Biographical sketch of Franz Boas

by Suzanne Kemmer

Franz Boas, 1858-1942. Along with his student Alfred Kroeber, Franz Boas was one of the principal founders of modern American Anthropology and Ethnology.

He was born in Minden, Germany, west of Hannover, and studied physics, geography, and geology at various universities, finishing his Ph.D. in Kiel in 1881. For his habilitiation project, a study of the effect of the Arctic environment on the migrations of the Inuit Eskimos, he went on a field trip to Baffin Island. Fascinated by the indigenous culture of the Inuit, he began collecting ethnographic data not directly related to his project.

He went to Berlin to finish his project and while there, took a job in the Royal Ethnological Museum of Prussia. There was no independent field of Anthropology at that time, and those who investigated human cultures were largely employed by museums. Boas was profoundly influenced by Adolf Bastian, an ethnographer who was an early proponent of the belief that people in all human cultures were of essentially the same intellectual capacity. This idea went against the prevailing European view that cultures could be rated by their level of intellectual and social development. Academic publications of the time propounded the view that there was a historical progression from primitive to advanced cultures, and that the cultures of Europe had reached the pinnacle of advancement.

In 1886, after defending his habilitation thesis and being appointed to a position at the university, Boas left for a field trip to the Pacific Northwest. While stopping over in New York he was offered a position at the journal Science, and made up his mind to emigrate to the U.S. He was disturbed by the growing anti-Semitic and Prussian nationalism at home.

Boas was hired by Clark University in 1886 but resigned en masse with other faculty in 1893, all protesting the interference of the university president into their research and academic freedom. At that point he was hired by the Columbia Exposition in Chicago as chief assistant anthopologist, and assembled and curated the exhibits on the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

He renewed his interest in the peoples of the Pacific Northwest at this time, and over the next 15 years made numerous field trips to Vancouver Island and other parts of the northern Pacific coast. In 1894 he joined the newly founded Field Museum in Chicago, and after a year took a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. During the years of his work for museums, Boas worked out his ideas on culture history and contact and principles for ethnographic categorization and display. His views, and generally his arguments against the prevailing "cultural evolution" model of ranked cultural types, referred to above, always brought him into conflict with the higher-ups of the museum hierarchy, and in 1905 he resigned from the American Museum, leaving behind museum work for good.

Fortunately by then the time was ripe for the development of anthropological studies in the academy. Boas had been teaching at Columbia University since 1896. He was appointed Professor of Anthropology in 1899, and when he left the museum in 1905 he negotiated with Columbia for the establishment of a new Department of Anthropology, the first in the U.S., uniting scholars heretofore scattered in different organizational units, and authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree.

Boas began to train students in his methods. His first doctoral student was Alfred Kroeber, himself a great pioneer of American anthropology (and the father of Ursula K. LeGuin, the "anthropological" science fiction author). Kroeber and another Boas advisee, Robert Lowie, went on to found the new Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Columbia and Berkeley became the eastern and western poles of a a preeminent school of American anthropology set up on Boasian lines. These departments institutionalized Boas' "four field" model of Anthropology, which embraced the four branches of physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology, a division which persisted in American anthropology departments for most of the twentieth century.

Boas's other students included Edward Sapir, Melville Herskovits (the doctoral adviser of Joseph Greenberg), Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and a number of others who went on to found Anthropology departments around the country.

Boas contributed to all four of his named branches of anthropology, in studies ranging from racial classification to linguistic description focusing primarily on the languages and the peoples of northwestern U.S. and Canada. His annual field trips to these areas produced an early and extensive body of high quality linguistic desciptions of the by-then dwindling indigenous populations of the northwest. He pioneered systematic methods of ethnographic and linguistic data collection and recording that became the gold standard in anthropology and field linguistics for generations.

Boas' observational studies on the relation of race, culture and languages led him early on to reject prevailing views that automatically assumed tight correlations among these categories and which placed the white race, and in particular northern European cultures, at the pinnacle of human cultural and even physical evolution. He demonstrated in both his academic writings and in pieces for the general public the fundamental unimportance of race for understanding the nature of the human species. He showed that while culture and language have powerful influences on thought and behavior, they are historically recent and malleable. Even the profoundest differences in language and culture found among the world's peoples, he showed, do not affect the fundamental sameness and equality of human beings.

When the Nazi party came to power in his native Germany, he began speaking out against the racist views of the party leaders (and increasingly, of the German and the American public). He wrote prolifically and lectured widely to try to educate the public on the nature of race and on the dangers of Nazi ideology. He died in 1942 with the well-founded hope that the totalitarian Nazi regime would be defeated and that a German political structure would be established on a democratic and tolerant footing.


Pedersen, Holger. 1931. [1962]. The Discovery of Language: Linguistic Science in the 19th Century. Translated by John Webster Spargo. Midland Book edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1980. Schools of Linguistics: Competition and evolution. London: Hutchinson.

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