Franz Boas

Once again, I find myself thinking about the names of theorists that I keep adding to the pile of people that we have learned about this semester. Marvin Harris, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowshi, Franz Boas, and more. Just looking at the names alone can make my head spin but as I do a quick review of each person I remember the things we have learned so far and it starts to make more sense the more I look over them. Not like it’s a light bulb going off though. I think I am starting to understand because I am starting to be able to connect what they are saying with what I have learned throughout college with anthropology but on my terms.

During one of my anthropology class, Archaeology of North America, it had turned out that while Franz Boas, an American anthropologist, was never mentioned his theory was there. For example, we recently learned about the Makah people of Ozette and the event that happened there. In 1966, an archaeological extraction happened there that uncovered over 55,000 artifacts. Once they had the artifacts they wanted to make sure they stayed in their own context while at the museum and in the records, so they categorized them under their original language during the time period they were from. This is an example what Boas’s theory was about. Boas said, according to Jerry D. Moore in his book Visions of Culture, cultural practices were understandable only in specific contexts, and that, “ethnographic collections should be “arranged according to tribes, in order to teach the peculiar style of each group. The art and characteristic style of a people can be understood only by studying its productions as a whole” (Moore, pg. 31). While I do not agree with his word choice of “peculiar style” I do believe this thought is very important. Take for example, what if Nuer artifacts were found from the same time period as Makah artifacts and all ended up in the same museum records and the artifacts were categorized only by their appearance. While they might both look like, for example, hammers, you would not know that because the Makah are from the Northwest Coast North America. Those hammers could be used for a completely different reason than the Nuer. You will only truly be able to understand artifacts and culture within their own context. 

Boas was also very keen on language. In fact, he studied in the Norwest Coast to learn the native languages. This relates back to his main theory, cultural practices were understandable only in specific contexts. Just like the Makah of Ozette, the only way to preserve and display their culture was through language because of their oral tradition. This would apply to the Nuer as well. In order to truly understand their culture you have to study their language and see their culture through their context. While this idea is something I don’t think twice about, that is because it was something that has been taught to me my whole life. Little did I know that Boas had an effect on my learning without me ever knowing.

Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture. 4th ed., AltaMira Press, 2012.

7 thoughts on “Franz Boas

  1. I feel the same way about learning so many theorists, and placing each theory with a name. It is enough to make your heard spin. Your analysis and comparisons of Nuer and the Makah was really well thought out and you are completely right. We hadn’t learned his name, but his theory was applied regardless. It is nice to understand completely who and where these theories come from, so that we can have a complete story when looking at an event in time, such as Ozette.
    Language is essential to understanding a culture. Without having a grasp on the linguistics, you can never fully understand a people. The Nuer, as you mentioned, has so many different words of categorization to describe their cattle. From the color of their fur, shape and length of their horns, and they even get more elaborate with the distribution of the colors on their fur.
    You tied your blog post really well together and made a very credible analysis.

  2. I am not going to lie, I have not heard of many of these theorists before until this class, so they all have been pretty interesting to me. As we continue to learn more and more, it is nice to be able to put who with what was said or done. I also would say that your post made me think about artifacts and how important they really are. What if we didn’t have those artifacts? I loved your post and I think you did a great job on it, you explained everything really well.
    Language is also super important, I mean if you think about it, it’s one way we are able to communicate with the people around us. Language is important to understanding so many things when it comes to people and their culture.

  3. It really is amazing how influential Boas’ vision of anthropology has been throughout American anthropology, especially the anthropology of Native Peoples of North America!

    I, too, really like how much Boas emphasized language. It seems to me that too few theorists do a good job of integrating culture and language (although we’ll see more of that after the 1960s).

  4. Being someone who wants to work in a museum some day, your idea about the possibility of artifacts getting confused is something that I have thought about in the past. I know this post and our class is about anthropological theory, but this is what I particularly liked about your post. I believe there is a possibility that we can learn more about cultures and artifacts by understanding more about the language and lives of different groups of people. Boas’ emphasis on language, I think, is very important. It is hard to understand people and the way they live with a language barrier.

    1. Michaela – I worked behind the scenes at the Field Museum for a project (also, in the British Museum of Mankind and in collections at Leiden University – this was all for the arts revival work we did in the Solomon Islands). The staff at the Field Museum told us that their collections were state of the art … for the 1920s. At that point, it was thought best to organize collections by type of item. So, all of the fishhooks of the world in one aisle; all of the spears in another; and so on. That was considered a great way to comparative analysis. It drove the Field Museum staff crazy, who had been working hard to re-organize everything by modern categories – on the basis of the culture and cultural regions.

  5. I appreciate you sharing your ‘light-bulb moment’! I can definitely relate. For me, language was something that I had often taken for granted in respect to anthropology and ethnographic studies. Once we were introduced to Boaz, it suddenly seemed so obvious. Of course, I knew about the concept of cultural relativism, but I had never though to include language as part of that. Language, at its core, is how we are able to explain our beliefs, thoughts, and the way that we fit in to the world. Boaz was very smart to bring this concept into practice. We often forget that language is not universal, and that just like culture, it varies in its purpose and practice. I also enjoyed this perspective because I hope to one day have an internship at a museum, and Boazian ideas are very important in representing archaeological findings.

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