Home Others Genius at work: How Franz Boas created the field of cultural anthropology

Genius at work: How Franz Boas created the field of cultural anthropology

Books By Karl King |Winter 2019-20

Boas reenacts a ceremonial dance by the Kwakiutl to help the Smithsonian Institution sculptors build a diorama. (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives)

A century ago, when people believed that intelligence, empathy, and human potential were determined by race and gender, Franz Boas looked at the data and decided they were all wrong. In this excerpt from the new book Gods of the Upper Air , Karl King introduces the idiosyncratic Columbia professor.


After his appointment at Columbia, Boas' ties to the American Museum of Natural History began to fade. He had a habit of respecting himself more than making himself popular. His time at the museum had brought about new research and exhibitions, but also disappointments, professional differences and hurt feelings in his colleagues, who found him self-confident, intrusive and provocative. When he officially resigned from his position as curator in 1905, nobody begged him to stay.

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The move to a full-time position at the university gave Boas the opportunity to set up his own research team. Neither Berlin with its five anthropological professorships, nor Paris with its anthropological school, nor Holland with its colonial school could properly train the observers we need, he wrote in 1901 to a colleague in linguistics and ethnology, not just in traditional anthropometry. If archeology is represented, he told the president of the university, Nicholas Murray Butler, we should be able to train anthropologists in all directions.

Boas had gone with Marie and the children to a sprawling house across the Hudson River in Grantwood, New Jersey. It soon became an informal gathering place for a growing group of graduate students. Many have already made a name for themselves as versatile scholars with knowledge of ethnology, linguistics, archeology and physical anthropology, the four different areas that Boas saw as the basis of a separate discipline of anthropology. The first of them to graduate from Columbia in 1901 was Alfred Kroeber, another member of the German immigrant community in New York. Soon he was on his way to California, where he set up the new department for anthropology in Berkeley. Robert Lowie, an Austrian emigrant and budding expert on the Plains Indians, graduated in 1908 and later joined Kroeber on the west coast. Edward Sapir, a Jewish immigrant from the Russian Empire, graduated in 1909 under Boaz's direction with a dissertation on the languages ​​of the Pacific Northwest. He soon moved to Ottawa to lead the Canadian government's geological survey. Alexander Goldenweiser and Paul Radin, Jewish immigrants from Kiev and ódź, graduated in 1910 and 1911 with work on anthropological theory and Indian ethnology. It is gratifying to note that the demand for graduates from Columbia University's anthropological department has always been so high that virtually all young men in anthropological museums and colleges are those who either graduated here or spent a significant number of years in that department have studied. Boaz bragged to President Butler.

However, within a few years this initial dynamic seemed to falter. Butler disapproved of the fact that teachers spent so much time researching rather than in the classroom. He informed Boas that no increases would be made for anthropology. There was no money for teaching materials. There were too few lecturers to cover all fields of study. Boas wrote to Kroeber in early 1908 that the situation is in a pitiful state, and ... for the time being, all of our previous hopes and longings have been shattered. The only solution is to find new sources of income, even a complete change of interests, he added, which could provide a more stable financial basis for the continued fieldwork he hoped for.

Boas began sending letters to virtually every possible source suggesting great research that might somehow attract new funds. He contacted his old colleagues at the Bureau of American Ethnology with the idea of ​​creating a handbook of Native American languages ​​that he hoped would earn additional travel money for his students and staff. In the academic year 1907/08 he expanded the range of courses, including a new class on 'The Negro Problem'. I am trying to organize certain scientific papers on the Negro race that I believe will be of great practical value in changing our people's views on the Negro problem, he told Booker T. Washington. Aware that more body in the classroom was another reason for President Butler to increase the department's budget, he also pushed for classes to be opened up to students. Then, in the spring of 1908, a special new opportunity presented itself to Boaz that promised to solve a multitude of difficulties at once.


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Just as the US Geological Survey examined the physical wealth of the western territories, the Bureau of American Ethnology examined the people who lived there. This 1916 picture shows ethnologist Frances Densmore and Mountain Chief, a Blackfoot leader.


A year earlier, the US Congress had set up a special commission to study the rise in immigration and its practical impact on the United States. Rumors circulated that foreign governments were deliberately sending criminals and the infirm to rid themselves of the undesirable and weaken American society in the process. Eventually, chaired by Senator William P. Dillingham, a Republican from Vermont, the commissioners included such luminaries as Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts Republican and anti-immigrant, and LeRoy Percy, a Mississippi Democrat and prominent Delta planter. Adorned with straw boats and linen suits, this respected group of commissioners set out on a steamboat trip to Naples, Marseille and Hamburg, including other European ports. There they found pitiful prison camps full of Italians, Greeks and Syrians, all willing to pay unscrupulous captains whatever they wanted to cross the Atlantic. They discovered no evidence of a conspiracy to water down the great race, as Madison Grant would soon call it. Upon their return, however, they decided to organize a series of working groups to examine the overall immigration problem, compile statistical data, and make detailed recommendations for more rational policies to deal with the waves of aliens now crashing on American shores.

