Anthropology and Modern Life

Anthropology and Modern Life

by Franz Boas

See All Formats & Editions

Anthropologist Franz Boas was a statwart fighter for human rights and against racism. He was passionately concerned about individual liberty, freedom of inquiry and speech, equality of opportunity, and the defeat of prejudice and chauvinism. His Anthropology and Modern Life shows how Boas uses science in the service of humanity, hoping to break down racial and


Anthropologist Franz Boas was a statwart fighter for human rights and against racism. He was passionately concerned about individual liberty, freedom of inquiry and speech, equality of opportunity, and the defeat of prejudice and chauvinism. His Anthropology and Modern Life shows how Boas uses science in the service of humanity, hoping to break down racial and cultural barriers.

From the book's very opening. Boas shatters the myth that anthropology is simply a collection of curious facts about exotic peoples and their customs and belief systems. He asserts that a clear understanding of the principles of anthropology illuminates the social processes of our own times and may show us what to do and what to avoid. Boas proceeds to discuss issues that have had resounding significance in our own time: the problem of defining race: the subjective view of racial types: heredity versus environment: alleged physiological and mental differences between races: the significance of intelligence tests: the importance of one's cultural experience: open versus closed societies: nationality and nationalism: the mixed descent of European nations: eugenics: social conditions versus heredity in the committing of crimes: intolerance; and the influence of race and sex on a successful education. While he outwardly acknowledges that his book runs contrary to popular prejudices. Boas was an optimist, and hoped that dissenters, in reading Anthropology and Modern Life, would come to reexamine their own viewpoints dispassionately and critically.

This new edition of Anthropology and Modern Life is enhanced by an introduction and afterword by Herbert S. Lewis, who details Franz Boas' life, influence, and ideals. This volume will be a welcome contribution to the libraries of anthropologists, sociologists, and those concerned with human rights.

Product Details

Read Books Design
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.59(d)

Read an Excerpt



Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1962 W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14869-4



* * *

ANTHROPOLOGY is often considered a collection of curious facts, telling about the peculiar appearance of exotic people and describing their strange customs and beliefs. It is looked upon as an entertaining diversion, apparently without any bearing upon the conduct of life of civilized communities.

This opinion is mistaken. More than that, I hope to demonstrate that a clear understanding of the principles of anthropology illuminates the social processes of our own times and may show us, if we are ready to listen to its teachings, what to do and what to avoid.

To prove my thesis I must explain briefly what anthropologists are trying to do.

It might appear that the domain of anthropology, of "the science of man," is preoccupied by a whole array of sciences. The anthropologist who studies bodily form is confronted by the anatomist who has spent centuries in researches on the gross form and minute structure of the human body. The physiologist and the psychologist devote themselves to inquiries into the functioning of body and mind. Is there, then, any justification for the anthropologist to claim that he can add to our fund of knowledge?

There is a difference between the work of the anthropologist and that of the anatomist, physiologist, and psychologist. They deal primarily with the typical form and function of the human body and mind. Minor differences such as appear in any series of individuals are either disregarded or considered as peculiarities without particular significance for the type, although sometimes suggestive of its rise from lower forms. The interest centers always in the individual as a type, and in the significance of his appearance and functions from a morphological, physiological or psychological point of view.

To the anthropologist, on the contrary, the individual appears important only as a member of a racial or a social group. The distribution and range of differences between individuals, and the characteristics as determined by the group to which each individual belongs are the phenomena to be investigated. The distribution of anatomical features, of physiological functions and of mental reactions are the subject matter of anthropological studies.

It might be said that anthropology is not a single science, for the anthropologist presupposes a knowledge of individual anatomy, physiology and psychology, and applies this knowledge to groups. Every one of these sciences may be and is being studied from an anthropological point of view.

The group, not the individual, is always the primary concern of the anthropologist. We may investigate a racial or social group in regard to the distribution of size of body as measured by weight and stature. The individual is important only as a member of the group, for we are interested in the factors that determine the distribution of forms or functions in the group. The physiologist may study the effect of strenuous exercise upon the function of the heart. The anthropologist accepts these data and investigates a group in which the general conditions of life make for strenuous exercise. He is interested in their effect upon the distribution of form, function and behavior among the individuals composing the group or upon the group as a whole.

The individual develops and acts as a member of a racial or a social group. His bodily form is determined by his ancestry and by the conditions under which he lives. The functions of the body, while controlled by bodily build, depend upon external conditions. If the people live by choice or necessity on an exclusive meat diet, their bodily functions will differ from those of other groups of the same build that live on a purely vegetable diet; or, conversely, different racial groups that are nourished in the same way may show a certain parallelism in physiological behavior.

Many examples can be given showing that people of essentially the same descent behave differently in different types of social setting. The mental reactions of the Indians of the western plateaus, a people of simple culture, differ from those of the ancient Mexicans, a people of the same race, but of more complex organization. The European peasants differ from the inhabitants of large cities; the American-born descendants of immigrants differ from their European ancestors; the Norse Viking from the Norwegian farmer in the northwestern States; the Roman republican from his degenerate descendants of the imperial period; the Russian peasant before the present revolution from the same peasant after the revolution.

