Franz Boas and Margaret Mead
The Quest for an Empirical Discipline
In the nineteenth-Century, ethnology, which involves the organized comparison of human societies, and relied on second hand materials collected by missionaries, explorers, or colonial officials, earned the ethnologists their current label of “arm-chair anthropologists” developed. However, by the 20th century most socio-cultural anthropologists turned to the study of ethnography, in which an anthropologist actually lives among another society and participates in the culture while conducting scientific research. Bronislaw Malinowski, who conducted fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands and taught in England, developed this method, and Franz Boas promoted it. These founders of the science made substantial contributions to the growth of the discipline.
(Patterson, 2001) By the mid-1900s, several key scholars emerged and further defined the scope of the discipline. Scholars such as Ruth Benedict, Eric Wolf, and Margaret Mead were among this group of anthropologists who expanded on the contributions of the fathers. Indeed, the 20th Century was pivotal to the development of modern cultural anthropology.
Franz Boas was an instrumental American scholar in the founding of the discipline of anthropology, and paved the way for later scholars to further define the goals and range and to broaden the study of culture. Margaret Mead was one such later scholar, whose research in the Pacific Islands proved to be enlightening on the nature versus nurture debate, challenging the assumptions of the universal stages of human growth and development, and on childhood and socialization. Both of these influential researchers are of great importance to our examination of the history of anthropology and I will discuss both of them in this paper. We will cover each of their backgrounds, their greatest contributions, and their overall influence on the discipline of anthropology.
German-born Franz Boas (1858-1942), often referred to as the “Father of American Anthropology”, played an important role in professionalizing American anthropology and shifting the profession’s center from the federal government and private museum to the university. This shift, in turn, provided credentials and certification to the next generation of anthropologists, and was occurring during a period characterized by extreme discrimination against people of color, immigrants, women, and the poor. Being a political radical, a foreigner to America and a Jew, Boas felt a profound impact from being a part of this transformation. (Patterson, 2001) One of his biographers noted that his vision of anthropology was shaped in part by his political commitments:
These commitments were more fundamental than the professionalization of anthropology, although professionalism was sometimes strong enough to clash successfully with Boas’s politics. Professionalism acted as a brake on Boas’s political activism, at least until his later years. (Willis, 1975 as quoted by Patterson, 2001)
Like many such pioneers, Boas trained in other disciplines during his education, including languages, geography, psychophysics, and philosophy, and was influenced by neo-Kantian thinkers who gave expression to liberal and socialist ideals in the oppressive political climate of Bismarck’s Germany during the 1870s and 1880s. He is famed for applying the scientific method to the study of human cultures and societies, a field which was previously based on the formulation of grand theories around subjective knowledge. He held a lifetime commitment to freedom of thought. (Patterson, 2001) Boas thoroughly believed that individuals had the right to challenge “the authority of tradition” in ways that free us from the errors of the past” and that “prevent individualism from outgrowing its legitimate limits and becoming intolerable egotism.” (Boas, 1938 as quoted by Patterson, 2001)
In 1883, Boas traveled to Baffin Island, the largest island of Canada, to conduct geographic research on the impact of the physical environment on native Inuit populations. The first of many ethnographic field trips, Boas gathered his notes to write his first monograph titled The Central Eskimo (1888). Boas lived and worked closely with the Inuit peoples on Baffin Island, and he developed an abiding interest in the way people lived.
Boas’s ideas of culture being a relatively autonomous totality with interrelated parts built on the legacy of Johann Herder an eighteenth-century supporter of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man as well as a critic of the German nobility. Boas’s recognition of a plurality of cultures and his cultural relativism still persist to present day. He believed that anthropologists gained understanding of “a culture through first-hand experience with living peoples and how they understood their conditions of existence.” (Boas, 1901)
Boas accepted the idea that evolution was historical development, but he rejected the then-popular claims that all societies simply moved from simple to more complex conditions. He launched a critique of this cultural unilinear evolutionary thought shortly after he arrived in the United States in 1887. (Patterson, 2001) Even in 1920, Boas was still making his voice heard in the scholarly community by writing (Boas, 1920):
During the second half of he last century evolutionary thought held almost complete sway and investigators like Spencer, Morgan, Tylor, Lubbock, to mention only a few, were under the spell of the idea of a general, uniform evolution of culture in which all parts of mankind participated. …it may be recognized that the hypothesis implies the thought that our modern Western European civilization represents the highest cultural development toward which all other more primitive cultural types tend, and that, therefore, retrospectively, we construct an orthogenetic development towards our own modern civilization. It is clear that if we admit that there may be different ultimate and coexisting types of civilization, the hypothesis of one single general line of development cannot be maintained.
