Franz Boas: Historical Particularism and the Concept of Race
Franz Boas (1858-1942) relied upon historical particularism to guide his thinking in regard to culture. Herbert Spencer and Lewis Morgan, on the other hand, focused on unilineal evolutionism. The differences between these opposing viewpoints in anthropology are best exemplified in two areas.
1) Historical particularism argues that cultural change is not subject to orthogenetic development – meaning toward a determined, unilineal direction. Culture is malleable. It will “progress” or “digress” toward any direction that either the external environment or the culture itself allows. Progression and digression are certainly relative terms when one remembers that our species subsisted perfectly fine without civilization for 140,000 years.
2) Historical particularism rejects any sort of uniform structure of culture. Notice, Boas states that we “cannot say that the occurrence of the same phenomena is due to the same cause” (275). This suggests that cultures across the globe can be studied by anthropologists independently of others. Not all societies have been subject to radical diffusionism nor do all necessarily need to be categorized by comparative methods. It is easy to see how Boas’ ideas lead to the principle of cultural relativism in anthropology. Today, after Boas, it is hoped that anthropologists no longer judge or interpret cultures by their own standards but by the standards of the cultures they are studying.
In “Race and Progress,” Boas states, “as long as we insist in stratification in racial layers, we shall pay the penalty in the form of interracial struggle” (17). Here, we see the ethical concerns of Boas. “Race and Progress” takes an inductive, argumentative stance against many of the assumptions that were being made at the time. Boas felt that the attitudes, or even the scientific studies, concerning race were based on cultural constructs. They were the result of deductive reasoning, in which a hypothesis is formed and then data (most likely, in this case, to strengthen the hypothesis) is gathered. The assumptions that Boas presents to the reader revolve around false notions of inferiority and difference. They are assumptions lacking empirical evidence.
In hindsight, an anthropologist can clearly see instances of flawed methodology. Racial differences were taken as factual and accepted without proper, scientific scrutiny. This is undoubtedly due to the extreme ethnocentrism of the early twentieth-century. At any rate, Franz Boas was a staunch advocate of empirical thought. He believed strongly that from data a hypothesis could be gleaned, not the other way around. In terms of anthropological studies, his methodology, in turn, creates a more scientific approach towards human behavior and culture. It demands first-hand contact with cultural groups and does not rely on top-down methodology. The result of this is that “we have to reckon with social settings which have a very real existence” (14). Culture is malleable and is susceptible to change in either time or space. It must be studied empirically.
References McGee, R. & R. Warms. (2007). Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. New York: McGraw-Hill