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Without context, look back at 'father of anthropology' Franz Boas comes up short

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 25, 2015

The Franz Boas Enigma

By Ludger Müller-Wille; Baraka Books; 188 pages; 2014; $19.95.

Franz Boas is widely hailed as the "Father of American Anthropology." An immigrant from Germany who first arrived on these shores in the 1880s, he rejected the prevailing belief among Western students of human cultures that there was an evolutionary ladder that each society must climb, a view that had placed European civilization at the pinnacle of humanity and relegated people of other races and regions to the status of underdeveloped at best and savagery at worst.

For Boas, cultures emerged in response to the geographical and environmental factors that determined what was needed for survival. He developed what became known as cultural relativism (in the anthropological sense, not as the term is used in today's culture wars). This understanding maintains that all humans are innately equal, that behavior develops in the context of social learning, and that societies can best be understood through nonjudgmental observation. His ideas brought a seismic shift to anthropological study and fueled his subsequent activism for racial and gender equality.

Boas did his first fieldwork during a year spent in the Canadian Arctic living with the Inuit of Baffin Island. He arrived in the fall of 1883 and to the best of his ability lived as the Inuit did, learning their language, their lifestyle and their cosmology.

For Canadian anthropologist Ludger Müller-Wille, who has worked with the Inuit as well, exploring this period of Boas' life is the key to understanding his later intellectual development. In "The Franz Boas Enigma" he attempts with very limited success to explain why this is so.

Müller-Wille begins his book by following Boas' early life and education. Born to a Jewish family in the town of Minden, Germany, Boas grew up in a time of rising nationalism and anti-Semitism. His personal experiences as a victim of discrimination had much to do with the universalism he would embrace as an adult.

Revolutionary in 19th century

A gifted student, Boas pursued physics in college but, despite his degree, shifted his attention to geography and the emerging science of anthropology. Well before he traveled to the Arctic, he became fascinated with its Inuit inhabitants, researching their distribution and movement through the region. He became convinced that their culture grew in response to the migration of game animals, the geographical layout of the land they occupied and the need to survive in an extreme climate.

Today such an analysis is self-evident, but for Europeans of the 19th century this was revolutionary. However, Müller-Wille doesn't delve into the cultural landscape of Europe at the time in this far too brief book, which is unfortunate for lay readers who might stumble upon it. In the 1880s, the Arctic was still a mysterious and distant place for Europeans, with large expanses unmapped. The disastrous Franklin Expedition was quite recent history, and it was widely believed that its victims had been eaten by the Inuit, who were considered primitive at most (only a handful of Brits and other Europeans were then willing to acknowledge what the few remains found indicated: that the expedition's men had cannibalized one another). The fact that the Inuit lived in small groups that moved around and lacked permanent cities was taken as de facto proof that their culture was inherently inferior to Europe's. The recognition that such an arrangement was the only viable way to survive the Arctic in pre-industrial conditions was years from emerging.

The absence of this sort of context is a large part of why this book comes up short. Readers unfamiliar with Arctic history won't know the prevailing attitudes of Europeans of the time, much less the ways in which interactions between explorers and the Inuit had played out. For those who have read other works about the era, this book will add an interesting chapter, but for readers lacking such background, the events described here will occur in a vacuum.

Another problem comes with the events themselves, or more to the point, the lack of them. Müller-Wille traces Boas' path to Baffin Island in 1883, then skips ahead to his return the following year. We get a feel for the legwork Boas did to make his undertaking possible, raising funds and contracting paid writing assignments in order to finance his expedition. His actual time in the Arctic, however, which Müller-Wille insists is crucial to any understanding of Boas' later life, isn't detailed in the slightest. What experiences did Boas have during his year among the Inuit at a time when they were only beginning to add Western technologies to their tool kits? Of all things readers would want from this book, an account of this encounter would be foremost. It isn't here.

Further problems arise from Müller-Wille's insistence that Boas's papers produced from this period, many in German and unfamiliar to English speaking readers, show the emergence of Boas' ideas. Yet he provides only the briefest summary of what was contained in them. The few short pages spent outlining the papers' contents are so cursory that readers will be left wondering why they matter at all.

Story comes up short

In the end, very little is gained from this book. Boas would go on to forge the path of anthropology, along the way mentoring such luminaries as Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. He would champion racial equality and women's rights. He would fight anti-Semitism and personally confront the Nazis after they seized power in his native Germany.

All of this, Müller-Wille insists, sprang from Boas' time with the Inuit, when he came to regard the entire human family as one. It's unfortunate then that the author dashes right past this very experience and never delivers the story he promises.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

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