiry contacted Boas (a short correspondence file is available in the US National Archives, Washington DC) but (if I recall) nothing much came of it. Compare that to the eagerness of Charles Davenport’s involvement in collecting race-based data for the Inquiry.

His most famous work is the Mind of Primitive Man, which was his attempt to examine the relations between natural and cultural influences.

Boas studied the bodily form of immigrants and surprisingly found that they changed. Specifically that locus of intellectual advancement, the head. Sduying both Jews and Sicilians, he found that Jews born in America had longer heads than their foreign-born relatives. Sicilians had rounder heads than theirs (Marks 1995: 124). Later studies by Harry Shapiro and Frederick Hulse (former students of Hooten) of Japanese immigrants found even bigger effects.

Recently this well-known finding was challenged (Sparks and Jantz), but then itself reconciled with Boas’ data (Gravlee et al.).

For Marks, perhaps his most valuable contribution was his constant divorcing of human history from the gene pool. Not only did this undermine the Great Chain of Being, but it questioned the notion of progress, replacing it with one of change-without-progress (or adaptation). It explicitly rejected the idea of “better” races (Marks 1995: 75).


Gravlee, C.C., Russell Bernard, H. & Leonard, W.R. (2003). Boas’s Changes in Bodily Form: The Immigrant Study, Cranial Plasticity, and Boas’s Physical Anthropology. American Anthropologist, 105(2), 326-32.

Herskovits, M.J. (1953) Franz Boas. The Science of Man in the Making. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Koelsch, W.A. (2004). Franz Boas, Geographer, and the Problem of Disciplinary Identity. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 40(1), 1-22.

Marks, J. (1995) Human Biodiversity. Hawthorne, NY, Aldine de Gruyter.

Sparks, C.S. & Jantz, R.L. (2002). A Reassessment of Human Cranial Plasticity: Boas Revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(23), 14636-39.


1 Comment »

  1. […] know if there is a written history of it as a whole, but there very much should be–what did Franz Boas do during the war for […]

    Pingback by Intellectuals and war « ubikcan — March 25, 2007 @ 2:25 pm

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