Meet Franz Boas: An Iconoclastic Anthropologist Who Redefined The Field

Who was Franz Boas? Learn how the "father of American anthropology" was among the first to apply the scientific method and meet his most famous students.

By Joshua Rapp Learn
Jan 9, 2024 2:00 PM
Franz Boas, circa 1915, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History
(Credit: Canadian Museum of History/Wikimedia Commons)


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Franz Boas is a towering figure in the world of anthropology. An iconoclast and a mentor, Boas is known for using the scientific method to disprove racist theories that had become dominant in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He also profoundly reshaped the field of anthropology, as well as the burgeoning discipline of linguistics.

Beyond his own work, Boas is also just as famous for helping spur a new generation of students, who included such 20th-century literary and intellectual giants as Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead.

Here's what you need to know about the man commonly known as "the father of American anthropology" — and the famous students inspired by his teachings.

What Was Franz Boas' Early Life Like?

Boas was born in Germany in 1848, obtaining a Ph.D. from Kiel University in Germany in physics and geography. A scientific expedition to Baffin Island in Canada in the 1880s inspired him to focus more on human culture.

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Eventually, in 1897, he moved to New York City, where he became an assistant editor for Science. In 1899, he took a position as a professor of anthropology at Columbia University; he would remain there for decades.

How Did Franz Boas Challenge the Study of Race?

One of Boas’ most resilient accomplishments was disproving a strong strain of scientific racism that had taken hold among some anthropologists. At the time, a number of anthropologists and biologists subscribed to the theory of eugenics — the erroneous idea that some races possess superior traits. Some anthropologists also used scientific racism to claim that traits such as smaller craniums led to lower intelligence.

By contrast, Boas believed that the human body’s plasticity had more to do with environment than with inherited traits. In 1909 and 1910, he took skull, face, and other head measurements from thousands of European-born American immigrants and compared them to those of their children born in the U.S. He found a high degree of difference, on average, between the parents and their children, despite similar genes.

At the time, Boas said this showed that environmental factors resulted in a huge degree of difference and that inherited traits and genetics weren’t the only things that influence measurements like cranium size.

Did Boas' Research Stand the Test of Time?

While modern reassessments of Boas’ landmark study showed he may have overstated his conclusions on the effect of environmental plasticity, it still had a huge impact in disproving some of the dominant racist ideas of his day.

That report, and many of his other essays and work, was focused on using the scientific method to show that certain races weren’t inherently superior or inferior to others. In fact, most differences in development or fortune that existed were arbitrary and mostly due to the way that history unfolded.

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“Franz Boas was passionately and consistently concerned about human rights and individual liberty, freedom of inquiry and speech, equality of opportunity, and the defeat of prejudice and chauvinism,” writes Herbert Lewis, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a study in American Anthropologist. “He struggled for a lifetime to advance a science that would serve humanity, and he was as much of a humanitarian in private as he was in public.”

How Did Boas Establish the Theory of Cultural Relativism?

By applying the scientific method to his anthropological research, Boas helped pioneer the theory of cultural relativism, which asserts that there are no absolute or moral standards among different cultures. As such, the beliefs and practices of a certain culture should be understood from the viewpoint of that culture itself.

Cultural relativism had a profound impact on nearly all anthropologists in the following decades. For years, anthropologists commonly accused one another of ethnocentrism — the idea that those of one race, country, or even religion tend to think of others as inferior — in their interpretation of the cultural practices of the people they studied.

Did Boas Advance the Field of Linguistics, Too?

Of course, the study of language is an integral aspect of anthropology — and Boas argued that language was one of the most important ways to understand a culture. Many of his students worked on translating Indigenous languages, while Boas himself worked on analyzing the language of the Kwakiutl First Nation of British Columbia off and on for most of his life.

His student Ella Cara Deloria, meanwhile, worked on understanding the linguistics of the Sioux language. Boas also established the International Journal of American Linguistics, and another of his students, Edward Sapir, went on to become one of the forefathers of the field of linguistics after studying Indigenous languages in the Americas.

Read More: 5 American Anthropologists You Should Know

Who Were Boas’ Most Famous Students?

Over his years as a professor at Columbia, Boas mentored many others who would become figureheads of the next generation of linguists and anthropologists — many of whom pushed the bounds of patriarchy and other predominant beliefs of the time.

It’s difficult to say who had more impact, as many of these individuals made massive achievements in their fields. But a good place to start might be Zora Neale Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston was a towering figure of American literature often associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She's known for her seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and a number of short stories, essays, and plays.

Hurton’s anthropological work also included explorations of Vodou in Haiti, and Hoodoo in the southern U.S. — both spiritual beliefs and cultural practices that blended influences from Africa, Indigenous Americans, and Christianity.

Margaret Mead

Meanwhile, Boas’ student Margaret Mead reached a degree of fame that transcended the world of anthropology, as she was a frequent spokesperson used in news broadcasts and articles. Some of her work was controversial at the time, focusing on the sexual practices of the Indigenous cultures she studied.

Ruth Benedict

Ruth Benedict’s work under and after Boas focused mostly on the cultures of American Indigenous groups, but she later worked with Japanese culture in her famous work The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. One of the main thrusts of her work furthered the cultural relativism of Boas: She argued that any one culture only represented a small range of the behavior human beings might express.

Boas had many other accomplished students, including Alfred Kroeber, who wrote about the disappearing Yahi people. Kroeber himself would go on to inspire his own daughter, award-winning sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin.

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