The phenomena of anatomy, physiology and psychology are amenable to an individual, nonanthropological treatment, because it seems theoretically possible to isolate the individual and to formulate the problems of the variation of form and function in such a way that the social or racial factor is apparently excluded. This is quite impossible in all basically social phenomena, such as economic life, social organization of a group, religious ideas and art.

The psychologist may try to investigate the mental processes of artistic creation. Although the processes may be fundamentally the same everywhere, the very act of creation implies that we are not dealing with the artist alone as a creator but also with his reaction to the culture in which he lives and that of his fellows to the work he has created.

The economist who tries to unravel economic processes must operate with the social group, not with individuals. The same may be said of the student of social organization. It is possible to treat social organization from a purely formal point of view, to demonstrate by careful analysis the fundamental concepts underlying it. For the anthropologist this is the starting point for a consideration of the dynamic effects of such organization as manifested in the life of the individual and of the group.

The student of linguistics may investigate the "norm" of linguistic expression at a given time and the mechanical processes that give rise to phonetic changes; the psychological attitude expressed in language; and the conditions that bring about changes of meaning. The anthropologist is more deeply interested in the social aspect of the linguistic phenomenon, in language as a means of communication and in the interrelation between language and culture.

In short, when discussing the reactions of the individual to his fellows we are compelled to concentrate our attention upon the society in which he lives. We cannot treat the individual as an isolated unit. He must be studied in his social setting, and the question is relevant whether generalizations are possible by which a functional relation between generalized social data and the form and expression of individual life can be discovered; in other words, whether any generally valid laws exist that govern the life of society.

A scientific inquiry of this type is concerned only with the interrelations between the observed phenomena, in the same way as physics and chemistry are interested in the forms of equilibrium and movement of matter, as they appear to our senses. The question of the usefulness of the knowledge gained is entirely irrelevant. The interest of the physicist and chemist centers in the development of a complete understanding of the intricacies of the outer world. A discovery has value only from the point of view of shedding new light upon the general problems of these sciences. The applicability of experience to technical problems does not concern the physicist. What may be of greatest value in our practical life does not need to be of any interest to him, and what is of no value in our daily occupations may to him be of fundamental value. The only valuation of discoveries that can be admitted by pure science is their significance in the solution of general abstract problems.

While this standpoint of pure science is applicable also to social phenomena, it is easily recognized that these concern our own selves much more immediately, for almost every anthropological problem touches our most intimate life.

The course of development of a group of children depends upon their racial descent, the economic condition of their parents and their general well-being. A knowledge of the interaction of these factors may give us the power to control growth and to secure the best possible conditions of life for the group. All vital and social statistics are so intimately related to policies to be adopted or to be discarded that it is not quite easy to see that the interest in our problems, when considered from a purely scientific point of view, is not related to the practical values that we ascribe to the results.

It is the object of the following pages to discuss problems of modern life in the light of the results of anthropological studies carried on from a purely analytical point of view.

For this purpose it will be necessary to gain clarity in regard to two fundamental concepts: race and stability of culture. These will be discussed in their proper places.



* * *

IN THE present cultural conditions of mankind we observe, or observed at least until very recent time, a cleavage of cultural forms according to racial types. The contrast between European and East Asiatic civilizations was striking, until the Japanese began to introduce European patterns. Still greater appeared the contrasts between Europeans, native Australians, African Negroes and American Indians. It is, therefore, but natural that much thought has been given to the problem of the interrelation between race and culture. Even in Europe are found striking cultural differences between North Europeans and people of the Mediterranean, between West and East Europeans, and these are correlated with differences in physical appearance. This explains why numberless books and essays have been and are being written based on the assumption that each race has its own mental character determining its cultural or social behavior. In America particularly, fears are being expressed of the effects of intermixture of races, of a modification or deterioration of national character on account of the influx of new types into the population of our country, and policies of controlling the growth of the population are being proposed and laws based on these assumptions have been enacted.

In Melanesia the conflict of races finds expression in another way. In cases of intermarriages between a White man and a native woman the widow is liable to lose both the property left by her husband and the control of her children, and she is compelled, even if well educated, either to starve or to marry a native and to resume native life. This has happened even when the husband willed his property to his wife.

In South Africa the economic needs of natives and Whites have created sharp conflicts. A law was passed reserving certain districts exclusively for Whites, others exclusively for natives. The immediate result of this action has been that the natives were driven out by force from the White reservations, while the Whites who had settled in native reservations refused to go. The general policy of the Boers has been an attempt to suppress and exploit the native population.

The differences of cultural outlook and of bodily appearance have given rise to antagonisms that are rationalized as due to instinctive racial antipathies.

