In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Franz Boas

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Professional Background
  • Major Writings
  • Jewish Identity

Anthropology Franz Boas
Vernon J. Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0008


Franz Boas was a scholar, professional, and activist who almost single-handedly transformed American anthropology from a field dominated by amateurs to a full-fledged professional, academic discipline. A German-born Jewish immigrant who had experienced anti-Semitism in his native land and in the United States, Boas was especially effective in dismantling hierarchical theories of race, language, and culture. As a consequence, most of his works centered on Native Indians, African Americans, and southern and eastern European immigrants in the United States and on the themes of race, language, and culture. As an activist, he expressed his revulsion against immigration restriction and anti-black prejudice and discrimination, the erasure of Native Indian cultures, and anti-Semitism. Boas suffered a fatal heart attack while vociferously protesting the exterminations by the Nazis during World War II.

General Overviews

Anthropologists have provided an assortment of rationales for Boas’s gargantuan status in the history of anthropology. Stocking 1968 and Patterson 2001 deftly survey his background, life, career, and contributions to the study of race and culture. Harris 1968 raises questions regarding Boas’s liberalism and his students’ left-liberal ideology. Darnell (Darnell 1998, Darnell 2001, Darnell 2008) provides a panoramic narrative of Boas’s ethnography of American Indians and the emergence of the concept of culture. Lewis 2008 presents a synthesis of literature on Boas.

  • Darnell, Regna. 1998. And along came Boas: Continuity and revolution in Americanist anthropology. Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 86. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Demonstrates that Boasian anthropology was distinguished by its “four field” approach.

  • Darnell, Regna. 2001. Invisible genealogies: A history of Americanist anthropology. Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology 1. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Argues that the core of North American anthropology derives from the ethnographic study of American Indians by Boas and his students.

  • Darnell, Regna. 2008. North American traditions in anthropology: The historiographic baseline. In A new history of anthropology. Edited by Henrika Kuklick, 35–51. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A condensation of Darnell’s previous work on Americanist anthropology.

  • Harris, Marvin. 1968. The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. New York: Crowell.

    A Marxist critique of Boasism anthropology.

  • Lewis, Herbert S. 2008. Franz Boas: Boon or bane? Reviews in Anthropology 37.2–3 (January): 169–200. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

    DOI: 10.1080/00938150802038968

    The most up-to-date brief examination of the scholarship on Boas.

  • Patterson, Thomas C. 2001. A social history of anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

    Views Boas’s critique of cultural evolutionism as one of his major contributions to anthropological theory.

  • Silverman, Sydel. 2005. The United States. In One discipline, four ways: British, German, French, and American anthropology. Edited by Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin, and Sydel Silverman, 257–347. The Halle Lectures. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Establishes that Boas and his students dominated the discourses in professional anthropology in the United States from the turn of the 20th century until the end of World War II.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr. 1968. Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. New York: Free Press.

    The seminal work by an anthropologist on Boas’s cultural relativism and antiracism.

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