Franz Boas: biography of this influential American anthropologist

Franz Boas (1958-1942) is known as the father of American anthropology. He was also considered one of the four fathers of anthropology, for having laid the foundations for one of its branches: cultural anthropology.

In this article we will see a biography of Franz Boas very brief, as well as some of the main features of his life and work.

    Biography of Franz Boas: life and work of this anthropologist

    Franz Boas was born on July 9, 1858 in Minden, Germany. His grandparents were Jewish, and his parents had assimilated some of the German values ​​of the Enlightenment, as well as the liberal ideas of the revolution of 1848.

    Inevitably, Franz Boas developed a sensitivity towards both groups, at the same time that he did not fully agree with each other and was able to develop a critical awareness of anti-Semitism and nationalism. Also, from an early age, he developed a great interest in the natural sciences, and soon after became interested in studies in the history of culture.

    Some time after participating in military service, Boas studied geography in Berlin, where he grew his interest in cultural processes beyond demography. In 1886 he visited the Kwakiutl and other Canadian tribes, and upon his return to the United States he was editor-in-chief of the journal Science. He then collaborated in the preparations for the anthropological exhibitions of 1893 at the National Museum of History in Chicago, where he exhibited some of his work.

    He eventually taught at various universities in the United States and as curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, where he was also director and editor of research reports from various studies analyzing non-Western cultures and societies.

    The beginnings of cultural anthropology

    Like many pioneers of anthropology, Franz Boas began his training in mathematics, physics, which he completed with various studies that eventually allowed him to develop his major works. For example, receive training in philosophy, Where he was particularly interested in Kant’s thought. From there he came to psychophysics and quickly became interested in solving some problems of epistemology in physics.

    In other words, he was concerned with how the knowledge that this discipline valued and disseminated was constructed. later, Franz Boas specialized in geography, A field that allowed him to explore the relationships between subjective experiences and the material conditions of the world. In this context, there has been an important debate on whether the determining factors were physical or cultural, and Boas is closely related to other researchers who analyze this debate on the basis of migration processes.

    For its part, anthropology is developing around an evolutionary perspective of culture. This means that the studies that were developed justified cultural differences on the basis of biological arguments according to which certain human “races” had more or better capacities to adapt, or not, to certain contexts.

    In general and in this historical context, these arguments supported racist and exclusionary practices affecting people, the skin is not white. Based on this and his interest in migratory processes, Boas studied how new environments affect migrants, and not the other way around, as some studies suggest.

      From cultural evolutionism to cultural relativism

      One of the main contributions of Franz Boas to modern anthropology has been the shift to a relativistic perspective of culture. What he has widely proposed is that cultural differences are driven by culture, not so much by biology, as he had advocated the evolutionary approach.

      In other words, Boas argued that the origin of cultural difference is not given by biologyThis must inevitably be taken into account when analyzing the processes of racialization. From his research, Franz Boas positions himself as one of the greatest representatives of the questioning of white supremacy which permeates the studies of the anthropologist.

      It was one of the origins of cultural anthropology, I understand that culture is the local context in which human action takes place, which is in addition to the three other branches of anthropology that were already developing: linguistics , physics and archeology.

      Well, well it is closer to ethnography arguing that all cultural phenomena should be considered worthy of study in their specificity and their particularity, which led him to break with the cultural laws formulated by science. He developed a preference for empiricist practices and was eventually able to develop cultural relativism as an important methodological and theoretical tool, which served both for the collection and for the analysis of data.

        Legacy and remarkable works

        Franz Boas taught in Massachusetts and Chicago and founded the American Anthropological Association, as well as the Journal of American Anthropology, from 1898.

        Some of the most notable works of Franz Boas are the following books: Race, Language and Culture, 1940; Anthropology and Modern Life of 1928; The Relation of Darwin to Anthropology, a text published posthumously.

        bibliographical references

        • New World Encyclopedia. (2017). Franz Boas. Accessed June 18, 2018. Available at
        • Tax, S. (2018). Franz Boas. German-American anthropologist. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 18, 2018.Available at

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