There is little clarity in regard to the term "race." We know only populations and we have to determine in how far population (or local race) and race are identical or distinct. When we speak of racial characteristics we mean those traits that are determined by heredity in each race and in which all members of the race participate. Comparing the color of skin, eyes and hair of Swedes and Negroes, slight pigmentation is a hereditary racial characteristic of the Swede, deep pigmentation of the Negro. The straight or wavy hair of the Swede, the frizzly hair of the Negro, the narrowness and elevation of the nose among the Swedes, its width and flatness among the Negroes, all these are hereditary racial traits because practically all the Swedes have the one group of characteristics, all the Negroes the other.

In other respects it is not so easy to define racial traits. Anatomists cannot with certainty differentiate between the brains of a Swede and of a Negro. The brains of individuals of each group vary so much in form that it is often difficult to say, if we have no other criteria, whether a certain brain belongs to a Swede or to a Negro.

The nearer two populations are related the more traits they will have in common. A knowledge of all the bodily traits of a particular individual from Denmark does not enable us to identify him as a Dane. If he is tall, blond, blue-eyed, long-headed and so on he might as well be a Swede. We also find individuals of the same bodily form in Germany, in France and we may even find them in Italy. Identification of an individual as a member of a definite population (or local race) is not possible.

Whenever these conditions prevail, we cannot speak of racial heredity. In a strict sense the identification of a population as a race would require that all the members of the population partake of certain traits,—such as the hair, pigmentation and nose form of the Negro, as compared to the corresponding features among the North European. When only some members of each population have such distinguishing traits, while others are, in regard to their outer appearance or functioning, alike, then these traits are no longer true racial characteristics. Their significance is the less, the greater the number of individuals of each population that in regard to the feature in question may be matched. North Italians are round-headed, Scandinavians long-headed. Still, so many different forms are represented in either series, and other bodily forms are so much alike that it would be impossible to claim that an individual selected at random must be a North Italian or a Scandinavian. Extreme forms in which the local characteristics are most pronounced might be identified with a fair degree of probability, but intermediate forms might belong to either group. The bodily traits of the two groups are not racial characteristics in the strict sense of the term. Although it is possible to describe the most common types of these groups by certain metric and descriptive traits, not all the members of the groups conform to them.

The bodily forms of Italians may serve as an example. The two most strongly contrasting types in Italy are the Piemontese and the Sardinians. We have records of the head forms, stature and hair color of these two groups. If I should assign, according to these three traits, individuals belonging to two identical populations entirely by chance to the one or the other I should err 125 times in 1,000 attempts. If I should have to decide whether they are Piemontese or Sardinians I should err 43 times in 1,000 attempts. Notwithstanding the great differences between the two groups the certainty of assignment is only one third of that of a chance assignment.

We are easily misled by general impressions. Most of the Swedes are blond, blue-eyed, tall and long-headed. This causes us to formulate in our minds the ideal of a Swede and we forget the variations that occur in Scandinavia. If we talk of a Sicilian we think of a swarthy, short person, with dark eyes and dark hair. Individuals differing from this type are not in our mind when we think of a "typical" Sicilian. The more uniform a people the more strongly are we impressed by the "type." Every country impresses us as inhabited by a certain type, the traits of which are determined by the most frequently occurring forms. This, however, does not tell us anything in regard to its hereditary composition and the range of its variations. The "type" is formed quite subjectively on the basis of our everyday experience.

We must also remember that the "type" is more or less an abstraction. The characteristic traits are found rarely combined in one and the same individual, although their frequency in the mass of the population induces us to imagine a typical individual in which all these traits appear combined.

The subjective value of the "type" appears also from the following consideration. Suppose a Swede, from a region in which blondness, blue eyes, tall stature prevail in almost the whole population, should visit Scotland and express his experiences naively. He would say that there are many individuals of Swedish type, but that besides this another type inhabits the country, of dark complexion, dark hair and eyes, but tall and long-headed. The population would seem to represent two types, not that biologically the proof would have been given of race mixture; it would merely be an expression due to earlier experiences. The unfamiliar type stands out as something new and the inclination prevails to consider the new type as racially distinct. Conversely, a Scotchman who visits Sweden would be struck by the similarity between most Swedes and the blond Scotch, and he would say that there is a very large number of the blond Scotch with whom he is familiar, without reaching the conclusion that his own type is mixed.


Excerpted from ANTHROPOLOGY AND MODERN LIFE by FRANZ BOAS. Copyright © 1962 W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Herbert S. Lewis is a cultural anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in the West Indies, Ethiopia, Israel, and Wisconsin. His works include Jimma Abba Jifar: An Oromo Monarchy, After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenites of Israel, and Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas. Herbert S. Lewis is a cultural anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in the West Indies, Ethiopia, Israel, and Wisconsin. His works include Jimma Abba Jifar: An Oromo Monarchy, After the Eagles Landed: The Yemenites of Israel, and Oneida Lives: Long-Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews