International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), born in Germany into a Jewish family, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology in the United States and worldwide. He challenged both cultural evolutionism and racial determinism by putting a plural notion of culture at the center of the discipline. In works such as The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) or his collection of essays on Race, Language and Culture (1940), he gave a scientific basis to cultural relativism. Boas was a central figure in the professionalization of anthropology and ethnography in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both a museum curator at the American Museum of Natural History (1896) and a professor of anthropology at Columbia University (1899), he was himself a fieldworker from the 1880s to the 1930s. Focused on salvaging for posterity “the culture as it appears to the Indian himself”, he published extensively, particularly on the “Kwakiutl” (Kwakwa’wakw) and other peoples of the Northwest Coast, including the bilingual edition of vernacular texts collected by Indigenous collaborators. Interested in the pre-colonial past and the historical development of cultures and languages, Boas also dedicated himself to Anthropology and Modern Life (1928). In dialogue with African-American intellectuals, he was a leading moral figure in anthropology and an activist against racism, ethnocentrism and Nazism. Many of his students at Columbia University – such as Alfred L. Kroeber, Edward Sapir, Paul Radin, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and Melville J. Herskovits – went on to be leaders in the field themselves, a number of them founding departments of anthropology at leading universities. Boas remains an inescapable, fundamental figure in the history of anthropology and an inexhaustible subject of reassessment and controversy.

Keywords: Physical anthropology | Archaeology | Linguistics | Cultural anthropology | Museology/museography | Americanist tradition | Salvage ethnography | Ethnographic expeditions and missions | Antiracism | Second half of the 19th century | First half of the 20th century | Germany | United States of America | Amerindian studies | Americanism | Kwakiutl/Kwakwa’wakw | Inuit | Cultural history | Cultural diffusion | Language | Adolf Bastian | American Museum of Natural History | American Anthropological Association | Bureau of American Ethnology | Columbia University

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