- NAME: Franz Boas
- OCCUPATION: Scientist, Academic Author
- BIRTH DATE: July 09, 1858
- DEATH DATE: December 22, 1942
- EDUCATION: University of Heidelberg, University of Bonn, University of Kiel
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Minden, Germany
- PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
- Full Name: Franz Uri Boas
- Full Name: Franz Boas
Best Known For
Franz Boas was a German-born anthropologist who founded the relativistic, culture-centered school of American anthropology that dominated 20th century thought.
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Born on July 9, 1858 in Minden, Germany, Franz Boas's first anthropologic fieldwork was among the Eskimo in Baffinland, Canada, beginning in 1883. He later argued against contemporary theories of racial distinction between humans. His work culminated with his theory of relativism, which discredited prevailing beliefs that Western civilization is superior to simpler societies.
"Civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes."
Franz Boas was born in Minden, in the Westphalia area of Germany, in 1858. From the age of 5, he was interested in the natural sciences, including botany, zoology and geology. While studying at the Gymnasium in Minden, his interest in the history of culture took root. After attending the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn and Kiel, in 1881 he earned a Ph.D. in physics, with a minor in geography from the University of Kiel.
After a brief stint in the military, Boas continued his studies in Berlin. Soon after, in 1883, he began a yearlong scientific expedition—his first—to Baffin Island in northern Canada. Fascinated by the Inuit culture, Boas collected ethnographic data not directly related to the project at hand, and so began his lifelong interest in and study of the way people lived. Upon his return to Germany, Boas took posts in the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin and at the University of Berlin, where he taught geography. At the museum, he met members of the Nuxalk Nation of British Columbia, sparking a lifelong relationship with the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1886, on his way back to Germany from one of his many visits with the tribes of British Columbia, Boas stopped in New York City and decided to live there, taking a position as an editor for Science magazine and his first teaching position at the newly founded Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Also during this time, as part of the Chicago World's Fair, Boas was involved with a project to bring the cultures of Native Americans to the general public. He soon began to formulate theories on anthropological relativism, which he described thusly: "Civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes."
In 1896, Boas began lecturing at Columbia University, and three years later, he became the first professor of anthropology there. Nine years after that, he established Columbia’s department of anthropology, the first in the United States. Also in 1896, Boas was appointed assistant curator of ethnology and somatology at the American Museum of Natural History, a post he would hold until 1905, when he resigned to focus on anthropological education and research.
Boas was an innovative and productive researcher, contributing to statistical physical anthropology, linguistics and American Indian ethnology. By the turn of the century, he was the most influential figure in the field of anthropology. His growing reputation in anthropology was equalled by his enormous influence as a teacher and researcher in all four subdisciplines of anthropology (physical anthropology, linguistics, cultural anthropology and archaeology; his work also extended into folklore and art). His first doctoral student was Alfred Kroeber, also a great pioneer of American anthropology, who went on to cofound the anthropology department at the University of California, Berkeley, which helped to spread Boas’ theories coast to coast.
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