His were unpopular opinions in the scholarly world at the time, and he was met with many obstacles during his career because he voiced those critiques of American anthropology so clearly and adamantly. At the 1894 meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he challenged the racialist theories and the racist attitudes they buttressed in wider society. With several statements, Boas actually came close to challenging the utility of the race-concept itself as an analytical category. (Patterson, 2001)
In addition to the other critiques of American anthropology, Boas advocated comparative studies of the historical circumstances in which various peoples emerged and the growth processes that were actually involved in the development of these cultures. (Patterson, 2001) Thus, he sought for anthropologists to become as unbiased as possible, and certainly not ethnocentric, even subconsciously.
Franz Boas was also a participant in the nature versus nurture argument, in the late nineteenth-Century. In 1891, while teaching in the Psychology Department at Clark University, he launched his first study of human growth and development. Boas proved that children grew at different rates, and that variations in the tempo of growth were characteristic of both mental development and physical growth. He knew that the growth and development of children were affected by their surroundings and social circumstances, and would eventually undertake a study of children all over the U.S. and Canada. (Patterson, 2001) Eventually, Boas was invited by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) to measure African-American children in Atlanta and to participate in a conference on the Negro physique, which placed him in the midst of the struggle for racial equality. (Patterson, 2001)
The civil rights struggles were not confined to only immigrants and African Americans to Boas. In 1915, he wrote to a U.S. Senator claiming that women should be granted the same rights and privileges as men. Only two years later, he fought for the Kwakiutl Indians, as the federal government threatened to prohibit the potlatch. (Patterson, 2001)
Following the First World War, the struggle over the future of anthropology began, and was generally between three schools of thought. One of which was formed by Franz Boas and his students arguing that it was culture, not race that determines behavior. They stressed the interconnection of ethnology, linguistics, folklore, archaeology, and physical anthropology. The National Research Council (NRC), established in 1916 to mobilize science and research for the war effort, became an important arena for this struggle to take place, and Boas was eventually invited to join the NRC. He assisted in organizing the young council and the American Anthropological Association (AAA). (Patterson, 2001) Definitely by this point in time, Boas was recognized as the leader of American anthropology.
Boas also participated in research on immigrants of the United States and their descendants, examining the acquired physical adaptations due to the different environment. He had this to state about his findings before the Academy at Columbia on April 27, 1920 (Boas, 1920):
On the whole the results show that each hereditary type can be considered as stable only in a stable environment, and that with a change of environment, many of the characteristic features of the body undergo changes. These results have been corroborated later on by investigations on immigrants in Boston and in certain respects also by Dr. Hrdlika’s observations on Americans whose ancestors have been residents of this continent for several generations.
The cultural determinists Boas and younger anthropologists including Ralph Linton (1893-1953), Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), and Margaret Mead (1901-78) reasserted the hegemony of their views within the profession in the 1920’s. By doing so, they challenged the hegemony of the eugenicists’ views in wider society and attacked the methodology of racial intelligence testing. (Patterson, 2001)
Boas believed that the “genius of a people” (i.e. its culture) was found in its language, knowledge, skills, arts, and mythology. The studies he conducted of the folklore of the Northwest Coast tribes showed that many of the elements of their mythologies had been borrowed from neighboring peoples, reworked and reinterpreted to make them into ethical beliefs and values of the borrowers. (Patterson, 2001) Therefore, Boas realized that no culture develops completely independently from any other.
Boas continued to speak out against racism and for intellectual freedom until his death in 1942. In fact, when the Nazi Party in Germany denounced “Jewish science” (which included Boasian Anthropology and Freudian psychoanalysis), Boas responded publically with a statement signed by over 8,000 other scientists, declaring that there is only one science, to which race and religion are irrelevant.
In 1949 Boas’s student, Alfred Kroeber summarized the principles of empiricism that define Boasian anthropology as a science (Kroeber, 1949):
1. The method of science is to begin with questions, not with answers, least of all with value judgments.
2. Science is dispassionate inquiry and therefore cannot take over outright any ideologies “already formulated in everyday life,” since these are themselves inevitably and normally tinged with emotional prejudice.
3. Sweeping all-or-none, black-and-white judgments are characteristic of totalitarian attitudes and have no place in science, whose very nature is inferential and judicial.
The Boasian legacy has had an enduring influence upon anthropology, and Boas’s commitment to empiricism and methodological cultural relativism has persisted to this day. Practically all cultural anthropologists today share Boas’s devotion o field research involving extended residence, learning the local language, and developing social relationships.