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In March 1908, the Commission contacted Boas with the idea of ​​preparing a report on the immigration of various races into this country and asked him what his thoughts were on carrying it out. Boaz wasted no time answering. He suggested investigating physical changes in immigrants who had recently arrived in the United States. If immigration actually had an impact on American society, its most evident results were likely to be seen in the bodies of the newest Americans: the children of immigrants. Did they conform to a common American guy? Or were the hereditary traits common to the various races of Europe so powerful that they could survive over time and distance and be passed on to children who were the product of a marriage across racial or ethnic lines? Could these preserved traits, the remnants of ancient races and sub-races, raise natural barriers to what has been called America's melting pot ideal?

The importance of this question can hardly be overestimated, wrote Boas to the Commission staff, and the development of modern anthropological methods makes it entirely possible to give a clear answer to the problem we face. He suggested a budget of nearly $ 20,000 that a team of observers could use to measure heads, take family histories, and compile the gigantic statistical data set needed to answer the questions he posed. I believe I can assure you that the practical results of this investigation will be important in that they will finally clarify the question of whether immigrants from southern and eastern Europe are and can be assimilated by our people. The commission shied away from the price but agreed to fund the preliminary study. That fall, the government agreed to expand the work into a comprehensive research project.

Boas' graduate students, Columbia colleagues, and recruited assistants soon spread across town. They carried many of the same gauges Boas had used at the Chicago World's Fair, as well as a set of glass marbles specially made by a New York optician to compare eye color. They measured the heads of students in Jewish schools on the Lower East Side. They distributed questionnaires to Italian families in Chatham Square and Yonkers. They interviewed bohemians in their neighborhoods on the East Side, between Third and First Avenues and East 70th and 84th Streets. They hunted Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks in Brooklyn. They stood on the Ellis Island docks, calipers and eye color meters in hand, while people waited for medical exams. In educational and youth institutions, in parish and private schools, at the Hebrew Association of Young Men and the YMCA, around 17,821 people submitted to the scales and measuring tapes of Boas. Such a thing had never been attempted before, least of all under the auspices of an official government commission whose job it was to understand exactly how immigrants influenced the literal politics of their new country. In the spring of 1910, Boas wrote to colleagues at the Bureau of American Ethnology to inform them that his work had produced completely unexpected results and had put the whole problem in a whole new light.

After countless hours of data collection, analysis and processing, the conclusions were finally published as11 in 1911 Changes in the body shape of the descendants of immigrants , Part of the Dillingham Commission's official records. Boas expressed his main conclusion in a simple sentence on the second page: The immigrant's adaptability seems to be much greater than we were entitled to assume before we started our investigation. US-born children were more in common with other US-born children than with the national group - or race, as Grant would have called it - represented by their parents. Round-headed Jews became long-headed. The long heads of the Sicilians were pressed together into shorter heads. The broad faces of the Neapolitans narrowed to match those of the immigrants who surrounded them, not those of their racial brothers in the old country. In other words, there were no Jews, Poles or Slovaks - purely physically - by the bodies of the children of first-generation immigrants. The living conditions, from nutrition to the environment, had a quick and measurable influence on head shapes, which were considered fixed, inheritable and indicative of one's own type of being.


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Boas sailed for Baffin Island in 1883. He was fascinated by the Inuit's ability to move long distances, survive in difficult environments, and understand a landscape that could appear bleak and shapeless to outsiders.

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The races were unstable, concluded Boaz. And if they didn't exist as physical realities in our present moment, then they couldn't have existed in the past either - which in turn meant that any history of humanity that presented itself as the battle royale of races was essentially false. If the concept of race did not have physical permanence, at least as it has been popularly defined, then there could be no accumulation of other traits, such as intelligence, physical ability, collective fitness, or aptitude for the advancement of civilization. These results are so clear that while we have previously had the right to assume that human types are stable, he wrote, now all the evidence speaks for great plasticity of human types, and persistence of types in a new environment seems more likely than that Exception than the rule.

Boas had come to this conclusion since his time on Baffin Island, but he now had more than simple intuition to back up his claims. He had tons of data, all of which pointed to a revolutionary - and to many disturbing - conclusion: that the races he documented in museums and exhibitions since immigrating to the United States were not natural varieties of humanity. There was no reason to believe that any person of any particular race or national category was more burdensome, more prone to crime, or more difficult to assimilate than anyone else. Which people tat instead of who they are were , should be the starting point for a legitimate social science and thus the basis for the government's immigration policy.

From the book Gods of the Upper Air , by Charles King, published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2019 by Charles King. This article appears in the print edition Winter 2019-20 of Columbia Magazine entitled 'In Defense of Humanity'.

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