Franz Boas Biography

(German–American Anthropologist and a Pioneer of Modern Anthropology)

Birthday: July 9, 1858 (Cancer)

Born In: Minden, Germany

Famous as the ‘the Father of Modern Anthropology’, Franz Boas was an important figure in 20thy century anthropology. He played a key role in organising the American Anthropological Association and made contributions in the field of physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, as well as cultural anthropology. He argued against the theories that distinguished people on the basis of race and discredited the belief that western civilisation is superior to the other societies. He was also a prolific writer; some of his well-known books in the field of anthropology include ‘The Mind of Primitive Man’, ’Anthropology and Modern Life’ and ‘Kwakiutl Ethnography’. Throughout his life he spoke out against racism and advocated the need for intellectual freedom and worked to protect German and Austrian scientists who fled from the Nazi regime. He was responsible for establishing folklore as a field of study in anthropology and also made a major contribution to the field of linguistics. To him goes the credit of establishing it as a science in America. He continues to influence many scholars and researchers in all the fields of anthropology.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Franz Uri Boas

Died At Age: 84

Anthropologists American Men

Died on: December 21, 1942

place of death: New York City, New York, United States

More Facts

education: University Of Bonn, Heidelberg University

  • 1

    What are some key contributions of Franz Boas to the field of anthropology?

    Franz Boas is known for his development of the concept of cultural relativism, his emphasis on fieldwork and empirical research, and his rejection of scientific racism.

  • 2

    How did Franz Boas influence the development of modern anthropology?

    Franz Boas played a significant role in shaping modern anthropology by promoting the idea that culture is learned and not biologically determined, and by advocating for the importance of studying diverse cultures on their own terms.

  • 3

    What is the significance of Franz Boas' work on cultural diffusion and historical particularism?

    Franz Boas' work on cultural diffusion and historical particularism challenged the prevailing ideas of cultural evolution and emphasized the importance of understanding each culture within its unique historical context.

  • 4

    How did Franz Boas impact the study of indigenous peoples in North America?

    Franz Boas conducted extensive fieldwork among indigenous peoples in North America and his research helped challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about these cultures, paving the way for more respectful and nuanced studies in anthropology.

Childhood & Early Life
Franz Uri Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia, Germany, into a Jewish family. His parents were well-educated, liberal and socialized among the elite members of German society.
From an early age, his parents encouraged him to think independently and pursue his interests.
He exhibited a keen interest in nature and natural sciences from the age of 5 and studied natural history and the geographic distribution of planets at school.
He attended the University of Heidelberg for a brief period of time after which he attended the University of Kiel, where he earned a Ph.D. in Physics and a minor in Geography.
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In 1883, he went on a scientific mission to Baffin Islands, Canada, where he studied the ‘Inuit’ culture, collected ethnographic data and became interested in life of the people on the island.
In 1885, he worked with Rudolf Virchow (physical anthropologist) and Adolf Bastian (ethnologist) at the Royal Ethnological Museum, Berlin and also taught geography at the University of Berlin.
In 1887, he went to New York City and took up the post of an assistant editor for a ‘Science’ magazine and also taught anthropology at the Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts.
In 1888, his first monograph ‘The Central Eskimo’, an account of the ‘domestic occupation and amusements’ of the people in Baffin Islands, was published in the 6th Annual Report in the Bureau of American Ethnology.
In 1889, he was appointed as the head of the Department of Anthropology at Clark University, after which he went on a series of scientific expeditions to illuminate ‘Asaistic-American relations’.
In 1892, he resigned from his post at Clark University on the grounds of alleged ‘infringement on academic freedom’ and worked as the chief assistant in anthropology to F.W. Putnam at the Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1896, he worked under the guidance of F.W Putnam as an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History. That year, he also gave lectures on anthropology at Columbia University.
In 1897, he argued that the ‘Kwakiutl’, a tribe of the indigenous people centred in British Columbia, were learning about ‘matrilineal cultures’ from their neighbours in the northern region of Columbia.
In 1899, he was promoted to the post of professor of anthropology at the Columbia University and was appointed as the head of the Ph.D. program in anthropology.
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He organised the ‘Jesup North Pacific Expedition’, a five year study of the native people from the Pacific Northwest.
In order to extend his theories on the ‘Kwakiutl’, he invited fourteen Kwakiutl tribals to come and live in a mock village in order to study their culture and observe their behaviour.
In 1903, he authored the essay ‘Decorative Designs of Alaskan Needlecases: A History of Conventional Designs, Based on Materials in a U.S. Museum’, which served as an example of how he used empirical data and research methods to formulate his theories on anthropological studies.
In 1907, he authored an essay titled ‘Anthropology’, in which he highlighted the issues of ‘Why are the tribes and nations of the world different, and how have the present differences developed?’
In 1908, he became the editor of ‘Journal of American Folklore’ and became the most influential figure in the establishment of folklore as a discipline of study in the field of anthropology in America.
In 1911, ‘The Mind of Primitive Man’, a collection of his lectures on culture and race, was published. The publication was a reflection of his thoughts on ‘cultural relativism’.
Major Work
His 1911 publication ‘The Mind of Primitive Man’ is one of his seminal works which is considered an important work in cultural anthropology and cultural relativism. This book laid the foundation for further studies on anthropology and is used for academic purposes.
Awards & Achievements
In 1900, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, United States.
In 1901, he was appointed as the honorary Philologist of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
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In 1910, he was elected as the President of the International Journal of American Linguistics.
In 1931, he was elected as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1936, he was honoured as the ‘emeritus in residence’ at Columbia University, New York.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1887, he married Marie Krackowizer in New York. The couple had six children together.
He died at the age of 84 after he suffered a major stroke at the Columbia University Faculty Club, New York.
Facts About Franz Boas

Franz Boas was known for challenging the prevailing notions of race and cultural superiority, advocating for the idea that all cultures are equally valid and deserving of respect.

Boas was a pioneer in the field of anthropology, emphasizing the importance of conducting research in the field rather than relying solely on armchair theorizing.

Despite facing discrimination as a Jewish immigrant in the United States, Boas persevered and became a respected scholar, influencing generations of anthropologists with his holistic approach to studying human societies.

Boas conducted groundbreaking research on the Inuit people of Baffin Island, challenging stereotypes and misconceptions about Indigenous cultures in the process.

In addition to his academic work, Boas was also an advocate for social justice and human rights, using his platform to speak out against racism and prejudice.

See the events in life of Franz Boas in Chronological Order

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