Many of Boas’s students were successful anthropologists and shared his concern for careful, historical reconstruction, and his antipathy towards speculative, evolutionary models. He encouraged them to criticize themselves and to learn from one’s informants. Among his more prominent students were Alfred L. Kroeber, Albert B. Lewis, Ruth Benedict, and not the least of which, Margaret Mead, who will be the next scholar we discuss. (Patterson, 2001)
Margaret Mead (1901-78) expanded on the contributions of the Franz Boas by developing more complex methodological approaches, sharpening her subject matter, and by researching in a different geographical area or arena of culture. To summarize all of Margaret Mead’s professional achievements would not be an easy task. She personified the discipline of anthropology for the public. She focused her work mainly on the nature vs. nurture debate, furthering Boas’s work on the challenges and assumptions of the universal stages of human growth and development, childhood and socialization, and the basic personality structure and national character. (Patterson, 2001) She conducted research on several Pacific Islands and on the Indians of the Southwest. For fifty years, Margaret Mead remained an extraordinary presence in American anthropology. She acted as social commentator, adviser to civic organizations and governments and she was the recipient of many honors. She authored approximately 1,500 books, articles, occasional pieces, and films, and was the most widely recognized anthropologist in the United States. (McDermott, 2006)
Mead maintained a close relationship between anthropology and psychology throughout her career and conducted fieldwork in American Samoa beginning in 1925. (Patterson, 2001) There, she addressed the question of whether the biological development of adolescence inevitably let do emotional turbulence. She concluded through her observations and interviews that in Samoa, they did not; culture, not biology defined and determined the transition to adulthood. The book she authored about her fieldwork there, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), was one of her most popular pieces. (McDermott, 2006)
Mead conducted the first-ever course in field methods at Columbia University in the 1920’s, worked as assistant curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and as executive secretary of the NRC’s Committee on Food Habits during World War II. (McDermott, 2006) Additionally, she taught at Columbia University as adjunct professor starting in 1954. Another of Mead’s books was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), which was extremely influential for the women’s movement, since she reported that females are dominant in the Chambri Lake region of Papua New Guinea without causing any great problems. (Freeman, 1983) This issue of inequality between men and women was previously mentioned by Franz Boas, and Mead furthered the cause by applying anthropology to the American society.
Additionally, Mead focused much time and research on child-rearing and child development and growth, as Boas did. She based her research question in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), on “If primitive adults think in an animistic way, as Piaget says our children do, how do primitive children think?” And she later concludes in her research that “primitive” children actually think in a very practical way and begin to think in terms of spirits and other belief sets as they get older. (Mead, 1930)
Mead’s research was more specific in subject matter, however she conducted it as a true Boasian; very empirical, scientific, professionally, and lacking of any ethnocentrism or racism. Her studies were also conducted in more remote parts of the world, seemingly previously untouched by the Western World.
Margaret Mead was also very devoted to the improvement of anthropology as a science and to further refining field methodology. This is made quite clear in the article she published in American Anthropologist in 1933, “More Comprehensive Field Methods”, in which she highlights some of the more prominent errors made by ethnographers at the time, and proposes ideas for improvement. And once again, cultural relativism is emphasized and ethnocentrism is condemned. (Mead, 1933)
She revisited the process of enculturation, delving into the subject by stating the inevitability of the transmission of culture (Mead, 1940):
Students of culture especially students of primitive society recognized that the most diverse sets of cultural behavior could be transmitted to the growing child with equal success that a newborn child among the Eskimos became an adult Eskimo, a complete version of Eskimo culture, with the same inevitability that a newborn Hawaiian became a Hawaiian. Among these students of primitive society there was, therefore, a tendency to emphasize the inevitability and complete effectiveness of the transmission of culture to the new generation on the one hand, and on the other, the extreme flexibility of the human organism which was capable of taking on such diverse behavior patterns.
Mead was very focused on the progression of the training and education of future cultural anthropologists as well. Field experiencing and on the job training is very important, as she states, “Adequate field experience does not necessarily require analyzing a whole culture, with grammar, social organization, musical instruments, basketry techniques, and ritual idiom, starting from the beginning, although this is undoubtedly incomparably the best training.” (Mead, 1952)
Margaret Mead, not unlike Franz Boas, was constantly interested in extending the audience for anthropology. In fact, she eventually wrote a children’s book, People and Places (1959) that advised the young readers to use social science to end war. Mead was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death, in 1978. (McDermott, 2006)
We can clearly see similarities between Boas and Mead’s professional outlook and opinions, and it is evident that Mead simply invested her time and efforts into furthering the scientific discipline of anthropology and honing in on the key areas that need attention and improvement. All of the Boasians transformed anthropology in the United States and shaped the way culture is now perceived relative, holistic, and pluralistic. In Boas and Mead’s practice, they combined moral commitment, scientific evidence, and new insights to challenge mainstream assumptions. They strove to create an anthropological tradition of involvement in political and social issues.
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